A family & a film

Published : May 18, 2012 00:00 IST

Some of the cast of Vengayam. Out of a total of 105 actors in the movie, 96 are the director's relatives from his native village.-COURTESY: ANANDA VIKATAN/PHOTOGRAPHER: M.VIJAYA KUMAR

Some of the cast of Vengayam. Out of a total of 105 actors in the movie, 96 are the director's relatives from his native village.-COURTESY: ANANDA VIKATAN/PHOTOGRAPHER: M.VIJAYA KUMAR

Sankagiri Rajkumar's debut film Vengayam', made with the help of people from his village, strikes a blow against superstitions.

It is beyond heart's endurance When thought hovers on these debased They fear, they dread and they perish This world for them is full of fear. Vile demons haunt this treenay, haunt That tanknay, nay, are deep asleep On this hilltop. Thus they assert And grieve much, thinking fear-breeding thoughts

From Bharathi Padalkal; translated by T.N. Ramachandran; published by Thanjavur Tamil University.

OVER 100 years have rolled by since the nationalist revolutionary poet Subramanya Bharathi wrote this famous poem The Present Condition of the Indians. Bharathi expressed his anguish at the plight of his countrymen who were stuck in the quagmire of superstitious beliefs that came in the way of liberation from the colonial yoke.

But irrational beliefs are so deep-rooted in society that despite the relentless battle launched by Bharathi and several rationalists, including the doyen of the communist movement in South India, M. Singaravelu, and the Dravidar Kazhagam founder, Periyar' E.V. Ramasamy, a large majority of the population in Tamil Nadu continues to be under the spell of fake godmen, black magic practitioners, deceitful soothsayers and fallacious astrologers. The multi-pronged battle against this social scourge has not died down. Right from the 1930s, when the first Tamil talkie was released, a good section of writers, artists and film personalities have used the powerful mass medium of cinema to promote rationalist and scientific ideas.

Repackaging the onion

The young debutant director Sankagiri Rajkumar's Vengayam, which lashes out at forces unleashing superstitious beliefs, reinforces the belief that Tamil cinema's fight against irrationality will not end so easily.

Though the film was originally released in September 2011, it did not do well for various reasons. However, when it was re-released on March 23 with a slightly modified title ven' Gayam by the actor-director Cheran, it started making considerable impact. Describing the movie as one produced by common people in a village, Cheran said that if such excellent initiatives were allowed to flop, a time would come when no good movie would be made in the State.

The film, made on a shoestring budget, is unique in many ways. It depicts the collective might of the people, particularly youngsters, who take on fake godmen, astrologers, tantriks and soothsayers who play havoc with the lives of individuals.

Rajkumar's passion to enter the celluloid world as a director wielding his camera against superstitions was fired by the tragic death of his uncle, a victim of a reckless astrologer's predictions.

In not relying much on professional actors, the director seems to have adopted Shyam Benegal's experiment of involving a large number of villagers in making the Hindi movie Manthan (The Churning, 1976), which is based on rural empowerment.

Rajkumar has inspired many residents of his native village, Chettipatti in Salem district, to don the roles in Vengayam. Almost all these stars have performed with utmost dedication, breathing life into the characters.

Vengayam (onion), the title of the film, has great significance. The term was often used by Periyar' Ramasamy to emphasise that the hollowness of superstitions is a fact just like the emptiness of an onion, which gets revealed when all its layers are peeled away, and people should understand this to enable themselves to reject them. The story is absorbing not because of the techniques adopted but owing to its honesty and the realism shown in dealing with the ticklish issue. The movie opens with the note of caution: All the events and characters depicted in the movie are not fictitious but real!

Set in a rural milieu, the film traces the travails of the illiterate and poor villagers at the hands of tricksters in the garb of godmen, astrologers and soothsayers who exploit them. Rajkumar weaves the story using certain real-life incidents and his imagination as warp and weft. As the victims are driven to despair and end their lives or succumb to the tricksters' gimmicks, the villagers' resolve to flay the evil practice gets reinforced.

Power to children

The film has not failed to mirror the agony and courage of a small group of children who in some way or the other lost their kin to superstitions. These residents of a children's home, drawing inspiration from an actor who visits them, decide to bring the tricksters in and around their village to book. With the title song invoking the local deity at a religious congregation held under the supervision of some godmen' in the village, the film gives a glimpse of the social life of the local people and their beliefs and religious customs. The story makes steady headway though it shuttles between the present and trips to the recent past through flashbacks. Even the romance of the local sub-inspector and the daughter of a farmer finely fits into the main plot.

There are scenes of great emotional depth: a little boy pleading with his father to save him after a tantrik, in an attempted human sacrifice, inflicts grievous injuries on him; the father, a folk artist, running from pillar to post to collect money for buying drugs to save his son from death; fellow artists sharing his agony; a powerloom worker ending his life as all his dreams to launch a self-employment venture are shattered by a soothsayer; and his grandmother becoming insane on hearing the news.

Besides handling direction, story, screenplay and dialogue, the 28-year-old Rajkumar donned the role of the young powerloom worker. His father, S.M. Manickam, and grandmother, Vellaiammal, are also among the actors. Actor Sathyaraj played a guest role.

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