Maadathy: an Unfairy Tale of Casteism and Patriarchy
TW: Rape, casteism, violence
“Maadathy: an Unfairy Tale” tells us the story of a young girl who is sexually abused and then dies only to become a deity in a village where she faced oppression and violence. That’s the line the movie begins with: that there is a tragic tale behind the many gods and goddesses of the Indian subaltern.
In this engaging plot, the brilliant writer, director, and poet Leena Manimekalai shows us the suffering of women of the oppressed caste, through the eyes of a woman. Probably, that is one reason the movie has an authentic way of keeping us engaged, because it shows the pain of women in the writing and direction of a woman?
While the movie easily and casually shows oppression in the forms of both casteism and patriarchy in a village in Tamil Nadu, there is also a pleasant part of it that just as easily and beautifully shows the innocence and adventure-seeking side of the lead character, an adolescent girl named “Yosana”. Yosana is the only child of Veni and Sudalai, who belong to an oppressed caste of people labelled as “unseeables”. They are exploited by those belonging to the oppressive castes and are paid very small amounts for washing the clothes of the rest of the villagers and doing other chores like digging the grave. They are not allowed to freely roam outside their area, are outcast, and are strictly not allowed to be seen by those from the oppressive castes because, according to their beliefs, seeing the “unseeables” is considered a big mistake.
It is sad that movies made by feminists that speak for women’s rights and the struggles of the oppressed rarely get the attention they deserve in the movie industry and among the general public even today.
While Veni, Sudalai, and his mother have all accepted this as their fate, Veni is almost always worried. Yosana, on the other hand, is free-spirited, innocent, and loves to explore the place and enjoys playing around with animals. She finds happiness in nature, bathing in the river and walking around the forest, being completely carefree, unable to understand why her mother is always upset, complaining about something or the other, and keeps yelling at her. One day, she questions her mother, asking Veni if she loves her or not, if it was she who gave birth to Yosana, and if that were the case, why she dislikes her own daughter. Veni then reveals her loving side, opens up to her daughter about what worries her the most: the ever-cruel society that they are living in, the violent people who will never have any mercy for women from an oppressed caste such as theirs. This burden of fear of being abused themselves and having their girl children abused is not something new for women of their caste.
While Veni is used to living life as an outcast, “unseeable” woman along with her small family, she is mainly worried about Yosana’s safety because Veni has herself been subjected to rape recently once (and we don’t know how many more times she’s been raped and molested) by a man from a dominant caste. It is at this instant that reality, the struggle of the oppressed caste woman in rural areas becomes clear to us. It is at this point of the narration that we understand how the system works. Nobody either comes to save Veni nor is anyone able to do anything later either: a reminder of how Dalit women’s bodies get exploited by perverted men from the oppressive castes and the men get away with it, too. This is what causes Veni to live in persistent fear and insecurity, that anything could happen to her child anytime because Yosana is a girl child, not a boy child, and they belong to one of the most oppressed castes.
Clueless about all these atrocities, Yosana continues to merrily explore her life and the jungle, and one fine day, she gets attracted to a young man from a different caste. As she slowly starts developing a liking for him, these beautiful moments would take us women back to the times we developed our first crushes. (Clearly, a cis-het male writer or director couldn’t have captured these moments this well, I believe!) Were you attracted to his physique? Did you want to catch glimpses of him? Did your heart go racing at the sight of him? We can see in the eyes of the young girl the same innocence that we would have felt at that age, too. She starts experiencing romantic and sexual interest as her feelings overpower her sometimes, yet she is also afraid that someone might see her following her crush, Paneer.
In the meantime, the villagers plan to construct a temple for their goddess Maadathy because a woman is “possessed” by the goddess one day, and she commands them that they build a temple soon. During this time when the villagers start planning and working under the village head’s commands, people are hired for work, responsibilities are divided, money is stolen, and squabbles arise, but none of this affects the lives of Sudalai and his family in any way because they are forbidden to even visit the site of the temple. All this until one day, on the day of the temple’s inauguration that Yosana decides to go to the other side of the village, where the celebration is happening, as she is curious to witness what happens. That is when she unknowingly gets caught in a helpless situation, facing what her mother Veni was always afraid of.
A series of horrific events happen, the victims are blamed, they do not get justice, and they are harassed and abandoned. Even the women from the dominant castes side with the men as they are brainwashed to believe what the men from their own community and the village heads say. This leads back to the beginning, to show how Yosana became “Maadathy”, the village deity, who punishes the villagers for the crime they committed. The woman who listens to the narrative listens, as it strikes her that Yosana’s blood is the colour of the Kumkum on her forehead, which is also the colour of her own blood, as her period begins that morning. We women are all the same, controlled by men who make us believe that women are worshipped as Goddesses, while we all face different kinds of struggles based on the social restrictions forced on us by the casteist, male dominated society. Women in the dominant castes have not many options either in a society that is highly male-dominated; the men fantasize sexually abusing women from the dominant castes, too. But without a doubt, the oppressed caste women face the worst, as they have nowhere to go. The fight against evil shall continue, the Goddess Maadathy in the form of Yosana reminds us.
Ajmina Kassim has played the role of Yosana effortlessly, and Semmalar Annam has done a pretty good job, too. A must-watch movie it is!
- Lakshmi Prakash