Readers Write In #55: The dance of idea and story in Pariyerum Perumal

Posted on October 16, 2018


At the intermission of Pariyerum Perumal, the eponymous protagonist lies bruised and battered by the relatives of his female upper caste classmate. He’s covered in their urine, locked inside a room. If he is ‘let out’ he might get killed, he’s told. Pariyan, shivering in trauma, drags himself to the bolted door and knocks on it…

In a single stroke, Mari Selvaraj, paints a simple picture of the fundamental problem of existence of all oppressed people. If you want to stay alive, remain locked within unbreakable boundaries. Cower in fear. Lie humiliated.

It is this tango of ‘idea’ with ‘story’ through the nonchalant usage of metaphor, that characterizes Pariyerum Perumal from start to finish. Selvaraj writes his metaphors organically into the story. Characters are symbols but they are also real people with justified emotions. Events are symbolic but they work as plot points too. We are able to watch the film, both as the story of one man, as well as the story of all oppressed people, with no loss either to the core idea, and with no inconsistency in the portrayal. It is the reason why Pariyerum Perumal is an important film for the growing mini-narrative of social equality within Thamizh cinema. In contrast, the white vs black contrast in Kaala, was so consciously stretched across the film that it was apparent that the film took place in an imaginary universe, though it dealt with very real social issues. It remained a ‘concept film’ in which the idea trampled over the characters. A film that rang out more like a statement than like a story.

Let’s look at some of the characters in Pariyerum Perumal‘s universe to understand this taut balance between idea and story in Selvaraj’s writing.

The most obvious of them is Karuppi, Pariyan’s beloved dog. The way he lifts and cuddles her, his affection is breathtakingly real. And yet, Karuppi is also the most powerful symbol in the film. She stands for all Dalit lives lost to caste oppression. In the sequence right after the intermission where Jo, the girlfriend confronts Pariyan – one of the most stunning segues from real to surreal to imaginary – the dead Karuppi trots into Pariyan’s classroom. The desks have vanished. The blackboard is now covered in cyphers. Everything that reminds him of his crushing inability to break free and live his life, comes rushing to him.

Marimuthu who plays the father of Pariyan’s upper caste girlfriend is conflicted about caste. Right till the final scene, his character is extraordinarily uneasy about the likely union between his daughter and Pariyan. He has been taught to be viciously dogmatic but nor has he completely lost his basic humanity. He struggles between his two sides. And his most striking physical feature is that he wears a white stubble and a black moustache. It’s the colour symbolism of Kaala but played this time with a featherlight touch. And it worms its way, almost unknowingly, into our reading of his character.

A more layered example is the character of the upper caste assassin. The character has his religious justification for what he does. It’s in fact his only justification. He doesn’t even want money. His modus operandi is to acquaint himself to the victim and then strike. He appears like any regular old villager, his victims refer to him as thatha. He fails to kill Pariyan and ‘atones’ for it by committing suicide.

One could also view the character as a symbol for all religious and mythical sanction for oppression. Like the Manu Sastra. Like all imagined orders of caste and racial hierarchy that the oppressed are acquainted with, and accept as everyday reality.

Selvaraj delivers poetic justice by killing the symbol of such mythical sanction on the same train tracks that have killed so many Dalits. It is a political stance that is so thickly veiled that the suicide finally appears mostly as a justified end to the character. The idea doesn’t overshadow the character.

And finally, Pariyan himself. Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyan is a moderate by nature. He does not go after the killers of Karuppi. He doesn’t get into a single fight. He consciously avoids campus violence. He doesn’t even take institutional support from student bodies when he is targeted. And in the final scene, he begins dialogue with the upper castes. There is no trampling of the villain like in Kaala. It’s a tone, a stance that hasn’t gone down well with social commentators, who find his inaction problematic and tame. However, Mari Selvaraj is yet again only staying true to both story and idea.

His Pariyan doesn’t want to stay segregated. His closest friends are both from the upper castes. He eyes the gang of his Dalit college mates with doubt and never integrates with them. He doesn’t believe in making only Dalit friends. To that extent, he is casteless. He provides a near fatal ride on his cycle to the assassin despite having directly faced untouchability from him earlier. The oppression he faces from the first scene of the film till the climax, doesn’t stop him from viewing ‘the other’ with compassion. He doesn’t see the oppression as a reason to organise and protest. He sees it with more forgiving eyes because that is who he is. And hence, it follows that Pariyan’s struggle is personal. His character cries, seethes in anger, carries a terrible secret, survives, and finally forgives, all by himself.

However, this nuanced characterisation is also a symbol for what Selvaraj thinks is the right political stance. Selvaraj believes in having to shelve the rightful indignation like Pariyan does, bury the hurt, and move forward. He believes in having a conversation over tea (black and milk), with ‘the other’.

From an aesthetic point of view, the writing of Pariyerum Perumal hits a subtler note. And hence manages to reach a deeper place. Mari Selvaraj’s success in marrying the story so inextricably with his political world view, through unlabelled metaphors and symbols, is the reason why Pariyerum Perumal is both lofty and crafty. It is both important and good cinema.

(by naadodee)