The Seamless Western Ghats
In a scene from Kamal Haasan’s Anbe Sivam, Madhavan’s character declares, “Love is a feeling,” to which Kamal retorts, “Communism too is a feeling.”
If Anbe Sivam symbolized communism as a feeling, then Lenin Bharathi’s Merku Thodarchi Malai (MTM) epitomizes communism as an ideology and way of life for the landless laborers of the Western Ghats. MTM makes no bones about the fact that it is clearly rooted in communism and yet you don’t have to believe in any ideology to feel the pain of its characters.
MTM nonchalantly introduces you to its various characters, the way of life of the people on these hills, and the Ghats themselves. The people of these hills start their day much before dawn, going about their daily routine. One such character, Ranga, ekes his living as a daily laborer in the cardamom plantations, runs small errands, and transports cardamom sacks on his back across the rough terrain of these hills. As Ranga ascends and descends one valley after another like a mountain goat, he meets various people on the way, introducing us to the people of these hills. Soon, dawn breaks, for the first time the Ghats come into full view, maestro Illayaraja’s haunting score slowly seeps into the scene, fade to black, and the title of the film, Merku Thodarchi Malai appears. Notice the windmill in the title; its significance becomes fully clear in the climax.
A few minutes later, when Ranga asks a fellow newbie trekker to pick up a stone and put it in his pocket before they start their journey, or when you meet the lady who threatens to kill any elephants that come her way, you know that something interesting is coming up. This is the stuff of literature, where even the minute details matter, and the sum of which takes us to a larger understanding of the human condition.
It is one thing to be fascinated by the beauty of the Western Ghats as a trekker, a tourist or even as someone who resides on the various towns and cities that line the Western Ghats, and yet another to actually live on these hills, following traditional ways of living, and toiling one’s back for daily sustenance. The characters in MTM belong to the latter group. They really do. This film was made mostly with non-actors, people who live on these hills, and lead similar lives. The authenticity comes through, lending a documentary-like feel to the movie.
The cinematography uses a lot of wide shots to beautifully cover the expanses of these Ghats, often zooming out to show the insignificance of us humans amidst these large hills. And when all of this meet maestro Illayaraja’s background score, the effect is ethereal.
If on the one hand, MTM chronicles life on these hills (a way of life, that’s fast dwindling), on the other it also depicts its people that take pride in work or labor, live as a community, and despite being denied of their own land or property, don’t hesitate to help their brethren to acquire property. And yet, one wonders if these people even understand what communism is all about? Apart from Chaako, the idealist labor union leader who works endlessly for the rights of the laborers, every character is more attuned to nature, the local culture, traditions, and the hills itself rather than an ideology. Even if one removes communism from the equation, these people would still continue to live on the principles laid down by their ancestors, as a community or tribe.
So, can an ideology save them from exploitation or is there another way out?
There are no easy answers. In one scene, MTM clearly depicts the machinations of capitalists in exploiting these landless laborers, in another, communism too disappoints and puts them behind bars. The answer, perhaps, lies somewhere in-between, or maybe the answer is very clear. The climax sequence doesn’t spell out the answer, but yet it is perhaps implied.
Early on in the film, when confronted with the possibility of an elephant attack, a character passively utters:
The elephants don’t come in the way of humans. We humans cross their paths, that’s why the elephants attack us.
If only we humans understood this ancient wisdom and leave the indigenous people to lead their lives, the earth would be a much better, inclusive place.
Watch on Netflix.