Updated: Oct 3, 2020
Watching cinema after reading and learning about it is always a fascinating exercise. I wouldn't say I know it all. I am still learning. In fact, I have just begun. But thanks to all the channels on YouTube and the myriad websites that teach you film appreciation, watching a film with all that knowledge makes a very different experience. When you have some knowledge you want to put it into practice. When the aspects of "how to watch a film" are put into practice (how you ask - by watching a film, of course!), the result is a liberating experience.
I have always loved Kamal Haasan's films. I didn't understand why I liked them, but I liked them. After watching videos that explain some of the aspects of his films on YouTube, I understood why. This is why I enjoyed watching Hey Ram thrice! The first time was only because I liked his films but the next two times, it was sheerly because I understood some of the things that were told in the frames and some others as I tried to understand with the knowledge of the meaning of the placement of the camera, the BGM, the way people are staged in the scene, the meaning of the presence and/or absence of certain things/people from that scene, etc.
This is exactly why I re-watched Pariyerum Perumal. I had watched it at the time of release, but all that I felt at that time was the nostalgia of my native place. Yes, the hard-hitting reality in the film did affect me. Yet, I only missed my hometown more than actually appreciating the film, the narration or any other cinematic aspect of it. This also partly due to my total ignorance about the cinematic aspects of a film. But this time, the film hit me even harder, the issues felt more real, the scenes made more sense, in short, I appreciated the film much better. So, here it is, the film - after 2 years of its release, how it questions a lot and even answers a few of the very prevalent and important questions, cinematic and otherwise.
We have had films with pets being an important part of the protagonist's life (like Marley and Me and John Wick). But rarely do we come across films where the life of the protagonist mirrors the life of a dog. In other words, nai pozhappu. Pariyerum Perumal is one such film. It is also probably one of the rare films that have a full song for the dog and not the hero! The lyrics of the song, however, takes on the various shades of humans like the deceit, scheming, manipulative, heartless side of the humans and also some existential issues like don't trust the one who's nice to you. There is this one line whose meaning goes like, "Karuppi (the name of the dog), I want you to lick me so that I become clean" Tell me which other film song has glorified the animal kingdom and shown us the humans our place so succinctly and yet so impactfully!
The film talks about the oppressed and the oppressor. Pariyerum Perumal (a god who mounts a horse) is the name of the protagonist, played by Kathir. He is a lower-caste, lower-class boy studying law. There is a strong reason behind him studying law. The reason is shown using a flashback. There is an old man who everybody reveres. Once, Pariyan (short for the protagonist) and his mates are caught by the police for allegedly breaking open the hundis of a temple. They are actually a bunch of friends who use dogs for hunting. The old man comes to know about this and asks the in-charge if he's sure that these are the lads who stole the hundi. The policeman slaps that old man down saying to the effect, "You keep allowing anybody to ask questions like this, later on, nobody would respect the police." Later on in a conversation with Pariyan, the old man says that youth like them should study. He asks him what does he want him (Pariyan) to study. He says, "Become an advocate. Only then, you can speak in a way that you are heard, in front of everyone."
This is how and Pariyan joins the Law College in Tirunelveli. We don't know if that's what he wanted to do. We don't know if he likes Law. Hell, even he doesn't seem to know that. What he does know is that only studying (or studying law) would make him heard and respected. Observe the contrast that is brought out in the reason behind the leading lady Jyothi (Anandhi) has come to study law. She says, "So many stories! After my 12th my dad asked me to join Law college and I joined. That's all." Even the girl is not asked what she wants. She is told what to do and she happily does it. Do you notice that both of them didn't have choices but in two different contexts? Do you see oppression in both contexts? That's the cleverness of the film. There is not one oppressed in this film. Generally, when a film talks about oppression, we have one oppressed (generally the hero) and the oppressor (the villain, who also happens to be the heroine's father). But this film blurs all such lines. The girl is always kept in the dark about the other side of the father.
Just like oppression, there is no clear demarcation of good and bad in the people too. When you expect the father (G. Marimuthu delivers a fine performance) to be devilishly evil, he says, "Stop being with my daughter. Or else, these guys will kill you. Along with you, they will kill my daughter too." He is a caste and class puritan, however, he doesn't want to kill. He wants his daughter alive.
It's not that the film is devoid of any cinematic moments. Towards the end of the film,
there is a scene where Kathir talks to Jo's father who's sitting inside a car. The windshield of the car is broken. Pariyan is outside and Jo's father is inside. There is a point where Pariyan is shown from the inside of the car - his world is all broken and is almost impossible to repair - and Jo's father gets to see his world for once in all its barrenness. The long shots of Puliyankulam (the native of Pariyan) show how his life is. Barren and lifeless. Some other interesting aspects of the film are the way Jo's father always comes to us in white. So does his daughter. But one evokes anger and disgust while the other evokes a gentle smile across our lips. One symbolizes oppression whereas the other hope and equality. This cinematic imagery makes the film all the more hard-hitting and realistic.
One can't talk enough about the last scene of the film where Pariyan and Jo talk. The almost Utopian world where all will be equal is shattered to a million pieces when Pariyan says, As long as you remain the same and expect me to remain a dog, nothing will change". The dog is one animal that is used throughout the film to symbolize the oppressed or somebody to be oppressed so that they know their place. Even the last shot of the film hits you hard. Pariyan drinks black tea and Jo's father drinks tea. The father leaves more tea in his glass than Pariyan does in his. Even as the credits roll, the images of Pariyan and Jo keep moving up and down in opposite sides like a see-saw. What else can say, "Equality is not equilibrium, it's dynamic and volatile" more impactfully? Truly, pictures speak a lot more than words can ever convey.
Let's look at some nostalgic elements from the film. The early scenes of the film where Pariyan gets ridiculed for not knowing English by other classmates, the scene where his scribbled mumbo-jumbo (it's nothing but a series of zeroes in succession) is read out by a classmate in front of others are the scenes that reminded me of my childhood. I have been ridiculed for my English ignorance as well. These along with the montage shots of the Junction bus stand, the Aavin kiosk at the college campus, the conductors shouting, "Maharajapuram, Samathanapuram, Town", the colloquial Tamil and more made me homesick.
This film raises a lot of questions - quite loudly. For instance, there is a scene where Pariyan asks, "Is it wrong for me to enter the classroom?" With the context of him being a Dalit, this question hits hard. But does the film answer this question? Yes, in its own way. The way he turns up to the college every single day without fail is a silent and powerful answer. This question raises a lot of question and even answers them. But you need to look harder and listen carefully for the answers. They are whispered and not roared.
With the knowledge of the caste and class issues around me, very elementary knowledge of how to watch a film and loads of nostalgia, this film is one of those films that would stay very close to my heart for a long, long time.