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The Idea of ‘Mandela’ Initiated from My Own Short Film, Says Director Madonne Ashwin

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Credits: (Left) Official poster of 'Mandela', (Right) Madonne Ashwin's Twitter handle

Mandela, the Tamil political satire directorial debut of Madonne Ashwin which earned positive reviews, first took form as a seven-minute short film called Ward Enn 325 in 2011 when he participated in the third season of reality show Naalaya Iyakunar, the filmmaker told Silverscreen India.

Ashwin said that he realised that the film had scope to explore more, which resulted in the 140-minute-long Mandela.

Naalaya Iyakunar is a Tamil reality show where aspiring filmmakers showcase their short films and is broadcast on Kalaignar TV.

Mandela stars Yogi Babu, Sangili Murugan, GM Sundar, Sheela Rajkumar, Kanna Ravi and is produced by S Sashikanth under the Y Not Studios banner. The film follows Yogi Babu as Smile, a Dalit barber who later adopts the name Mandela. A landless person who is referred to as a podhu (common property) by the villagers, he soon gains significance as the local body election nears. Smile’s single vote becomes the deciding one in the polls, that are torn between two caste groups. As both the community leaders try to woo him, the film touches on caste discrimination and swing-voting.

“When it is a short film, it had some constraints and we only showed the auctioning of the vote, but to create into a feature film, the premise had more scope to develop. We could establish the village, the two groups, and the difficulties faced by the village. Since the premise had more to explore, it was one of the ideas I had when I thought of making feature films. I had more scripts when pitching to producers but this one clicked. Though I didn’t specifically have the idea for this to be my debut film, I had the idea to execute things that I learned. This script had all the scope to put my learnings into place,” he said.

Ashwin said that filmmaker Nalan Kumarasamy helped him with the idea of auctioning the vote for his short film and said that swing-voting has been a popular concept in films, from Hollywood to Tamil cinema, including American comedy-drama Swing Vote (2008) and Tamil political satire Suyetchai MLA (2006).

About Yogi Babu, who has predominantly done comedy roles, playing the protagonist of the film, Ashwin says that the team was not sure if a mainstream and established actor would play the role

“When we finished the script, we didn’t know whom to cast. The production suggested Yogi Babu. We were doubtful if the script would be taken up by big heroes because the scale of the film is small and the character is a new concept in cinema. We didn’t know if it provides enough scope for established mainstream actors. Hence, we did not approach big heroes and thought of approaching comedians,” Ashwin said.

Besides touching upon issues such as caste discrimination and pointing out loopholes in the electoral process, Mandela talks about freebies offered during polls. Ashwin, however, said that the film does not throw shade on political parties offering freebies.

“Freebies are mostly out of people’s money. And most importantly, Mandela is a political film which is talking about one vote. All the concepts that come in the film, from the character design to how the political parties woo him, are filmed in a satirical, fun way, mainly because I like such films to watch,” he said.

The filmmaker says that Mandela has a comical touch to it because the makers did not know how much a hard-hitting and serious film could connect with the audience.

“The premise was already about the importance of a vote. The character is fiction in a fantasy world because nowhere are polls decided by a single vote. Yogi Babu’s character is independent and the film shows how the two upper castes oppress him and we tried to show that,” he said.

Unlike other Tamil films that talk about caste and depict violence (Asuran, Karnan), Mandela does not have any gory depictions onscreen. Asked if it was an intentional decision, the filmmaker said, “Yes, it was an original idea to not show violence in the film. I wanted to write the scripts that I enjoyed watching. The main character has to be shown as an underdog who will rise at some point. That is when audience will enjoy and get a hope. The film needed a hope element. Even in Parayerum Perumal, it ended with some hope. In Mandela, it is a cinematic hope and I have given that. The character can only rise within his limits and his one power is his vote. I was very confident that he will never take violence. It was part of the story always.”

The film began shooting in July 2019 and was wrapped up 40 days after filming in Chennai and Pulayangolam village near Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu. Mandela premiered on Star Vijay TV on April 4 and released on Netflix the following day, with the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly elections being held on April 6.

Asked if the makers wanted the film’s release to coincide with the polls in the state, Ashwin said that Mandela was due to be released in 2020 but was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “We had no reason to coincide with polls, but it just so happened. We would have still released the film if polls were not taking place. But since it happened, we centred our promotional campaigns around that.”

The film was supposed to have been released in theatres and it was a “big disappointment” that it failed to get a theatrical release, Ashwin said.

While he did not have a target audience in mind, he said that Mandela would “work across classes”and added that he does not believe in “making a film based on one segment”.

With no references to the None Of the Above option on Electronic Voting Machines or a tie in the election result, the film ends in a cliffhanger. “I have placed a dialogue that says ‘It does not matter who wins, the village has won’, which summarises what I wanted to highlight- the development of the village.”

Ashwin said that while a film can seldom bring a revolution in the system, as a creator, he is compelled to make people think about relevant issues.

“Films don’t create revolution but they are thought-inducing,” he said.

The filmmaker said that by shining the light on marginalised and oppressed communities, the lens of filmmaking has changed in recent times.

“I would not call it as a paradigm shift, because there have been caste-based films in Tamil cinema, but they have been about the upper caste and their pride. However, films on the oppressed and Dalit have been coming now. The oppression is there, but the change is welcoming now. When people ask why we talk about it, it is that just now we have got the chance to speak about it. However, there is a need to speak about the issues with certain limits and decency, since as filmmakers we need to be responsible. I would say that now the voices of the oppressed are heard,” he said.

Ashwin feels that even the audiences are welcoming caste-based films and accept it when films show something relevant to the current times.

Mandela is currently streaming on Netflix.

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