petervas

The Pearl Fishers of Mani Ratnam’s “Kadal”

In Arts, Movie Reviews, Music, Music, Place, Religion on February 10, 2013 at 9:43 am

A brief history of Christians in coastal Tamil Nadu

manapad_boats

A picturesque Manapad, the cradle of coastal Christianity in Tamil Nadu.

ஏலே கீச்சான் வெந்தாச்சு – நம்ம சூச பொண்ணும் வந்தாச்சு ஹே ஈசா வரம் பொழிஞ்சாச்சு Mate, the tiger fish curry is done cooking and Joseph’s girl is here. Jesus has showered his blessings
Elay = Mate; Keechan = Tigerfish, freshwater fish available in Tuticorin and Cuddalore Joseph’s girl = Mary. In this case Beatrice

This opening title song Elay Keechan, immediately brings to mind a certain people.  Elay and Yekki are how you would address a boy or a girl in this coastal town.  It’s a corruption of the Portuguese terms Ela and Equ.

How did the Portuguese come to influence the language, culture and religion of the fishermen here? 

Mani Ratnam’s latest movie Kadal is about a fisherman from a village close to Tuticorin called Manapad.  This is of immense interest to me, as I consider the place my cultural roots.  Having grown up in bigger cities all my life, I always come back here, to figure out what makes me me. That journey of self-discovery is absolutely thrilling.  I wanted to see if Mani Ratnam added to my understanding of myself through this movie.

Let me introduce my cultural heritage to you then, via a popular song.  A 1973 movie Do Phool saw Mehmood singing and dancing to a funny Tamil song.  The Hindi speaking population ingloriously mutilated a Tamil song in Muthu Kodi Kawari Hada much less understood what it meant.  Apparently Mehmood used to love mimicking Nagesh and Asha Bhosle loved LR Eswari and the song and dance in Do Phool was a remake of another tamil song called Muthu Kullika Varigala from a 1967 Tamil movie:  Anubhavi Raja Anubhavi.  

What does Muthu Kulikka Vaarigala mean?

Muthu Kulikka Vaarigala,  in Tamil means Do you want to go deep sea fishing to harvest oysters for pearls?

Pearl diving used to be the profession of the fishermen in this coastal town of Tuticorin. At one time, the Tuticorin coast was the global hot-spot for pearl trade.  The Arabs, the Chinese in particular descended to this pearl harbor to buy pearls from this community.  Big fat beautiful and perfectly round pearls that commanded a good price in the global market.  Sister Dekla summarizes my community’s lifestyle and evolution during that period in her doctoral thesis.

Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango. Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightning! That’s about it. I have just exhausted my Opera expertise with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. I am clueless about opera really, but here is Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers). An opera based on this fishermen community, by the French composer Georges Bizet, first performed in 1863.

But it was the other Frenchman, Jules Verne, who actually popularized the oppressed Indian, in 1870, when he wrote about this community in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

It was a man, a living man, a black Indian fisherman, a poor devil who no doubt had come to gather what he could before harvest time. I saw the bottom of his dinghy, moored a few feet above his head. He would dive and go back up in quick succession. A stone cut in the shape of a sugar loaf, which he gripped between his feet while a rope connected it to his boat, served to lower him more quickly to the manapad_seashellsocean floor. This was the extent of his equipment. Arriving on the seafloor at a depth of about five meters, he fell to his knees and stuffed his sack with shellfish gathered at random. Then he went back up, emptied his sack, pulled up his stone, and started all over again, the whole process lasting only thirty seconds.

Captain Nemo saves my forefather from a shark:

Captain Nemo pulled a bag of pearls from a pocket in his diving suit and placed it in the fisherman’s hands. “That Indian, professor” he said, “lives in the land of the oppressed, and I am to this day, and will be until my last breath, a native of that same land!”

That must have surprised you as you probably thought the captain to be European. But no, Captain Nemo is in fact a descendant of Tipu Sultan (a Muslim ruler of Mysore who resisted the British Raj), who took to the underwater life after the suppression of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, in which his close family members were killed by the British. He was very much an Indian and hence his comment to the professor. He belonged to the oppressed masses, as much as the poor devil of a forefather of mine did. He championed the cause of the oppressed and identified the British as the oppressor.

pearldive

My ancestors are sitting on the edge of this Dingy, some clipping their noses and ready to dive into the ocean.  The first three on the right are ready to take a quick plunge.  Their feet are dangling just above the waters.  I cannot make out clearly, but they must have a sugarloaf shaped stone tied to their legs for quick descent.

The men standing behind the seated pearl divers, are holding fast to ropes tied to the pearl diver’s waist and another to the sugarloaf shaped stone. As soon as the pearl diver reached the bottom, he would give one of the ropes a tug and the man above would pull the sugarloaf shaped stone up.

After the pearl diver collected the pearl laden clam-shells, he would give another rope a tug, signalling that he needs to be pulled up quickly as he was running out of breath. It was this precarious life that was hanging by a thread in the ocean’s depths, that demanded an alert man on the boat. That alert man by tradition was his machan or brother-in-law. For very obvious reasons!

The black Indian fisherman, a poor devil, just so happens to be my ancestor from this coastal region. Captain Nemo, in a moment of largess, actually awards my black forefather with a string of pearls. That must have startled my forefather considerably! At a time when Europe manapad_seagrasswas milking their colonies of their natural resources, Captain Nemo takes pity on my skinny forefather and visualizes him as an oppressed Indian working as a slave under the Europeans. This is a bit fictional, but it drives home Captain Nemo’s true patriotism to his own motherland – India

Just one problem though:

In being a fictional muslim savior of my forefather under the ocean’s depths, he proved to be the opposite of the real muslim oppressors of my forefathers above land!

The situation above the oceans was a different issue altogether for my ancestor.  His pearl-fishing rights were usurped by the muslims of that region, who were exerting their powers in that region.  They undertook a voyage to Goa, the headquarters of the Portuguese presence in India and asked for protection.  At a time where the Portugese religious were simply an extension of the Portugese governance and army, protection was granted by their governor under condition that they convert their religion from Hinduism to Christianity.

So what was it going to be?  Religion for food was a fair bargain.  And so, the largest mass conversion in 1536, of Hindus to Christianity in Tuticorin happened right here, with each of them getting a new Christian name along with one of the 64 surnames of the Portuguese sailors on board the Portuguese ship.

Needless to say, I got stuck with one – Vas.

manapad_history

Here then is a small board outside the church, tracing the trajectory of a historic event.

The Prostitute’s Burial

Early into the movie, Mani Ratnam gives his story a running start.  Some villagers carry a dead prostitute to a local church for last rites, with her doting son following around.  The priest refuses as she is a sinner.  They give her a burial outside the cemetery, out in the open sea.  A hastily procured box doubles-up as coffin, but proves to be a bit short and a quick frame shows us a leg dangling out.  It is twisted to break point and stuffed into the coffin, with one of the guys joking that in death as in life her legs were spread apart.

If this was a gruesome explanation, it’s true to the frame and context of the depiction on film.  It is the high-point of high-art in this movie.  No other song, fight and picture touches the rock-bottom of human frailty as this scene does.  It closely matches a Shyam Banegal style of stark realism.  But what it fails to do, is deliver on the promise of this running start and inciting incident.  However, it does carry with it a potent unsaid subtext:

In death as in life, a prostitute’s dishonor is maintained by the men who want her the most

Why is it that those who love this prostitute have absolutely no qualms in saying that they are not sinners?  A prostitute is not only considered a sinner but also bears another sinner’s sin, sometimes in the form of her own child.  It is this polio-stricken woman’s unconditional love for her son that becomes the sacred flaw in it’s gnawing absence after her early death, for the protagonist, her son.  A patriarchal view of prostitution, puts the blame of immorality squarely on the prostitute while not only being conveniently redeemed of this sin, but compounding it by enjoying it.

The presumptuous immorality in prostitution, is the straying away from the acceptable norm that a woman ‘belongs’ to one man alone, while refusing to entertain the question of how many women this presumptuous moral policeman belongs to.

It is this un-shared sin that put’s Thoma’s life into high-gear.  He is in search of his loving mother who once fed him with her own hands.  He does not find her in religion.  He finds her eventually in another woman who bears a similar un-shared sin.  Religion plays less of an enabler and more of a visible stage prop.  Mani Ratnam gives religion, and in this case – Christianity, a grand slip, not withstanding the incessant vocabulary referencing it though!

xavier_cave

This is the cave where St. Francis Xavier spent a couple of years. It belonged to a Naik, a tax collector, and his woman companion who had taken refuge here.  After they vacated this cave, St. Francis took abode in it.  It’s a dugout sandstone cave and is typical of caves that extend along these shores into Thiruchendur, a neighboring town with a prominent Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Murugan the son of Shiva.  St. Francis tried converting the Hindu priests of this temple with some theological debates that are best forgotten now.

xavier_marker xavier_marker2
A picture I took of the marker to St. Xavier’s cave in 2007 A new and politically correct version of the same marker in 2010

Naik was a Saivite, or a worshiper of Shiva. The cave now is consecrated to St. Francis Xavier. in essence the cave’s fate resembles that of the local fishermen in Manapad who were converted in 1540.  A re-purposed cave and a re-purposed people.

manapad_churches

St. Francis Xavier was a hard nosed negotiator. After these churches were built, he placed Tamil teachers and instructors in charge of the upkeep of these churches. But he had to pay them and he had no money. He pleaded with Queen Catherine of Portugal to send money, imploring her thus:

You need no fitter shoes to climb to heaven than the Christian children of the Manapad coast. Therefore I humbly request that you bestow your annual footwear budget to these teachers here and make yourself a ladder to heaven.

Christianity was spread and then sustained by the footwear budget of Queen Catherine on these shores.  In essence, I owe my religion to this Queen’s footwear budget.  I hope the lady has brought herself a stairway to heaven after this good deed.

manapad_sea

The Bastard

I came across a fascinating story once. A government official was taking a census of Christians in this coastal village. He went about gathering data from the local churches that kept good records of births and deaths in the village. On paging through these records, he was struck by the fact that many of the children of this village, were born to the same father! That person, who had fathered so many children was one Mr. Painao Sabido. How is this possible? he asked himself. He was even more startled at the fact that many such registers in many churches listed him as the parent of so many children!

His mystery was finally put to rest when he was told that Painao sabido actually meant “Father Unknown” in Portuguese. Thus when the child is illegitimate the Church’s baptist would put down Painao Sabido in the church register. Something that the Portuguese missionaries taught him to do! The tradition was carried forward into a time where it’s true meaning was forgotten. Just like some of the other cultural relics that exist even today.

Thoma, the protagonist of the movie Kadal, is born out of wedlock. His father is really Pai nao sabido according to the Church registers. He thinks he knows who his father is, but that man rejects him completely. His father wants to remain Pai nao sabido beyond the Church register and makes every attempt possible to maintain distance from an incriminating evidence – his son.

The son never hates him for this rejection. He knows of no other father, and a father who exists is sufficient for him. A father that throws a fish from his catch, either from guilt, affection or sympathy, we do not know, but for the bastard it’s a sign of the only form of love he has ever experienced and it’s good.

tuticorin_boats

The boats are a palimpsest for this communities’ varying culture and religion. The eyes painted in the front are a pledge of allegiance and invoking the blessings of Meenakshi – the goddess with the large fish eyes.

Prior to that conversion by the Portuguese missionaries this community worshiped Varuna the sea God and prayed to Kaniyakumari for protection.

I believe Kanyakumari, a virgin goddess was also one of the primary deities to this community prior to their conversion to Christianity.  Hence the introduction and eventual replacement for this community, by a similar virgin goddess Kanni (Virgin) Mary was a divine missionary prestidigitation.

The name of the boat itself is written in Tamil – Mary, referencing the new religion of Christianity and a one-to-one replacement of the Mother Goddess that happened during India’s largest mass conversion in 1536 in this port town in the 16th century.

manapad_church

Oh! Mother, Where are You?

A recurring theme in Kadal is the loss of the mother and an undying search for her by her bastard son.

Does the Christ save the bastard?  Does Jesus redeem the prostitute?

The movie does not force these questions on us, but plays with an answer given us by a Christian allegory to the Virgin Mary in the form of Beatrice.  Beatrice plays the redeemer and savior for the prostitute and bastard.

The Prostitute as Mother

Nobody loves a prostitute in this village.  They just lust after her to satisfy their primal urges.  One such is Chetty.  She bears him a son, Thoma.  Chetty, disowns the boy and is outraged at both Thoma and the priest Sam, who name him as the father in the Church Register, when Thoma wants to receive a baptism there.  Sam, the priest, offers this as justification for implicating him as Thoma’s father:

We all know about our fathers only through our mothers

Meaning to say that Thoma could not be wrong in naming Chetty as his father as that was what was told him by his mother.  The prostitute is not a beautiful woman.  She is shown as a polio-stricken woman with unkempt hair.  But her love for her child is something else.  It is pure, unadulterated, pristine, undying and unconditional.

An imperfect woman but a perfect mother

Thoma is on a life long quest in search of this woman, this perfect mother.  His heart bleeds with pain and he cries – Oh! Mother, where are you?

Beatrice as Virgin Mother

Beatrice is an innocent and naive girl. She is shown wearing a flowing white gown most of the time, as though she is in a permanent state of purity.  She has in fact had a traumatic experience as a child which has arrested growth beyond that stage.  She has only physically grown into a beautiful woman.  She is a calm and collected mid-wife and helps deliver babies in the village.  She does not know what sin is, though she is born of one.  In that sense, her conception itself is blemished, hence not immaculate.  But the innocence of the child needs no dogma to uplift it further towards heaven.  It is this innocence bordering on naivete that redeems Thoma.  It replaces the unconditional love of his mother.  He sees his mother in Beatrice.

Beatrice, the village mid-wife helps deliver Thoma from sin.  She has helped yet another mother from the village deliver a healthy and happy baby.  That mother died a long time ago.  That mother was a prostitute and it does not matter to Beatrice.  It’s what makes Beatrice a living Mother Mary. All she ever says is – Let it Be

Here is a 2013 Golden Car Festival Special Video that I made at the 300th Anniversary of Our Lady of Snows, Thoothukudi. The Paravar community celebrates this festival with aplomb. Here is the church portal which carried it.

manapad_churches

The Prostitute’s Reburial

With the burial of his prostitute mother, the bastard’s die has been cast.  He is a seashore urchin that nobody wants.  He is witness to his mother’s burial out on the open seashore, with a lone vulture assessing the situation by circling a sunny noon sky above.  A poignant visual of excommunication of the mother and of her son, will burden him for life.  He gets out of this vortex of poverty and being unloved or cared for by going astray into a life of crime.

He finds comapany in the evil Berchmans, who loves him on condition of being his partner in crime.  Thoma willingly gets into this arrangement in exchange for a little respect and love from this new found friend, however satanic he maybe.  Now that crime has brought him respect, he is awash with pride of accomplishment.  He yearns to correct a visual that keeps bothering him:

 The disrespect his mother was shown in death.

Thoma  manages to rebury his mother inside a church cemetery with full honors only accorded to a woman who has lead a life of prayer and dedicated to God’s will.  The crowd that mills around a well built memorial and tombstone makes way to a powerful Berchmans who wades through the crowd and places a flower wreath on the tomb of the resurrected sinner.

Her place in society has been purchased.  Her son has a new shining visual of acceptance.  His mother has been redeemed of her sins by this simple act of reburial in a better and accepting place.

Thoma wants a little respect from the villagers, and he is perfectly fine if he gains that through fear.

A bastard’s past bears down heavily on him.  He needs to do everything possible to remove and put down the burden on his back, so he can move on with a light step.  Are not the dead, equals in the eyes of the creator?  The sinner and saint are equals in the place of the skulls.

The bastard has exacted social justice.  His mother lies interred at the foot of the Church.  The pretentious fools who once said of his mother’s open burial – grass will not grow where this sinner is buried, are now singing high hymns of solace and grace around her.  The priests have accepted Berchman’s money for the upkeep of the church, in spite of him saying it was money he earned from a life of sin.

The past will eventually catch up with the present, so hurry, correct it.  Redo the past to make it worthy of the present!

manapad_dev_articles

The Tortured Christ

The priest Fr. Sam walks in the footsteps of the Christ. He attempts to save the village. Thoma is still a work in progress. But when somebody else is responsible for Thoma’s conversion, he asks Thoma with a tinge of regret – who could have possibly converted you [Thoma], when I couldn’t?

After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus presents himself to his apostles. One among them is a Thomas who seriously doubts if this man in front of him is actually Jesus raised from the dead. He doubts in Jesus’ Resurrection, the central event to Christian faith. Jesus asks him to put his finger into his wounds to prove for himself that he is indeed the resurrected Christ with the five wounds he suffered on the cross. Thomas inserts his fingers into Jesus’ deep wounds and believes.

At this conversion from disbelief to belief, Jesus says – Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet believe in me.

Fr. Sam makes multiple attempts to bring Thoma into the fold of righteousness, to save him, but to no avail. On the other hand, Beatrice does nothing spectacular to convert Thoma who is steeped in sin. Thoma however, is smitten by her unconditional grace in simply being associated with him a sinner. For this Thoma, the resurrected Christ who will be his savior is the Virgin Mother and not the Christ himself.

This switch is not complicated to understand, as it is the Virgin Mother Beatrice that has the deep wounds.

Fr. Sam is falsely accused of a murder and of breaking his priestly vow of celibacy and is defrocked from priesthood and sent to prison. After he serves his sentence, he comes back to the village with the same resolve he had when he was a priest.

He does not need the garb of priesthood anymore to execute his simple vision of shepherding the flock into the path of righteousness.

Mani Ratnam, Film Director – I Mani Ratnam, Film Director – II

from the Collins Portuguese Dictionay, Editora Siciliano, Harper Collins Publishers, 1998.  A few Portuguese words that are still commonly used as Tamil borrow words in this coastal region:

Portuguese

English

Tamil

Adiante forward adhiantham (beginning)
alcunha nick name alcunha
Além beyond alam (depth)
Ananas pineapple annasi
Armário cup-board alamari
Arroz rice arisi
Cabelo hair cabalam (head)
Caçapa pocket ceppu
Café coffee kappi
Calca short parts kalasam
Camisa shirt camsu
Chappatu shoe sappathu
Chavi key savi
Compadre god father kumbadri
Confraternity fraternity Kumbiriar
Copo drinking cup koppai (a vessel)
Cozinha kitchen kusini
Ela she yela (boy)
Equ What yekki (calling a girl)
Espirito Santo the Holy Spirit Ispiritu Santu
Leilao auction yelam
Macho male machan (brother-in-law)
Mesa table mesai
Novena nine day devotion navanazh
Padre priest padiriyar
Pave cream cake pahu
Saco sack sakku
Triste sad thusti
Xarope syrup sirap
Xodu sweet heart jodi

Naming convention:

Interpretations are not absolute but here is my attempt at mapping the various Christian names to who I think they really are:

  1. Beatrice – I have referenced an interview with the author of the Kadal story, Jeyamohan. In that interview he mentions: Beatrice was the name of the angel who takes Dante to heaven in the epic work Divine Comedy, he says that the movie’s theme is about how it takes just one step or action to turn man into God but it takes several steps to turn a man into the devil.My interpretation of Beatrice as the Virgin Mother Mary is more in line with Madhan Karky the lyricist in the Eley Keechan song (he is Vairamuthu’s son) : Soosa ponnu – Joseph’s girl – Mary. This traslation of Soosa ponnu as Joseph’s girl is given in Nandini Karky’s blog. She is Madhan’s wife and I trust that she got Madhan’s intent correct.
  2. Barnabas –  This is possibly a simple Christian name given him. But they refer to him by another name in the movie –  Chetty, which is much more interesting to me.  When the fishermen community’s fishing rights were usurped by the Muslims, they approached a horse trader who was associated with the Portuguese but was of Indian descent. His name to the Portugues was Joa Da Cruz. His name to the Indians was Chetty. He was instrumental in pulling the trigger that lead to this mass conversion to Christianity.  Not that Barnabas Chetty is instrumental in any memorable deed we know of.  Ponvannan, essayed this negative role with aplomb!
  3. Berchmans – A Mesaikarar.  There is a current living priest in Tuticorin that was excommunicated by the Catholic church. He leads a popular charismatic Christian movement and many of his followers are almost cult-like in their beliefs and practices. It is this Berchmans as an excommunicated priest that lends his name to the antagonist in the movie Kadal, who is also excommunicated by the church for a barnyard frolic.
  4. Thoma – My interpretation of the Doubting Thomas is already explored in this blog.  Rameshram has an interesting mapping to Thomas Aquinas in the comments section below.

Notes

  1. I constantly refer to some of these characters as prostitute or bastard. There is a shock-value in exploiting the plot-line to it’s fullest and giving these characters their (im)moral titles given them by society. I understand that these are not endearing terms for the actors who have done an excellent job in depicting these characters. I am not exploring Gautham Karthik, for instance, just his character.
  2. Another low-budget movie recently shot in Manapad, was about the lifestyle of the fishermen community here. Neer Paravai touched upon the Sri Lankan territorial sea warfare that kills poor fishermen of the coastal Tamil Nadu. Some thought, before it’s release, that Mani Ratnam picked up this theme in Kadal
  3. Mani Ratnam has painted with broad brush strokes and wants you to fill the blanks. The novella by Jeyamohan is spiritual and philosophical in tone. Ratnam translates that into visuals. This feat is similar to Ang Lee translating the Life of Pi
  4. I talk about Muslim oppressors here, but that’s way back 500 years ago.  I am from Hyderabad and have many Muslim friends.  I have written about Muslims in India in a very positive light too.
  5. I have not mentioned AR Rahman by name. but this story is awash with his bewitching music that casts a divine spell.  He is the wind beneath this soaring eagle.
  6. As a creature of politics and social justice, I am disappointed with some Christian group that has taken Mani Ratnam to court over a few scenes that offended them in the movie Kadal.  An artist must have the right to use irony as a powerful vessel for a greater truth.

The greatest irony of Christianity should not be forgotten:

Jesus was stripped naked, nailed to a cross wearing a crown of thorns.  A sign on the cross mocked this man who claimed kingship: Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews

That dying man was a sage and artist, one who couldn’t save himself but promised to save you.  It is in this irony that Christianity finds the greatest love story ever told.

Christianity itself loses its essence, if we were to censure this irony or disallow it’s interpretation.

References

  1. Sr. S Deckla’s Doctoral Thesis Maritime History of the Pearl Fishery Coast with Special Reference to Thoothukudi
  2. Saints, Goddesses and Kings – Susan Bayly
  3. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea – Jules Vernes
  4. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – Day 87 OF 165
  5. Was Captain Nemo an Indian?
  6. Pearl Diving
  7. The Pearl Fishers – an Opera by George Bizet
  8. Kadal – Coast Analysis by Bharadwaj Rangan
  9. Leo Fernando’s Manapad – Mani Ratnam’s favorite coastal village, in pictures
  10. Tamil-Malayalam author Jeyamohan, the writer of Kadal
  11. Rajiv Menon, Cinematographer
  12. Tamil saw its first book in 1578
  13. @Pontifex Habemus Papum Franciscum – We have Pope Francis

On Religion
sita pieta pieta
Sita, Interrupted Pieta Carnatic We have Pope Francis!
on Movies
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Sexist Pig Aamir K’s Talaash Indian Films Barfi’s Disorder
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  1. Very interesting entry, I liked especially how you had interspersed some beautiful pictures with your writing. Got here from Baradwaj Rangan’s blog. Look forward to reading some of your other entries.

  2. Thanks Ashwin! Baradwaj is a powerhouse. Welcome to my world here. These are pictures I took in Manapad, near Thoothukudi, where the film was shot. It’s a very scenic place. I thought I will get a backstory going for Mani Ratnam’s Kadal. I had fun doing it.

  3. What a lovely history! Pity you did not work with the film makers! The floatsam that was kadal would have been high art with even this much history. I also am very impressed by the photos on your blog. Are they yours?

  4. Thank you Rameshram! That is high praise for some humble work indeed. Yes all the pictures are mine. Not sure if you played the first audio right on top, just recorded it this morning. I agree with you on the content here, truth being stranger than fiction. I was thrilled to see Manapad on film. Mani Ratnam experimented with an obtuse subject.

  5. India is such a dysfunctional family that unless people take time, like you did, to detail out the emerging personal stories emerging from each geography, manappad story will end up looking like a manmohan desai film story. This is why we need blogs. Every voice counts.

  6. since we have converted this from a simple history of the brown men of Tutucorin pearl fisheries into a catechism about the faith (and it is appropriate that such a christian story have at least ONE believer delivering its meaning to the audience….) could you explain , Father Vas,what the significance of the names Beatrice (the virgin mary stand in) and Barnabas (The father of the bastard son) is.?

    Also I have a doubt about Thomas. ( 🙂 ) do you think he represents Thomas the APOSTLE who doubted or is he Thomas AQUINAS (the dumb ox) who needed BOTH the theology/ unreasoned faith (from his love for Beatrice) as well as reasoned scholasticism (as represented by father Sam) to regain the path of grace.

  7. good questions are like burning firewood that bring this keechan to a boil.

    While Father Vas is a biologically accurate term, “believer” and “catechism” are undeserved awards that I would like to return! Only because I think I am presenting a canvas and not proselytizing or evangelizing Christianity. I have done equal damage with my ideas about other religions. I suggest “Sita, interrupted” as my Hinduism sampler.

    Interpretation is not absolute and it must be encouraged. There might be multiple interpretations and that is OK. So here goes:

    1. Beatrice – I have referenced an interview with the author of the Kadal story, Jeyamohan. In that interview he mentions: Beatrice was the name of the angel who takes Dante to heaven in the epic work Divine Comedy, he says that the movie’s theme is about how it takes just one step or action to turn man into God but it takes several steps to turn a man into the devil.

    My interpretation of Beatrice as the Virgin Mother Mary is more in line with Madhan Karky the lyricist in the Eley Keechan song (btw he is Vairamuthu’s son) : Soosai ponnu – Joseph’s girl – Mary. This traslation of Soosai ponnu as Joseph’s girl is given in Nandini Karky’s blog. She is Madhan’s wife and i trust that she got the intent correct.

    2. Barnabas – This is possibly a simple christian name given him. But they refer to him as Chetty, which is much more interesting to me. When the fishermen community, when their fishing rights were usurped by the Muslims, approached a horse trader who was associated with the Portuguese but was of Indian decent. His name to the Portugues was Joa Da Cruz. His name to the Indians was Chetty. He was instrumental in pulling the trigger that lead to this mass conversion.

    3. Berchmans – There is a current living priest in Tuticorin that was excommunicated by the Catholic church. He leads a popular charismatic christian movement and many of his followers are almost cult-like in their beliefs and practices. It is this Bechmans as an excommunicated priest that lends his name to the antagonist in the movie, who is also excommunicated by the church for a barnyard frolic. If the situation permits I will elaborate on this thorny issue of celibacy some other time.

    4. Thomas – Your interpretation sounds wonderful! Maybe he is Aquinas after all. Why should we discount Fr. Sam’s hard nosed pursuit for Thoma’s soul? He does play a role in Thoma’s life, if not in a one-step dramatic conversion

  8. oh tongue in cheek as far as “father ” was concerned. although “believer” I think is deserved, if only in an “insider” sense rather than a “zealot” sense. I think if there is one big thing missing from this christian film, it was a “believer” (insider).

    Also, thanks for the history of “Chetty”, I would so easily have mistaken it for the Chettiars of Chidambaram if I didn’t know this (from you).

    Do you think the references in the film are CHRISTIAN (in the Jesus/fisherman sense)or MEDIEVAL (in the Portuguese/catholic church sense) ? I think it is the latter, in which case Barnabas is a relevant (maybe minor) reference too.

    As regards Thomas, While the conversion does happen by the grace of Beatrice, it should be noted that Thomas does need to go back to his moral compass(Sam) for this to be recognized. (Thomas a Kempis, he’s not 🙂 ).

  9. There is some indication that the horse trader Chetty was in fact a Malayali. So I owe my religion to the following:

    1. A horse trading Mallu
    2. Queen Catherine’s footwear budget
    3. Oppressive Muslims
    4. Portuguese who bartered a food-for-religion deal

    Not everybody is blessed with a devastatingly beautiful Beatrice-like nymph to affect a quick conversion!

    Yes, you are right in that the story lacked an insider. But Jeyamohan is such a prolific author, maybe his treatment of this subject was a big philosophical/spiritual thought bubble that refused to being translated to moving pictures.

    I lean towards your former than your later prognosis. The Jesus/Fishermen is a strong theme here. The fishermen that became Jesus’ disciples were rustic and not erudite. They were actually hot-headed and given to violent temperaments at times.

    Good point about Thomas needing and finding a moral bearing in Fr. Sam. He does need his approval and affirmations.

  10. I have only one problem with the jesus fisherman model wrt the film.I’m SURE Jeyamohan would have had a “peter” charecter if he was evocking that relationship. Also , Sam is more an… Company man…rather than a messianic figure…so while we have rustic fishermen, we don’t have jesus.

    (BTW I think the script writer went hands off in the filmmaking process, because the screenplay/ camera is completely shorn of all catholic/christian symbology…not that every christian script should have a spiritual theme, but you can’t just …. SUPPRESS the religious elements in the script and instead shoot the film as straight reprtage of a coastal hurricane …or something)…

  11. Apparently, and this is according to both Mani Ratnam (there is a YouTube interview just above References in this blog) and Jeyamohan, the story process was something like this: Jayamohan wrote a 200 page novella, discussed it with MR and converted it into a dialogue-form movie script. MR and Jayamohan develop a screenplay with heavy inputs from MR. They have the artistic license to move the story in any direction they want to but,,,

    It is interesting to note that you looked at Kadal as a coastal hurricane reporting, while many saw the Christian themes. That difference is important. You saw through the stage props and asked for more. You are a bit extra-ordinary in your demands.

    I called out in my blog above that MR gives religion a grand slip. He uses Christianity and by extension my community as a huge, lovable stage prop. That my friend is the real “insider” view, and you already are on to it.

  12. Not Extraordinary at all! The most basic visual metaphor for grace in christianity is…..? Yes Light!
    I didn’t see ONE shot where light was used as evidence of grace, and examining the film, I found that this treatment is deliberate.

    That’s OK…My only question then is why use a deeply catholic christian script , then? Why not just do a chemmeen type script, instead where the characters, are incidentally, moplah muslims.

    You(the filmmaker) is obviously not a believer, youre certainly not a heretic …and you’re not a kierkegaard style existential philosopher with the stomach for deep inquiry into the nature of the chasm between faith and experience …so why make the film? because you’re reporting news?

  13. take this caravaggio painting, for instance (and the cinematographer quoted caravaggio as an explicit influence) https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&docid=cXa_WJsLBS9RCM&tbnid=HEqy5SmwuVY_SM:&ved=0CAUQjRw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.dhspriory.org%2F2012%2F09%2F13%2Fliturgies-for-the-week-of-september-16th%2Fcaravaggio-call-st-matthew-2%2F&ei=RrUdUaXQKaeaiAKk-ICoAQ&bvm=bv.42553238,d.cGE&psig=AFQjCNG_kkCoazrCBVm4X6n-JJ1zI52Rxg&ust=1360987823891436

    whether you believe light is grace or not, the light makes this image.. its a character…THE character in it. THIS is what was missing in Kadal…IMO…

  14. Very interesting blog mr. Vas. Nice to know about this small community. Would like to visit those parts sometime.

  15. Thanks Raj! Now will be a Rajiv Menon (the Kadal cinematographer) moment, I heard it’s raining there.

  16. Pictures! Or it didn’t happen.;)

  17. Somebody from Manapad please post pictures of a rainy day! I live in Bangalore that’s just cloudy and threatening a downpour in a few hours 🙂

  18. Peter vas,

    Maybe it’s because I can’t sleep, but another explanation occurs to me. ( and I understand you faithful do not speak about the schism so easily, but) Can this also be seen as some kind of a history of the Medieval church as played out on South Indian shores cis a vis a lost sheep (viz the disciple thomas, who both academically and in terms of church doctrine has been the catholic church’s loose cannon)? (of course I can;t have it both ways he’s either Thomas AQUINAS or he’s St Thomas….only one 🙂 ).

    U think I can make a case that we are seeing the author address the schism, and the author’s comment is that , by the grace of the blessed virgin, the lost sheep (thomas) reunited with the true church, and ..bypassed …orthodox and other traditions that swept across medieval christianity…is that a far fetched interpretation? should I go and try to get more sleep? 🙂

  19. “”If [you would go] down into Egypt
    and bring [back] the one pearl,
    which is in the middle of the sea
    surrounded by the hissing serpent,
    then you will put on your glorious garment
    and your toga which rests (is laid) over it.
    And with your brother, our second in command,
    you will be heir in our kingdom.””

    —-Hymn of the…..yes PEARL! 🙂 (from the acts of Thomas..you can see other historical parelells, and parelells to Kadal’s script in it). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hymn_of_the_Pearl

  20. Ramesh,

    A bit far fetched, but tantalizing! St. Thomas has a complex past, he is the first witness to Jesus and he visits Mylapore, Chennai and preaches there. He was killed on St. Thomas Mount by the locals there. That was First century AD. He is buried at the church in Mylapore.

    I branch off here from the Vatican sponsored religious texts that play a bigger role in institutionalizing Christianity thus making it easy to teach and spread it. The Christianity taught by St. Thomas will be exactly what he learnt from his master – Jesus. That unfortunately is different (according to me) than the normalized texts of the Bible.

    Also there is no trace of what it was he really taught. My belief is that the Portuguese and the Duch who came in much after St. Thomas were already steeped in normalized Christianity and it was in their best interest to suppress any deviations from their doctrine.

    So there is a tension between what St. Thomas taught versus the teachings of St. Francis Xavier. By your words the jury is out on who the “true church” is or was. Who is the lost sheep? St. Thomas or St. Xavier? Who needs to reunite with the true church?

    Assuming that St. Thomas is the lost one, and the new church (the Vatican’s Nicene Creed which normalized Christianity came to force half a century after the death of Christ) wants to reign him in, your concept makes sense.

    My opinion is really the opposite and the battle is already lost on that front!

  21. I think jeyamohan went the way of the normalized texts, and Thomas was written as the lost sheep here. I think I agree with your ( and a more gentle and gnostic) view of Jesus and Christianity, but I come at it more from a historical perspective than doctrinal, and so will probably favor the mysterious and unexplored….facets of the evolution….

  22. Btw Peter, I posted here because I saw tremendous unsaid material in the kadal script, whose surface your blog post scratched…. Nothing I say here should be taken as endorsement of AR Rahman, or encouragement to the others who made this film. ( mani Rajiv) but I see this like as our team going on foreign soil and losing a series badly.. They may have to drop one or two for the next series…..

  23. and I did some research on “chetty” and in southern coramandel, the term “chetty” is apparently equivalent to “headman” in fishing communities/ villages. More specifically I am tempted to think the maniratnam film might have referenced Singaravelu chettiar of triplicane, icehouse as being the chetty whose illegitimate son from a lame prostitute the film was about…for further conspiracy theory see the alternate reading on my blog..

  24. Islam and Christianity were foreign to India when they were introduced, but not any longer. They have been localized and internalized over the centuries. But they still remain a mystery to an outsider. We are mostly smug in our understanding of Christianity and Islam and limit ourselves to the surface: Christians go for Sunday mass and celebrate Christmas, Muslims are terrorists sympathizers or smugglers and celebrate Ramadan.

    To show them in the flesh then is in itself a commendable angle and that’s my basic attraction to MR’s Kadal. It is earthy and fleshy and revolves around a Christian community.

    Then it gets a bit ambitious and begins exploring Christianity at a philosophical level which while didactic is never complete in a movie. The movies BO woes are not due to the unavailability of a raised IQ needed in understanding it, but the median low-brow audience that it fails to entertain and more importantly engage. The antagonist remained a one-dimensional philosophical anti-Christ, just like the heroine was pinned as a permanent angel that refused to change her angelic costumes. These cliched tropes do not have character arcs and they become uninteresting. Becoming an angel or losing her angel-hood is much more exciting than a fixed biological predilection.

    You are correct in your assessment that Christianity was explored using these two cliched tropes.

    Coming to the antagonist and the priest: One never really needed a religion as much as he needed a mother, the other never really needed a religion’s garb as much as he needed a flock. That in my opinion might be the most redeeming strength of Jeyamohan’s story which is out at sea waiting eagerly for a fisherman’s net.

  25. you can’t make a movie FULLY in someone’s head. you need to take the script, flesh it out, convey it and convert it into meaningful images. I think even INTELLIGENT people will look askence at kadal, not beause of the two dimensional nature of the narrative alone, but also because the film feels less than….competently made…..It’s a problem specially when the next theater in your multiplex is playing life of pi, and the one across is playing some hindi film made comptently.

    It takes someone with your context…or my unflagging zeal for research to get to the bottom of this shipwreck of a film…

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