There is something Shakespearean about Pariyerum Perumaal—the relentless battle of a young man to carve a space for himself in a world that only wants to drive him into the mud; the slow circling of a killer, coiling around his victims like a python; the villainy conducted in the name of family and honour by men driven to prove their masculinity; and at the centre of it all, a cruel death and an ever-present violence.
In one scene, Perumaal (played by a forever-glaring Kathir), the young Dalit protagonist, carves his name into a desk at the law college he’s studying at, staking his right to be there. The next day, he finds that his name has been scratched out. The movie was excruciating to watch for many reasons, but most of all because it made me uncomfortably aware of how much I take for granted—that I can speak English well, question authority freely, and am encouraged to make my own life choices. I am allowed to exist and claim my place in the world, in a way Perumal simply isn’t. It was a reminder of how strange and small one’s world is—shiny and flaky and fragile, a glass bubble that is entirely cut off from the other reality playing out just outside of it. This is a recurrent theme in the movie: how those around him, though well-meaning, completely fail to understand his experience.
Perhaps what I loved best about this movie was it’s treatment of the romantic arc—while for upper-caste Jo (the female lead, played by Anandhi), her experience of her relationship with Perumaal is one of friendship that blossoms into youthful love, which then leads to disappointment, heartbreak, and reconciliation, for Perumaal, romantic feelings don’t even have the space to exist as he’s engaged in a struggle for survival. It’s as though they are passing through the same physical space, but in different dimensions. While I found Jo remarkably ditzy and clueless, her response to every situation simplistic and childish, perhaps her ham-handed handling of the tensions brewing around her is a commentary on the blindness of well-meaning members of the upper castes who very often completely miss the point. As Perumaal repeats many times in the movie, his relationship with Jo is not about love. It represents everything in the world that is good and beautiful that is denied to him because of his caste, including his bond with his beloved dog, Karrupie. What is a love story for one, is a struggle for survival for another.
What truly makes this film so remarkable is the array of supporting characters. The villain in the movie, an upper caste _thaatha_ (played by Lijeesh) who uses his age, gender, and caste privilege to convince those around him that he’s a genial old man while harbouring and enacting great violence, embodies a deep-seated paranoia handed down without fail from all mothers to daughters—trust no man, no matter how benevolent, and especially those who are benevolent for no reason; stop to help no one, no matter how helpless; keep your head down and carry on because everyone is out to get you. The murderer is not some diabolical, flashy mobster, but a person you’d see on a bus or riding a cycle on a street, an everyday person who is nevertheless capable of great evil in the belief that they’re doing it in service of their god.
The murderer does not work in isolation, but is aided and abetted by the families of the young lovers he murders. Jo’s father and cousin brother find themselves drawn into an increasingly worsening spiral of violence as they react to Perumaal’s refusal to back down—the father driven by ideas of lineage and honor, while the brother by ideas of masculinity and pride. They too are complicit, as much as the hand that actually does the deed. The father (played by Marimuthu) particularly makes for an interesting character—driven by his caste pride on one side, and his morality on the other—he constantly vacillates between the two, his refusal to take a stand doing as much harm as good.
Perumaal is not without his allies. Jo, though remarkably dense, is steadfast and never really sees his caste. (However, it is her clueless behaviour that precipitates much of the violence against Perumaal, and not his own actions.) His best friend, Anand (played by a wonderfully warm and funny Yogi Babu), is the voice of common sense in many scenes, constantly counselling Perumaal to keep his head down and blend in. College professors, completely inept in dealing with Perumaal’s anger, are just regular people trying to do their jobs, their anger more bombastic shouting than any real grudge. But in the end, the only people who truly make a difference in Perumaal’s life is the Dalit headmaster, who gives Perumaal the direction and meaning that has been stripped from him, and his family, who’re the only people who can truly understand his experience.
Though the middle section of the movie relentlessly drives home how the odds have been stacked against Perumaal, the movie ends on a hopeful note. Perumaal, the angry young man, is still frustrated with the slow rate of change, his anger simmering just below the surface now, but you can see that change is already taking place—he sits facing his oppressor at the same table, drinking tea from an identical glass.