Rajiv Menon’s Sarvam Thaala Mayam is one film that I had been waiting to see for quite some time. Not just because I like Rajiv’s body of work, (Kandukondein Kandukondein is one of my favourite films, period.) but also due to the nature of the film. It follows the story of Peter Johnson (GV Prakash Kumar), a Dalit Christian who aspires to become a Mridangist and break into the ranks of sabha artists. The storyline was of immediate interest, not just due to the casteism angle, but also due to the choice of instrument that it puts under the spotlight.
Mridangam has for long, been in the shadows of the Kutcheri structure, at least to the outsider. Even in the limited connoisseurs for Carnatic music, the people who understand and enjoy percussion in the constructs of Carnatic are few. It is a common sight to spot people walking out for a break during the Thaniyavardhanam in a kutcheri (the mridangam solo). The reason for this, I feel, is the insular nature of consumption — the melody reaches out easier. Thus, the objective becomes harder. Rajiv has to not only dissect the caste discrimination, but also explain the constructs of the instrument and the particular cultural sphere to the masses.
To this already burdened narrative, Rajiv further adds a few more debates — opening Carnatic music to influences from other styles, other modes of dissemination, dabbling in film music and the reality show culture and so on. These are all relevant and definitely important but they won’t hold a viewer’s interest if they don’t understand the world of Carnatic music (unlike the discrimination). Also, in it’s unwillingness to point fingers at one community, Sarvam Thaala Mayam glosses over the most important angle, casteism.
Mani (Vineeth), Vaembu Iyer’s (Nedumudi Venu) associate, is the more glaringly casteist character. But is he criticised for this? Even when he is sent out of the house by Vaembu Iyer, it comes after Mani alludes that Vaembu Iyer won’t be able to teach. Thus, Vaembu Iyer’s decision to teach Peter becomes more a decision stemming from hurt ego rather inclusivity. It also becomes mandatory to talk about Vaembu Iyer himself in the first place. He doesn’t perform with women vocalists; doesn’t allow Peter into his house the first time; initially doesn’t touch him as well. This all changes gradually but not as the result of introspection of his problematic social conduct. Anything becomes a solution only if you acknowledge the problem in the first place and the only problem Vaembu Iyer acknowledges is the necessity to push Carnatic music out of the Sabha and also be open to influences from other styles of music. By extension, the only ‘realisation’ he has is about the diversity Carnatic music should embrace. This dilutes the entire debate in question, heavily undermining the cause the well-intentioned film tries to battle. Furthermore, an inconsistent visual tone, a romance angle that almost seems like after-thought (surprisingly for a Rajiv Menon film) further undermine the narrative.
But I enjoyed the smaller nuances of the film such as the usage of the word ‘naadham’. There are several bits of writing that I enjoyed, such as Vaembu Iyer’s closing analogy about the nature of Carnatic music. He says that Carnatic music is a flowing river and not a well, that is isolated and disconnected. For long, it has been treated like a well — with bridges to and from Carnatic music have been frowned upon. The flowing river analogy seems to suit the current debate in the musical community. I quite liked AR Rahman’s refreshing soundtrack and of course, the performances by Kumaravel, Nedumudi Venu, Vineeth and GV Prakash Kumar in that order.(while Kumaravel and Nedumudi Venu are perfect, Vineeth and GV oversell their characters at places) But all of this isn’t enough to divert us from asking the bigger question and also wonder why the film itself didn’t raise them in the first place?