The opening sequence in Ezhavathu Manithan(Seventh man) is similar to many other Tamil movies of its time – scenes of an idyllic village, with lush paddy fields. The film’s hero Anand (played by Raghuvaran) is on a journey towards the village. The refrain in the background music ‘oru sakthi pirakiradu moochinile’ (‘the power of resistance grows with every breath’) reveals a tension. All is not well in the village. Young, tall, city-educated Anand arrives in the village to start working in the cement factory of the village. The rural idyll is punctured by a polluting cement factory.
The movie is a systematic lesson on the evils of unchecked capitalist power. A polluting cement factory in Ezhavathupuram village releases white cement dust into its surroundings causing many villagers and workers to fall sick. Even when a worker faints while in the factory, and eventually dies, and the cause of death is obvious, the management tries to evade responsibility. They try to bribe doctors to hide the cause of the death, and do not pay for the medical expenses as the victim is not a permanent worker. The factory management has a cozy relationship with local politicians, financing their election campaigns, and in return the politicians keep the pollution issue from being taken up by the government. Anand leads the workers to go on a strike. The management wins the first round, by getting Anand arrested through deceit, and then by orchestrating a takeover of the factory by the puppet union (which is now controlled by friends of the management). The management brazenly refuses to install a filter to check the pollution, citing high costs, thus demonstrating the low cost of the lives of the poor.
The film goes beyond just documenting management’s and union’s strategies, and explores the personal and human aspects of an unequal class-based society. The manager’s son Ramkumar is a college friend of Anand, because of which we get to see the atypical occurrence of a character crossing the line and wandering in both the worlds – that of the capitalist and the working class. Anand sees that a few drinks of cheap liquor can have a devastating financial impact on a worker, while the manager’s son, without a care, indulges in imported whiskey. When it is pointed out that the drink costs twenty times the monthly salary of the workers of the factory, Ramkumar says that he disassociates his role in the factory from the rest of his life and choices. Anand points out that a worker cannot afford to that.
The movie engages with the question of what an independent Indian state means to the people; this is done with a light touch and some subtlety. The opening song by Bharatiar celebrates the parent ‘Tamil Nadu’. As the song fades out, the film enters the village Ezhavathupuram, where there is a debate among the villagers about whether independence day should be celebrated at all. The villagers are however silenced by the elite leadership. Later, in the village school’s independence day celebration, the chief guest is unable to unfurl the flag. A small kid nimbly climbs up the pole (as if it were a coconut tree) and manually opens the flag, and the flowers wrapped up in the flag rain on the unsuccessful chief guest standing below. This scene holds up a mirror to our casteist society – the skillful lower castes rain the fruits of their labour on an authority that is weighty and inept. A few scenes later, we see a school girl memorizing her lesson through repeated recitation: ‘the prime minister of our country is Indira Gandhi.’ The state is nothing more than an uncaring authority whose various bodies – like legislatures and police – have been hollowed out by capitalist corruption.
On the whole, the film is not without its problems. The issues of workers conditions(low wage, contract labour) and pollution struggles are not well integrated, especially after the union is formed and the film falls into typical mainstream cinematic tendencies to deal with these issues. For one, the women are absent in the struggle barring the female doctor who fights a lone battle with the administration ineffectively. The hero romances a good girl with little agency or words, who suffers her sickness silently. The hero articulates the problems of the villagers, and organizes and leads their struggle, in contrast with the knowledgeable villager Senthamarai, who, giving in to his anger, almost kills a contractor. Anand, who is already physically tall, is further heightened by the camera. His shadow towers in the night of the climactic sequence, when he leads the villagers in foiling the management’s attempt to blow up the factory. One is left wondering what would become of the rural workers without an English educated hero to lead them. The movie actually misleads the viewer, because in reality many workers’ struggles have been started by workers themselves, without the support of English-speaking elite (though their support has helped). The prime example today is that of the Maruti struggle. The movie also fails to explore other characters besides the hero with any depth, and the events fold up nicely leading to a happy ending. This leaves viewers with a sense of false closure – the people fought and won, and such events probably do not happen any more. But often the stories of struggles for worker’s rights and environment protection are long-winded and wrenching.
The battle for abolition of contract labour in cement factories and strengthening of regulation to control pollution has been ongoing for decades. But conditions continue to be bad today, and have worsened since the onset of liberalization in 1990s, as documented by this PUDR report. The cement plants studied in the report are owned by Holcim, a Swiss corporation, which is the largest cement producing company in India today. The report documents that the wages of permanent workers are 6-7 times that of contract workers, and contract workers do all the dangerous work. There are also many documented instances of contract workers not being compensated in the events of death and physical injury. Unionizing contract workers is a very hard task, which the Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh (CPSS) has been patiently carrying out for many years. The union is frequently intimated and threatened by local police and the security staff of the cement plant(http://sanhati.com/articles/3322/).
But in spite of these limitations, the film is a great effort to highlight the problems of capitalist power and to show that united action by workers can successfully counter that power. It was made with a small budget and starred many newcomers. Even then, it was a commercial success. It managed to convey the working class issues to a mainstream audience, which is indeed praiseworthy.
NOTE: The film Ezhavathu Manithan was screened by Panuval Book Store in Thiruvanmiyur on October 11, 2015.