A deluge of water filled up the Sunday morning I went to see Varnam at the 35th edition of Montreal’s World Film Festival. On the way to the theatre, I biked and waded through meandering streams coursing through the streets of Montreal, courtesy of a torrential rainstorm. As I sat dripping in my seat waiting for the film to begin, little did I know that I was about to meet onscreen characters who themselves would be transported very far, both literally and figuratively, by varying forms of water. The movie Varnam begins with a well and ends with a river – and a lot happens in between.

We follow the transition of Mani (played by Giri) from adolescence to adulthood, as circumstances force him to question his own privileged upbringing amidst the turmoil of caste violence. Two role models battle over his moral compass: his uncle Durai (Sampath) who owns a coffee plantation and exploits the local farmers; and his progressive teacher Kavitha (Monica) who challenges Mani’s ingrained notions of entitlement. Such a simple summary on my part might imply a cut and dry coming of age moral tale – but this is hardly the case. Writer and director S. M. Raju takes us on a roller-coaster journey with plot twists galore and themes of escape and transformation that encompass more than the main character. Caste prejudice being a central plot motivator – the motif of touch also makes appearances throughout the film. At points I was reminded slightly of a theme present in another film – Taare Zameen Par’s notion of “art as redemption”; Mani is an avid sketcher who often finds refuge in his drawings. However, even this theme is twisted as he repeatedly draws portraits of his father who was killed during a caste riot, to keep alive the flame of revenge.

Through the course of the story, Mani’s transformation affects, or is affected by the lives of Thangam (Ashwatha) – his low caste female classmate, Anwar (Raja) his uncle’s driver with secrets in the past and present, and Nanda (Vijay) one of the exploited coffee farmers who dares to assert his right to fair market prices. This strong cast is dutifully supported by another un-credited member: Prem Kumar’s magnificent cinematography. Beautiful shots of the landscape and rural life augment the narrative, and we are treated to a wonderful, chaotic sequence depicting the Veerapandi Festival.

S. M. Raju successfully manages to fit elements of comedy, unsettling brutality, morality, politics, forbidden love, amongst many other ingredients to draw the viewer in to his first feature film. He was kind enough to answer some questions by email:

1- First of all congratulations on your first feature. I enjoyed the film immensely and was very glad to see that this year’s Montreal World Film Festival served as the North American premiere. In Varnam, you use the setting of an upper-class teenager’s coming of age story to explore the harsh existence of the “untouchable” caste in a rural setting of Tamil Nadu. I was wondering if any of the portrayed incidents are based on actual occurrences? How was the film received in the area?

The humiliation of Nanda the low caste farmer is based on a true incident. The context of the actual incident and the location are different. But, essentially they are not very different.
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The film was received fine by most of the people. One journalist said that it was too much. Obviously he had not kept up with the news. And pedophilia across class and caste boundaries is not uncommon. In India until now only one person has used the specific word pedophilia after seeing the film.

2- At points, there are some pretty striking depictions of violence and acts of humiliation. When writing the script – did you know at the beginning that this was something you would have to portray or did it come about as you researched the topic?

I knew about the Thinniyam incident long before I started to write. I wanted it to be a pivotal point in a film on transformation of a young mind.

3- Water is central to your story, almost a character in itself, yet there are twists in its traditional thematic role as “cleansing” or “purifying”. Water is coveted, leads to death (and martyrdom), has a part in the sexual awakening of characters, and serves the story in other ways in your film. What inspired you to give these forms of water such prevalence?

I think sub-consciously (and consciously) I am obsessed with water. I grew up in times where we didn’t have to pay for water. But, water was not in abundance in Madurai where I grew up. I grew up watching people fight for water on streets. So as a habit I don’t waste water while showering because I think about it. Water like everything else takes on many avatars in our lives. Metaphorically it can cleanse or purify, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find “clean” water. Along with my wife Aparna, I also have created dance theater works called “Agua Thaneer Water” about the struggle for water and “River Rites” based on the Narmada River struggle. May be in Varnam water has found its way in because of my obsession.

4- I would characterize the plot twists in your story as almost Dickensian – the narrative works very well in keeping the viewer hankering for more. Did you start writing the script with a clear outline in your head or did the story unfold as you wrote?

Story unfolded as we wrote. I had the important themes like the forbidden love, secret love, humiliation and the climax beforehand. The plot itself unraveled as we wrote.

5- Any plans for your next project?

Lots of plans. I have had verbal offers to direct two films in English. One to be shot in India and one in London. Very initial stages of talk. I am also trying to get Indian films. Let us see.

You can find out more information about Varnam at the following website:

Prasun Lala is by no means an aficionado of films originating in the South Asian subcontinent - but he is a big fan of moving pictures - especially those that make him think.