Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dasavathaaram – a page from history

An ode to the Vaishnava faith
Dasavathaaram – a page from history

How Dasavathaaram fares at the box office remains for the audiences to decide, but the fact that the movie uncovers many hidden and hardly talked about pages from history will remain something that will keep it in our memories for some time to come.
The history
The movie begins with an episode that re-creates the tale of a Vaishnava Brahmin (Iyengar) who lives in the town of Chidambaram in 12 Century AD. Tamilnadu at this point of time was a purely Hindu country extensively ruled by the Chozhas. Vaishnava and Shaiva politics were in vogue and the Chozhas being vehemently strong Shaivaites obviously supported the Shaiva Brahmins (Iyers). Kamal Hassan plays the role of a Vaishnava Brahmin who refuses to give up his faith in Vishnu and agree to the king’s wishes of a total Shaivic state religion that proclaims Shiva as the prime deity.

What actually happened?
What can be called an inquisition of sorts occurred all over deltaic Tamilnadu and Vishnu or Perumaal temples were often broken into, destroyed or damaged and Shiva was usually re-instated as the prime deity. Many Iyengars fled to other parts of Southern India, a huge number to Karnataka where the Hoysalas and other kingdoms were still quite unbiased. The population that chose to remain were tortured and recently discovered proof even claims that as severe punishments as impaling were prevalent.
The characterisation
The character played by Kamal Hassan is given the option to renounce his faith or be drowned with the reclining idol of Vishnu that was being shifted out of the temple in Chidambaram. He chooses the latter and is drowned alive after his son is forced to perform the last rites. The film ends the narrative at the drowning, but the Vaishnavic tendencies re-emerge at the end when the Tsunami and the re-emergence of the reclining Vishnu kind of re-emphasize the image of Vishnu as the protector. Asin’s character has also been unabashedly based on the life of Andal, the much romanticized other spouse of Vishnu also known as Ranganaayaki, and the fact that she plays a role quite similar to folk portrayals of Andal and is also called Andal in the film is something that cannot miss the attention of any culturophile.
Did Kamal Hassan decide to portray his Vaishnava faith in the film, which is why these influences cannot go unnoticed, or was this just a recreation of history? No one can answer this other than him, but we’re impressed with the guts of the screenplay writer, who has brought back the attention to this forgotten page of South India’s history. Where we come from and who we are, is something no one should ever forget, however bloody our history has been.

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