‘Nenjuku Needhi’ movie review: Udhayanidhi’s film is more political yet less affecting remake of ‘Article 15’


The remake is well-adapted to suit the social milieu of Tamil Nadu, but doesn’t quite immerse you into its world like its original

The remake is well-adapted to suit the social milieu of Tamil Nadu, but doesn’t quite immerse you into its world like its original

Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15, when it was released three years ago, was lauded for being one of the rare mainstream Hindi films to discuss the issues of caste. It also faced a major criticism: projecting an upper caste police officer, Ayan Ranjan (played by Ayushmann Khurrana), as the saviour of Dalits. The film also has a young Dalit revolitionary, Nishad (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), who gets a few heroic moments. But the film undoubtedly takes the point of view of officer Ranjan. We see him toiling for justice by even putting his job on the line and getting his hands dirty (even literally by wading through swamps). 

While the protagonist in Article 15 is clearly identified as an upper caste, his counterpart’s caste in the Tamil remake, Nenjuku Needhi, is not made apparent. We get to know that officer Vijayraghavan (Udhayanidhi Stalin) is a suave, English-speaking officer who has studied abroad. One of his subordinate officers ask him, “Is Vijayraghavan your full name?” trying to find out. Later, another officer claims he must be from an upper-caste background. But we do not know for sure. 

By not revealing the protagonist’s caste, Arunraja Kamaraj, who has helmed this remake, not only steers clear from the ‘savarna-saviour’ criticism but also establishes the milieu, which is vastly different from the one we saw in Article 15.

In fact, the contrast of these two worlds is one of the most interesting things about the remake. Unlike Lalgaoon (the fictional town in Uttar Pradesh), we do not see people identifying others’ caste by their surname. Because, thanks to the social reform movements in Tamil Nadu, even in a village in Pollachi, where the remake is set, caste is absent from people’s names. Yet, it exists everywhere.

A large steel pot of rice is thrown away in a school because it is cooked by a Dalit. The statues of Ambedkar and Periyar are caged because of potential caste riots. Police officers, ignorant of the manual scavenging ban, try to call people from the oppressed caste to clean the overflowing police station sewers. A CBI official does not drink water brought by a constable wearing a green wrist thread. Another police officer calls them ‘ adhunga’ instead of ‘ avanga’, stripping them of their humanity. An upper caste influential contractor sexually abuses and murders minor Dalit girls just because they asked for a hike of Rs 30. Arunraja shows all ranges of caste violence: from the subtle to the extreme. 

Nenjuku Needhi

Director: Arunraja Kamaraj

Cast: Udhayanidhi Stalin, Tanya Ravichandran, Suresh Chakravarthi, Ilavarasu, Aari, and more

Runtime: 2 hours 18 min

As the upright Vijayraghavan, Udhayanidhi (who is also a politician now), delivers several progressive and politically relevant messages without being cloyingly preachy; they mostly fit in with the story. 

His characterisation, however, is a little confusing.

Despite the saviour complex criticism, the protagonist’s arc was engaging in Article 15, because he was not an omnipotent alpha male who could eradicate the social evils of the place without breaking a sweat. He, a foreign-educated, upper-class, upper-caste, Nehru-reading guy, was projected as an alien to the big bad world of Lalgaoon. He even calls it the “wild wild west.” He looks different from them, too. His own wife calls him a foreigner. He, does, of course get to be the hero at the end of the day, but only after stumbling and screaming and getting a lot of help. Through each passing day of his stay in that hinterland, he realises there is an India that he did not even discover by reading Discovery of India. In a way, the protagonist in the Hindi oriignal was a reflection of its target audience: people who are largely ignorant of the caste issues in the country. By travelling with Ayan, they too faced the uncomfortable truth about their country they say they are proud of in the National Pledge. 

But this sense of the protagonist being a foreigner is not clearly defined in the Tamil version. For instance, we see Udhayanidhi carrying a book on Periyar. But he seems inconsistently surprised at some customary casteist practices. He is also more cock-sure and more emotionally stable than his Hindi counterpart, who needed validation from his partner. Vijayraghavan is definitely a more conventional hero than Ajay Ranjan was.

Another issue with Nenjuku Needhi is that we do not immerse ourselves into its world like we did in Article 15. The latter had much better visuals and background score. Ewan Mulligan’s camerawork captured a mist-laden, perennially-dusty town like a series of paintings to evoke an unsettling feeling. Anurag Saikia and Gingger Shankar’s menacingly-sombre background supplemented the visuals superbly. The combination of the two made us feel like we were in a horror film. The narration gripped you, almost literally.

However, the filmmaking in Nenjuku Needhi is merely functional. During the interval block in Article 15, the hero, simultaneously inspired and incensed by the practice of discrimination within his own department, proceeds to pin the titular Article 15 of the Indian constitution on his office’s notice board. As he does this, we hear the verses of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Vande Maataram in the background. If you are empathising with Ayan, the moment appears rousing. But from a bird’s eye point of view, the poem that sings the glories of the land serves as an excellent counterpoint to what is going on at Laalgaon. The Tamil version replaces Vande Maataram with a generic percussion-heavy score. These touches are what we miss in the remake.

Nenjuku Needhi is currently running in theatres



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