Trees are important characters in Merku Thodarchi Malai.
Firstly, they are used as benchmarks in the vast landscape to express the mountain people identities, to hang their flags. Thus, Rangu hangs his “kayli” at the branch of a lonely tree to proudly show his son that this land belongs to them, the whiteness of the “kayli” being as pure as Rangu’s personality. In another frame, the red flag of the communist party is hanged to the highest tree as if to remember that the great collective cause of workers in communism is superior to individuals.
Secondly, trees seem to be tamed by humans who climb on them, sit on their branches in order to take their fruits, and of course, sometimes fall from them when they are too daring like Kethar in a tragic way during a turning point scene. Maybe is there a biblical reference to the tragic use of the tree of knowledge, but I am not sure of that, it would be strange on the part of marxist director Lenin Bharathi to make this religious reference. In fact, I don’t think that this realistic film pretends to be mythological : humans live in trees, with them, as in a serene fusion with their natural environment, this mountain where cardamom plantations flourish before globalization and the race for modernity come to annihilate this peaceful existence. That’s why Lenin Bharathi’s aesthetic choice and framing are very meaningful : indeed, the film is essentially made with long shots rather than close-ups on characters as if the director wanted to show us how humans are incorporated in the mountainous nature.
Finally, trees are depicted as divinities because that’s also what they are in the mountain people’s point of view. “Saathaa” is the divinity for the one who climbs in the mountain, explains Rangu in the beginning of the film. Later, Vanakaali, the old worker has a edgy conversation with this same divinity at the foot of a tree, as he fell to the ground, exhausted and sick to the death. Humans of “Merku Thodarchi Malai” not only live in the mountain : just like trees around them, they are rooted in their environment and they give a deeper meaning to their relationship to nature.
Watching this film, I remembered that this intimacy with nature is well described by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss as the structure of existence in many communities. That’s the beauty of the humans of Merku Thodarchi Malai, that’s why no one is a “thani maram” (a lonely tree) in this mountain community and that’s the magnificence of this film.