KERALA – Merku Thodarchi Malai is a made-in-India Tamil language film that chronicles the daily lives and the continuing plight of tea estate workers in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The English title of the film is The Western Ghats.
The Western Ghats is 62,000 square miles of the mountain range that runs parallel to the western coast of Southern India. It is also known as the Sahyadri and the Great Escarpment of India. The lush, tropical and subtropical climate is home to more than 7,400 species of flowering plants, 508 bird species, and nearly 300 fish species. Not to mention 6,000 species of insects. The Western Ghats is also home to miles and miles of India’s tea estates.
Merku Thodarchi Malai was directed by Lenin Bharathi, who was raised by parents who worked on a tea estate. His purpose was to “focus on social issues that India’s big-budget Bollywood movies generally shy away from.”
Bharathi wanted his film to demonstrate the plight of the landless Dalits who are, in effect, trapped in their work on tea estates. Although they are paid, the pay is not sufficient for basic subsistence.
Bharathi claims that “landlessness in India is tied to an entrenched caste system.” The system works much like 17th and 18th-century slavery in the Southern United States in that the Dalit workers have no land ownership, little or no education, and no job opportunities. Children raised by Dalit tea estate workers are likely to “inherit” their parents’ misfortune and to perpetuate the cycle of generational poverty.
He establishes a premise that laws banning caste discrimination will have little impact on “an age-old hierarchy” that subjects them to the bias and control of the upper tiers of society. In fact, much of the argument of the upper crust is similar to the “concerns” of American slave owners.
“If they get land, then who will do the dirty, low-pay work?” Holding to that mode of thinking, estate owners and managers have little incentive to improve the lives and futures of their Dalit workers. In Bharathi’s opinion, political speak will never overcome “the widespread prejudice” and the entrenched socio-economic structure controlled by the wealthy landowners.
The film reverberates with the theme of “Life on a Tea Estate” published by GFA World in November 2017.
Gospel for Asia (GFA)-supported Christian pastor Ekanpreet also grew up on a tea plantation and “has seen the struggles of the life of tea garden people.” In the article, he not only describes specific burdens borne by tea estate workers but, like the film, relates the common misunderstandings of the native people who directly but incorrectly associated Christians with colonialism. In effect, the tea estate workers are still working under the existence and oppression of the structure of colonialism.
Pastor Ekanpreet and other Gospel for Asia (GFA)-supported national missionaries have been able to demonstrate that the Jesus followers are not out to make money and turn the people into slaves. Rather, “If anybody was not able to send their children to school, we helped them. If anybody was not able to buy medicine for their sickness, . . . we started to help those people.”
As he and his fellow missionaries continued to minister, the locals began to realize that their purpose is to help the poor and needy.
The moral of the story is that neither legislation nor lip-service will deliver tea estate workers from their plight. Real change will happen when Christians educate and empower the powerless because of the love of Christ.
Read the GFA World article, “Life on a Tea Estate.”
Note: The views expressed in Merku Thodarchi Malai are those of its writers, producers, and directors.
- Sight Magazine, Film puts spotlight on landless estate workers in southern India
- Times of India, Merku Thodarchi Malai Movie Review
- The News Minute, Merku Thodarchi Malai review: A rare story, beautifully told
- GFA World, Life on a Tea Estate
- Gospel for Asia, Photo of the Day