There is a scene in Sarvam Thaala Mayam where Peter Johnson (GV Prakash Kumar) goes to Vembu Iyer’s (Nedumudi Venu) house wishing to join his mridangam classes. Iyer’s assistant Mani (Vineeth) insults Peter and closes the gate on him. A confused Peter stays there and plays music with children from the neighbourhood. Iyer hears the music, is impressed and comes out to meet Peter.
An excited Peter says, “Saar, neenga sangeetha superstar sir. Naan ungalukku periya cut-out vekkaren sir” (You are a musical superstar sir, I will erect a cut-out of you near where you’re playing the next time).
Iyer is amused, even empathetic, but refuses to take Peter seriously. At the end of the film, I felt exactly that.
Sarvam Thaala Mayam is the story of Peter, a carefree youngster who spends his time playing drums, being a fan of actor Vijay and organising blood donation camps on the latter’s birthday. Kumar is impressive as Peter. For most of the film, his emotions are neutral and his acting restrained.
When we meet Peter and his family, we see a hardworking father, a worrying mother and a youngster who refuses to take life seriously. Their dreams are small—a first class degree for Peter, a government job and a life out of poverty. Rajiv Menon does a reasonable job of not making this poverty porn. He treats Peter’s life and family with respect and remains non-judgmental about their prerogative.
So much so that Peter seems to be oblivious to caste-based oppression he faces nearly everyday. When Mani tells him “You’ll have a quota in a government music college. Go there,” Peter nonchalantly responds that he doesn’t need his advice. When he gets his tea poured in a plastic cup, he protests, “naan enna kozhandhaiya, plastic cup-la kudukkaraan” (am I a child that he’s serving tea in a plastic cup). Peter’s father then explains untouchability to him, which is perhaps Menon explaining it to the audience.
The impact of oppression only hits Peter when he begins to dream of breaking down the doors of casteism that are protecting Carnatic music. Even here, Peter—and the film—doesn’t present it as systemic oppression based on his caste. Not that the film doesn’t mention oppression—like the scene where Peter’s father says, “when a cow dies, they’ll call us to pick up the carcasses”. Peter’s father gets some of the best lines about living lives under the cloud of caste-based oppression. Yet, at each point, reconciliation of the scene comes in the form of submissive acceptance rather than outrage.
In that sense, the film seems to imply that if one is oppressed, they need to keep their heads down and keep doing their work until they become no. 1 (or no. 2, if their guru is no. 1) and then the world will forget their caste. It is this approach that makes everything come to Peter rather easy. He never falls too deep, is never hurt beyond repair, all is never lost, so there is no reason to agitate.
In fact, Peter never loses himself either, so he never discovers himself. His travels—one to his village to meet the realities of his people, and other around the country to find his guru among the world—reveal as little to us about Peter as they do to himself. The title song, which is a montage of his country-wide travels, almost feels like a national integration anthem.
At one point I wondered if the film was about Peter at all. There is a parallel track that presents Iyer as a man burdened by traditions needing to be released into the modern world. This traditionalism vs. modernity debate seems to veer around spontaneity in music, boundaries of invention, being on Twitter etc. more than liberal-progressiveness and inclusion.
There is also the track with Mani, who can’t make up his mind if he wants revenge from Iyer or Peter or both. Throughout the film, Mani is the only distinctly oppressive voice — he stands for the casteism in Carnatic music that Peter dreams of breaking. Yet, Mani is shown as a bitter failure jealous of Peter’s talents rather than as a bigot who would deny Peter his rightful place. In the end, he also easily comes around.
As a novel, Sarvam Thaala Mayam might have just been good. The ideas are there. But as a film, Sarvam Thaala Mayam fails to evoke any emotion. For instance, after a night of spontaneous sex, Sarah tells Peter that she finds him distant, as if he’s not completely with her. This is a sensitive observation. It makes sense, but it doesn’t tug at one’s heart. The film is full of moments like these—ones that are almost-but-not-yet that don’t find their emotional landing.
Sarvam Thaala Mayam is, in fact, not a story of hope against all odds. It is one of faith in the innate goodness of people, democracy of capitalism and paramountcy of talent. In that, it feels too easy, unreal and falls just short of striking a chord.