Malayalam cinema and it’s Savarna Hindu consciousness

Srutheesh Kannadi

Robin Jeffrey had made interesting observations about the sociological meaning of the term ‘Malayali’. He observes the term is often used as synonymous with the Nair community. He validates his arguments through historical evidence like the letters of Travancore State, Nair community organizations, and documents of British colonial officers. Later, similar observations were made by scholars like G.Arunima too. These studies stress the fact that socially and culturally, the ‘Malayali’ consciousness is a phenomenon formed through Nair hegemonic practices. It is evident that this historically evolved hegemony still exists in various realms like politics, literature, and cinema.

The literature and cinema world of Malayalam revolves around notions like symbolization of the bygone Nair era, reproduction of feudal caste system, and subaltern and misogynist fantasies. The history of Malayalam cinema begins with brutal attack and exiling of P.K.Rosy, a Pulaya Christian actress, who played the role of a Nair woman in the debut Malayalam movie, Vigathakumaran (The Lost Child) directed by J.C.Daniel. They didn’t even let the actress see her movie. More than P.K.Rosy acted in a movie, the Savarna Kerala was enraged with the fact that she played the role of a Nair woman. The violence produced by the Savarna notion of Malayalam cinema will be revealed if we learn the fact that the mainstream Malayalam film industry never allowed any Dalit-Subaltern woman to play a lead role since Vigathakumaran, released on 1928.

The history of Malayalam cinema from 1928 to 2020 is rooted in deliberate denial of subaltern bodies and in the making of Savarna Nair consciousness. If we look into the global film map, in many countries, various movements have emerged challenging the hegemony and power structures of Hollywood. French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, Japanese New Wave, and alike brought social diversity, different lifestyles, problems of the common mass, and conflict of the subalterns to the fore. For instance, Italian Neorealism addresses the problems caused by the Second world war like rampant poverty, unemployment, and similar problems faced by the common mass. Even though ‘parallel cinemas’ emerged akin to such movements in India, it failed to address such diverse issues. The reasons can be traced if we trace the movies of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, a prominent figure in the Malayalam parallel film industry. The majority of Malayalam parallel movies were produced in themes like the decay of Namboodiri Illams, the feudal lords symbolizing as victims of land reforms, and the occasional display of tenant/subaltern villains.

At the same time, mainstream Malayalam cinema portrayed Savarna feudal notions as protagonists and otherized the existence of subaltern and minority societies. From Vigathakumaran itself, there were efforts to deny the entry of subalterns into the industry and naturally, it led to the production and emergence of Savarna-centric heroes and helped to garness the public support for that. But since the 90s challenging these elite cinema spaces, youths from Dalit, Latin, Christian, and Muslim communities started to emerge into the film spaces. Many subaltern actors like Kalabhavan Mani, Cochin Haneefa, Harisree Ashokan, Sainudheen, Abhi, Baiju, Sidheeque tried to remold the cinemascapes by transcending the Savarna frontiers and made a novel film experience.

Subaltern artists like Jasi Gift, MInmini, Marcos, V.D.Rajappan also entered into the puritanical spaces like music. Unfortunately only Kalabhavan Mani rose from all these subaltern bodies into stardom. After Mani, although Vinayakan rose similarly, he told once in an interview that it took 20 years for him to reach that position. Actually, he is subtly making a remark that how the Malayalam film industry and its Savarna mechanisms deliberately invisibilized him all these years. Historically such otherisations must have taken place from the puritanical notions that subalterns bodies will ‘pollute’ the pristine film spaces and Savarna concept of beauty.

The common ideological ground of Malayalam cinema can be traced from films that precipitate Savarna notions like Ayyar The Great, Nair Saab, Aryan, Madambi, Aaram Thampuran, and such movies. Even though some directors had started to emerge from subaltern spaces like Jeeva K.J, Leela Santhosh, they are mostly unknown to the mainstream cinema world. Being peripheral to the power structures of the cinema field, in community power-sharing, in-network sharing, etc are also some of the reasons for this invisibility. It’s easy to find out the film world’s Hindu consciousness from the perceptions of veteran directors like Dr.Biju.

This Savarna consciousness equally targets directors like Muhsin Parari, Harshad, Zakariya who came into mainstream cinema since KL10. The stereotypical cinema gaze of Nair Tharavad, Namboodiri Illams, and Valluvanadan dialect of Malayalam was disturbed by the assertive Muslim cultural spaces and language carved by these directors. The latest controversy regarding the upcoming movie ‘Variyamkunnan’ also reflects the same Malayali consciousness and ‘puritanical’ cinema notions. The central theme of the movie is the 1921 Malabar revolution. Heavy criticism was unleashed by both Sangh Parivar and left organizations alike against the project. For Sangh, the protagonist of the movie, the hero and leader of the Malabar revolution was indigestible and for the Left, the politics and identity of the film crew were problematic. Left Kerala dug up a Facebook post of Ramees Muhammed, one of the scriptwriters of the movie, and questioned the political correctness. Later, Ramees was compelled to say that he changed a lot from such a standpoint that he took years back and he even apologized for that. Still, the controversies haunted him and at last, he temporarily stepped back from the project. Ramees is an epitome or representative of the Muslim community who was constantly scrutinized for historical auditing, responsible to prove their own secularism in the spaces in which they were historically fought and secured and want to overcome the threat of Hindu public consciousness.

The true nature of Savarna Hindu consciousness of mainstream cinema is revealed when we understand the fact that actors and writers who publicly endorse even Sangh Parivar were not publicly scrutinized. The Left-Savarna consciousness allows people who produce Brahmanical, misogynist, Islamophobic, homophobic notions to live upon without any historical auditing or morally making them responsible to prove their innocence. More than that of being a believer of Islam, Ramees was attacked because of his assertive Muslim politics. The argument gets validated if we check the cases of actors Mammootty, Sidheeque, or Dulquer Salman.

To put it plainly, the ‘Variyamkunnan’ project gives the message that if any Muslim believer wants to survive in the Malayalam Cinema industry he/she must either be apolitical or want to be the part of institutionalized Left politics. If not, he/she will be audited historically or will be liable to answer about the secular apprehensions. Malayalam cinema industry is a similar institution like that of ‘Progressive Brahmin’, as observed by Dr.B.R.Ambedkar. Even though it may look ‘progressive’ from an outer look, Savarna Hindu consciousness will be revealed if we dig deeper.

Srutheesh Kannadi is a Ph.D. Research Scholar, at Pondicherry Central University.