Harshad, a Malayalam scriptwriter, is best known for his two feature films Unda (2019) and Puzhu (2022). Puzhu (meaning worm) a 2022 Malayalam flick released last month, was jointly written by Harshad, Sharfu, and Suhas and directed by debutante Ratheena, with actor legend Mammootty as Kuttan, Parvathy Thiruvothu as Bharathi, Appunni Sasi as Kuttappan aka KP and Vasudev Sajeesh as Kichu in the lead roles. The movie is a powerful anti-caste declaration against caste Hindu hegemony maintained in Indian society, even within the film industry that typically caters to the Savarna gaze.
Maktoob’s Aslah Kayyalakkath speaks to Harshad.
What inspired you to write this story?
The same question is posed to Kuttappan (Appunni Sasi) in the film Puzhu – ‘What made you write the play?’. My answer to that question is the same as Kuttappan’s. “I live in India, and that is my inspiration.”
Caste is the main topic of discussion in the film. Though not labelled or portrayed explicitly as caste, caste has always been a presence in Malayalam cinema. Did you have in mind discussions on how Puzhu should present caste differently from such films?
Movies that talk about caste normally tell the story from the side of what we call the lower caste. That is the only way to put it. Puzhu is an attempt at portraying the other side. I have never seen a film that has tried to describe caste from this viewpoint. That was risky to put on paper. That is to say, it is not just the Savarnas who carry caste consciousness – it is a system in itself. Thus, the story is being told through a man in a position of power who is conscious of caste. The film delves into his life and examines how he practices caste in his daily life.
As such, the story unfolds in settings all of us are familiar with. The only characters in the film are props that emphasize and portray his character and conflicts. As a screenwriter, there were a lot of challenges to writing this. Particularly because this character cannot be portrayed as a ‘black and white’ villain – he must be portrayed as an ordinary man we know, living among us within our community. The audience should move with and through his emotions. The audience should think, ‘Isn’t this me?’ But they shouldn’t take his side either. This risk increases when the role is played by a superstar. I started writing the story knowing that Mammootty would be doing this role. This is why the other characters have a reduced screen space. Because we’re just telling his story – the story of every Malayali who lives and acts with a sense of caste.
There were criticisms that when this character is played by an actor like Mammootty when he tries to convey his feelings to the audience, the character might cease to be a villain in the eyes of the audience, and leave them with the impression of caste being a lesser problem.
I did that consciously. Many of my closest friends saw the movie and said that they felt like taking his side. I really enjoyed that response. Because we showed quite clearly all the aggressions of the character. The film accurately shows how he kills two people and destroys many lives before inciting another to commit suicide. If you feel sorry for a man who did all this, it just goes to show that something is wrong with you. I have consciously tried to make the audience feel that conundrum.
What I’m trying to say is, Mammootty’s emotional acting moments have been celebrated by Malayalis since time immemorial. We love to see Mammootty crying, we stand with that feeling, and we cry with him. The film has quite a few moments like that, stacked full of emotion. When writing the story, I had an idea that at least a few people should cry when they see this. That had to happen, in order to pull the audience into the story and make them feel a part of it.
Do you think the film portrays caste as a purely personal issue?
Even while being open to such criticism, I feel that this story can only be shown through the lives of human beings. Man is a creature with emotions, and it is through those emotions that this story can be told. This story cannot be told through a character with a sword in hand, ready to kill. If the film takes that route, it becomes difficult for the audience to identify with the story, and see themselves on the screen. For example, in Tamil films that speak of caste, the story is mostly set in rural areas. This story too could have been told from a village in Kerala. But that would separate the audience from the reality of the story. That would make it a faraway problem that is happening elsewhere and doesn’t affect them.
This is why Puzhu unravels right in the middle of Kerala, in Ernakulam.
At one point in the film, Mammootty’s character talks about the torture he suffered from his father. He is continuing that same cycle with his son. Can that be read as a window into ‘caste-based parenting’ instead of being seen as simply toxic parenting?
We intended for that to be interpreted within a caste framework. A large percentage of viewers have understood it as such. But there are also those who read it as purely toxic parenting. In its essence, the film tries to convey that caste is the root cause of everything that the character does.
Caste as is it perpetuated within households has not been discussed much in cinema or outside of it. Was moving away from the spaces and settings generally used to discuss caste, and using an upper caste family instead, a deliberate choice?
Yes. The film portrays Mammootty’s character in a very subtle way. He is a symbol of caste consciousness. The moments he shares with his son at home, the way they eat, his reaction when his son describes what happened at school, the fear on his son’s face, and so on have been used specifically to show caste consciousness very carefully.
You can see the delivery boy who brings non-veg food to an apartment building occupied solely by upper-caste families. That means that there are people in there who consume non-veg. So the film also shows such contradictions within the lived reality of caste.
In the movie, Kuttappan (Appunni Sasi) is asked, “Isn’t it because you are in Kerala that you are able to get this award?” For years, Kerala has been presented as a land where casteism and islamophobia are not so rampant as in Northern India. Puzhu very accurately shows that caste is an issue in Kerala.
It is a blatant lie that there is no caste in Kerala. There is a character named CK in the movie. Kuttappan is temporarily relocating to his flat. The character of Nedumudi Venu, the secretary of the flat, says of CK, “He is a man without community values. He’s shortened his name to CK.’ The next time we see this character is in Kuttappan’s flat, where friends are celebrating his latest award. Kuttappan tells CK, who refuses to eat the food he’s cooked, “You’re always like this. You never eat the food I’ve prepared. You must eat today.’ This scene is the answer to your question.
Caste is also discussed in your first film ‘Unda’, which revolves around the Kerala Police. The central character in Puzhu is also a high-ranking official of the Kerala Police. Do you have a particular reason for choosing police stories?
I will keep writing stories featuring the police. Choosing the police to tell this kind of a story is not only to say that caste exists in these spaces, but also that the police are the representatives and instruments of the state. That’s why I use the police to tell this story.
The film shows a Muslim being arrested on a false charge. Since so many Muslim youths have been imprisoned for years like this in Kerala only to be finally released by the court, did you have to deal with questions like ‘does this really happen in Kerala?’, similar to the questions about whether caste is still an issue in Kerala? How do you react to that?
There have been a lot of reactions like that. There are those who say that it is only lies, that this issue is being forcibly sewn into the movie, that it tarnishes the beauty of the film and even some who, in the manner of advice, tell me that that was a little too loud. I have a lot of friends who said that this could have been an internationally acclaimed movie if this one aspect had been avoided.
Do such reactions indicate that discussions on Muslim issues do not get the acceptance that caste discussions get?
Kerala likes to celebrate caste. For example, the film Unda discusses the policemen who went on election duty during the 2014 elections when a fascist regime came to power. But the caste aspect was the part of the movie that received more attention. When Puzhu came out, I saw the reactions like ‘True, I have seen this in a village in Palakkad’. Malayalees like to celebrate caste as something that takes place elsewhere, something not here.
But when it comes to the question of Muslims, they are considered people who deserve what they are getting in some way. People are always convinced that there must be something to incriminate Muslims.
Why did you decide to include Aamir as a character in the film?
Amir is a victim of these sentiments and convictions. Why do so many people here think ‘he should be lying there’ when an innocent man is captured and imprisoned? Why don’t those who celebrate the release of Perarivalan talk about Zakariya? Because it is ‘Zakariya.’ (Zakariya, is a Malayalee Muslim youth who was arrested under draconian UAPA 11 years ago.) Because of the inner feeling that since it is ‘Zakariya’, there must be some truth to the allegations. Where does that feeling come from?
The film shows the consciousness that manufactures this thought process.
Recent Malayalam movies from Bhishma Parvam to Jana Gana Mana speak of caste. Is this a sign of change? Do you think cinema is doing its duty during a time of genocide?
India has one of the highest censorship rates in the world. This means that we are only showing what they allow us to show. But it’s just that we don’t understand it. The leash may be long, but we’re still being led by the neck. So I do not believe that a one-off revolution is possible through cinema. In fact, we are only carrying out the revolution as allowed by the government. And film is a work of art that a lot of people do together. Everyone has different reasons for working in cinema. It does not change all at once, but I believe that ultimately, there will be a change in human beings.
The interview was originally in Malayalam and was translated into English by Evana.