Caste In Malayalam Cinema: Stars and the Glorification of Savarnas
A look at how caste dynamics plays out in Malayalam cinema.
In the early twentieth century, before the establishment of any semblance of a ‘film industry’ in India there existed film societies, and these were unsurprisingly dominated by savarna cinephiles and filmmakers. This was because only those with a rather comfortable inheritance could afford to invest in something so new and so far away from being capitalised effectively. In the beginning, it wasn’t about world-class storytelling, but rather about imbibing the art into society.
As time went by, film societies expanded into film industries and then started an era of commercial filmmaking. Most of these industries still had families who dominated the sphere, but with time, the space opened up for anybody with talent and will, or the money and family.
The birth of the Malayalam film industry was in 1928, from the ashes of the casteist inferno that engulfed the Capitol theatre in Trivandrum during the screening of JC Daniel’s Vigathakumaran, the first Malayalam film.
Malayalam cinema’s first ever heroine, a Dalit Christian named PK Rosy, ran for her life from the mob that repeatedly tried to attack her, for playing the part of an upper caste Nair lady named Sarojini, in the film. Stones were pelted in the theatre, her house was burnt down - and she vanished into the fog of casteist ignorance that stood in the way of art.
It was a great act of revolution for the poor Dalit girl Rosy to act as a savarna Hindu woman in the socio-political environment of the 1920s. It was certainly not the time to separate the art from the artist. But, even after Malayalam cinema and Kerala reached a level of egalitarianism, caste still played a factor – be it on screen or off it.
A Mirror that Reflects on the Silver Screen
The Malayalam film industry has had many artists from lower caste backgrounds and still does. But, things were not all that smooth for these artists. Veteran actor Thilakan had openly spoken against a “Nair lobby” that dominated the industry which claims to have been a barrier to artists who hail from lower caste backgrounds.
In an incident narrated by Thilakan himself - in 1955, the actor wrote to All India Radio (AIR) under his name K Surendernath Thilak, expressing his desire to act in radio dramas that used to be broadcast back then. He got called for the audition, but later received a letter that said his voice wasn’t suitable for broadcasting.
This came as a shock to him as many people had told him that his voice is amazing. Thilakan’s friends suggested that he write to AIR again under an upper caste surname, Nair. A year later he wrote again under the name Surendran Nair. He auditioned again, and got selected. His voice didn't change, but the surname did. This is how he understood what caste is capable of. He felt that if he was born upper caste, he would have reached better heights.
Thilakan alleged that the Nair lobby conspired to keep him out of roles. In spite of the allegations, Thilakan was successful in making his mark in Malayalam cinema and even went on to portray upper caste characters in his movies.
The late Kalabhavan Mani, on the other hand, had tried and failed to make a hero image for himself among the Malayali film audience. Even though he was an excellent artist and was much loved by viewers, he couldn’t reach his full potential and elevate himself to the platform that stars like Mohanlal and Mammootty enjoy.
A hearsay account of Divya Unni, an actress, rejecting a role opposite Mani allegedly because of his skin colour, is quite well-known.
But, apparently the issue was much deeper than just the colour of Mani’s skin since the Unni had acted opposite other dark-skinned male actors. One version of the incident suggests that the issue could have been about Kalabhavan Mani’s Dalit identity.
Even if one is tempted to dismiss this as an unfounded rumour, we cannot deny the fact that caste prejudice has always been rampant in Malayalam cinema.
Even Rajya Sabha MP and actor Suresh Gopi recently admitted that there is discrimination on the basis of caste in Malayalam cinema. He affirmed that artists belonging to the Dalit community or backward classes are treated differently.
Nedumudi Venu, a veteran Malayalam actor, had once commented on the allegations of the existence of a ‘Nair lobby’ by dismissing them as inaccurate and he went on back it with Mammootty’s stardom as an example. For those who don’t know, Mammootty’s real name is Muhammad Kutty Panaparambil Ismail, and Venu’s point was that a non-Nair Mammootty would not be a big star if an influential Nair lobby did exist. While it is true that there Mammootty is a superstar and actors like Thilakan are also celebrated, but one cannot easily dismiss the claim as Nedumudi did by paralleling viewership majoritarianism with caste supremacy. Going by the numbers, the population of lower caste Keralites is higher than the number of savarnas in Kerala.
In Major Ravi’s, 1971: Beyond Borders (2017), Mohanlal heroically tells a temple administrator who restricts his Muslim friend from entering a temple, “It’s just been a short while since you and your clan were allowed to enter temples.” What should have just been about secularism was fully disrupted with a reminder of systematic oppression of caste and its existence still, in a way implying that Bahujans who were earlier not allowed to enter temples, have no right to make decisions on it. This kind of casteism that they proudly wave on screen is a reminder of its existence behind the screen.
Heroes and the Glorification of Caste
The notion of an upper caste superhero has been imbibed into the minds of film viewers in Kerala to an extent that they have accepted it as the truth and filmmakers make no effort to change that narrative. A plethora of Malayalam films have an upper caste hero.
Even in stories where the plot isn’t in any way relevant to the caste of the character, the hero is given an upper caste identity. Secular stories always go to Nairs, and other castes are summoned only when it seems relevant to the plot, which is quite rare.
In Rasathanthram (2006), Mohanlal’s character is that of a carpenter (aashari). Since the caste as profession narrative is usually enforced in cinema, one thought this was a refreshing change. But, the audience is quickly corrected by Mohanlal when he clarifies that his profession isn’t his traditional family occupation, but just a skill he acquired in jail. Thus reinforcing that his character is of ‘superior birth’ than what his profession usually calls for. Similarly, in Azhakiya Ravanan (1996) Mammootty’s character is shown as an ex-servant of a tharavad (ancestral home of land-owners). In order to establish Mammootty’s caste identity, his secretary Cochin Haneefa tells Innocent, an NSS Karayogam president, that he belongs to the same caste as him.
Even in films where the caste of the character defines the plot, the upper caste glorification comes with the added element of belittling those from lower castes. In the film Dhruvam (1993), when Mammootty belts out a dialogue that glorifies his Kshatriya caste identity, he also slams other varnas as weak. In Devasuram (1993), Mohanlal finds out that his father is not the Menon who gave him his name, but is someone else and feels distraught. He is then consoled by his mother’s servant, who says that even though his father isn’t a Menon, he is still of a ‘superior royal birth’.
In the 2016’s Maheshinte Prathikaram, Soubin Shahir's character, Crispin, makes a comment that is intended to be humorous, but on close examination, it’s nothing short of a social commentary.
He says that he’s a fan of Lalettan (Mohanlal) over Mammootty, because Mammootty does roles of heroes belonging to different social backgrounds, but Mohanlal only plays Varma, Nair and Menon characters.
This is true in a very legitimate sense. Mohanlal is known for his heroic aristocratic roles, be it as a Nair or Nasrani. Even if he had portrayed lower caste or lower class characters earlier in his career, he is known more for his upper caste roles as the classic superstar material. This mildly applies to roles by Mammootty as well, but as Crispin observes, he’s equally known for his other roles as well.
Caste for a Song
In some cases, rather than spelling out the caste of the hero, the makers try to put in sly references that merely imply his caste. This is usually in the form of music, especially classical music. Carnatic music vocalist TM Krishna had said that “Carnatic music is a Brahmin-dominated world.” This was backed in the film Rock n’ Roll (2007) in which a talented yet unsuccessful Christian musician says, “A non-Hindu can never be successful in the field of music in Chennai”.
Music is often placed in such a manner that the hero proves his caste or superior birth by singing. In the film Chithram (1988), the rendition of the Carnatic song Nagumo... by the hero makes the heroine (who is of royal birth) like him although she was completely indifferent and even disliked him till then. The hero, played again by Mohanal, appears till then as a man who is desperate for money and is hired to act as her husband. Hence, the ambiguity regarding his caste could even be one of the reasons for the heroine’s aversion.
In Sallapam (1996), Dileep is derided for being an aashari (carpenter) by some upper caste characters. He then sings carnatic music and they have a newfound respect for him. It is as though he needs to compensate his caste background with carnatic music to gain respect.
Similarly, in movies like Aaraam Thampuran (1997) and His Highness Abdullah (1990), the hero sings to be adored and clear any doubts about his birth. Music is shown as the field of expertise of a Brahmin in most Malayalam films, it’s an art that other characters are completely ignorant of.
Excuse Me Stars, Your Caste Is Showing
It won’t be an exaggeration to say that lower caste characters are wholly underrepresented in Malayalam cinema. Ezhavas form around 18% of the population, but the 12% of Nairs get more representation than them. The former’s characters are reduced to the role of sidekicks, or secondary characters like thieves or villains or workers. An example would be the star studded grand production venture of AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artists), Twenty:20 (2008), in which every leading character was given an upper caste identity and the other lesser roles were, well, casteless.
Director Lal Jose, in two of his popular films, gave the lead actor an upper caste identity in order to compensate for his low stature as a thief. In Vikramadityan (2014), Dulquer’s father, played by Santhosh Keezhattoor, is portrayed as a sly thief who lies, but the character is given an upper caste Menon identity. This might because the girl he loves is a Shenoy, who are Gouda Saraswat Brahmins.
In Meesha Madhavan (2002), it is used to distinguish Dileep’s character Madhavan Nair from Mullani Pappan played by Mala, who is a casteless normal, uncouth thief; whereas Madhavan Nair is a prestigious Nair thief, who is loved by all.
Even if the lack of lower caste representation can be set aside, there is still the larger issue of upper caste glorification and the use of offensive casteist slurs which clearly shows the prejudice in the industry.
The impoverishment of characters living in an illam (house of Namboodiri), tharavad (ancestral home of land-owners) or kottaram (palace) is also a popular storyline in most mainstream Malayalam films. This is one of the many ways in which the anti-reservation propaganda is spread, by blaming upper caste poverty on reservations. Aryan (1988) by Priyadarshan and Mayookham (2005) directed by Hariharan are examples of this.
Casteist abuses and slurs are normalised along with vilification of the lower castes. Words like “chhetta” (modest dwelling of the poor), “pulayadi mone” (son of pulaya), are thrown around as cuss words and an entire generation, if not more, of Malayalam cinema, actively propagated this elitist casteism.
One of Kerala’s most popular and successful filmmakers, Priyadarshan, is known for the glorification of Nairs in films. In the film Chandralekha (1991), Mohanlal’s character says a dialogue asserting his Nair identity to make a statement that he wouldn’t watch a nurse change a woman’s clothes, as though it is a caste quality. Innocent’s character goes on to affirm this and says “so, he’s not from a poisonous caste”, after knowing that he’s a Nair. In another Priyadarshan film, Kakkakuyil (2001), Nedumudi Venu who is still skeptical about his grandson dating a woman studying in Cambridge, sighs in relief and joy after coming to know that she’s a Menon. Similarly, in Kilukkam (1991) and Thenmavin Kombath (1994) there are such instances of establishing superiority through caste.
If the Hindu caste glorification wasn’t enough, films like Pathinettam Padi (2019) flaunts the converted Namboodiri Christian heritage. Even for a character to be a Christian, they find it important to establish that he’s a Christian of superior birth. And obviously, Malayalam cinema can only think of Syrian Christians as heroes. Films like Ea.Ma.You (2018) and Kumbalangi Nights (2019) have breached that mould, where Christians of lower caste or class are featured as heroes.
The Predictable Narrative
Renowned Malayalam writer MT Vasudevan Nair largely wrote about the decline of Nair dominance and stories on their lives. Though this can be easily attributed to the fact that it’s the stories they see that they eventually tell, this ended up becoming a trend in narratives. Non-savarna directors and writers like AK Lohithadas and Sreenivasan have also participated in this savarna adoration and Nair storytelling trend. Even if the representation part is ignored, the excessive glorification and stereotyping of castes cannot be overlooked.
In the recent times, Vineeth Sreenivasan had also fallen for the same stereotypical caste glorification. In his movie Thattathin Marayathu (2012), which tells the tale of an inter-faith love affair between a Muslim girl and a Hindu boy, the Nair identity of the boy is frequently brought up. There are subtle references implicating that one should be a bare minimum a Nair to be eligible to love a Muslim. Vineeth wrote Oru Vadakkan Selfie (2015) where two aspiring filmmakers dream aloud of working with Gautham Vasudev Menon, and one of them makes a remark that means GVM being a Menon as well, is a bonus, and totally swallows talent.
A Change for the Better
Lately, in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017), the lead characters are shown to have had an inter-caste marriage. Here Suraj Venjaramoodu plays the role on an Ezhava who marries a Nair woman, played by Nimisha Sajayan.
In Pathemari (2015) as well, the story is that of an Ezhava family and there are only a handful of such representations. There are a lot of stories and narrative plots around inter-religious marriages in Malayalam films, but inter-caste marriages between a savarna and a bahujan, are less in number.
Malayalam cinema is definitely expanding towards the area of political correctness, especially with organisations like WCC (Women in Cinema Collective), working hard to keep a check on the portrayal of patriarchy and misogyny in films. Recent works like Kammatti Paadam (2016) and Ee.Ma.Yau. (2018) that tells stories of marginalised communities and their realities have also been appreciated and acclaimed. This has helped in bringing about a definite change in the way people view films, and in turn, gives out a more accurate socio-political commentary.
Caste still exists in the Indian society, and so it reflects in Malayalam cinema as well. But rather than just ignoring its presence, or playing to stereotypes or glorifying caste dynamics, cinema needs to not just acknowledge its existence and give a true portrayal of it, but also prompt alternate narratives so as to make viewers rethink about caste and its presence. Cinema is a portal to the world that effectively reaches out to the masses. Being true to our times is an essential part of doing justice to the art of filmmaking. Director Khalid Rahman’s Unda (2019) featuring Mammootty gave a near perfect representation of casteism and the plight of the tribals. This kind of representation is what people crave for right now. Superfluous and indecorous elements like casteist slurs and caste supremacy have had their time in the spotlight, now it’s time for reality to show itself on the silver screen.
(Arya Suresh is a final year law student at Government Law College, Ernakulam, Kerala. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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