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Mammootty's 'Bramayugam' Lays Bare That Oppression is a Wheel That Keeps Turning

Those in power require constant reassurance that they are indeed the most powerful, writes Arya Suresh.

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South Cinema
7 min read
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(This piece has spoilers.)

Bramayugam is a Malayalam fantasy-horror movie set in 17th century Kerala. Directed by the talented Rahul Sadasivan, it feels as though it is taken right out of author Kottarathil Sankunni’s AithihymalaGarland of Legends.

Though the film is completely shot in monochrome, it dares to explore the gamut of darker colours that run riot in our subconscious mind.

Mammootty portrays the lead character Kodumon Potti (the original name changed by order of the Hon’ble High Court of Kerala, paying obeisance to the zeitgeist of our own age of madness and hurt sentiments). Arjun Ashokan plays Thevan, a Paanan (court singer), and Sidharth Bharathan as the cook in Potti’s mana (house).

With technically brilliant visuals and an exceptional soundtrack, the movie manages to enthrall the audience with its eerie atmosphere and a sense of foreboding at every turn.

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Oppressive Systems Never Break, Merely Change

What strikes you immediately is the strong depiction of the power dynamics. The once-oppressed turn into oppressors, cyclically, till a new power comes forth that displaces the hierarchy once more. Historically, there has been a plethora of instances where the oppressed lost their chains only to form a new chain of oppression when they subjugated those with lesser power, in turn.

But, quite frankly, these chains are seldom newly formed. They merely transform.

I came across comparisons of Israel committing genocide on the Palestinians now, often cited as an example of the oppressed becoming the oppressors. This palimpsest of history has always existed, a new history painted afresh, only to be painted over again later. Power tends to subjugate those without it.

In Bramayugam, Sadasivan brings forth a wide range of instances of overt and invisible oppression. Ultimately, where does the real power lie? Is it in the eternal flame that gives the chathan (demon) his strength? Is it in the Brahminical status of Potti? Is it in the wiles of the stoic cook who hides the fact that he is the illegitimate child of the master? Or is it the docile surrender of Thevan to the superior Brahmin?

Could the symbolic ring that is used to control the chathan be the source of power to oppress? If so, is the enslaved chathan the oppressed? The ambiguity here is breathtaking.

Even as we prefer to see things in black and white (quite literally), we nervously spy on the grey aspects that make us rethink our premises and notions throughout this movie.

Is it the caste that makes one the oppressor or the oppressed? Is it the outlook or philosophy of the individuals? Or is it destiny? We grapple with these questions as we watch on.
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When the Powerful Sees Themselves as Gods

The movie begins with the seemingly cordial Potti educating the meek Thevan on who a real Brahmin is – using a prominent dialogue that it is actions alone, and not birth, which makes one a Brahmin. Towards the end, it becomes clear that while both actions and caste are sufficient to be an oppressor, it is the raw power that wields a greater authority to oppress.

The cook fights for the ring of power to exert his right as the surviving, albeit illegitimate, heir. He wishes to not just break free from bondage but also claims rightful ownership of the mana and continue the pattern by enslaving the chathan.

Ostensibly, Potti doesn’t believe in caste restrictions. Thevan thinks it’s because Potti is enlightened, but in reality, it is the chathan who doesn’t really follow caste guidelines. We discover, however, that it is because it sees itself as superior to humans.

We are startled to hear Potti chant a Sanskrit shloka to welcome the fearful Thevan to his abode, avowing that every guest is honoured regardless of birth. This erudition gives us pause much later when we realise that it was actually the chathan who quoted the shloka in the form of Potti. We are fascinated with the idea that the spirit retains the erudition of the body that it occupies. What knowledge must that chathan possess, having inhabited so many other bodies in the past! We are impressed with the anachronistically modern views of Potti.

In those days, the oppressed castes weren’t allowed to hear the “language of the gods”. The punishment would have been hot lead poured in the offending ears of the low-born who heard the shlokas.

Potti is magnanimous as the host. He appreciates Thevan’s song and feeds him lavishly. But he snaps ominously when Thevan praises god for his good fortune and demands that Thevan thank his benevolence instead.

The powerful always equate themselves to gods. Those in power require constant reassurance that they are indeed the most powerful, the true messiahs.
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One is reminded of a certain temple inauguration recently that informed us how powerful megalomaniacs thrive on the attention bestowed upon them when posed next to or akin to gods.

Those who wish to keep you beneath them will first make you sit with them like an equal, creating an illusion of egalitarianism. They use that feeling in you to establish themselves as the bigger person to whom you owe a debt of gratitude for being treated “undeservingly” as equals. They will then keep you subjugated because you humbly assume you do not deserve the honour.

Every election cycle we see just how humble our politicians are – eating at the homes of the poor, touching their feet, and other displays of such false humility and equality. But once in power, this sham is forgotten.

Minorities often appease the majority, thinking that this would ensure their protection. But they get treated the same as before, if not worse. Just as Thevan fervently defends his new master in earnest, we slavishly defend our political masters and leaders. This willful blindness to the faults of the leader, this forced ignorance of our status, allows our people to be suppressed or oppressed. Our own state neither improves nor does the oppression cease. But the fealty never pauses, nor transforms, even when presented with an opportunity to overturn the system.

Oppression is a malign disease within the system. It always finds a way to adorn new clothes and rebuild the boundaries of the class system, just like the chathan spirit abandons one physical body for another.

Like the Egyptian sun god Ra’s battle with chaos every day, people are constantly fighting against systemic oppression. Even at the end of the movie we find to our dismay, the cycle persists. A new power struggle looms as the Portuguese enter the land in the final scene – a stark reminder that there is always a greater power that may come along to overthrow the older ones.

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A Song for the Oppressors

The first song that Thevan sings, when Potti asks him to, is titled “poomani maalika” – a song that praises the Thampuran (King), his mansion, and the power that comes with it. This is in praise of the superior power of a ruler, and he sings it with a smile despite the hardships he has faced while being subservient. The oppressed hope the powerful shall always protect them.

Here, Thevan praises power, the seat that brings power. There is a line that speaks of the loss of power, yet the seat or birth makes the Thampuran the protector. Thevan is all praises and smiles, hoping for a meal as a reward.

On the same night, before he is given a meal, he sings another song titled “thambaye”. Here, Thambayi is a superior power being praised. This could be interpreted as either god or king, bestowed with life-sustaining powers. This is almost a prayer which shows how Thevan’s subservience and his reliance on the generosity of Potti to survive another day.

During Potti’s conversation regarding his music, Thevan humbly contradicts Potti by saying that he has little understanding of the sanctity of music as he is not a sacred-thread-wearing Brahmin. The reluctance of the oppressed class themselves to accept any comparison with the upper class is seen here. Years of oppression often tame one’s mind to accept the inferior status and wholeheartedly praise the ones in power without any thoughts of rebelling.

The prevalent caste connotations in music can be observed in an earlier scene where the cook is criticised by Potti for commenting on music, averring that the right to do so is reserved only for those who belong to the upper class. This is not an assertion of class alone, but a cruel reminder of the subjugation of the slave who is shown his true place.

The next time Thevan sings is when he has hatched a plan with the cook to break free. The song titled “Adithyan illathe” is a cry for help that portrays the sorrow of bondage and the lack of freedom. Here, Potti can be seen smiling confidently with the knowledge that he has managed to completely break Thevan. Thevan, who had earlier happily accepted his lack of freedom within the system, noticed his chains only when he was visibly restrained and tortured by Potti. It is then that Thevan’s attitude on appeasement of power changes. 

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As I write these words, it occurs to me just how glibly easy it was for me to make these apparent connections. The eye of the beholder interprets these moving images and situations according to past influences, biases, and views.

Art, as a medium, is perhaps inseparable from society or politics. But it is subjective and always open to interpretations of every kind. The beauty of a poem or an abstract painting lies in the meaning it bestows upon you, not merely its overt meaning.

But ought there to be a hidden meaning in every form of art to make it great? Does this movie bring out these questions of class, caste, or power?

Was it what the director intended? One may choose to look at it in any way one wishes to. One should always keep the dialogue moving, despite the differences in views. Keep the doors of perception open!

(Arya Suresh is an advocate practising in Delhi. She tweets at @RantingDosa. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Malayalam Cinema   Mammootty   South Cinema 

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