(This article is not a review. It contains spoilers.)
Malayalam cinema’s engagement with caste over the years has been oppressive to say the least, with its narratives merely glorifying the upper caste's ‘way of life’ and peddling Brahmanical patriarchy. Meanwhile, the lower castes, especially the Dalit and tribal communities, have either been invisibilised and erased, or typecast as villains and ‘comic reliefs’.
“I have travelled from Mangalapurm to Parassala by car. On either side of the road, I have seen palace-like homes and sprawling businesses. But none of them belong to savarnas or namboothiris. They were built by people from the reserved communities using the crores of rupees that they made illegally.”
This ‘mass’ dialogue by actor Suresh Gopi (former BJP MP in the Rajya Sabha) from the movie Mahathma (1996) sums up how mainstream Malayalam cinema has addressed caste for decades. Other notable movies like Dhruvam (1993), Devasuram (1993), Aaram Thampuran (1997), and Narasimham (2000) are cheered to this day for their upper caste heroes, especially from the Nair community, and their unflinching caste pride.
But of late, movies like Pada (2022), Kumbalangi Nights (2019), Ee. Ma. Yau. (2018), Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017), and Kammatti Paadam (2016) have attempted to break the mould in their stories and casting – be it in terms of highlighting the ills of a casteist society or letting stories of Dalit and tribal assertion heard.
In fact, two movies that were released this year – Puzhu, starring Mammootty, Parvathy Thiruvothu, and Appunni Sasi, and Malayankunju (which is now out on Amazon Prime), with Fahadh Faasil in the lead role – address the theme of intercaste marriages. They also have another thing in common – the protagonists are both casteist bigots.
In an industry that has seen upper caste hegemony for decades, it is important to understand the role these casteist anti-heroes – brought to the screen by two superstars – play in the evolution of Malayalam cinema.
A Brahmin Man’s Paranoia in ’Puzhu’
Mammootty’s Kuttan in Puzhu and Fahadh Faasil’s Anikuttan in Malayankunju are defined by a singular event in their lives – their sisters choosing to marry someone outside their castes. While directors Ratheena PT (Puzhu) and Sajimon Prabhakar (Malayankunju) have established this event as being traumatic for the protagonists – with their parents falling ill or dying by suicide as a result of the ‘loss of honour’ associated with intercaste marriages – they pull no punches in demonstrating that their heroes’ casteist bigotry is inherent.
Puzhu’s Kuttan, a Brahmin, lives in a gated apartment in the ‘temple town’ of Tripunithura. A former police officer, he subjects his son Kichu (Vasudev Sajeesh) to a robotic, yet spine-chilling lifestyle, shaped by fear and discipline. Kuttan has cut his sister Bharathi (Parvathy Thiruvothu) from his life, solely because she married Kuttappan, a theatre artist from a lower caste.
However, as Bharathi and Kuttappan move to Kuttan’s apartment complex, he is livid, not only because he must face his estranged sister, but also because outsiders (read a person from the lower caste) are occupying his space. Kuttan, meanwhile, is also paranoid that someone is trying to kill him (perhaps, symbolic of the upper caste anxiety of reserved caste communities ‘taking over their space’).
With Mammootty’s brilliant performance, Kuttan traverses through various degrees of bigotry – of a patriarchal father, a caste Hindu, a paranoid ex-police officer, and a full-fledged caste criminal who murders his sister and brother-in-law in cold blood. It is easier for an audience to hate him than relate to him, of course.
However, as complex and real his character may be, the very complexity of it makes him appear out of his senses – someone who is consumed by hatred and resorts to extreme measures, someone who is apparently not like every other modern, upper caste man in a state like Kerala, where literacy rates are high and “the caste system doesn’t exist.”
But is he really the exception, and not the norm?
In 2018, a 23-year-old Dalit Christian named Kevin was brutally murdered in Kottayam, days after he married Neenu Chacko, a woman from an affluent Christian family. A year later, a Kottayam court found 10 people, including Neenu’s brother, guilty of the crime. More recently, in 2021, a youth named Mithun Krishna was attacked in Thiruvananthapuram by his wife’s brother, as he was opposed to their intercaste marriage. Moreover, the National Crime Records Bureau data from 2020 showed that crimes against SC and ST communities had shot up in Kerala. While the incidence of caste killings in Kerala is considerably low compared to other states, the social exclusion of intercaste couples is still rampant here.
Director Ratheena has adeptly weaved this into the storyline of Puzhu through Bharathi and Kuttappan’s struggle to find a house or even get hold of a marriage certificate. Puzhu also highlights how caste functions in urban spaces – say, an apartment complex – where being in the same elevator as a food delivery person makes residents uncomfortable. As Kuttappan tells Bharathi, “Even Dalits becoming IAS officers has not changed people’s mindsets. Do you think you or I could do it?”
Anikuttan’s Angst in ‘Malayankunju’
Fahadh Faasil’s Anikuttan in Malayankunju manifests caste in not-so-subtle ways – he topples a bowl of curry at a local eatery just so he doesn’t have to share it with someone from a lower caste, yells casteist slurs at his Dalit neighbour, and is even visibly irritated by the cries of the neighbour’s newborn.
Anikuttan is angry – and not in the sinister way that Kuttan in Puzhu is – and his anger is closely tied to the trauma of losing his father to suicide after his sister Sandhya (Rajisha Vijayan) eloped with a man outside her caste.
While director Sajimon Prabhakar has convincingly attempted to treat his caste bigotry and trauma as separate things, it appears as though Anikuttan is the only casteist person in the movie (even his dad, before his death, said that it was his daughter running away on the eve of her wedding that upset him). And when caste is treated as an individual malaise, it can easily be cured cinematically with a redemption arch, can’t it?
Set in the flood-prone district of Idukki, Malayankunju is essentially a survival drama. When Anikuttan’s house collapses on him during a landslide, he is guided to survival by the cries of the very newborn he hated, while his father’s voice pulls him out of his caste bigotry. With Fahadh Faasil’s performance anchoring the whole sequence, Anikuttan is quite literally and symbolically reborn from the earth as a man who is no longer bogged down by hate.
During the Kerala floods of 2018, an event that has, in fact, been life-changing for many, reports of caste discrimination were rampant in several relief camps. People from the fishing community, who went out of their way to carry out rescue operations, also faced caste discrimination during the crisis. Sajimon Prabhakar even makes a mention of this in the movie, with Anikuttan refusing to move to a local relief camp as it was troublesome sharing the same space with everyone the previous time.
As optimistic and cinematically sound as Anikuttan’s rebirth appeared, does caste work that way in real life? Can the upper castes shed their caste bias overnight? In a state where social exclusion of Dalits and tribals exists to this day, can a cathartic event really change things?
Both Puzhu and Malayankunju have attempted to hold up a mirror to a casteist society through their anti-heroes – while one represents the worst of what caste can do, the other shows how bigotry can be overcome, albeit through an external event. Neither movies are without shortcomings, but they hold a significant place in Malayalam cinema nonetheless.