Director: P. Bhaskaran, Ramu Kariat; Writer: Uroob (aka P.C. Kuttikrishnan); Producer: T.K. Pareekutty; Chandrathara Productions; Cinematographer: A. Vincent; Editor: T.R. Sreenivasulu; Cast: Miss Kumari, Prema, Kodangallur Ammini Amma, Sathyan, P. Bhaskaran, Master Vipin, Manavalan Joseph, K Balakrishna Menon, Kochappan, Balaraman, J.A.R. Anand, Johnson, V. Abdulla, V. Kamalakshi, Thangamani, Raman Kutty, VO Abdulla, Govind Paliyatt, Gopi, A Bahuleyan,
Duration: 02:53:32; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 78.824; Saturation: 0.035; Lightness: 0.105; Volume: 0.240; Cuts per Minute: 8.050
Summary: The Harijan girl Neeli (Kumari) is found dead with her illegitimate child which is adopted by the postman, a high-caste Hindu (Bhaskaran) to the consternation of the village. The child’s real father, a high-caste teacher (Sathyan) with a barren wife (Prema), eventually acknowledges paternity, thus breaking the caste barrier. Kariat’s direction debut is often presented as the first major breakthrough in the Malayalam cinema. The reformist literature of novelist Uroob was extended into a performance idiom, using new-generation actors like Sathyan alongside Vincent’s crisp camerawork to manufacture for the first time a culturally valid and economically successful indigenous melodrama in Kerala. The film was a musical success, representing the best work of singer Kozhikode Abdul Qadir. The trend of realist melodrama inaugurated by this film was to continue for over 20 years, in Kariat’s own work and e.g. in Vincent’s
M.T. Vasudevan Nair films.
Jenson Joseph adds:
If Social Realism in Indian cinema meant melodramatic rendering of the issues of the poor and the oppressed, Neelakkuyil fits perfectly into this genre. The film is one of the earliest instances of the Left-affiliated artists’ interventions in Malayalam cinema, and is evidently inspired by the aesthetic projects undertaken by IPTA. P C Kuttikrishnan aka Uroob, the writer, was associated with the Progressive Writing Group (The group began as Jeeval Sahithya Prasthanam, or Movement for the Literature about Life, in 1937, with people like E M S Namboodiripad, K Damodaran, and P Keshavadev etc. as its founder members. It was renamed in 1944 as Purogamana Sahithya Sangham, or Progressive Writing Group); P Bhaskaran, one of the directors, was member of the Communist Party in Kerala and a known literary figure, whose poem ‘Vayalar Garjikkunnu’ (The Roar from Vayalar), inspired by the 1946 peasant rebellion of Punnapra Vayalar, was banned in the princely state of Travancore. The involvement of these figures as well as the aesthetic lineage would qualify this film to be classified as a Left film; nevertheless, this would the only Malayalam film in this category that took up the theme of untouchability (rather than class relations) as its central concern.
The following excerpt from a review of the film written in 1954 by Cynic – one of the prominent critics of the time – offers insights into the visual pleasures that the film offered the literati, heralding what film scholar S V Srinivas calls ‘native cinema’ in Malayalam:
“Uroob, who wrote the story, screenplay and dialogues, deserves credit for the film’s success. He succeeded in creating characters that connect well with the common people. Though some of these characters do not have any function in the linear progression of the narrative, they do not bore us because of their authentic portrayal. The vibrant, lively dialogues ooze life into the film. […] The outdoor shots, used in plenty, succeed in conveying the sense that the story takes place in Kerala. The uchikuduma [typical tuft of hair] of the Nair karanavar, the Namboodiri’s paan-box, the traditional evening lamp customarily lit beside the thulasi [holy basil] plant at the Nair house, the village restaurant, the Marar and his drum, the Mappila’s fishing net… all these add to the Kerala-ness of the film. […] Though Moithu’s character does not fit into the narrative scheme, the role was essayed excellently by Balakrishna Menon.” (Mathrubhoomi, 7 November, 1954).
Singers: Janamma David, Santha P Nair, Kozhikode Abdul Kader, Mehboob, K Raghavan, Haji, Abdul Kader, Pushpa.
Kerala People's Arts Club (KPAC)
The film opens with a harvest song set to a simple tempo, as the working class men and women come together after a day’s work to dance, sing and rejoice. Percussion dominates the music, and the dancers swing to a rather simple but animated choreography. Similar tropes had become a convention within the then emerging Left aesthetics across India as a way of paying tribute to the working class spirits. Moreover, these were attempts to define or invent an authentic ‘working class culture’ and situate the film in that category.
The jovialities come to an abrupt end as the thunderstorms loom large over the yield at the fields. As the workers divert the stormwater to protect the yield, the camera ponders at the fields for a while, and documents the labour. These shots are perhaps taken at a real workplace, and significantly, care is taken to capture the soundscape in detail.
The introduction of one of the protagonists – the school teacher Sreedharan Nair (Sathyan). The middle class protagonist is introduced as immersed in reading, lying on his bed (partly in contrast to the workers on the fields). Nevertheless, perhaps it is also the case that both the agricultural labourers and the middle class school teacher are shown as engaging in their own domains of labour: while the former’s labour is predominantly physical in nature, the latter’s is more intellectual. If that is the case, it need not be leisure that is signified here when the film shows the school teacher protagonist engrossed in reading lying on his bed, while the workers toil on the fields in the rain. It could thus be a seamless charting of the region where ‘everyone plays his/her part’, though the physical labour of the workers is evidently privileged.
The traditional matrilineal Nair household and its karanavar
(the family head) are already objects of a distant past, and are subjected to ethnographic detailing. The plainly conservative apprehensions of the karanavar and the Brahmin money-lender regarding the advent of modernity (as evident in their skeptical comments regarding the changing equations in women’s role in society) produce enough distance for the (educated, modern) viewers from these characters, their life worlds and their morality. The matrilineal Nair household is in financial ruins; Kuttan Nair, one of the youngsters in the family, has become a raucous drunkard; Nalini’s father - the Brahmin husband of the Nair woman - has stopped looking after the welfare of his wife and daughter; the Karanavar spends a good fortune running property cases in the court, which he ultimately loses, etc.
This is one of the (three) rare occasions when the film refers to the realm of religious practices. A close look at these sequences is worthwhile, since one of the desires of the Left was to relegate the domain of the religious to the margins of public life. all aspects of which it sought to secularize. However, rather than erasing the domain of 'the religious' altogether from its representational horizons, the film adopts a strategy of accommodating the religious ritual within its diegetic economy through redefining it as a cultural practice, as well as by providing adequate avenues for the (secular/modern) viewer to distance oneself from the affect of faith associated with the religious practice(s).
Here, though the (Hindu high caste) religious ritual of lighting the lamp in the courtyard at dusk is elaborately represented, the unfolding of the scene in a declining Nair household already places the the religious realm and its rigidities as belonging to an erstwhile era. Moreover, the young lady’s indifference to the the elderly Nair karanavar
's insistence on following the decorum even while doing the chores of the ritual, combined with the evidently conservative opinion expressed by the old man and his Brahmin advocate, on the implications of women’s changing roles in society, are enough to place the modern/secular viewer at a distance from their worldview and rigidities.
The process of distanciation also meant redefining the original functions of a practice according to the imperatives of a new cultural context. Distanciation thus becomes the tool with which the religious practices is accommodated in an aesthetic that enumerates the quotidian life and its practices, but only after its excessive religious connotations are purged. That way, the rational viewer’s relation to the portrayed sequence of this practice with religious overtones is mediated not through faith but the impulses of nationalist realism ordained to represent the life and practices of the people.
Nair’s tea shop: this place is to become a major backdrop of much drama in the film. It is often represented as a metaphoric modern democratic public place offering access to all. The striking presence of the jovial Muslim character Moidu (Balakrishna Menon) animates this place; Moidu’s pranks especially on the tea-shop owner Nair are often reassurances about the democratic nature of this place, and by extension the imminent modern nation. Here, Moidu makes fun of Nair by comparing his tea to cattle fodder.
Moithu is a marginal character in the film as far as the plot is concerned, and his function would appear to be somewhat that of a comedian. He does not have any significant role in the narrative progression as well. However, this character has a crucial function in the film – that of representing ‘the ethical population’, as we will see.
Evidences suggest that Moithu’s character and the ‘Mappila’ song that he sings in the film became major attractions of the film. While the song ‘Kayalarikathu’, turned out to be one of the most popular film songs ever in Malayalam, the critics were similarly impressed by the character portrayal and the actor who played the role. The character’s appeal also would have been the result of the ethnographic interests that the portrayal of the Muslim evokes (like his attire, the ‘Muslim dialect’ interspersed with puns that Moithu speaks, etc.). Moreover, the pranks he plays upon other characters in the film are indeed witty. The prominence that Moithu’s character achieves in the film would also have been an attempt to appeal to the audience from Malabar – a region that was considered culturally distinct from other parts of the Malayalam-speaking regions, a region the Muslim-ness of which is unmistakable in popular imagination, a region considered ‘backward’ in the development index compared to the rest of the state, but also a region where the Communist Party had a decisive influence.
This place is also where the postman Shankaran Nair – another protagonist – is introduced. Shankaran Nair is the only character in the film whose world view Moidu approves of, and who escapes the latter’s pranks; Moidu’s relation to Shankaran Nair is more of adulation, and in this regard, the casting of P Bhaskaran, with known Communist Party affiliations, in this role is significant.
The songs in the film, written by P Bhaskaran and composed by K Raghavan, heralded a new era in film music in Malayalam, as they came to be known for their rustic simplicity: the music is closer to folk tunes, the instruments minimal, the words strikingly conversational (and non-Sanskritic), the lyrics delightfully poetic. This one, one of the most popular songs in Malayalam, is sung by Mehboob.
The Brahmin sambandam
at the Nair household: he pays visit to the family once in a while; and does not care much about what goes on in the household, other than the customary hearing that he gives to the hardships that his wife and the karanavar recounts. The portly physique, the embroidered pan box and the palm leaves umbrella that he carries all the time, his usual humming of lines from the Kadhakali performances he has been to, and the Sankskrit-influenced tonal Malayalam he speaks – all these representational traits are heavily influenced by the way in which the typical Brahmin figure is described in the novel Indulekha.
This is first in a series of scenes involving Moidu which suggest that his presence within the narrative coincides with or duplicates the presence of the viewers watching the film – scenes which indicate an interesting relay of knowledge between the audience and Moithu that enables the latter to make ethical judgments about the diegetic characters and situations.
Take this scene for example: in the previous scene, the audience see Nalini’s mother Lakshmi and the Karanavar in the family discussing the prospects of getting Nalini married to her wayward cousin Kuttan Nair in the hope that the latter would mend his ways once he gets married. From the discussion, it is clearly suggested that this alliance would mean ‘misfortune’ for Nalini, given Kuttan Nair’s character. Moreover, as this alliance was never to take place, this discussion is meant mainly to indicate the family’s decay. Interestingly, in this scene that immediately follows the previous one, Moithu stops Kuttan Nair on his way, and asks him whether it is true that he is getting married soon. The narrative does not offer any justification as to how Moithu comes to know about the private discussion regarding Kuttan Nair’s marriage which happened in the Nair household where Moithu was not present. Moidu also warns Kuttan Nair that it is better if he keeps his eyes off Nalini.
In short, these scenes suggest that Moidu’s presence within the narrative is the presence and the look of the audience institutionalized within the diegetic world of the film. If that is the case, it is significant to note that the film has chosen a subaltern (Muslim) character to be endowed with the capacity to make absolute judgements on characters and situations. This privileging of the subaltern was central to the Left’s aesthetic interventions in popular culture.
This scene where the postman Shankaran Nair reprimands the conservative Brahmin, on behalf of the lower caste woman Neeli, for practicing untouchability is the first in a series of scenes that establish Shankaran Nair as the agent of modernity, the moral authority and the representative of the subaltern. As film scholars have pointed out, the choice of the Nair male character as the champion of modernity and as the representative of the subaltern was symptomatic of an emerging Nair male-centric cultural imagination in the region.
The theme of untouchability is explored through the problems that an affair between the upper caste schoolteacher and an untouchable woman runs into. Importantly, in contrast to a film like Jeevithanouka, here it is not the social injunction (in the form of family honour, the patriarch’s disapproval, etc.) that hinders the union of the lovers, but the upper caste male protagonist’s own gutlessness to accept his untouchable lover in public, after the latter informs him that she is pregnant with his child.
The mise-en-scene is that of iconicity, where the problem of untouchability is sought to be fixed on the image of the ditched Dalit woman, her incapacity and her grief. Kozhikode Abdul Kader
, also known as 'Malabar Saigal', sang the song.
This is the second instance when the film refers to the realm of the religious. The striking aspect here is the common man’s warm, but also evidently impious, responses to an aging oracle who seems to find it difficult to continue his dancing at the temple due to a chest pain. The men at the tea shop find the oracle endearing (and not divine), and suggest him medicines or pass blithe comments at his predicament. The lighthearted comment from one of the old men in the teashop, that the oracle should rather feel relieved that 30 years of dancing at the temple has given him only a chest pain, is especially striking. The Left’s ambition to see the common man evolving a healthy distance from the domain of the religious is evident here.
The conventional Namboodiri Brahmin’s gait and mannerisms are always objects of ridicule.
This is another scene that indicates that there is an interesting relay of knowledge between the audience and Moithu that enables the latter to make ethical judgments about the characters and situations: in the previous scene, we saw Nalini’s marriage being fixed with Sreedharan Nair, when the postman informs Nalini’s mother that Sreedharan Nair wishes to marry Nalini. In this scene, Moithu stops Kuttan Nair on his way and informs him that the marriage between Nalini and Sreedharan Nair has been fixed. Again, the narrative does not clarify how Moithu came to know about the marriage between Nalini and Sreedharan, even before Kuttan Nair gets to know about it. Moithu’s disdain for Kuttan Nair as misfit for Nalini, and his approval instead of the alliance between Nalini and the schoolteacher Sreedharan Nair is exactly equal to the audience’s judgment of these characters using the hints that the narrative provides about characters, situations, etc.
Neeli’s ousting from her community. The bonds of traditional community/caste didn’t hold any redeeming qualities for the Left, which saw the communitarian bonds as conservative and stifling.
This is the third and final sequence in the film dealing with the domain of the religious. Unlike the earlier sequences, here we can’t easily see an attempt to frame the devotional song so as to provide the viewer with an axis other than that of piety to approach it. Sung by Santha P Nair
This sequence ends with the postman Shankaran Nair, played by P Bhaskaran - one of the directors, delivering a long speech on caste egalitarianism to the high caste villagers. It is interesting that this role of the morally stout, modern man was reserved for P Bhaskaran, rather than Sathyan who was already a star by the time the film came out. Sathyan instead played the high caste schoolteacher who undergoes self reformation. P Bhaskaran's extra-diegetic charisma as a revolutionary poet and writer was thus being channelised into the role. Casting thus plays a central role in the film's cultural politics. (This article
suggests that the postman's role was originally meant for the actor P J Antony.)
Moithu sequence again: Moithu is one of the very few characters in the film who is portrayed as possessing desirable progressive values like rationality and versatility, in sharp contrast to most of the other characters (including Sreedharan Nair, one of the protagonists) who are portrayed as either caught up in casteism or as incapable of moving out of the moralities of various degenerated traditions (like Nalini’s cousin Kuttan Nair, a prodigal young man from a disintegrating Nair family, and her father – an irresponsible, casteist Namboodiri, etc). Moithu makes fun of every upper caste character in the film who comes into his vicinity (except Shankaran Nair, because “he has real guts”, and Sreedharan Nair, who is to be redeemed by the narrative through the staging of self-reformation); he invokes laughter mostly through pranks on the ‘irrational’ upper caste characters (the Namboodiri Brahmin, the Nair who runs the tea shop, Kuttan Nair, the wayward young descendent of the Nair family, etc.), and the narrative suggests that they deserve to be mocked precisely for their incapability to think rationally, which is ‘the need of the time’. The humour that Moithu evokes is witty, not comical; it emerges from the capabilities that he is endowed with to make spontaneous ethical assessments of situations and characters. The rational values that the film upholds match perfectly with the values that Moithu possesses; or at least there seems to be no conflict between them. He is the only one who can accept and appreciate Shankaran Nair’s ‘radical’ persona. In short, Moithu and Shankaran Nair are the only rational subjects in the film.
Here, Moithu offers the postman Shankaran Nair a glass of tea, for showing “tremendous guts” in rescuing the Dalit boy, braving the opposition of the upper castes from the village. The film expects from the audience the same adoration that Moithu has for Shankaran Nair. It This relation of adulation and nomination between Moithu and Shankaran Nair is similar, in certain ways, to the representational strategies in the star-films of South India, where the comedian would often figure as the fan/admirer of the star, nominating and elevating the latter to the position of being the representative of the linguistic nation.
Moithu's sarcastic comment (that the Brahmin should make several alliances in the place where he is going to settle now, so that he doesn't have to keep moving when one woman dies) is a sharp critique of the practices of the Brahmin community.
This song, composed and sung by K Raghavan
turned out to be one of the most popular love songs in Malayalam cinema; the Muslim dialectical influences in the lyrics, combined with the folkish tune, made this song appealing as ‘the poor man’s love saga’. Though a marginal character, Moithu and Balakrishna Menon who played the role got wide acclaim. Here is an excerpt from one of the articles from a film journalist: “Moithu’s character played by Balakrishna Menon and the Mappila song ‘Kayalarikathu’ became very popular among Malayalees, especially those from Malabar.” (Achyut, ‘Chalachitra Vyavasayam Keralathil’, Mathrubhumi, October 28, 1956). Also see this insightful article
These long sequences, elaborating Sreedharan Nair’s moral dilemma and guilt, mainly serve the purpose of staging the drama of the upper caste protagonist’s self-reformation before the mass audience. They are replete with shots of the anguished Sreedharan Nair looking out of the window, making abstract philosophical points about his dilemma. For a long time, Nalini cannot make sense of the situation or comprehend what her husband says. The intention obviously is to present the repenting protagonist before the audience (who, unlike Nalini, possesses the knowledge about Sreedharan Nair’s affair with Neeli and how he rejected her), and to offer him avenues in the narrative to redeem himself through self-reformation. As someone who is outside this loop of exchanges – between Sreedharan Nair and the audience (gendered as male) – Nalini cannot make sense of her husband’s prolonged existential angst.
Nalini’s response to her husband’s revelation about his pre-marital affair seems to be totally framed by the film’s central theme of caste egalitarianism, which subsumes and renders irrelevant all other aspects of the situation, including the ramifications of Sreedharan Nair’s pre-marital affair in the life of the couple. It, then, should not strike us as strange that the only factor what pains Nalini is how Sreedharan Nair rejected Neeli because she was a Dalit (thus practicing “untouchability in his love”); the fact that her husband had a pre-marital affair in which he has a child never comes up at all in this exchange.
The narrative resolution depends on Sreedharan Nair negotiating his implication in casteism with the postman Shankaran Nair - the foster father of the Dalit boy as well as the representative of the subaltern.