Mudiyanaya Puthran (1961)
Director: Ramu Kariat; Writer: Thoppil Bhasi; Producer: T.K. Pareekutty; Cinematographer: A. Vincent; Editor: G. Venkitaraman; Cast: Sathyan, Ambika, Kumari, P.J. Anthony, Kambisseri, Kottayam Chellappan, P.A. Thomas, Adoor Bhasi
Duration: 02:19:49; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Lightness: 0.176; Volume: 0.259; Cuts per Minute: 6.851; Words per Minute: 59.682
Summary: A story mapping good/bad brother relations on to employer/worker relations. The delinquent Rajan (Sathyan) loses his girl Radha (Ambika) to his more serious brother Gopal Pillai and is eventually ordered out of the parental home by his mother. When Rajan is ambushed and beaten, a Harijan girl he once molested, Chellamma (Kumari), nurses him back to health and humanises him. Workers, led by Vasu, who also assisted Rajan, are persecuted and attacked by the ‘good’ brother who nurses old jealousies and believes his wife still to be in love with Rajan. Vasu organises a strike and Rajan is blamed by his brother for knifing one of his thugs. Overcome by the affection the people seem to have for him, Rajan becomes ‘good’ and turns himself in to the police. Kariat’s first major film adapted a Thoppil Bhasi play to inaugurate a uniquely Malayali brand of political melodrama, in which existential aimlessness is extended into a pervasive sense of guilt as feudal institutions crumble and political activism becomes a form of atonement for bad faith. The film was actively supported by the Kerala CPI, with many of its members acting in and otherwise helping with the production. Vincent’s remarkable camerawork sets the tone of the film from its opening scene, in which Rajan lights a beedi in darkness as he awaits and then molests the dalit girl. Gopalakrishnan’s melodrama Mukha Mukham (1984) is a retrospective comment on this tradition of melodrama as much as it is on the radical political history it chronicles. Sathyan’s remarkable performance as the delinquent younger brother was later to extend into the definitive element in Kariat’s directorial signature (cf. Chemmeen, 1965).
A Note on the film by Jenson Joseph:
The 1961 film is the screen adaptation of the popular play by the same title written by Thoppil Bhasi in 1957 for the Kerala People’s Arts Club (KPAC) of the Communist Party. Formed in 1950, KPAC’s plays are counted as the most important tools that the Party used in popularising its message. The group was affiliated to the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) – the all India body promoting political theatre. Thoppil Bhasi came to be known as the exemplary Left writer after penning for the group its most successful plays, considered classics in political theatre in the region. Produced by T K Pareekkutty, the film was Ramu Kariat’s third solo directorial venture.
Structured as (integrationist) ‘martyr narrative’, the film as well as the original play reflects the immensely volatile political climate in Kerala during the 1950s, eventually leading to the fierce ideological battle between the Communists in the region and the ideologues of Liberation Struggle (Vimochana Samaram) – a movement spearheaded by a coalition of the Church in Kerala and Nair Service Society (NSS), with the support of the Indian Union Muslim League and the Congress party. The movement in fact succeeded in effecting the dismissal of the EMS Namboodiripad-led Communist ministry – the state’s first elected government – in 1959. In other words, the film was made at a time when Communism achieved a relatively hegemonic dominance in the region, but at the same time had to concede a rather humiliating defeat at the hands of social-political forces that the triumphalist Communists believed had already uprooted or truncated.
At the outset, the film comes across as a rather straightforward narrative of class politics in which an upper caste (Nair) male character transforms from being an amoralist to someone who realizes the necessity of class revolution for which he, in the end, sacrifices his life. This could then be understood as a strategic narrative that negotiates the upper caste male’s (central) role in class revolution – a project that nonetheless champions the rights of the oppressed social groups. However, the film’s painstaking delineation of the precise interventions that the ideology of ‘class politics’ sought to effect in a society overridden with feudal and communitarian relations is one of the most striking aspects about it. The sustained pungent criticism the film mounts against Caste/Community organizations as well as religiosity, effected mainly through the mockery of activities of the scheming elder brother and his secretary (Adoor Bhasi), is significant in this regard.
Equally striking is the gendered (female) spectatorial position that the film invokes, incorporates, and in turn appropriates. The audience’s relation to the protagonist is mediated through the women characters in the film – especially Radha. This aspect needs to be comprehended by taking into consideration the emergence of what could be called as ‘women’s cinema’ in Malayalam towards the late 1950s – a cluster of films foregrounding and elaborating certain narrative elements and affective realms which were considered as directly appealing to women viewers, and were left largely unaddressed by the Left-initiated social realism. Mainly romance melodramas, these films came to be known for their sentimentality and also sensual content. Merryland and Udaya – two studios in Kerala that spearheaded commercial cinema sector in the Malayalam – exploited the potentials of such marginal genres. The popularity of Padatha Painkili (P Subrahmaniam, 1957) is considered as a factor that set off major commercial interest in this segment especially by Merryland Studio. What one could identify in Mudiyanaya Puthran is an acknowledgment of the affective energies associated with this segment as well as a careful appropriation of them towards the film’s cultural politics.
T K Pareekkutty's Chandrathara Productions' logo
Rajan, played by the star Sathyan, is introduced as playing a man belonging to the ‘exterior’ (as opposed to ‘domestic’), signified by his garb, the beedi he lights as well as the public road he occupies – representational strategies that later came to be deployed often when portraying the working class man.
Rajan’s delinquency is straightaway on display, as he tries to molest Chellamma, a young Dalit woman and one of the leading characters in the film, on the road at night. The scene also establishes Chellamma as bold and retaliating.
Rajan’s slightly twirled moustache and the rolled up sleeves accentuate his attributes. Though Chellamma slips away, Rajan manages to break a few bangles of hers.
The ‘working class’ neighbourhood… This sphere is going to be a recurring backdrop of exciting drama and action in the film. The use of (folk-ish) music and dance to mark this sphere indicates the film’s fascination for the people – a mix of women and men from various lower castes, constituting ‘the working class’ – who occupy it. Chorus singing dominates the music, evoking a feel of togetherness and joyousness; percussion that lead the orchestra play an exuberant rhythm. The movements of the dancers are rather elementary and accessible – in contrast to the dance spectacles of popular cinema and the classical dance forms. This milieu is an object of fascination for the upper caste women characters in the film as well, as we will see.
Rajan’s childhood sweetheart Radha is introduced as watching and tremendously enjoying this performance. There is a subtle but conscious play on the star charisma of Ambika (who plays Radha) here: Ambika was known for her ‘classical’ dancing skills in the industry. Here, by introducing the character in the film (who is also a trained classical dancer) played by Ambika as immersed in the folk-ish rhythms and movements of the working class neighborhood, this sequence subtly hints at the revisions that the Left-initiated ‘progressive art movement’ sought to effect in hierarchies in the field of art.
Chellamma’s father Chathan – an old fashioned slave and a community elder/chief of the Dalit caste Pulayas – is illiterate, respects the feudalist decorum, believes in supernatural powers… This figure is both a curious ethnographic object as well as an object of benevolent reform.
This scene also marks the young working class male group, led by Vasu (P J Antony) – the mobilized labourer hailing from the middle caste Ezhava – as boldly rational. Here, Vasu makes fun of Chathan’s belief in evil spirit. Notably, Vasu’s sarcastic comment that "all this must be the evil spirit’s work" is framed within the laughter of his mates, as if a precaution against the prospect of anyone in the audience missing the mockery.
Rajan’s rowdiness is yet again played up, as his entry brings an end to the neighbourhood’s joviality. Though the Pulaya chief Chathan calls him ‘milord’, he often takes the liberty to rebuke Rajan, while the latter affectionately dismisses the former’s reprimands all the time.
The spectator’s relation to the lower caste neighbourhood is mediated primarily through the relation that the characters Rajan and Radha hold towards the space. (To read more on how Rajan's character becomes a negotiating figure, see Chapter III in Ratheesh Radhakrishnan's PhD thesis
The strained relationship between Rajan and his childhood sweetheart Radha is explained through a long flashback that begins here.
The flashback opens with a long series of outdoor shots of the region’s landscape captured mostly in moving camera, seen through the eyes of Radha, as she traverses it by bus on her way back home from college.
Radha is clearly not charmed by Gopala Pillai’s attempts to make conversations…
Rajan’s entry into the upper caste Nair household – here, Radha’s house, which also happens to be Rajan’s uncle’s house. Great care is given to represent Rajan as not quite belonging to the domestic realm, but rather as someone occupying the exterior. Here, Rajan takes a long pause at the entrance, taking one last drag of his beedi, as he is about to enter the house – a shot captured through the pillars of the household, subtly invoking the family’s status in contrast to Rajan’s garb and bodily comportment.
The elder brother Gopala Pillai can’t stand up to Rajan. However, Rajan maintains a tender relation with the women characters in the film: his pranks and jokes are taken in the right spirit even by Radha’s mother.
The first instance that hints at the brewing conflicts between the working class and the industrial-entrepreneurial class emerging in the region. Here, Vasu, a daily wage labourer working for the contractor Gopala Pillai, is rebuked by the contractor’s assistant for smoking while working. Vasu, however, is not willing to toe this line easily.
Industrialization and the Left in Kerala
Chathan, the Pulaya chief and the tenant/slave to the Nair family, is more pained by the disintegration of the tharavadu than its own inheritors – the two brothers. Here, Chathan invokes his powers as the Pulaya chief to reprimand Gopala Pillai for neglecting the family’s paddy fields. Gopala Pillai has no interest in engaging in traditional agriculture (and thus maintaining the tharavadu-centred benevolent feudal economy), and is completely into new avenues opened up by the cash economy, like securing contracts for commissioned infrastructural projects, etc.
The sarcastic comment by Rajan that all that can be arranged by Gopala Pillai is gravel (and not manure) reflects the Left’s ambiguous take on industrialization: though unwavering in its critique of the feudal social relations, the Left nevertheless did not have a consolidated position on industrialization. While the Left’s official stances advocated pro-industrialization measures, its cultural discourses often idealized the Gandhian model of self-sustained rural economy functioning around the benevolent feudal family. Note that by now, Gopala Pillai is established as a self-centred head of the family, unconcerned about the welfare of others within the family and those dependent on it. Thus, Rajan’s mockery of his elder brother’s activities carries much weight and endorsement in the larger scheme of things. Hence, though there is nothing illicit in what Gopala Pillai engages in as such (after all, he is securing infrastructural projects from the government and implementing them for a fixed commission), his neglect of the family-owned paddy fields is indicated as a thoughtless activity definitely spelling doom – for the family as well as the society at large.
A song shot completely outdoors; extremely mobile camera. The song is Chellamma’s enchanted description of the universe.
Liberation Struggle (Vimochana Samaram)
The Left's take on religion and Community/Caste solidarity groups
Mockery of (‘irrational’) religiosity. Krishnan Nair can chant verses from scriptures (a practice part of evening prayer in Hindu households) and chide the kids in the same breath… In the end, as the kids also join the chanting, the prayer begins to sound awfully loud and raucous. This is intercut with glances into a temple committee meeting and the mundane issues discussed there, like who gets all the fish when the temple pond is cleaned, why the (Nair/Hindu) community should unite, etc. Gopala Pillai is a prominent figure here and volunteers to offer donations for various activities of the committee/community. The film’s disapproval of these activities is made quite explicit by showing the negative male characters as being associated with them. For the Communists, these elements – the ‘irrational’ religiosity, solidarities along caste/community lines, etc. – were social cultural factors that needed to be tamed in order to facilitate a rational public sphere and build working class solidarity across social groups. The political context of Vimochana Samaram exemplified this ideological conflict between the Communists’ dismissal of ‘non-rational’ affective realms as well as community/caste solidarities, and the social vision based on (clientelist) communitarian politics proposed by other powerful social actors in the region.
A scene reflecting the upper caste Communists’ simultaneous romantic nostalgia for the feudal past as well as fascination for the futuristic progressive rational ideals of Communism. Here, the nostalgia is projected on to the loyal Dalit chief and his desire to see the declining glory of the feudal family restored; this feudal past is marked by its sexual excesses and certain inherent anarchism. In contrast, the Ezhava labourer Vasu’s rational thinking can easily identify the ideological operations in this romantic feudal relation between the loyal slave and the lords.
Shastri – an object of constant ridicule in the film – is a Dalit character working towards forming a forum for the Dalit caste Pulayas. Here, the labourers make fun of his ambitions (to become the leader of the community). They ridicule his attempts to look like a bureaucrat – with a briefcase (which according to them contains nothing but love letters) and his carrying an umbrella (contrasted with the labourers working in the sun and rain).
Shastri needs to build alliances with Gopala Pillai in order to fulfil his various ambitions – including his desire to marry Chellamma. Gopala Pillai offers Shastri false hopes, as he intends to use Shastri for various purposes. Shastri’s attempt to come across as a (Sanskritised) literate man is foregrounded in such a manner as to evoke laughter whenever he opens his mouth.
This conversation between Gopala Pillai, Shastri and Krishnan Nair is intended as an inside view of the anxieties in ‘the enemy camp’. Gopala Pillai and Krishnan Nair are in support of Shastri’s attempts to unite the members of the Pulaya caste in the region – so that they remain as a single manipulable group. However, they are frustrated at the triumph of Communist interventions building solidarity groups among workers across castes, thus effectively puncturing their ambitions to form groups for each caste, etc. Thus, Krishnan Nair despairs that members of the slave castes are joining ‘labourers unions’ rather than the exclusive caste forums meant for them.
Here, it would be worthwhile to discuss an interesting modification made in the film script. A notable change made in the film from the original play, is the reference to Christians and religious conversion. In the play, Krishnan Nair, during a conversation (that corresponds to this conversation in the film), tells Gopala Pillai that the members of the Nair caste should learn from the Christians how to organize and strengthen their own community. He also laments that since caste organizations among the Dalits were not powerful, the former were converting, en masse, to Christianity. In another context, Shasthri tells Vasu that he attended a meeting of the ‘Hindu mission’, where 47 lower caste Christians were converted back to Hinduism. To this, Vasu replies sarcastically: “Big deal!”
However, in the film, the first instance is modified, and the second removed. And the modification is insightful. Instead of saying (as in the play) that the lower castes are converting en masse to Christianity, Krishnan Nair, in the film, says disapprovingly that the lower castes are joining thozhilali prasthanam (‘labourers’ union’ – the associations, affiliated to the Communist Party, that organize the lower caste workers under the secular and class-determined label of ‘labourers’). This substitution of Christianity (in the play) with thozhilali prasthanam (in the film) brings to light an underlying anxiety of the Hindu high caste leadership of the Left, which could be this: the whole fracas and furore about religious conversion and re-conversion could have been avoided, had the ‘conservative’ high caste Hindus realized the possibilities of keeping the lower castes within the ambit of Hinduism by providing the latter certain basic civil rights through controlled class revolution proposed by Communism!
Moreover, the reference (in the play) to the Christians as an organized community whom the Nairs should emulate comes from Krishnan Nair – a negative character. It remains rather an ambiguous moment, since it is not clear whether the playwright actually approves of the way Christians organize themselves; there are no strong signals of disapproval as well. Whereas, by removing this conversation, the filmmakers were perhaps avoiding the chances of the reference to the ‘organized Christians’ – coming from a negative character – attaining any positive resonance in the film, released during the changed political context of Vimochana Samaram – a movement known as led mainly by the Church and Syrian Christian groups.
(Social scientist Robin Jeffrey has pointed out that during the first decades of the 20th Century, the way Syrian Christians organized themselves served as a model for reformers from different castes to modernize their communities and prepare them as political actors in the emergent modern public sphere.)
(Also note that each reference in the film to the samudaya sangham (caste association) that Gopala Pillai and his assistant Krishnan Nair are working for, clearly alluding to the powerful Nair Service Society (NSS), has been redubbed.)
The conversation also hints at the involvement of both Krishnan Nair and Shasthri in a religious solidarity forum called Hindu Mandalam as well, pointing towards a conspiracy in mobilizing people on the basis of religion, thus 'hindering social modernization'.
Gopala Pillai attempts to convince his mother about the need and purpose of contributing to the unity of the caste by regularly making donations to the Samudaya Sangham (Community Forum).
The encounter between Krishnan Nair and Rajan, as the former comes to the latter’s house for collecting donation to the caste organization. While Rajan’s mother finds it difficult to donate anything due to poverty, Rajan simply considers Nair as parasitic. In effect, the family invites the rage of the influential ones in the community, and social alienation.
Chathan performs rituals to exorcise the evil spirit that he thinks has possessed Chellamma, making her refuse Shastri’s marriage proposal. Vasu and his friend promptly make fun of Chathan’s belief in these rituals. Chellamma also is equally frustrated with her father’s naïve belief in these powers.
The Left’s take on Nehruvian development was critical, though not dismissive. The road construction that the workers are involved in is something that infuses enthusiasm and rigour among the workers; the project is even acknowledged as an indicator of social modernization, just like construction of dams in the Nehruvian vision; it serves as a reminder for the need for collective labour in building the imminent modern nation. However, the workers’ labour is privileged as the chief ingredient, over the bureaucrat-centric, planned vision of Nehru in this development project. Hence, there is no question of sacrificing the workers’ rights at the altar of scientific social-economic development.
Shastri’s invoking of the Five Year Plan - Nehru’s dream developmental project for the post-Independent India – is another indication of the Left’s take on industrialization and social modernization. Here, Shastri tells Vasu, the leader of the striking workers, that their strike in fact is a hindrance to the smooth progress of social modernization projects. Coming from a character who is an object of ridicule throughout the film, this reference points towards the Communists’ discontent with the Nehruvian vision, which they understood as a centrist developmental vision in which the subaltern population has hardly any stake in.
In a series of emotionally poignant scenes involving Radha and Chellamma, beginning here and ending with an intensely emotional dance sequence, the film attempts to resolve the energies of gendered (female) spectatorial position invoked and incorporated in the film, as the narrative begins to move to a closure serving the cause of the film’s specific ideological project. The attempt is to contain the energies of melodramatic affect (associated with female spectatorial position) once its potentials are exhausted within the narrative.
Radha’s desire to get married to Rajan never materializes, because of the latter’s wayward life. However, her romantic interest in Rajan has a different purpose altogether in the narrative. Radha’s love and affection for Rajan throughout the film, in spite of her marriage and the latter’s rebellious lifestyle, functions mainly as a narrative mechanism to evoke a feeling of sympathy for a protagonist who, having been wronged by circumstances, leads an anarchic life. It, thus, works as a crucial device – supplementing the strategies of casting Sathyan in the role – to direct the audience’s sympathy towards Rajan, the ‘prodigal son’ who is to be redeemed in the end. There is a fascinating sequence in the film that captures well the dynamics of the film’s acknowledgment as well as subordination of the woman’s subjectivity, the elaboration of which had to be put off in favour of the theme of nationalist social progress based on class revolution achieved through the contract between men of different castes. The casting of Ambika, an actress known for her dancing skills, in the role of Radha, who is barred by her husband from dancing, is significant here. Here in this scene, on Radha’s birthday, Chellamma, the Dalit woman, expresses her wish to see the former dancing. Radha tells Chellamma that not only is she not allowed to dance, she is living a wretched life, which the latter would not understand.
This sequence comes when the narrative has almost completely exhausted the functions that Radha’s character could achieve. Romance has just started blooming between Rajan and Chellamma; Rajan has mellowed down, beginning to emerge as a figure evoking sympathy from the audience (whose identification for the former was earlier mediated through Radha’s love for him). The plot has now become preoccupied entirely with setting up the stage for Rajan’s self-sacrifice to save Vasu (effecting the contract between men of various castes), and thus uniting the communities in the class revolutionary project. There are no avenues left in the film for the elaboration of the woman’s subjectivity. In this context, Radha’s dance is a suicidal gesture, articulated partly in despair, partly in protest. Significantly, mid-way through the dance, the melancholic song suddenly gains tempo – with percussion instruments gaining prominence and the music conveying the raging fury of the destructive Hindu goddess – and Radha transforms into the powerful goddess ‘Kaali’ for a moment. The last lines of the song are noteworthy: “Let me dance for one last time; the curtain is about to fall.”
That Radha’s performance takes place before Chellamma as the only audience does not indicate it was the exchange between the upper caste woman and the Dalit woman. What Chellamma stands for, in the film, is not the Dalit woman’s subjectivity. Rather, Chellamma, like Neeli in Neelakkuyil, (both played by Miss Kumari) signifies the film’s strategy of feminizing the Dalits so that they can be represented by the high caste male protagonist, whom the former is shown as (symbolically) identifying with completely. When Chellamma falls in love with Rajan – a romance that is not to be consummated anyway – what it signifies is the de-classing/de-casting of the upper caste man, legitimizing his position within the revolutionary project and authorizing him to speak for the subaltern. In this sense, Chellamma stands for the feminized Dalit community – a crucial representational strategy in the tale of social reform to be achieved through the contract between men of various castes. Hence, Radha’s suicidal gesture in front of Chellamma should be seen as a protest against this tale of male social contract, in which the woman’s subjectivity at large (irrespective of its caste specificities) was sidelined. This despite the fact that what Radha says about her wretched life is markedly a description of the upper caste woman’s issues.
The film ends on a melancholic note rather than a triumphant one like in Ningalenne Communistakki (You Made Me a Communist, 1952), KPAC’s second play written by Thoppil Bhasi. Rajan goes to jail to save the Communist Vasu – whom “the land needs”. There is a lingering sense in the film that the rational-secular nation that the Communists thought they had brought into being is disintegrating, or limping back to the social structure that the Communists thought succeeded in reforming. Rajan is the martyr figure that reintegrates disparate desires and subjectivities, thus recuperating the nation.