Dalit Renaissance In Kerala’s Movie Industry: A Myth?

It was during the early period of the 20th century that the Malayalam movie industry began to rise. ‘Vigathakumaran’, the first Malayalam movie by J C Daniel, the father of Malayalam cinema, was a silent film first released in Thiruvananthapuram. Behind the scenes, the film Vigathakumaran speaks the story of a Dalit woman who acted in the movie as the lead. PK Rosy thus became not just the first Malayalam actor, but the first victim of upper-class hierarchy in the Malayalam movie industry as well. She was a Dalit Christian and was given the role of a Nair lady (upper class). This act infuriated many elites. What awaited P K Rosy was tragic; an angry mob burnt down her hut and cast her off from her homeland, for the sole reason that she acted the role of the dominant caste.

This tragic incident is the first welcome that Dalits received from the movie industry. The whole history of Malayalam cinema speaks of a lesser number of Dalit or Dalit oriented films. A handful of them failed to portray the essence of the oppressed lives.

It is during such a state that ‘New Generation’ films like Kammatipaadam and Ee. Ma. Yau by Rajeev Ravi and Lijo Jose Pellissery respectively attempted to rewrite history.

But the question remains, whether the individual success of films like Kammatipaadam and Ee Ma Yau is enough to give rise to the notion that Dalit Renaissance is taking place in the Movie industry? 

Every ‘new generation’ filmmaker claims to be more radical and progressive than the other, without an organized effort. Films do win National Awards but they are yet to create a genre of Dalit films like Dalit literature.

This gives rise to another question. A question, that scholars of Dalit movements and history have been debating for ages. Can only Dalits provide an authentic depiction of the unjust and cruel apartheid that has existed for centuries? Or can the role of ‘the other’ be portrayed by the privileged? 

Kammattipaadam and the Shattering of Stereotypes

Kammatipaadam was refreshing, as it blended close to life characters with dark-skinned protagonists (also categorized with the age-old term ‘Avarnas’).

Kammatipadam had great success as a New-Generation movie. It narrates the story of a gang of locals living in ‘Kammatipadam’, an area in the outskirts of Kochi and attributes to a few real incidents. It tells the story of people who were forced to sacrifice their lives in a gang war.

The protagonists Ganga (Vinayakan) and Balan (Manikandan R Achari) are both Dalits and portrayed as epitomes of violence and intolerance.

The starting scenes itself depict the livelihood of the underprivileged caste of Kochi, i.e, agriculture. In a scene in the teashop, Balan, one of the major characters of this movie, gets praise from the shop owner for responding (with violence) to the atrocities committed by upper-class men to his father. In another scene, he desperately asks his father about what he taught him about ‘survival’ in the future.

The two major Dalit characters in the movie are Balan and Ganga. Rajeev Ravi associates criminality and absurdity of life to these characters. The heroes of the movie are closer to life, authentic in terms of their complexion, caste, appearance, make-up, and accent.

Both Balan and Ganga have a dark complexion with a restless face and bucktooth, making them look unkempt and fierce. Even then, they remain the heroes of the movie, reducing the popular hero Dulquer Salman to a secondary character, Krishnan.

Balan is in love with Rosamma, a Dalit converted Christian. Her different caste infuriates Balan’s mother who screams at him for bringing home his wife for the very first time, only to be pulled away from the entrance by Rosamma.

The other Dalit character, Anitha, is a true to life portrayal of a Dalit woman’s life. Anitha faces multiple situations, where she can’t express herself to anyone. She was always waiting for Krishnan to come and complete her life in vain. Their plan to elope also fails miserably with Krishnan’s arrest. Even when he was in jail and with her unsatisfactory marriage with Ganga, she awaited Krishnan hoping he would come for her. Despite being a good student, who is also good at sports, she is not able to find a good job. She goes to a tailoring unit to earn a penny.

After Ganga goes missing, Krishnan returns to Anitha, only to enquire about her husband and refuses to join her journey. Anitha’s life is the true depiction of the distressed reality of a Dalit woman.

Ee Ma Yau: Dalits Lives Finally Voiced in the Limelight

Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Ee Ma Yau is a break from the archetypes. It breaks the conventions in multiple ways: by locating the film within a rural area in Kochi that is seldom explored in the Malayalam film industry, casting dark-skinned protagonists over ‘good’ looking superstars, portraying round wholesome characters that encompass good and evil, projecting strong female characters in an apparent patriarchal social setting, using native ethnic dialect as distinct from the typical pure Malayalam lingo in cinema and employing a range of symbolic implications that call for multiple interpretations. The presentation seeks to cross analyse the satirical text to establish the cultural politics that exist in a community, geographical terrain, and within a regionalised film industry dominated by celluloid oppression and Savarna vision. 

The film is set in the coastal village of Chellaanam in Kochi and revolves around the sudden death of a man that throws the family into turmoil as they scramble frantically to plan his funeral. More than death, what takes centre stage in the film is the impact it has on the community as it comes together and then breaks apart.

Pellissery also triumphs in being able to subordinate his many talents faithfully to the scriptwriter P.F Mathews’ visions with utter devotion to each word. This is also a Savarnaself-subduing to an Avarna vision.

The title, Ee Ma Yau, can be likened to RIP or Rest In Peace in English. It is an acronym for ‘EeshoMariyamYouseppe’ or Jesus Mary Joseph. The prayer Eesho Mariyam Youseppe holds a lot of importance within the Latin Catholic community, which is a rarely voiced backward caste. 

This prayer ― “Jesus, Mary Joseph, protect this soul” is called Chevittormma in the coastal villages of Kochi. Through this, the devotees assure that the deceased receive a place in heaven. Long wails of cries would follow the death soon after. After beating their chests out, those close at heart would then begin the Kannokkupaattu, the loud wails in synching tune, in which the life of the demised and the relationship he/she had with other visitors who have come to see the body would be revealed. 

Thus, an intricate study of Latin Catholic culture in Kerala is evident in the title.

Chevittormma in the context of Ee Ma Yau becomes a rather loud whisper about the world‘s insensitivity towards the oppressed and underprivileged, even in death. Pennamma wails after Vaavachan‘s death; her Kannokkupaattu was her husband’s desire, as part of his dream of going like a king. It becomes song as she recalls the duck and potato curry they had made for him, only to be given away. 

This public performance of grief is not different from the oppari sung for dead people among Avarna Tamil communities, and that of the lower caste Rudaalis of Rajasthan. It does remind the audience that death is done differently by Avarna folk. Thus, the mourning of death for these sections of people is a performance with a loud expression of emotions which includes loud wails, beating of chests and even some violent outbursts.

The arrival of prominent actors presented as speaking the local Kochi dialect, without a hint of a mockery of the vernacular is a welcome change. Lijo Jose Pellissery is one such filmmaker who pioneers to break all the stereotypes and reconstruct the celluloid hierarchy with his strong and genuine representation of human beings in their raw form.

A good section of the community in Ee Ma Yau is that of the Latin Catholic Christians, who are doubly marginalised owing to their impoverishing livelihood as fisher folks. The Latin Catholic community itself is a minority section. Their sustenance is through highly seasonal fishing, accompanied by a risk of life. They are subject to the uncertainties of nature. The film in its entirety is an articulation of the voice of people who are subjected to multiple marginalisations – the Latin Catholic fisher folks of the coastal village Chellaanam are marginalised based on their caste, financial status and the geographical terrain they live in. It is a raw representation of people who are still on the verge of transition into modernity.

With Ee Ma Yau, Pellissery has directly addressed the significance of caste hierarchy in the Christian community of Kerala. This is an ethnographic disclosure. When it comes to Malayalam cinema, there are two ways to do it. The polite form is to let names and accents speak for themselves, without the mentioning of caste. The form PF Mathews does is more direct, with references to the characters as Latin Catholics. 

Is the Savarna Cultural Capital in Mollywood Slowly Eroding?

It has been almost eight decades since Malayalam cinema started having a voice. Until recently, almost all of our movies spoke of the lives of the Savarnas or the upper-caste communities, considering them as the ideal. The characters and actors speak languages that essentially align with the Savarna dialect similar to that of the Valluvanadans. The Malayalam film industry continued such repetitive and routine tales of the higher caste communities with few elements of truth and reality. Most of these films which eulogised the lives of the higher caste also ridiculed many minority communities. The presentations of character roles and speeches in a stereotypical manner accompanied with a mockery of the linguistic variations and slangs of such communities served as catalysts in the silent Celluloid oppression. 

For most filmmakers and writers, dark skin and local culture was always a source of ridicule and humour. Irrespective of the locale of the plot, their lack of worth was retained in Malayalam cinema for ages. Even though the Malayalam film industry grew up in the heart of Kochi, the Queen of the Arabian Sea, it took many years for it to take up the narration of a story completely rooted on the shores of Kochi.

In Kerala, both the economic capital as well as the cultural capital was amassed within the hands of the higher caste communities. The Reformation Movement in Kerala, a socio-cultural movement that began towards the end of the 20th century led to large scale changes in the social outlook of the state. It affected the field of literature as well. With the financial and literary progression that resulted from it, the economic capital was distributed more evenly among the people. Even then, the people of the higher sections of society unquestionably retained their power on the cultural capital of Kerala. This caste system was closer to feudalism than to the Varna’ system.

Malayalam Cinema,  a powerful tool of popular culture was dominated by the Nairs, the elites. Most of the films that were produced from 1980 to 1990 portrayed the eulogised lives of those belonging to the Nair community or the upper hierarchical order.

It is at this point that avant-garde filmmakers like Lijo Jose Pellissery entered into the arena with films like Ee Ma Yau and Angamaly Diaries. Such films, most prominently Kammatipadam by Rajeev Ravi, serve as the proof of the erosion of cultural capital from the hands of the elites and the welcoming of stories of the marginalised. 

In Ee Ma Yau the male protagonists are Eeshi and Ayyappan, enacted by Chemban Vinod Jose and Vinayakan respectively. Both are dark-complexioned actors. A deviation from the fair-skinned, so-called handsome, male figures labelled as superstars who dominated the industry.

Thus, both Ee Ma Yau and Kammatippaadam speak of the life of commoners, played by commoners of the industry. Even female characters are not embodiments of beauty. The costumes are aligned with the rural lifestyle. And there is almost no makeup. 

The audience of Malayalam films is conditioned. Their language is the crystallisation of what writers like Kamala Das and M T Vasudevan Nair portrayed in their works. Hariharan‘s renowned biopic of Pazhassi Raja depicts the ruler of Malabar speaking this Valluvanadan dialect akin to the central parts of Kerala. There is a hint of cultural revolution through the introduction of a native ethnic dialect and costume and makeup that are closer to reality.

Malayalam cinema rarely engages with Dalit issues properly, choosing to hide them under other issues, rather than talking about them directly. Caste is addressed effectively in Marathi films like Fandry and Court. But in Malayalam cinema, caste is embossed in other issues. That is where Kammatippadam and Ee Ma Yau call for a renaissance. Yet the question that remains is if such attempts to voice the unvoiced are truly successful or if they are a temporary break from stereotypes, only to be glued together later?


  1. You are brave enough to expose the ground realities that prevails both in the cultural and other walks of life in Kerala

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