For a long time, Malayalam Cinema has been suffering from an imbalance of representation, both on and off the screen. The caste discourse remained largely invisible in cinema, and upper-caste narratives largely dominated storylines. Words like ‘Pulayadi Mone,’ ‘Chetta,’ and other casteist slurs were thrown around mainly by the protagonist, who is almost always a male, bestowed with an upper-caste identity. These identities are marked very clearly through their surname, how they speak, their lifestyle, etc.
The last few years have seen a change in this narrative with the oncourse of experimental Malayalam cinema. A dominant narrative was slowly subverted, with non-savarna characters playing the protagonist, the rise of the ‘anti-hero,’ and the underlying themes these movies engaged with.
Here’s a list of movies from the last few years that acknowledge or actively engage with the question of caste:
Puzhu (2022), directed by Ratheena, is an interesting dive into the psyche of a caste Hindu man (played by Mammootty) who is also a father to his only son, Kichu, whom he raises with strict discipline. What makes Puzhu interesting is that while the protagonist, Kuttan, remains an upper-caste man, he is the film’s anti-hero. He is blinded by caste and has cut off contact with his sister (played by Parvathy Thiruvothu) because of her elopement and marriage to a Dalit man, Kuttappan. Kuttan’s gradually growing paranoia is a metaphor for how bigotry, hatred, and constructed notions of “purity” and “pollution” can drive a human completely insane.
Check it out: The Many Faces of Fatherhood in Malayalam Cinema
Pada (2022), directed by Kamal K, is probably one of the few films in Malayalam cinema to explicitly discuss the displacement of the tribal people and tribal land rights in Kerala. Starring Kunchako Boban, Vinayakan, Joju George, and Dileesh Pothan in the main roles as members of an organization by the name ‘Ayyankali Pada,’ this hostage-drama thriller is one of Malayalam cinema’s finest masterpieces. Along with Vishnu Vijay’s brilliant soundtrack that completes the movie, it grabs a solid 10/10 for me!
Must Read: The Real-life Incident That Inspired Pada
Attention Please (2021) is a horror thriller directed by Jithin Isaac Thomas, starring Vishnu Govindhan as Hari, the protagonist. This thriller is an experimental take done in a minimal setting of a house, along with four other characters. They are all movie lovers and bond over the fact that they can continuously nag Hari over his failure as a struggling scriptwriter trying to make it in the industry. The movie only subtly hints to us that Hari is a Dalit man and then is handed over the entire spotlight from the second half onwards, gradually making him the center-point of the film. The movie also engages with the problem of colorism in Kerala.
FaFa starrer Malayankunju (2022) also has the protagonist being the anti-hero of the film. Anikuttan (played by Fahadh Faasil) is a technician whose father killed himself because of her sister’s elopement with a lower(ed) caste man. Anikuttan’s inherent casteism is made personal through the loss of his father, and separation from his sister. He hates her husband and also hates his neighbor, whom he calls “pulayan” derogatorily, and this hatred also spills over toward their newborn child, Ponni, as she cries throughout the night. Although the movie takes a redemption route resulting in a newborn Anikuttan who is “free” of casteism and hatred, which is far from reality, the movie acknowledges the caste problem.
Veyilmarangal (2020) is a drama film directed by Dr. Biju. It is the story of a Dalit family who lost their little house on an island due to floods and relocated to Himachal Pradesh to work in an apple orchard. The movie follows their struggles and highlights the casteism they face at work and in public. The way in which Kerala police torture people of the Dalit community over alleged theft cases is shown more than once in the movie, contrasted well with a portrait of Dr. B. R Ambedkar in the police station. By consciously marking the policeman as a ‘Pillai,’ the movie reflects on how systematically casteism works in society and how it impacts the oppressed.
Although Malayalam cinema has attempted to acknowledge the existence of caste in its movies, many movies still reflect caste pride and caste prejudice and normalize casteist slurs. The number of non-savarna actors, directors, and screen-writers remains very less in the industry, and Dalit/Bahujan representation is far from ideal in cinema. Hopefully, with more representation, the world of Malayalam cinema will prosper in terms of quality, content, and sense of justice.
Comment below on any caste-centric movies I might’ve missed on this list!