Tea Shops in Malayalam Cinema

Tea Shops and Malayali society go way back. Emerging in the 19th century, tea shops played a major role in shaping Kerala’s social and cultural fabric, even turning into cultural hubs in every little village and town. Tea shops were slowly incorporated into Malayalam cinema, making it an iconic element of the cinema world. Very rarely will you find a Malayalam movie that doesn’t feature at least one tea shop. Apart from being just a physical space where everyone gathers, this teashop and the tea-seller also sometimes act as one of the significant characters in the movie, playing a major role in the plot, storyline, etc. 

What Do Tea Shops Do?

While tea shops serve many purposes in Malayalam cinema, the most important one is the teashop as a “gathering place.” Teashops are usually situated in small towns and villages where people are familiar with each other. In such a setting, the teashop acts as the important center point where all exchanges between the villagers take place; it is the spot where they meet, where information is shared, where gossip is spilled, and where important decisions are made. In a society that is harshly divided on caste and class, the teashop becomes the only place where people from different strata can chance upon each other.

The teashop also acts as a convenient setting from where events of the village can be watched from. This teashop is usually placed in the bustling center of the town/village, where the main characters will have to pass by at least once a day, making it a convenient spot for the characters to enter and exit with a reason as simple as this– a steaming hot cup of tea! This cup of tea acts as a gateway into the developments that will later unfold in the movie. This convenience is especially utilized in the movie ‘Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal’ (1989).

Teashop & Tea Seller As Characters

In ‘Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal’, the physical space where the teashop is located, as well as the tea-seller, are both very significant elements in the movie. Pappan (Jagathy), after he’s kicked out of his position as a peon, goes directly to the village teashop to voice his problems. Sorrows are said, and solutions are made over a cup of tea. The tea seller, the barber, and the tailor, all of whose shops are set up beside each other, automatically become involved in Pappan’s life and his decisions. The upper-caste ‘Kurup family, who owns the college and is responsible for Pappan’s dismissal, are seen dining in their homes’ privacy, sharing their familial concerns amongst themselves. Pappan cannot meet them by the teashop, so he has to walk all the way to their home. 

Tea Shops in Malayalam Cinema

Sivasankaran (Jayaram) arrives in Peruvannapuram to replace Pappan as the peon of the local college. He is introduced to the village through the teashop. He stays for rent in the same building as the teashop and relies on the teashop for his meals. The protagonist is placed near the tea shop and dependent on it, making the teashop and the tea seller constantly present throughout the movie. He gradually develops friendships with them and shares his sorrows with the tea seller’s family. Many important spectacles, like how Kunjulakshmi’s brothers challenge Sivasankaran, and how he dares to marry Kunjulakshmi in 15 days, all unfold before the teashop. As witnesses to the scene, the villagers are also involved in the feud between Sivasankaran and the Kurup brothers. Even when parallel scenes of both sides are shown, the visuals of the Kurup house are of the Kurup family, while the visuals of Sivasankaran’s side are of the teashop, including the tea sellers’ family, the barber, the tailor, Madhaviamma (KPAC Lalitha) and other villagers.

Devasyettan’s Teashop in ‘Kadha Paryumbol’

While in ‘Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal’, the teashop is a medium to show the commoner’s support towards the protagonist, ‘Kadha Paryumbol’ (2007) portrays the opposite. In the latter, Srinivasan plays Barber Balan, the protagonist. Devasyettan’s (Mammukoya) tea shop is placed right opposite Balan’s barbershop. Much emphasis of the movie is placed on Balan’s occupation as a barber who is gradually running out of customers and is trying to manage a failing business.

Tea Shops in Malayalam Cinema

Another barber (played by Jagatheesh) who tries to make business worse for Balan is also placed on the same lane as the teashop. The movie uses this physical location and the element of the teashop to show the villagers’ contempt towards Balan quite publicly. The reason for the gradual contempt is due to Balan’s “alleged” friendship with a super-star Ashokraj (Mammooty), who happens to be shooting in their town that month. The villagers stop at nothing to catch a glimpse of the actor and even try to break into his house to meet him. When Balan’s age-old friendship with Ashokraj becomes the talk of the town, the villagers initially celebrate him, but when Balan cannot reach out to Ashokraj, he is mocked and humiliated by the same villagers.

The way this lane, consisting of the teashop and the barbershops, is used to show the villagers’ contempt towards him constantly is another way the movie manages to keep the storyline reduced to very few geographical locations– Balan’s little house for his family, and the teashop lane for the “public”.

Tea Shops in Malayalam Cinema

Another element we see in ‘Kadha Paryumbol’ is how the teashop allows the villagers to unite to ridicule the wealthy section of society or the pretentious “intellectuals” of their village. The miserly rich Eapachhan (Innocent) is seen entering the teashop once, only to boast about how he met Ashokraj, but the villagers themselves soon call out his bluff, and they, together, humiliate him. The communist politician is also seen exhibiting his ideology and humiliated for being hypocritical by the villagers and the frequent visitors of the teashop. The tea shop is a spot where all social beings meet from different parts of the village. It cannot be said that the teashop breaks this social barrier as we do not see the rich visiting teashops as much as commoners do, but it is the only spot where the rich can meet the commoner outside of their homes.

Teashops As Sub-Plots

In ‘Mutharamkunnu PO’ (1985), we see another interesting usage of the teashop for cinematic purposes– the sub-plot. The movie opens with Nakulan (Jagathy) announcing his new stock of snacks for the villagers. Nakulan’s brother, a tea seller, is his rival whose shop is set up beside his. When Dilip Kumar (Mukesh) joins the town as a postmaster, he is introduced to the village through the teashop as well, just like in Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal, and these two tea sellers compete to win Dilip as their customer. The tea sellers also send letters to each other, traveling through Dilip, the protagonist, keeping the tea sellers continuously connected to the storyline throughout the movie. Their rivalry act as a subplot in the movie. 

Tea Shops in Malayalam Cinema

Women & Teashops 

Just like real-life teashops in Kerala, no women characters see the face of the teashop in ‘Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal’, except for Madhaviamma and Mohini (Kalpana), the latter being the sister-in-law of the tea-seller. Kunjulakshmi, the only daughter of the Kurup family, never makes it to the teashop, and all the village gossip only reaches via Mohini.

Women who are not from upper-caste families, like Madhiavamma, still meet the men who hang around the teashop, unlike Kunjulakshmi and her friends. Like ‘Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal’, Balan’s family also does not see the face of the teashop. His wife never leaves the house except when they go to their children’s school to see Ashokraj. Even when she is required to see the public to boast about the friendship between her husband and the superstar, the public reaches her doorstep. She narrates made-up stories from the doorstep of her house, and this ‘public’ consists mostly of women, who also do not see the face of the teashop.

In movies like ‘Mandhra Mothiram’, we can see how the traditional, “respectable” female character does not enter the teashop, while the theatre artist does. Even when the theatre artist enters the teashop, the entire atmosphere of the teashop changes, with all the men surrounding her, serving her milk and snacks. Kumaran’s (Dileep) upper-caste girlfriend only passes by the teashop to reach her father’s ration shop and does not enter the teashop. The teashop here is a convenient public space from where she can “accidentally” chance upon anybody, especially her boyfriend.

Teashops in New Malayalam Cinema

Although the role or significance of tea shops has decreased very much in new Malayalam cinema, it still does not fail to make an appearance a few times. It is still retained in cinema, perhaps for aesthetic purposes. Movies like ‘Premam’, ‘Maheshinte Prathikaram’, etc., occasionally show a teashop here and there, notwithstanding any significance to the movie’s plot.

The depiction of tea shops in Malayalam cinema, for a long time, served as a powerful metaphorical and cinematic tool, reflecting various aspects of Malayali society, culture, and human emotions, as well as shaping certain plotlines, and even creating sub-plots for the movie to follow. These humble spaces, often showcased in a realistic and nuanced manner, became an integral part of storytelling in Malayalam cinema for a while and often continue to appear. 

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