As Sunday, 24 September, marked the 11th death anniversary of legendary Malayalam actor Thilakan, it was only poetic that on the same weekend, the Museum of Kerala History at Edappally, Kochi presented the city with a lecture on caste politics and representation in early Malayalam cinema.
Hosted as a part of their lecture series “Janal Talks”, the museum attracted cinephiles and academics across the city to attend a lecture delivered by Dr Bindu Menon Mannil.
Titled “Skin: A Surface History of Caste in Early Malayalam Cinema”, Dr Bindu’s talk examined the visible representation of caste and community through the picture board illustrations of Ramavarma Appan Thampuran’s proposed film, Bhootarayar.
As Dr Bindu turned the clocks backwards to reveal the history of caste politics in Malayalam cinema, Thilakan’s voice calling out its contemporary influence still resounds today.
Thilakan’s vocal protests against the habitual caste discrimination of Malayalam cinema associations were as popular as the revered actor himself.
His accusations against AMMA, the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists, were met with dire consequences, as he was denied many opportunities in the later years of his life.
Thilakan openly spoke about a “Nair lobby” that dominates the Malayalam cinema industry and inhibits the growth of artistes from lower caste backgrounds.
While his acting years allowed him to address the caste politics within his industry, his defiance against caste discrimination followed him from his youth.
In one of his interviews, the actor recalled an incident when he was almost denied admission into SN College on account of his refusal to mention his caste and religion in the application form.
Although Thilakan’s filmography is free from typecast roles, other actors like Kalabhavan Mani were not as lucky.
Hailing from the Dalit community, the late actor also received legendary status for his celebrated roles in Malayalam cinema and his success as a “naadan paattu” (folk song) singer.
While Mani confidently faced challenging roles and triumphed in his performances, some of his most notable characters originated from a disadvantaged background.
From Ramu, the visually challenged street performer in Vasanthiyum Lakshmiyum Pinne Njanum (1999), to Kuttan, the mentally disabled man in Karumadikuttan (2001), Mani’s casting in these roles prodded many to wonder why his exemplary performance did not lead to him mainstream hero roles.
Technicolour-ism in an identity
As selective casting based on caste and colour profiling pervades most Indian film industries, Dr Bindu’s lecture on caste history in Malayalam cinema explored the visual genealogy of casting the body on screen and how the embellishment of certain physical attributes highlighted the caste of a character.
A discussion of caste in Malayalam cinema can begin from none other than the story of PK Rosy, the first actress in Malayalam cinema.
Playing the role of a Nair (upper caste) woman in JC Daniel’s Vigathakumaran (1930), Rosy — from the Dalit community — was met with life-threatening responses.
Stones were pelted during the film’s screening in Trivandrum after which audience members burnt the actress’ house to the ground, eventually chasing her out of the State.
Dr Bindu parallelly drew a paradoxical response met by Collector Malathi (1967) where legendary actress Sheela adorned brownface to play the role of a woman from a marginalised community, introducing the impact of colour on the “film body” of a character and how it was used to define a character’s entire history.
“The film body is a very constituted body. It is not the social body. It emerges through a series of cinematic techniques starting from make-up to kinesics to lighting and so on. Any kind of body that you see on screen is built through these kinds of techniques,” she explained.
Real politics in an imagined past
While the film was never made, its preparations launched in 1937 gave birth to the first picture board made in the region that consisted of character sketches made by Appan Thampuran and an unknown local artist.
The duo created 16 sketches of characters from Appan Thampuran’s book of the same title which was a sociopolitical narrative that combined mythology and history to imagine the communities of the past.
As such, the characters consisted of powerful Brahmins, Nair monarchs and tribal chieftains.
“Colourism creates a consciousness around these bodies,” Dr Bindu revealed as she introduced the characters of Ramavarma Appan Thampuran’s Bhootharayar.
She identified the colour variations used in the creation of the different characters.
“It operates through a binary set of relations,” she said, describing the universal polarisation of white versus black, which in popular storytelling has developed a connotation of good versus evil.
“The sketches are a method of representation,” Dr Bindu added, revealing that each character is explored separately by detailing their costumes, instruments and iconographic elements that are associated with their social type, “which is the caste community they belong to.”
While the sketches of the upper caste characters reveal elements that establish a Puritan authority, the characters belonging to the lower caste communities bear only the names of their tribes and their clothing.
“Each of these bodies is marked in specific ways to establish differences,” Dr Bindu said, terming the caste body in Appan Thampuran’s character sketches a “fiction of differences” that is established through physical attributes such as skin colour, hair texture, and clothing.
“These features, reinforced by cinematic techniques such as make-up and lighting present caste as a visual apparatus utilised to mark and categorise bodies, thereby linking them to socially, culturally and historically constructed sets of identity categories or roles,” she added.
More than what meets the eye
When bodies are judged by what lies on their surface, “the notion of an inner truth is discarded,” Dr Bindu shared.
“In such situations, the essence of individuals is read by the surfaces of their bodies,” she added.
Revisiting PK Rosy one last time, Dr Bindu pondered whether she experienced a moment of passing, playing her character in Vigathakumaran (1928), transcending a physical and social space outside the boundaries of a casteist society.
Looking back at Thilakan’s iconic filmography and marvelling at the many faces he adorned, we witness the many moments he lived on screen that allowed him to soar above the powers that tried to tie him down. What may be most admirable is that from this vantage point, he revealed to us what really goes on behind the screen.