While the whole world searches for details of PK Rosy after Google Doodle celebrated the first female lead in Malayalam cinema on the occasion of her 120th birth anniversary on 10 February, the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy has to do some soul-searching for its shame.
For reasons known only to the self-proclaimed progressive filmmakers at its helm, the government agency has been sitting over a simple but remarkable proposal for over a decade: Rename the state’s Best Film Actress award after Rosy, the Dalit Christian woman who faced attack from upper-caste Hindus for acting in the first Malayalam film opposite producer-director-actor JC Daniel as a Nair woman and escaped from Thiruvananthapuram to Nagercoil in present-day Tamil Nadu.
Interestingly, then chief minister Oommen Chandy mooted the concept of renaming the award in 2012 while attending the pooja ceremony of Celluloid, a biopic on JC Daniel by acclaimed filmmaker Kamal.
Since then, several agitations were held in front of the academy demanding the renaming of the award, but the proposal remains unaddressed.
Dalit activists in Kerala blame caste prejudices of upper-caste Hindus, who dominate the Malayalam film industry, for the delay.
PK Rosy & the making of Vigathakumaran
For the upper-caste elements in Malayalam cinema, PK Rosy remains an outcast, and celebrated heroines might feel uneasy at the thought of receiving an award named in memory of a Dalit woman who not only dared to act in the first Malayalam movie, Vigathakumaran, as a Nair girl but also compelled the male lead to kiss the flower that adorned her hair.
Daniel, too, had faced attacks for prompting a Dalit girl to act in his film, the state government honoured him in 1992 by establishing an annual award after him, and it remains the highest film award in Malayalam.
According to late journalist Chellangatt Gopalakrishnan, Daniel was looking for a girl to play the female lead in Vigathakumaran and was informed about Rosy by one of his friends, Johnson, who ended up playing the main antagonist in the film.
Rosy used to walk to the location daily till the shooting was completed. She reached the location by 9 am and returned home late in the evening.
Before leaving the location, Rosy’s duties included cleaning up the kitchen and vessels there. She was paid ₹5 every day.
In 2020, when Kani Kusruti was chosen as the Best Actress in Malayalam for her stellar performance in the film Biriyaani, she dedicated the win to Rosy at the acceptance event, calling her the first heroine and first Dalit actress of Malayalam cinema.
In a way, it was a kind of protest against the academy that manages the state’s annual film awards.
In the meantime, a memorial committee on Rosy is giving annual awards to women who excel in film and theatre.
And across the state, she lacks memorials or facilities that can keep her memories alive for future generations.
Also read: Meet the Kerala Dalit voice who refused award for autobiography
No laurels, no glory
Even when Kamal was the chairman of the academy, no step was taken to honour the legacy of Rosy, for whom life was never rosy.
Critics took serious objections to even Celluloid, which became a blockbuster in 2013 and helped Daniel find a place in the hearts of film aficionados in Kerala.
Although inspired by journalist-turned-writer Vinu Abraham’s novel Lost Heroine, which was about the fictional story of an actress who escaped from upper-caste Hindus of Thiruvananthapuram, the film conveniently forgot to highlight Rosy. The script was prepared in a way to portray Daniel, played by Prithviraj, an icon.
In the case of Rosy, played by newcomer Chandini, the character was portrayed as a school dropout without any mind or substance.
She was seen as someone who exhibited docility to the upper-caste arrogance and escaped from the town after getting defeated by the system.
Some of the film’s reviewers even tried terming her “Pullu Kachavadakkari” or grass-seller.
Her humble family used to cut grass from vacant or government lands to sell to people who reared cows.
Feature writers still describe her as a Dalit woman who was accidentally picked up from where she was engaged in manual labour and then made to act in the film by Daniel.
A documentary on her describes her later life in Nagercoil as a Tamil Brahmin woman who created Kolam outside her house every day.
It remains less discussed that Rosy was an active part of folk theatre prevalent in Thiruvananthapuram and its surroundings before becoming the heroine in Daniel’s film.
She acted in several Tamil lower-caste theatre performances. The dance drama Kaakarashy used to revolve around mythology and was a male bastion before Rosy entered it. Men used to play women’s roles in Kaakarashy.
Also read: Kallen Pokkudan, the legacy of a poor Dalit conservationist
PK Rosy, a life of strife
Fundamentally, Rosy was a Dalit woman who dared to break the male bastions in theatre and cinema.
She was also unmindful of the geographical and linguistic boundaries even as she found that her native offered her nothing but hostility.
By the writings of Gopalakrishnan, who deserves credit for researching Rosy many years after she went into exile and disappeared from the public gaze, Vigathakumaran was released at Capitol Theatre in Thiruvananthapuram on 7 November, 1928.
That was back when lower-caste people were not even permitted to walk on the main roads.
Despite the prevailing untouchability, Daniel invited a number of top personalities from the upper-caste communities — mostly Nairs and Nadars — for the screening.
However, he did not invite her to see the film for obvious reasons.
Yet, Rosy, who dared to act in the film despite anticipating opposition from upper-caste Hindus, went to the venue with a friend.
Lawyer Malloor Govinda Pillai, who was invited to inaugurate the screening, objected first by saying he would not inaugurate it until Rosy was removed from the audience. So she moved outside the theatre and waited.
When the film was screened, it infuriated the upper-caste Hindus as it showed the Dalit woman acting as a Nair.
By the time the scene in which Daniel kissed the flower on Rosy’s hair was over, the audience erupted in a revolt. They demolished the screen and chased away Rosy.
When she found refuge in the drama company at Thycaud, to which she belonged, a mob attempted to set fire to the building. She had to flee again.
Her hut at Peyad on the city’s outskirts also was set on fire.
While Gopalakrishnan made pioneering efforts in tracing the legacy of Rosy, Dalit intellectual Kunnukuzhi S Mani helped bring back Rosy from where she was left to be forgotten forever.
A Dalit collective in Thiruvananthapuram conducted the first PK Rosy Memorial Lecture in 2012.
According to Kunnukuzhy, Rosy was running towards Karamana on the south of Thiruvananthapuram from Thycaud when she saw a lorry come by.
It was bound for Nagercoil, and Rosy stood in the middle of the road and sought help raising her hands.
Driver Kesava Pillai, an upper-caste man by birth, took her into the lorry and went to Nagercoil. He took her home, and they got married.
Pillai was a bachelor when he met Rosy, and he was kicked out of his family upon learning about the marriage.
Rosy changed her name to Rajammal and became a mother of two. She died in the early 1990s.
Lack of legacy
Dalit intellectuals and activists now feel progressive Kerala is celebrating Rosy as a museum piece to trumpet its so-called transformation as a casteless and progressive state.
And they are asking why Kerala is not renaming the award despite it being an assurance from a chief minister.
However, Kerala still shows indifference to Dalit and Adivasi women, especially those daring to defy the system.
And the casteist film industry is strong in the state despite its progressive moorings.
There is no other reason for not renaming the award and not setting up a chair or research centre on Rosy in any of the Kerala universities.
Daniel recaptured his lost space, though much later. But PK Rosy is still an outcast.