Towards the middle of Aaraam Thampuran, a 1997 movie with Malayali actor Mohanlal in the lead, the hostile villagers are steadily awakened to the true ‘noble’ roots of the bad man who has bought the big house. The villagers – and the audience – are given broad hints that he isn’t just the goonda from Bombay they thought he was. It is in the nature of the movies the Malayalam industry was making in the late 1990s that Jagan (Mohanlal) was revealed to be not just a secret aristocrat; he was a secret aristocrat from the village who has now returned to his rightful place. The ‘Lost Heir’ is not a new trope, but hoary as it is, it can still be satisfying.
Unfortunately, what was memorable for me about the Lost Heir in this movie was something that happens in the middle of the film. Someone from the city comes to meet Jagan for prosaic business. The moment he sees Jagan the man is wreathed in confused smiles. “Aren’t you the Jagan who ran an art journal in Delhi?” Mohanlal the actor tries to look modest and yet cosmopolitan but looks like he is suppressing giggles instead. The establishing of Jagan the violent thug as a Delhi gallery owner, a classical musician in Gwalior, a jet-setting aesthete, is done with this swift exchange, followed by the arrival of his long-term city girlfriend who offers to cheer him up by taking him to any of his favourite places. “London? Paris? Vienna?” she trills alongside being ‘chulbuli’ – the pan-India cinematic mutation of female vivaciousness, which is usually represented as chihuahua on speed.
As an 18-year-old, Aaraam Thampuran made me wince for days. “Ningal Alle Delhi yile aaa art journal…? (Aren’t you…? The one who ran the art journal in Delhi?)” over the years became my shorthand for unconvincing, name-dropping arty characters in movies. It embarrassed me deeply. (Perversely, Suresh Gopi, hero of Lelam – also from 1997 – resorting to Yiddish in the middle of a trademark tirade against the villains, ‘You schmuck’, only made me fall about laughing.)
Over the years, I’ve also become a little grudging of the long explanation (such as the one in the above paragraph) I must make for this reference when I’m around someone who does not watch Malayalam cinema.
You’d think I’d have options other than Malayalam cinema for bonding in this movie-mad nation. My family was addicted to movie-watching in five different languages and thought it perfectly unremarkable. What was a bit unusual was that my paternal grandparents owned a movie theatre in the village for a while. We were packed off, all of us cousins, resident and visiting, to watch whatever raunchy 1980s Malayalam movie was running in the afternoon, to keep us off the streets and out of the pond or the local timber mill where the elephants were diligently working.
For a while, after the afternoon show, I’d race out to the back of the theatre hoping to catch the actors, since I’d somehow imagined that they were just behind the screen. No one worried about what we were watching. Movie-watching was completely respectable in that household. My paternal grandparents even offered to take my mother to the movies to distract her from labour pains when she was about to give birth to me. I suspect if the gimlet eye of her own mother (who was convinced that all in-laws are villains unless proven otherwise) hadn’t been on her, my mother would have gone gamely to the matinée. To see something by Sukumaran, probably, or MG Soman. Soman once turned up in the village to promote his movie and all of us grandchildren were gobsmacked seeing our house surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of fans. We got nowhere near the star, of course. But the stars seemed very close, so close that I’ve a false memory of staring into the sky after being told the breaking news that the action star Jayan had fallen off a helicopter during a stunt and died. An utterly false memory, because when Jayan with the Errol Flynn moustache died, I was just a year old.
After my parents left Kerala, first for Nigeria and then to Oman, their movie addiction continued. They watched British and American cinema (though I don’t think they discovered Nigeria’s own.) There is also some family legend that when we were robbed to the last spoon in Nigeria, my parents were left only with a trunk full of movies which they sold to finance my father’s visa to Oman.
Later, through their decades in Oman, my parents were always members of the local video library in whatever tiny town on the Batinah coast they were stuck in, and watched three or four movies every week. They watched Malayalam, Tamizh, Hindi, Telugu movies and of course, Hollywood. In the summers when my brother and I visited them from India, my mother stocked up the fridge with treats and piled up the videos that she had enjoyed all year.
I was more than happy to plunge into the crazy comedies that she usually picked, particularly because in Bangalore, where I went to school, my movie viewing was rather virtuous. The Kannada movie every Saturday evening (Rajkumar as Krishna, Rajkumar as James Bond) and something horribly cheerful in Hindi on Sunday evenings. The only Malayalam movies I caught on television were worthy national award winners like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and G. Aravindan works which, to my pre-teen self, were parodies of long silences and bewildering ambiguities.
Superficially, I went through the same rites of passage as everyone else of my generation in Indian cities, graduating from Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan, or from Kamal Hasan to Madhavan. But I had no clue what my friend Vinaya was talking about when she says she first understood sexual desire after seeing Amitabh Bachchan in Deewar, or my friend Paro, to whom Shah Rukh means pure love. I found romance in the crevices of Malayalam cinema.
Hollywood was where people tongue-kissed, the same fictional universe as Mills & Boons, where people had no parents and could do anything. Hindi movies had even more baffling people: those who knotted jaunty handkerchiefs around their necks and played pianos. Telugu movies had people doing aerobic routines en masse on shiny disco floors under shiny disco balls. Malayalam movies had Malayalis, who, like me, couldn’t dance, were uncool but snippy. At best, they could look over mountain vistas while clad in knotted sweaters. Mostly, they couldn’t do that either without making fun of themselves.
The climax of one of my favourite movies Mithunam (plot: Sethumadhavan wants to start a biscuit factory but everyone wants a bribe) works around a disastrous romantic getaway to the hills and the hero’s tirade against his long-term girlfriend’s cinematic expectations of love. I don’t know why Sethumadhavan bothered. The entire movie was puncturing romance in cinema. Here is Sethumadhavan and buddy outside his girlfriend’s house planning the quick elopement. Buddy peeps over the bushes and spies a teenaged girl sweeping the courtyard. Buddy: Is this thirteen-year-old the one you said you have been in love with for the last sixteen years? Later, as they are carrying away the girlfriend rolled up in a mat, Sethumadhavan spots his girlfriend’s older brother. Sethu: Oh my god, it’s her brother! Buddy: Is that the elder brother of the burden we are currently bearing?
Why would something so fundamentally anti-romance fizz in my veins?
I don’t want you to think these movies were charmless or nihilistic. They did have the lover who quotes a passage from the Song of Songs (“let us go out early to the vineyards and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened and the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give you my love.”); the woman who scams her neighbour and convinces him that her ‘foreign’ dark glasses give her x-ray vision to see through his clothes; the woman who goes from Bangalore to the funeral of her mercurial lover and finds the identical twin he’d kept in Kerala as a prank; the young wife of the old brahmin who is smeared with the face-paint of her Kathakali dancer lover.
It wasn’t that Malayalam cinema was staid either. I didn’t need to see Silk Smitha to be shocked. Why bother when there was Mammooty in an eye-poppingly tight swimsuit, or heroines in gratuitous towel-wearing-and-playfully-fighting-in-bed scenes? Why bother with item numbers when the worldliness of the script could titillate so much more? Take this scene: aunt of heroine tells her that she’d better marry suitable boy aunt has picked out or else. Heroine refuses. The very next scene: post-coital aunt in bed with suitable boy telling him to not to worry, the heroine will come around or she will be made to.
Or take the mildly arty film I caught one afternoon in which the orphan from the city who is trying hard not to scandalise the village inadvertently (when she is sitting at the stoop of the house she remembers to keep her legs covered entirely under long skirts) and is instead surprised by her first kiss – in broad daylight with a casualness and lack of soothing soundtrack.
It took me years to understand that the romance Malayalam movies offered me lay elsewhere. Somehow it had leaked out of everything from the Keystone Kop comedy of Nadodikkattu to Mithunam, to the political satire of Sandhesam into the real world. Romance lay in the particular comic timing of Malayalis: the deadpan delivery, the unexpected terms of reference, the particular rhythms of speech. Though I speak, read and write Malayalam, I’ve lived very little in Kerala and have no formal understanding of its literature. I don’t know enough to decide whether the Malayali men of my generation speak like the movies or the movies speak like them.
All I know is that a certain rhythm of speech will get me every time because it reminds me of a long history of movies: one collapsing on another with a clang and a crash like the school cycle stand when my friend Nishad came downhill and lost control of his new Hero Ranger. No, to be accurate they fall like the one pot that broke in the beginning of the 1994 movie Thenmavin Kombath (elderly lady to Manikyan: Are you saying the police came because you broke one pot at the market? Manikyan: Well, no, that was probably because the pot I broke had a few hundred pots above it.)
Sometimes it’s a just a silly memory. In my family, we just need to hold up a chilli with a solemn face to crack each other up. It evokes the matriarch of Melaparambil Aanveedu handing her three unmarried sons and her unmarried brother-in-law chillies like swords to take into battle, because gruel and chillies were the only items on the menu henceforth, because she had no plans to cook ever again.
Mostly, though, it’s not just deplorable nostalgia. My favourite exchanges were always the ones that went from grouchy to absurd in three sentences, usually written by the diamond-sharp (writer, actor, director) Sreenivasan. Observe my most beloved sequence ever in Sandhesam, a movie about two brothers who are lowly but rabid members of rival political parties. It’s lunchtime and each brother tries to turn their newly retired father (freshly arrived in Kerala from a lifetime posting in Tamil Nadu and hence, the movie implies, an innocent abroad) towards their side. Impassioned one-upmanship careens from the IMF to the gold standard to the devaluation of the rupee to the puppet government in Nicaragua, the collapse of Hungary, and ends with the Communist brother (Sreenivasan) sternly warning the Congress brother: “Polandine patti oraksharam nee parayaruthu (Don’t you dare say a word about Poland).”
I have my share of affection for Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan in Chupke Chupke and I smile politely at people who rave about Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. So polite that I don’t even think to myself: brother, what would you do if you watched Narendran Makan Jayakanthan Vaka, a surreal, serene comedy that spans the 24 hours of a man (non-resident Malayali freshly arrived in Kerala from Tamil Nadu and hence again, the movie implies, an innocent abroad) trying to get compensation for the property that his father lost to the Kannur Airport? What would happen is that your brains would leak out of your ears.
But I don’t say that. My pleasures remain private.
When I was 24, I was stuck on a project for weeks at a stretch with a pothead designer. He had nothing to recommend him except his general sweetness and the facsimile of Malayalam movie comic timing that I now realise I’m fatally attracted to. The rest of the package – the distrust of emotion, the moping, the languor – I could do without. I did do without.
Years later we bumped into each other on the street. I was hanging out with N, a Malayali friend who speaks less Malayalam than I do and for whom, therefore, Malayalam humor is only accessible as a bittersweet groupie. Obviously, in his presence I like to perform quick acts of Malayaliness. Like teasing a true-blue Malayali in Malayalam. Acquired as my register is from movies which give female characters next to nothing to do or say, my ‘material’ (as the stand-ups say) is necessarily laddish. I’m inclined to say shavam for effect. (What? It means corpse and don’t ask me why it’s a swearword). I’m inclined to say shavam, kundam, myru (corpse, spear, pubic hair) not ‘sheeee’ or ‘cheee’ as ladies ought to.
So there I was doing my number and my lost-lost crush put up with it for a while. He was silent as the tomb as he had always been. When I teased him about something obscure he waited two beats and then said, “oho.” Then another beat. N and I stared. “Vitt-uh.” he completed deadpan. I was slain. Living across the border from Kerala, N and I have to wait for years before there is any context for anyone unleashing that familiar, contemptuous Malayalization of the English word ‘wit’. For N and me, it was better than sex.
* * *
The Malayalam folk rock band Avial has made some inroads into the world of my Malayali and non-Malayali friends in the last few years. Though I like some of their tracks I have an irrational suspicion, a Scrooge-ish resistance to their trendiness among some people I knew.
As Malayalam cinema becomes more globalised, has more globalised faces, bodies and features, embarrassments such as whirling dervishes on Kozhikode beach (oh Ustad Hotel, how I loved you for the first twenty minutes with your screen-full of cute hijabi girls before you pulled your faux-Sufi nonsense on me) I’m rendered more and more cranky.
I saw Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi and pulled my hair out in clumps. The cute-boy protagonists are riding through the country on fancy motorcycles, okay. They are being serenaded through said south Indian countryside by piggybacking rollerskaters, er…okay. But the voice-over in half-Malayalam and half-English made me cry: “They say the road has answers for everything. Enalum enyike chothiyangal ilayaranu. I was confused on (sic) identity, politics, happiness, freedom. The only thing I was always sure about ente vidhi ente thirumanangalanu and I chose to be with her.” This movie may well be somebody’s Dil Chahta Hai but boy, does it look like one giant Delhiyile art journal.
It isn’t nostalgia that makes me resistant to the smart, new movies of Malayalam cinema. It is the knowledge that I may have to wait a long cinematic lifetime before smart patter comes back, absurdity comes back, uncool comes back. For a brief while, my neurotic, shifty sense of humor and desire for self-deprecating romance was in sync with what was on screen. For a brief while, I possessed cinema aglow with men who were not dudes, who were utter failures at being dudes, who broke your heart permanently with their undude-ishness. Their toes were almost always making circles in the sand while the heroines stared bemused at them. When the scripts required them to be jet-setters they looked giggly.
The beginning of the end came with a swathe of macho movies with two-word English titles: The King, The Commissioner (and to our recent horror, a sequel called The King & The Commissioner). The soft, dysfunctional heroes I loved were suddenly bursting out of tight uniforms or uniform-like office gear. Their mouths were filled with tooth-cracking, breathless rants about the evils of the nation and the worse evils of forward women in trousers who have careers.
For a long while I stopped watching Malayalam movies. I switched to Tamizh where luckily the age of the sexy, dysfunctional hero was just around the corner.
My baby cousin Prem (well fine, he is a giant six-foot person now) is my current source for the best things from Kerala. I trust, for instance, that he will not peddle two random boys on bikes surrounded by roller-skaters with a portentous voice-over to me. After all, when I started researching Malayali nurses he blew my mind by making me watch 22 Female Kottayam, the adventures of the bobbitising nurse Teresa Abraham. So when he sends me a link saying watch this, I watch it. Even if it is a video of Avial’s song from the soundtrack of the Malayalam movie Salt N’ Pepper. I’d mildly enjoyed the movie for its slightly stoned and runaway plot about two not-so-young people finding love through cooking.
Revisiting the music video didn’t seem like too much fun. Here were the dudes jumping around doing their dude thing singing in a flood-lit set (with motorcycles and extraneous sofas) about Ayyapan the elephant thief, Ayyapan the yam thief. Why should I care, I thought in my familiar Scrooge-ish way.
And then I saw it. On the dudes’ t-shirts was the almost-impossible-to-read line: “Polandinepattioraksharam nee parayaruthu.”
I won’t say a word about Poland if you won’t.
Nisha Susan is an editor for Yahoo! Originals and the women’s zine The Ladies Finger. Her fiction has been published by n+1 magazine, Caravan, Out of Print, Pratilipi, Penguin and Zubaan, and she is currently working on her first book.