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Film Review

Movie Review: ‘Puzhu’ dissects the insidious worm of caste

Print edition : Jun 17, 2022 T+T-

Movie Review: ‘Puzhu’ dissects the insidious worm of caste

A scene from Puzhu (2022), starring Mammooty.

A scene from Puzhu (2022), starring Mammooty. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Puzhu is the most recent in a series of Malayalam films that have explored and elaborated on the ways in which caste hatred and violence works in Kerala’s body politic and social life.

The OTT release of Puzhu, a debut film by director Ratheena P.T. starring Mammootty, has triggered discussions about the brahminical mindset and its unholy potencies. It has also prompted one to probe into the many legacies of caste in Malayalam cinema.

Parvathy Thiruvothu with Ratheena P.T., the director
of Puzhu (2022).
Parvathy Thiruvothu with Ratheena P.T., the director of Puzhu (2022). | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Historically, casteism, like misogyny, has been ever present, both within Malayalam film narratives and in the film industry. It can be traced right back to the first Malayalam film, Vigathakumaran (1928) directed by J.C. Daniel, and the traumatic experience of its heroine, the Dalit actor P.K. Rosy. Rosy was hounded out of Thiruvananthapuram for daring to act in a film; the very sight of a low-caste woman on the silver screen enraged the upper-caste audience of the film and society at large. 

Down the decades, this legacy of casteism continued in many subterranean forms, modes, and hues. In the 1950s and 1960s,when Malayalam cinema was coming into its own, social realism was the aesthetic norm. The film narratives of the time, largely based on literary and theatrical works, frontally dealt with issues of social inequality, class divide, caste oppression, and untouchability. All the major films of the 1950s, such as Jeevitanauka (“Boat of Life”, 1951) directed by K. Vembu, Neelakkuyil (“Blue Koel”, 1954) directed by P. Bhaskaran and Ramu Kariat, and Rarichan Enna Pauran (“Rarichan the Citizen”, 1956) directed by P. Bhaskaran, had caste at the core of their narratives. 

Wearing their progressiveness on their sleeves, these films were populated by characters who wore and bore caste marks. The humiliations and conflicts of Dalits were enacted and elaborated not in the caste register but essentially as an economic and class issue/condition. And they were always framed within the larger narrative as the struggles of the citizen-to-be of the newly independent nation or as the emergence of the new secular individual of the modern age.

A still from Neelakkuyil (1954), one of the earliest Malayalam films with caste at the core of its narrative.
A still from Neelakkuyil (1954), one of the earliest Malayalam films with caste at the core of its narrative. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

In Neelakkuyil, the Dalit woman Neeli is betrayed by the upper-caste schoolmaster, socially ostracised, and finally driven to utter misery and suicide. But the film ends with the reunion of a happy nuclear family, when the “reformed” schoolmaster, along with his barren upper-caste wife, finally decides to welcome his son born of Neeli into their “family”. 

In many ways, the story of Malayalam cinema in the decades that followed originates from this guilt-ridden, sterile family that is forced to accept a Dalit boy born out of wedlock as their son. Love and betrayal, marriage and sterility, guilt and adoption—these are themes that underlie the “progressive” narrative of Neelakkuyil. It is also notable that the film is ambivalent about the figure of the schoolmaster, conventionally an agent of modernity and progress in the narratives of the time. His repentance and eventual “adoption” of his out-of-wedlock son into his upper-caste family has more to do with childlessness than remorse about his betrayal.

At the centre of the literary discourse and aesthetic imagination of the period was the conflict between the socialist-realist ethos that put class at the centre and the modernist-existentialist despair of the individual. Issues of caste never easily jelled with either of these trajectories of imagination and became marginal or incidental. The aesthetic discourse and artworks of the period gave one the feeling that Kerala was living in a post-caste society. The films of the time narrated the stories of secular, modern individuals who pined for love and struggled to create a new, egalitarian world devoid of all kinds of inequality and unfreedom.

In the following decades, that is, the mid 1970s to the 1990s—from Emergency to globalisation—explicit references to caste oppression and violence became largely invisible and unspoken. If at all it had to be dealt with, it was only hinted at subtly and indirectly. The upper-caste milieu became the home ground of Malayalam cinema and the Valluvanadan lingo popularised by the scripts of M.T. Vasudevan Nair, its official language. Characters from the lower-caste and minority communities either appeared at the margins or were packaged into stereotypes. Even the practitioners of “art” cinema shunned the caste question, never placing it at the narrative centre or confronting it as a core social issue 

A still from Perariyathavar (2015).
A still from Perariyathavar (2015).

The marginalisation of the caste question was further entrenched with the rise of Hindutva politics in the national horizon. Within cinematic narratives, this took the form of macho superstar heroes who flaunted their upper-caste insignia and heritage and harped directly and indirectly upon “merit”.

Interestingly, in the late 1980s and 1990s, two major actors—Sreenivasan and Kalabhavan Mani—brought caste brought back into mainstream narratives. Sreenivasan smuggled in the issue of caste, skin colour, and merit through his scripts, and in a series of films in which he was paired with Mohanlal, Mani embodied and asserted Dalit identity in all its dimensions: masculinity, voice, figure, and power. There is a scene in Mani’s first major film appearance ( Sallapam, 1995), where one of the villagers taunts a toddy tapper (played by Mani) whose name is suggested as a singer for the upcoming village festival: “A toddy tapper to sing? How good will that sound?” That comment voiced the loud and clear articulation of the Malayalam film industry’s mindset. But Mani defied all the derision to carve a space for himself in popular cinema and music, acting in more than 200 films in Malayalam, Telugu, and Tamil. Even at the peak of Mani’s career, many major actresses refused to be paired with him. Both Sreenivasan and Mani represent an era dominated by superstars and upper-caste narratives, where one had to either find devious ways to talk about caste or pay the price for it.

It is in the new millennium, coinciding with the end of the superstar era, that caste made its reappearance. The reasons could be many. For one, identity politics was gaining momentum; Ambedkar was emerging as an icon; and subaltern resistance was gathering momentum across the country and in regional cinemas. The shift to digital technology enabled many young film-makers to experiment with new themes and formats. They toppled the macho superstar reign, brought narratives down to the human scale, and foregrounded hitherto marginalised milieus and lives. For the small and nimble Malayalam film industry, the pandemic and closure of theatres proved a blessing in disguise. Young film-makers made several films on subversive themes on shoestring budgets. Released on OTT platforms, these films received critical acclaim and also commercial appeal nationally and globally.

A still from Ozhivudivasathe Kali (2015) directed by Sanalkumar Sasidharan.
A still from Ozhivudivasathe Kali (2015) directed by Sanalkumar Sasidharan. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

In fact, over the last decade, it is independent films such as Perariyathavar by Dr Biju, Ozhivudivasathe Kali by Sanalkumar Sasidharan, Kari by Shanavas Nuranipuzha, Pathinonnam Sthalam by Ranjit Chittade, and Aaradi by Saji Palamel that have searingly explored and elaborated on the umpteen insidious ways in which caste works in Kerala, ripping asunder its “progressive” and “secular” facade. These films narrate the subtle subterranean ways in which caste hatred and violence work through the sinews and nerves of Kerala’s body politic and social life, showing how money, language, food, community, neighbourhood ethics, and party affiliations are imbricated in it. Commercial films, too, responded to the anti-caste, anti-patriarchy mood in the air. Puzhu is the latest to emerge in this stream.

From Pathinonnam Sthalam (2017), directed by Ranjit Chittade.
From Pathinonnam Sthalam (2017), directed by Ranjit Chittade. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Puzhu belongs to the “woke” generation and genre where popular elements are smartly combined with politically correct themes. The man at the centre of Puzhu is Kuttan (played by Mammootty), who embodies all evil in society. He combines within himself the darkest aspects of caste, state, and money power: He is brahmin, a real-estate schemer, and a police officer. And now his life is plagued by the ghosts of the past, arising both from his toxic brahminical pride and his brutally corrupt career. Puzhu’s narrative revolves around two contrasting families, one patriarchal-autocratic and the other secular-democratic: that of Kuttan and his adolescent son Kichu, and that of Kuttappan, a Dalit stage artist (played by Appunni Sasi) and his wife Bharati (played by Parvathy Thiruvothu), who is also Kuttan’s sister. We get only scant glimpses into their past: we come to know that Kuttan’s wife is no more, and that it is Bharati’s second marriage. Kuttan’s internal conflicts and the tension between these families are aggravated when Bharati and her husband move into the apartment complex where Kuttan stays.

Kuttan is a man whose world is devoid of the world; enclosed and insulated, with all hints of the other banished from it. Casteist to the core, he is devastated when his sister marries Kuttappan. He supervises his son’s life in minute detail, through ritualised everyday routines: brushing teeth, eating, online music lessons, a daily report of events at school, homework, prayers, watching his mother on video, and going to bed. From personal hygiene to how to deal with “outsiders”, Kuttan reigns over every aspect of Kichu’s life. It is through this obsession with routine that Kuttan fights the spectres from his violent past.

In constant fear of enemies stalking him, he hunts down an easy victim, Paul Varghese, an erstwhile accomplice who was later betrayed by Kuttan himself. From his business discussions, we understand that Kuttan is involved in shady real estate projects. In effect, he is a deadly mix of fear, suspicion, cowardice, caste pride, arrogance, and violence.

A still from Puzhu (2022), starring Parvathy Thiruvothu and Appunni Sasi. The film revolves around two families, one patriarchal-autocratic and the other secular-democratic. 
A still from Puzhu (2022), starring Parvathy Thiruvothu and Appunni Sasi. The film revolves around two families, one patriarchal-autocratic and the other secular-democratic.  | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The only person he opens up to is his mother, who is bedridden and paralysed; in scenes reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Kuttan pours out his anguish, anger, and grief to her. With everyone else, he either commands or negotiates. He drives Paul Varghese to suicide, never trusts his business partner Jalal, recommends the dismissal of security staff at his apartment, dismisses the servants at his farmhouse on mere suspicion, and mercilessly gases the dog in his apartment. At one point, he even manhandles his son. In the name of the state, he puts Kabir in prison on terrorism allegations; in the name of caste honour, he murders his own sister and her husband. But the past eventually catches up with him in the form of Ameer, son of Kabir, who sneaks into his bastion like the mythical Thakshaka to take revenge.

The narrative of the film is framed by the mythological story of Thakshaka, the snake that finds its way into King Parikshit’s hideout in the form of a worm to kill him. In the film, the myth appears as a play performed by Kuttappan. We see three segments: the opening sequence where the king is out hunting in the forest; the episode where the king humiliates the sage by garlanding him with a dead snake and is cursed to be killed by Thakshaka; and the final scene of the confrontation between Kuttan and Ameer, where the sage addresses the king: “This is transmigration to take revenge; for that, the forest will reach the sea....”

Essentialising identities

In depicting Kuttan as monster; Bharati as woman caught between the anger, phobia, and ideals of men; Kuttappan as Dalit evangelist; Kichu and Paul Varghese as cowering victims; and Ameer as missionary assassin, Puzhu essentialises identities. It also conflates historic injustice and systemic violence with psychic disorder. In the process, it forecloses all the doors to reflection, ambiguity, redemption, or transformation. The film is best seen as a historical revenge against all the casteist, patriarchal upper-caste heroes and narratives that have ruled Malayalam cinema until now.

The caste factor also transforms into the cast. Ignoring the immanent power of caste in Kerala society, the film symbolically exorcises it by invoking in the star persona of Mammootty, who plays Kuttan, all the evils one can imagine: he is an abusive father, a corrupt police officer, a brutal real estate operator, and, above all, a brahmin who will go to any length to protect caste honour. It is the exact reversal of the umpteen macho-brahminical superman roles Mammootty has played in the past. So, it is a revenge within and without.

A still from Puzhu (2022). Kuttan is the exact reversal of the umpteen macho-brahminical superman roles Mammootty has played in the past.
A still from Puzhu (2022). Kuttan is the exact reversal of the umpteen macho-brahminical superman roles Mammootty has played in the past. | Photo Credit: YouTube Screengrab

The problem with revenge narratives is that they only cancel the other and annul all possibilities of transformation, which is what art, as against certain forms of political activism, is all about. Revenge settles scores but does not pose any ethical challenges to the unjust order or to hegemonies of any kind: brahminical, patriarchal, or statist.

By closing in on itself, the narrative also forecloses any imagination of potential futures, locking life and the world into an endless cycle of revenge. None of the characters in Puzhu is transformed or liberated in any way internally or externally: Kuttan is killed, leaving his assassin with no future; both Bharati, who crosses caste boundaries, and Kuttappan, the Dalit artist, are brutally murdered by Kuttan; Kichu faces an uncertain future as an orphan who will be brought up by his now even more vengeful paternal brahmin family. What is left at the end is the pungent taste of death and the poisonous vapours of revenge. How liberatory is a revenge narrative to deal with the complex hierarchies and devious operations of caste? Even while sharing its anger and outrage, these are some of the troubling questions that Puzhu leaves behind.