I think this Rosy Memorial Lecture is a historically significant move for two important reasons. First of all it gives us a chance to remember and commemorate P K Rosy, the Dalit Chrisitan woman, who was the first heroine of the first film in Malayalam, Vigathakumaran, which was made and released by J C Daniel in 1928 in Trivandrum. This lecture series in her memorial will surely help us pay our tribute to this pioneering woman who came forward to act in cinema at a time when untouchable communities could not even walk on the road and enter other public spaces. This is even more important in the context of Dalit groups struggling to gain recognition for Rosy and in the context of the Chief Minister of Kerala promising to install an award in her name and going back on his word about it.
However, we must also remember that Rosy’s pioneering step was met with instant violence from Nair caste lords. On the very first day on which her film was released, men from the uppercaste Nair community tore the screen and broke up the show, unable to bear the sight of a Dalit woman in the role of a Nair woman acting out love scenes with another man. After this they started attacking Rosy. J C Daniel who made the film, tried to get her protection from the King, but the Nair landlords came in large numbers and burned down her hut and chased her out of the village. She was forced to run away from Kerala, never to return to the field of cinema.
The film, Vigathakumaran itself was shelved and J C Daniel its lower caste Nadar chrisitan film maker who was trying to recreate himself as a Nair through his film, was thwarted in his move and he too had to leave the film field incurring huge losses and plunging him into poverty. Rosy it is said made a new life afterwards, after she got married to an upper caste lorry driver and it is said that she spend the rest of her life working in a towel factory. Other accounts tell us that she committed suicide while trying to escape the Nairs.
The theater where Daniel first showed his film and where the Nairs tore the screen.
Given this history, it is really significant that we are remembering this woman who was violently denied entry into the public sphere of Kerala. Today I hope we recognize the magnitude of the violence meted out to her, which attempted not only to drive her out of Kerala and its public sphere but also out of its own social and cinematic history itself. We must also refuse the mainstream method of seeing all this as an aspect of our pre-modern past and look around and recognize and remember the violence against Dalit women and women from other marginalized communities, which is still a reality of contemporary Kerala both in its culture and in its cinema, in spite of all its claims to development and progress.
We must also remember that we are able to do this only because of the efforts of Dalit intellectuals like Kunnukuzhi S Mani who pursued the case of P K Rosy going after the sources and even finding and interviewing J C Daniel to get information about her by s peaking to Daniel who was then living away from the public eye, in utter poverty. Though today more people know about other mainstream intellectuals like Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan who has written the history of J C Daniel and Vinu Abraham who wrote a book on Rosy, it was the sustained efforts of Kunnukuzhi S Mani and Dalit groups associated with him, that actually helped bring back Rosy from where she was left to be forgotten forever and ever. It is because of the continuing efforts of such intellectuals and activists that P K Rosy was added to the history of Malayalam cinema.
Here we also must remember the P K Rosy Smarka Committee in Kerala, under E P Karthikeyan, which conducted a P K Rosy Memorial Lecture in Nov 2012, which was delivered by the prominent Dalit intellectual and film critic K K Baburaj. In this lecture K K Baburaj spoke about the subaltern woman, especially the Dalit woman who was denied entry into the public sphere when the Upper castes attacked P K Rosy and chased her out of Kerala. He also argued that it was Kerala progressiveness, which never questioned such happenings and has continued to support and promote such violence through their ‘progressive’ uppercaste culture, which makes subaltern women absent in all ways.
The only surviving still from Vigathakumaran
Secondly, it is important that we are having this memorial lecture, because it is a way in which we are able to insert the question of caste and gender into the Malayalam film festival circuit, which has always kept away from engaging with such issues. In fact, be it in films, film festivals, in academic discussions or in journalistic accounts, issues of caste and gender are systematically avoided both in Kerala and outside. So I hope that this space will be used to think about these issues and to keep alive a discussion on it which would also be the best way to keep alive P K Rosy’s memory. I really hope this space is not taken away from us and that in the coming years a Dalit woman or a Dalit Christian woman would come here to do this lecture.
And I also hope other lower caste women and Muslim women from all castes and regions in Kerala will be able to come here to talk about their own specific engagement with cinema. For the time being I will try to do some justice to this space from within the limitations of my own lower caste OBC location.
I have titled my lecture as – Locating Rosy: Can a Dalit woman play a Nair role in Malayalam cinema?
This is to challenge the sickening way in which P K Rosy and the violence that she had to face and live with is being discussed in the current Malayalam scene, especially after the release of the film Celluloid by the director Kamal, who hides his Muslim identity and name Kamaluddin Mohammed Majeed within the short form of Kamal. All the present discussions about P K Rosy takes her out from history as some kind of a museum piece and displays the story of how she was violently attacked by the uppercastes- as a sign of our gory and violent casteist past. This is in direct contrast to the way in which Dalit groups commemorate Rosy.
Mainstream discourses on the other hand, enhance the progressiveness and castelessness of their present with this new and attractive museum piece called P K Rosy.
For example, the documentary, Story of Rosy (K SANAL) in spite of its immense usefulness in bringing alive Rosy’s story is also somewhere structured along this “violent past- wonderful present” format. For instance look at the way the past is described here as:
an age when caste domination prevailed (jaathi medhavitham nila ninna kaalaghattam)
This is surely a way to talk about the present as being casteless and situate the violence that happened to Rosy as something belonging to an early era. Such a narrative, only works to add to Kerala’s caste-blind claims to progressiveness and enhances the present as being completely devoid of such caste violences which would oust women from both cinema and other public spaces in Kerala. However, if only we open our eyes and look around, we can say loudly that this is so untrue.
Take for example, the case of Chithralekha, which didn’t happen in 1930s, but 75 years later, that is in 2005. She was a Dalit woman who wanted to drive an autorickshaw but who was similarly harassed by OBC men belonging to the trade union of the CPM. They burned her auto which was her sole livelihood and just like Rosy, Chithralakeha was also driven out of her village and had to live outside it in another village, in a rented place, in great secrecy, afraid of being killed or hurt and she had to struggle for a long time before getting back to her village and driving her auto again. Even now Chithralekha has constant clashes with the CITU men in her village and for her, every day is a struggle, with none of those who attacked her and burned her auto getting punished because the legal case, which she is still fighting, is getting dragged on and on.
In Kannur, there are many other Dalit women whose autos were similarly burned, Dalit Christian, OBC and muslim women, who committed suicide and who have stopped driving autos after being attacked. I am speaking of this as some of us studied this area a few years ago; but in every field and in every sphere you will hear many such stories of discrimination, extreme violence, trauma and abuse.
Living in such a Kerala, where even today we have not been able to install basic dignity to Dalit and Adivasi women, to provide any legitimacy or space to Muslim women in the public sphere and to stop the economic and sexual exploitation of Bahujan women – it is really maddening to hear about P K Rosy without any attempt to draw parallels to the contemporary. In fact, the very fact that the mainstream is evoking this history and trying to preserve it through film makers like Kamal, makes it almost impossible to talk of the contemporary caste situation with regard to P K Rosy, which is what Dalit groups have always done.
Because when this mainstream preservation of film history-project is set in motion, immediately we are asked to delink the process of preserving or writing history from politics and to stop making the connection between Rosy and Chithralekha -and to allow it a pure insulated intellectual space. All this is coming from an uppercaste common sense, which deliberately and subtly argues that the writing and preservation of history is an innocent and apolitical act. Which we know is not true, and which is nothing but a way of circulating its own politics – something that is clear to anyone who cares to see.
In Kerala this is a time when the casteist film industry is being critically attacked and resisted. And this is not done by mainstream magazines like Mathrubhumi or Malayalam or mainstream intellectuals like C S Venkiteswaran who are happy getting State Awards and going to fully uppercaste film conferences. This is being done by fringe groups and blogs and online magazines and from various Dalitbahujan and Muslim locations. The critique has grown so loud that recently a famous director Lal Jose, even said something like he will go to court against unfair reviews or something to that effect.
It is at this time that the glorious reinstallation of Vigathakumaran is happening through the film Celluloid and everyone is suddenly speaking about those olden times and of Rosy and what happened to her –more than half a century removed from us – when caste violence was huge and Dalit Women could not even appear in a movie. What is this but just a way of trying to pull a cover on all contemporary issues of caste and violence, by pointing to the distance and making us look away from the present?
In fact, from the words of Dalit intellectuals who have seen this film in Kerala, and are keenly critiquing it, on Facebook, one can clearly understands the caste hegemony at work in the making of this film too.
As Ajith Kumar A S, Dalit intellectual, musician, writer and documentary film maker, writes about how this film puts forward the following problematic messages:
Caste existed then and now it is not there in Malayalalm cinema.
Caste is the problem of some Nair Madambis or Nair Feudal lords and not the problem of any particular social structure. Once Nairs became modernized all this has vanished. Earlier Nairs because of the special circumstance would use Dalits to play Nairs. Now for the dark-skinned heroine, we can bring in a fair non-Dalit and paint her black as it was done in this film.
(Rough translation by me from Malayalam)
Similarly Rupesh Kumar another Dalit intellectual, film maker and writer, is also fuming after seeing the film. He writes:
If in 1930 a Dalit Chrisitan woman had to face attacks from Caste Hindus and had to run away to Tamilnadu, today the film Celluloid is bringing her back to the screen again and killing her again
(Rough translation by me from Malayalam)
This, Rupesh feels is because the film which is supposed to be based on a novel on P K Rosy called the “Lost Heroine” by Vinu Abraham, completely forgets to highlight Rosy and instead gives all the space to J C Daniel and Prithviraj as J C Daniel. In contrast, Rosy is portrayed as a woman without any mind of her own and as someone who is only capable of showing docility to savarnas to the system of untouchability and run away after being defeated, Rupesh argues.
It is in this context that one feels forced to ask the question – Is Kerala so different from hundred years ago? And can a Dalit woman play a Nair role in Malayalam cinema today?
For this, I think we have to look closely at the caste gender structures of Malayalam cinema and examine it to see the way in which Dalit women have been represented and how they have engaged with this industry which is now claiming a glorious and progressive present in contrast to the violent Vigathakumarans of yesteryears.
However, before going there, I would like to briefly highlight two aspects of P K Rosy and her reception in Kerala, which clearly shows that even her reception and reinstallation by mainstream – that is by magazines, novels, academic work, etc – is marked by her caste gender status as a Dalit woman.
As we have already seen, though today all the credit goes only to people like Chengalottu Gopalakrishnan, the sustained efforts of Dalit activists, groups and intellectuals like Kunnukuzhi S Mani has played a really important role in the reinstallation of Rosy into Kerala’s film world and culture.
However, there is still a problem in the way Rosy has been received in Kerala. For instance look at the title of the first brief article in a film magazine about her, which described her as a Pullukachavadakkari or grass seller. The full title was:
The First Heroine is a Grass Seller from Trivandrum (Aadhya Naayika Thiruvanthapurathe pullukachavadakkaari)
At that time P K Rosy was just being discovered and this sensational title might have served its own purpose, however, even now this is which marks P K Rosy. Along with this comes the sentimental story of the Dalit woman who was picked up from where she was engaged in manual labour and then made to act in a film, which the Nairs of Trivandrum didn’t like. So they tore the screen and attacked her and she ran away and was saved by an upper caste lorry driver and spent a life hidden as an upper caste woman. In fact, in documentaries that try to visualize Rosy’s history – you can see her changed to the Tamil Brahmin Maamy– in an Tamil Brahmin Agraharam setting – applying Kolam outside her house – like a good Brahmin woman.
What such a caste-ridden narrative leaves unsaid is the fact that it is also widely said that Rosy was an active part of folk theatre before she came in to play the heroine in Daniel’s film. Rosy had already acted in Tamil Dramas and in the lower caste art form called Kaakarashy practiced mostly by Dalits and other untouchable castes. This was a dance drama based in mythology and it usually had men playing women’s roles. It was from this space where she had already been one of the first women to play the part of a woman that Rosy came on to Daniel’s film. However none of these facts comes into the publc memory and history of Rosy.
Even if documentaries and more serious pieces will tell us about this history, the mainstream cannot still write out a history of Rosy, which will try to show her as someone who braved the strict limits of her location and tried to enter a field monopolized by men. Thus our popular newspaper columns will never say:
Rosy who shone as a Kaakarashi artist is the first film heroine (Kaakkarashi Naadangalil thilangiya rosy aadhya cinemayile naayika)
We will not even say: The grass seller, Rosy, who shone as a Kakkarashi artist is the first film heroine (Kaakarashi Naadagangalil Thilangiya Pullu vilpanakaari Rosy aadhya naayika)
Thus we will reduce the Dalit woman to her labouring body and see her only in those confines after denying her any sort of status outside it -all of which will help the non-Dalit to establish their our own intellectual and social superiority.
So as Rupesh says, if the Nair landlords attack Rosy for daring to be a Nair woman on screen and thereby prohibit her public appearance and make her disappear from history itself, we also repeat the same thing though in a different way. We refuse to grant a fully developed subjectivity and reduce her to being a passive object that then J C Daniel picks up and transforms into an actress. In doing this, we also make Rosy disappear as a person and put in her place a lifeless victim on whom we can spend our sympathies. In other words, on encountering the invaluable history that Dalit male scholarship has revealed for the mainstream, the mainstream refuses to acknowledge its true meaning. Instead, it behaves just like the Nair landlords and pushes away the breathing, living woman and installs in its place a lifeless victim, on whom it can shower its sympathies so as to establish both its progressive and superior status.
The second thing I want to say is that there is also often an attempt to forget the whole caste issue surrounding Rosy and to make it into an issue of gender and of a woman who questioned the sadacharam or morality of her times, forgetting that she was persecuted only because she was a Dalit woman in a Nair woman’s role (or adding this fact as an appendage to the gender theme). What such comments forget is that a mere five years later in Marthandavarma, upper caste women acted various kinds of scenes without any one attacking them.
In short, today, when we are remembering P K Rosy let us also remember that only a very few people have worked on her history, many of them have been Dalit men who went out of their way to give both Rosy and J C Daniel a place in Malayalam film history. Their work has not been carried forward much within university spaces from the Dalitbahujan perspective and so far there has been no Dalit Chrisitian, or Dalit woman’s engagement with this history. And even if there were and is any, it is not well known.
So before we say or do anything, we need to retrieve or await this expansion of the given history and in the meanwhile facilitate it as much as we can, before we come to any conclusions about Rosy or try to establish our own non-Dalit conclusions about her as the truth.
The ‘truth’ can never be established as poststructuralists will remind us – but at least let us remember this poststructuralist truth, when we are trying to manufacture and establish our own truths about Rosy. This is specifically addressed to the uppercaste women in Kerala who are and will be studying Rosy and other Dalit, Adivasi, Lower caste and Muslim women with the force and hegemony of their own upper caste institutions, theories and concerns. This is a call for them to wake up and do some kind of introspection and study themselves and interrogate their own frameworks even as they are studying P K Rosy, instead of pretending to be the sole bearers of truth about Kerala, even as they systematically deny space and voice to all ‘other women.’ And more importantly, even as they keep on deconstructing and delegitimizing all non-Hindu, Uppercaste attempts towards creating other knowledge frameworks, by using their latest poststructuralist theories.
This alone, I think would do justice to her pioneering and original spirit.
Having said all this, let me move on to the main question around which I have organized this talk. Can a Dalit woman play a Nair in Malayalam cinema today?
In trying to answer this question one need to make clear something that uppercaste film reviewers, intellectuals and postcolonial and neo-Marxian academicians studying cinema have systematically failed to tell us. Malayalam cinema like all other Indian cinemas is not a foreign technology that came in from the west forcing us to deal with it from within our given postcolonial or pre-capitalist cultural complexities. In contrast, Malayalam cinema was a western technology that was seized and used by the powerful Shudra upper caste community of Kerala, mainly the Nairs, who had to rise out of their Shudra status and gain hegemony in the Kerala region, for which they captured all modern categories and institutions like literature, cinema, etc. In fact, Malayalam cinema has been one of the foremost vehicles for establishing this Shudra community at the center of Kerala modernity.
Cinema being one of the most powerful modern technologies that mirror the modern self in darkened halls became that mirror in which the Nairs imagined themselves as both modern and Malayalee. With the loosening of religious and caste sanctions and regulations, cinema then became that new social legislator, the new Manu of the modern era – providing legitimacy and power to the rising uppercaste Nair community for reproducing everything that is legitimate in the light of their own image. Thus from the time of Marthandavarma, they systematically mirrored themselves on screen and made Kerala mirror them in their food, dress, looks, and artistic and intellectual pursuits. Thanks to Malayalam cinema – to be secular, to be good, to be a citizen, to be creative, to be intelligent, to be meritorious, to be modern and to even be a human being is to be a Nair man or woman.
It is no wonder then that the Dalit female body of Rosy aroused such hatred and anger in the Nair landlords. She was pretending to be Nair, but even then they knew that hers was a body that they had strictly forbidden any kind of entry or space in the public sphere. Yet she was standing there instead of the Nair woman that the landlords could not bear to see on screen at that time, but demanding a legitimacy that they would not even grant even to Dalit men. The mirror that was to reflect their modern self was sending back the image of the Dalit woman that they never acknowledged even in real life except to exploit and use sexually. It is no wonder that the Nair men tore the screen in anger –Thus the mirror that mirrored the wrong image was broken and the Dalit body of Rosy was banished from Malayalam film history itself. And we would not have known anything about her if Dalit male scholarship did not step in and prevent its total erasure. We now know that a courageous and talented Rosy lived and acted even though she was eventually defeated.
After her defeat the Malayalam screen filled up with uppercaste women and personas played out by upper caste and Brahmin and Syrian Christian women – in the beginning Tamil actresses were imported to play out these Nair women personas, then came the Syrian Chrisitans like Miss Kumari and later Sheela, after this we got eventually our very own Nair sister Ragini, upper caste Kalamandalam trained Jayabharathi and later the Nair/Nambiar woman, Seema.
After Seema’s entry the Malayalam film screen has been strictly monopolized by various Nair and upper caste women like Ambika, Shobhana, Revathy, Urvashi, Karthikanon, Parvathy. (It is interesting to think that many of the non-Upper caste women in prominent positions in Malayalam cinema like Saritha were also non-Malayalee). And in the last few decades many Malayalee heroines started taking on their upper caste names also along with their names and thus we have Manju Warrier, Samyuktha Varma, Navya Nair, Priya Pillai, Nithya Menon, Karthika Nair and many others, all of whom played many roles as Dalit, OBC and even Muslim women but with their caste names loudly proclaiming who and what they are.
In this kind of a highly casteist scenario of representing women in Malayalm cinema, it is not surprising that to this day we have not had a single Dalit actress from within Kerala who has risen to be an important star in Malayalam cinema.
If among the plethora of heroines from Kerala, which we have had in the last few decades of Malayalam cinema, one of them is indeed a Dalit woman– this has not been made public knowledge. One says this because it is well known that Dalits survive in the industry by hiding their caste identities just as OBCs and Muslims pretend to be upper caste. So after Rosy, no Dalit woman has played the part of any heroine let alone a Nair woman on the Malayalam screen. If Rosy as a Dalit Chrisitan woman was persecuted for playing a Nair woman’s role, today we do not even reach to that level. Even before that all Dalit female bodies are totally erased from the mainstream of Malayalam cinema.
In fact the screen body of the heroine has remained a monopoly of Nair and Syrian Chrisitan women for more than half a century now. It was only in the last ten years that even Hindu OBC actresses have gained real prominence in Malayalam cinema. And moreover, often, like in the case of Kavya Madhavan who is a Chaliyar, belonging to a ritually higher OBC community, they have been more Nair looking than Nair women, going by cinematic standards. It is surprising that even Ezhava women actresses like Samvratha Sunil with their perfect ‘Nair looks’ even have been systematically given less important roles and very few main characters. In fact, she gained fame, in a role where she played an Ezhava woman as the daughter of the entirely comical and coarse Bahuleyan, an Ezhava business man, and till the end of the film she was projected as a villainic character. A similar fate is given to Reema Kallingal, who it is said is half Dalit and half Ezhava. She also gets to play sexually loose women and anti-heroines and is famous outside the screen also for drinking, her open views on sexuality.
Similarly though there have been a few Muslim women like Nadia Moidu and Surekha of the Thakara fame – we do not have a female Muslim star or persona, who stands for the Muslim location. Most of the Muslim women characters we see today are also played by non-Muslims and as in Thattathin Marayathu there is a deliberate attempt to bring in North Indian actresses to play Muslim women who are projected as extremely beautiful, exotic and out of the world. Also constantly Muslim women are written down as heroines only in roles that see them abandoning their ‘muslimness’ and moving into a liberal/uppercaste mode of gendered being. Adivasi women also find absolutely no space in cinema, except as hyper sexual maidens and they remain the most marginalized among all women in Malayalam cinema.
In short, with this Rosy Memorial lecture, we need to clearly remember this along with the life and courage and determination and eventual defeat/survival of P K Rosy. We are all part of a film industry which does not have a single actress from the Kerala Dalit location even today though its half a century after Rosy was chased away from Malayalam cinema. We also have not represented a Dalit or Muslim or even non-upper caste female body or persona in Malayalam cinema to compete with or stand alongside the Nair woman persona without which a Malayalam film cannot function.
Now we have to read this alongside two important issues. One is the fact that Malayalam cinema constantly shows the Nair female location as the ideal location, and tries to portray it as inherently pure, virginal and angelic, with most Nair women characters adhering to all codes of conduct, both sexual and social. In contrast, when the focus is on the representations of Dalit women like the role of the Dalit in Kalli Chellamma or the OBC women in Anubhavangal Palichakal or the Muslim women in Kuttikuppayam and the fisher woman in Chemmeen – all of which was done by sheela – we can see all these bodies and personas marked by a sexuality, which breaks all the given moral codes of the caste society, which only is possible for a woman from the uppercaste community. Thus most of these non-upper caste women have relationships outside marriage, before marriage and none of them are granted the sexual purity which is an inherent quality of the Nair woman. As a result of this just like Rosy was accused of not adhering to the morals of the land and attacked, the film narratives either kills or maims or breaks the families and hearts of these women. Even in all the new generation films like 22 Female Kottayam, Chappa Kurishu, Diamond Necklace, Annayum Rasoolum we see the same story repeating. Many of them are about women of different locations and all their bodies are played out by extremely fair, extremely tall women who in no way represent the woman they are trying to represent. This is most visible in the case of Anna in Annayum Rasoolum. Just watch the film to see how the central character of the sales girl is played by a woman who could be selected for a beauty pageant – given her height and model like features –is constantly shown against the dark thin figures of real sales girls, who neither have names or voices in the film.
In short, even as we are sitting here looking into a distant past of violence through P K Rosy, trying to understand what happened then and trying to make theories of it, that past is right here before us in our presence and on the Malayalam cinema screen and culture. We still have not been able to produce a cinema which can accommodate a female persona – real or represented – outside the savarna limits of the Nair woman. Even when we give space to Dalit, OBC and Adivasi and Muslim women we either create them as the ‘other’ of the Nair uppercaste woman or pull her to mimic the uppercaste persona, which is today the only valid woman persona in Malayalam cinema and culture. It is in this context that the representational aesthetics of a film like Papilo Buddha becomes important in spite of all its various problems. It is one of those rare films that was able to give us a Dalit woman persona, which largely escaped these hegemonic aesthetics. However, as we all know how this film was banned and how it did not make it to the mainstream market.
So now when we are seriously thinking of P K Rosy and what she signified and when everyone is talking of the violence that was meted out to Rosy, I think we need to commemorate Rosy by doing full justice to her memory and her life and work – for this we need to recognize study and analyze not only her presence in our past, but also right here in our present. We need to see that the screens that they tore away and the woman that they banished are repeating even now, although in a most discrete and unseen manner.
We have to accept that we are living in a highly casteist film culture which is denying even representational space to Dalit women, refusing to portray them, portraying them as hyper sexual and delegitimizing them while working to uphold the power and caste status of upper caste communities. We need to see that this is the same fate that is accorded to Adivasi women. Even lower caste, Muslim and other marginalized minority women in Malayalam cinema have been able to gain any kind of significant space. This is not to beg for representational space in a casteist film industry. But this is to expose it and question it and resist it and also to begin thinking about how these representational strategies are hugely responsible for the extremely marginalized status of Dalit and Adivasi women in Kerala and similarly for the social exclusion and exploitation that most Hindu OBC women and Muslim women face today in Kerala society.
(This is a slightly revised version of the paper read for the P K Rosy Memorial Lecture conducted by Smriti Film Club in Jamia Millia Islamia on February 23, 2013)
[Images courtesy: the internet; Video: Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes]
This article is also published on Round Table India