From Caste to Class: Recovering North Kerala in Malayalam Cinema

Scope | Shyma P

publicity material, Urumi (Santosh Sivan, 2011)

There has been a resurfacing of North Kerala [1] in predominant ways in Malayalam cinema post-2009. A series of films beginning from Paleri Manikyam: Oru Pathira Kolapathakathinte Katha (Ranjith 2009) has North Kerala being inscribed as a region of historical significance, political consciousness and secular values. This transition, however, reiterates the casteist patriarchal ideology of Malayalam cinema rather than suggesting an ideological shift to the contrary. This shift ought to be seen parallel to the atmosphere of dissent among a section of the CPI (M) who argued that a community-based identity (gender, caste, environment etc), was essential in understanding subjectivities, rather than considering the class base alone [2]. The shift to Northern Kerala at this juncture may be seen to be part of reasserting the class-ist tradition of communism in Kerala, the centre stage of which was Northern Kerala. The region in these films reaffirms the class based tradition of communism in various ways and identifies the “can-be-destroyed-but-cannot-be-defeated” class (casteless) males as the agencies of progress and modernity.

North Kerala had been a space of the yet-to-be-modern in cinema in various ways. Several of MT Vasudevan Nair’s films (like Oppol) marks the place as a forest land housing tribes that need to be cleared for habitation, the Vadakkan pattu films of the 1970s visualizes it as a space of exotica while films like Madhuranombarattu (2000) associate a kind of untamable wildness to the region. The transition of the regional imaginary from a belligerent to a benevolent one in cinema is quite recent, apparently taking off with Paleri Manikyam. “I am neither a communist nor a believer, only a barber,” declares the comrade of the 1930s and 1940s, Barber Kesavan, in Paleri Manikyam, the one person and memory that helps Haridas to locate the Muslim villain and solve the mystery of Manikyam’s murder, after 52 years. The film is quick to assert the working class allegiance of Kesavan over his caste identity of an ambattan (Barber). This assertion of class communist reformist identity at the cost of communitarian identities, so central to the reclaiming of communist pride in Paleri Manikyam constitutes the ideology of the shift to North Malabar in Malayalam cinema post-2009. This class-ist narrative appropriates divergent experiences of historical figures, Theyyam artistes etc, unifying them within a common myth of class based communism, annihilating any communitarian pluralities. The male reformers/fighters/protectors of women, nation and region in these films based in North Kerala walk out from or walk into this caste less class- ist paradigm.

publicity material, Chayilyam (Manoj Kana, 2014)

A number of films were released at the time which highlighted the importance of North Kerala to the making of modern Kerala. Kerala Varma Pazhassi (Hariharan 2010) was a historical drama based on the revolts of the Hindu prince, Pazzhasi Raja in the princely state of Kottayam, who fought against the British in the 18th century. Urumi, (Santhosh Shivan 2011) another period film, was set in the early 16th century, and is about the uprising in Calicut by the Brahmin Kelu, against the Portuguese in Malabar. The murder of his father, adding to the personal reason for the uprise, Kelu plans to murder Vasco da Gama, who has returned to India as a Viceroy and ends up wounding Gama fatally before being killed himself. These films reclaim the significance of upper caste heroes led fights against the British and the Northern regions of Kerala, where these protests happened to the forming of modern Kerala. Certain other films highlight the need to cast off communitarian identities as means to attain modernity. Maanikyakallu has the young teacher coming from North Kerala to rescue a government school in South Kerala, that had a glorious past but is on the verge of being shut down as there are fewer than 150 students enrolled there. Chayilyam (2014) has another such wo/man who has to forfeit her communitarian identity to claim freedom as a woman. Thattathin Marayathu (2012) has a progressive/communist Nair male helping the Muslim Ayesha escape from her Orthodox household.  Malarvadi Arts Club (2010) once again has a group of communist youth who act as saviours of the village. KTN Kottur (2014) is about the emergence of a male writer with a communist past. Bhakthajanangalude Shradakku (2011) narrates the reformations of the communist Vishvanathan who decides to stop drinking and become a responsible family man and comrade.

The wo/men in these films are either reformists or have to show their credibility by foregoing their communitarian statuses. Both these were integral to the mainstream communist history of the region. The figure of the Nair reformer of a class-ist communist past, who leads the ignorant Malayalis to modernity and progress is an endearing one to the majority of mainstream histories of Kerala like those of Robin Jeffrey and Dilip Menon as well as in the autobiographical and biographical writings of communist leaders like E.M.S. Namboothiripad, A.K. Gopalan, P. Krishna Pillai, etc.

This upper caste communist/progressive male is revisited in various ways in these films and the histories that they construct.  These films cater to a dominant discourse of communism that was based on a class-ist narrative, which is repeated in several mainstream histories. However, this fails to take into account minor histories of communism. For instance, the communism that emerged in the 1920s as part of Ezhava awakening in South Kerala and which doesn’t necessarily have a classist basis is an absent territory. K.R. Gowri or the more popularly called Gowriyamma’s autobiography describes how the awakening in the sociocultural realm accelerated the process of claiming rights in the labour space.

It was the sociocultural revolution that took place under the leadership of Sri Narayana Guru, Kumaranasan, Dr. Palpu, Ayyankali etc, that led to the uprising of the tenants and agricultural laborers, who were transformed into factory workers following the discrepancies and undercurrents of the period, the brutal ways of the feudal setup, and their relations with the empire (Gowriyamma 307).

It was the sociocultural revolution that took place under the leadership of Sri Narayana Guru, Kumaranasan, Dr. Palpu, Ayyankali etc, that led to the uprising of the tenants and agricultural laborers, who were transformed into factory workers following the discrepancies and undercurrents of the period, the brutal ways of the feudal setup, and their relations with the empire (Gowriyamma 307).

The general enlightenment among the Ezhavas led to political assertion as well.  The Travancore Labour Association, probably the first trade union in Kerala, was formed by V.B.K. Bhava, an Ezhava in 1921 in Alappuzha. The majority of its labourer-members also belonged to the same community. Gowriyamma’s observation regarding the growth of the communist party in Kerala is quite revealing in the context of a history that draws the trajectory of how the communist party was to grow into a position of leadership for the working class. Gowriyamma asserts that the specific social structure of Travancore following the ideological awakening in the Ezhava community inspired by Narayana guru, Sahodaran Ayyappan, Ayyankali etc formed the backdrop to the organization of the workers in Alappuzha, especially the coir workers. The demands of caste communities that were emerging at various points of South Kerala were to acquire a corporeality through Narayana’s Guru’s act of symbolic consecration of an Ezhava Shiva in 1888.

De-casting oneself was indispensable for being a member of the emerging communist class community in Malabar. The CSP meeting on 29th December 1934, in which E.M.S. was the chair, demanded from its members, an oath of non-affiliation to any caste community,

I am a member of Congress. I haven’t joined as a member in any other community institution or other political institution which is against the aims of the socialist party. (quoted in Murali 133)

Caste consciousness as the basis of communism, however, was not palpable for the upper caste Nairs who were the chief benefactors of the class based communism in North Malabar. By donning the mantle of class reformists, communism gave them an opportunity to retrieve lost cultural status at the dawn of modernity in Kerala. The construction of masculinity in Malayalam cinema is based on this casteist class-ist history of communist Kerala, which assumes a mythical stature. This cartographic shift to North Kerala is part of Malayalam cinema’s desire to relive the nostalgia of a class-ist communist past and its ‘secular’ male reformers, overshadowing the minor histories and workers of the movement, largely drawn from the backward/lower castes.  The urgency to reconstitute a class-ist communist present is also suggestive of the cinematic public’s indifference towards the various caste/religious/gender communitarian movements which have come up in Kerala as part of asserting their rights over land, body, society and politics.


  1. Northern Kerala covers Kasargode and Kannur districts, Mananthavady Taluk in Wayanad district, Koyilandy and Vadakara Taluks in Kozhikode district, and Mahe, one of the four districts of the Union Territory of Puducherry.
  2. This issue was in circulation among a narrow section of Left ideologues especially after the publication of the book Manifesto of the Victims in Malayalam, written a few years ago by K.E.N. Kunjahammad, a staunch supporter of the CPI (M). The book, it would appear, didn‘t raise any eyebrows at the time of its publication, leading to a second edition of the book by a CPI (M) managed outfit, Chinta. However, a reassertion of the issue by P.K. Pokker, another Marxist intellectual, in 2010, on identity politics brought the issue to the forefront of theoretical discourse, sparking off debates within various left intellectuals.

Works Cited

Gowriyamma, K.R. Athmakatha. [Autobiography]. Kozhikode: Mathrubhumi Books, 2009. Print.

Jeffrey, Robin. “Matriliny, Marxism and the Birth of the Communist Party in Kerala 1930-1940.” The Journal of Asian Studies. 38.1 (November 1978): 77-98. JSTOR 14 July 2011

Kochu, K.K. ―Writing the History of Kerala: Seeking a Dalit Space.‖ No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South India, Dossier- 1: Tamil and Malayalam Eds. K. Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu. Delhi: Penguin Books, 2011. 491-505. Print.

Menon, Dilip. M. “Conjunctural Community: Communism in Malabar, 1934-1948.” EPW 27.51-52 (Dec. 1992): 2705-2715; JSTOR 29 Sept. 2008

Murali, Chanthavila. Sakhavu P Krishnapillai: Oru Samagra Jeevacharithra Padanam. [Sakhavu P Krishnapillai: An Extensive Biographical Study]. Thiruvananthapuram: Chintha Publications, 2008. Print.



Shyma P teaches at Payyanur College, Payyanur. She completed her PhD from the University of Hyderabad on Malabar and the Popular in Malayalam Cinema,. She is a translator and film/cultural critic.