Making sense of “new generation” in Malayalam Cinema

The beginning of 2010s saw the appearance of a new kind of cinema in the Malayalam film industry, promising an end to a longstanding ‘crisis’ of the industry (marked, according to some commentators, by an ‘irrational’ dependence on super-star system, the subsequent compromise of the quality of story and the drifting away from the norm of realism of the middle-class family among others) which the media immediately captured with the to-be-contentious appellation of ‘new generation cinema’. These films were able to re-organize the industry on a new basis and even alter the ways Malayali audience used to watch films. The fact that in 2012 more than hundred movies were released and many of them were financially successful was cited as another indication of the resolution of the crisis. The expansion and availability of new technologies such as VCD/DVD, the shift from film to digital and the enlarged scope of internet and social media influenced the production and distribution of films. In a short period of time this new cinema has redefined the meaning of “the popular” – not only the content of cinema, but its form of social diffusion and effects as well. Even when it drew heavily from the cinema of the 1970s and 80s (especially the middlebrow), it rendered the strict division of “art” and “commercial” cinemas redundant, and in contrast to the superstar-hero films of the 1990s, focused more on the possibilities of the narrative. Like its predecessor in the 80s, these new films have set as its target a commercially viable but artistically uncompromising cinema.

The broader context of new generation cinema understood thus, what does this term itself mean? The practice among critics has been to isolate a few elements (the presence of young directors and actors, representation of metropolitan life, and, for some detractors, even drugs and expletives!) and form a cluster of films which can adequately represent this new type. Such an approach, though necessary initially, might eventually fail to think of “new generation” as a historical category demanding an interpretation in the light of the political undertones that the new cinema opens up. As the term new generation is usually used to refer to the continuities and gaps between generations, it also invokes a sense of age, as referring to young people. Rather than reducing it into the sense of an age differential, an attempt has to be made to read it historically as signifying an ongoing transformation of social values and structures.  In literature and cinema, generation, or generational difference and the conflict associated with it more specifically, has been a trope for expressing and finding ideological resolution for the problems posed by modernity. In the early Malayalam novel Indulekha (Chandu Menon; 1889), for example, it is Madhavan’s articulation of two divergent histories, an articulation that aspires to be hegemonic (as it is delineated in Chapter 18 of the novel in the form of a conversation), that finds a resolution for the irresolvable problem posed by the contrasting tendencies of tradition and modernity. What follows is an attempt towards demonstrating a more recent instance of such a struggle and narrative resolution in a largely changed political and economic context. I do this by briefly looking at the film Usthad Hotel (Dir: Anwar Rasheed; 2011). Within the limited space of this heuristic reading of the film, I argue for such a historically enriched reading of the “new generation” rather than using it as a mere descriptive term for a collection of films. It must also be pointed out that it does not exhaust all possible meaning of the term which comprises an internal heterogeneity, but rather tries to shed light on a particular trajectory it can take.

Usthad Hotel, which bagged three national awards besides being a box-office hit, was one of the most popular films of recent times in Malayalam film industry. The film narrates the story of three generations, their mutual harmony and discord. At the end of the movie, a TV anchor states that it is 60 years’ story and history of Usthad Hotel, a small restaurant situated in the city of Kozhikode. The story of Usthad Hotel, as the voice over suggests at the beginning, “had started even before the protagonist Faizal had been born.” Faizal’s story starts with his father Abdurazak’s dream about his yet-to-be-born son who will inherit all the wealth that he would make in the gulf. Shattering this dream, four girls are born to Abdurazak, and before Faizal’s birth he leaves for the gulf. Faizal’s mother dies while giving birth to him and he is taken care of by his four elder sisters. Misleading his father, Faizal gets a certificate in cookery course from Switzerland and decides to settle in London with his white girl friend. When his sisters come to know about his plan, they try to get him married to Shahana who is an interior designer by profession, but the ‘bride-seeing’ ends up in disaster when Faizal reveals the secret about his profession. This leads to a confrontation with his father who seizes his passport and drains him of all source of money. Faizal decides to stay with his grandfather Kareem who runs a small restaurant near Kozhikode beach until he finds a solution to the crisis. Faizal’s life in Usthad Hotel, which invokes a nostalgic longing for an organic community, proves to be a great learning experience. Kareem makes him do the most menial jobs in the hotel and treats him as just another member at par with other employees. The major part of the story hereafter narrates the efforts of Faizal and Kareem to save Usthad Hotel from the vested interests of the five-star hotel Beach Bay which includes Usthad Hotel and its premises in its expansion plan. Though the major part of the story is over when Faizal and others emerge victorious in a strategic fight with Beach Bay, the last segment of the film shows Faizal’s journey to Madurai and his meeting with a social worker named Narayan Krishnan who feed the poor and homeless. Narayan Krishnan who was a chef in the Taj resigned from his job after he accidentally witnessed a forlorn starving man eating his own excrement at the roadside. The experience of Narayan Krishnan teaches Faizal a new culinary ethics: not how to cook, but why one should cook. Faizal comes back from Madurai as a changed man who has decided to stay back in his country rather than taking up an executive chef position in France, but is received with the news that “Kareem is gone” and Usthad Hotel is closed. Faizal reopens Usthad Hotel and the film ends giving the impression that Faizal is only a continuation of Kareem (who, in a final shot, is shown to be wandering as a Sufi in a desert) himself. It is, thus, the historical transformation of a few decades that the film chronicles through the three characters – Kareem, Abdurazak and Faizal. This transformation may be understood not in a linear progression where one comes after another, but as ‘co-temporary’ where it is the simultaneity of these different temporalities that leads to the specific conflict that the film portrays. A closer look at the characters as typical of this transformation may be appropriate here.

Ummar, the main aide for Kareem in Usthad Hotel, says that Kareem “was someone obsessed about sevanam (service) who forgot to make money.” Kareem carries values or virtues that the film presents as deriving from his relation with Sufi Islam and maybe called communitarian in an ethical sense. Kareem’s relation with his employees in Usthad Hotel is not one recognizable within the capitalist logic of accumulation and profit. This is not to argue that Usthad Hotel is a space which is altogether outside capitalism, but that it is one which has not been completely subdued by the reproductive logic of capital. The presence of this space within the narrative can be understood in two ways: one, the empirically observable community formation that stands out within capitalism, two, a space of nostalgic longing that helps the narrative to unfold. A major part of the film is the portrayal of the ardent relation between Kareem and Faizal as if they share the same virtues. But some conversations reveal the difference between them. Faizal asks Kareem who counts the obligations of his employees as his own whether they don’t have ‘fixed salaries.’ When he comes to know that it is the biriyani prepared at Usthad Hotel being served at Beach Bay he wonders, “and they get the name and profit for it!” Faizal is a professional chef and does not carry his father’s discomfort that Kareem is a cook. He believes that it is what he does (his profession) that determines his identity than traditional markers that he has inherited (unlike his father who still relates to these only ambiguously). Faizal represents the new English educated, internationally mobile elite and lives in a different moral unversed than Kareem. But then, how may we understand the continuity between the two characters that the film portrays? Can one think that this warmth and continuity between these characters (that might even be potentially antagonistic to each other) conceals the violence associated with the expansion of capital? The ideological premise of the film lies in this question which represented as the spatial encroachment of Usthad Hotel by Beach Bay. There are two major events after Faisal joins Usthad Hotel: (let’s call it Segment A) his confrontation with the Beach Bay, and (Segment B) journey to Madurai and the lessons of service (which is nothing but an elaboration of Kareem’s own ethical notion of sevanam) that he learns from Narayan Krishnan. It is when we understand the relation between these two narrative sections in relation to the pressures of the social expansion of capitalism that we can think of undertaking a political interpretation of the film. In a preliminary sense it is the expansion of the five-star hotel Beach Bay, but that cannot be simplified the way film presents it since even as Faizal succeeds in fighting them back it transforms all conditions of life including the space of Usthad Hotel. Suggestions regarding hygiene that led to the shutting down of the hotel, the rise of prices before reopening the hotel (at an earlier moment Kareem had insisted on keeping the prices low), the introduction of a uniformity of dress code for the employees – all signify this change. In short, in the changed conditions, it is impossible for Kareem’s hotel to function in the older ways and the Usthad Hotel that Faizal reopens after he returns from Madurai is a new one.

The more important task of such an interpretation will be to understand how the film allegorically captures the transformation the non-corporate or informal economy in India. (1) (Chatterjee 2008) One may remember Ummar’s statement in reply to Faizal, when he is asked to drive a delivery van and says he doesn’t carry the license, that the vehicle doesn’t have registration either. Segment A, one may argue now, shows the impossibility of livelihood within the informal sector with the expansion of capital. It is important to note that within the narrative this is represented by the disappearance of the character of Kareem. It would be possible for us to understand the disappearance of Kareem and his ethical notion of sevanam in terms of a “vanishing mediator” who makes possible a transition between two different and antagonistic values or historical periods thereby making its own existence superfluous. It is the re-figuring of Kareem’s ethics that provides a means by which the antagonistic moral universes of Kareem and Faizal can be transformed into a new social political order. This transformation is nothing short of the transmutation and expulsion of the space of “Usthad Hotel” (we must add a ‘constitutive exclusion’ which then insists upon the civil society from without) and by bringing forth this transformation the “mediator” vanishes from the narrative. This might introduce new social exigencies requiring new solutions – it is precisely this issue that segment B addresses. The challenge of any generation who wants to transform existing social relations and its values is to create conditions for the acceptance of its own moral leadership. The function of segment B is to alleviate and even make enjoyable the violence associated with capitalist expansion. Faizal appropriates and remakes Kareem’s ethical notion of sevanam or service rooted in communitarian life and deploys it in the new landscape of capitalism. That this part happens in Madurai and in a different language can be understood as another narrative strategy. In fact, aren’t the hapless poor that Faizal comes across in Madurai those who are excluded from “Usthad Hotel” now understood as a spatial metaphor? Placing them in a distant land and addressing through the figure of Narayan Krishnan is because it is impossible to directly confront this truth of the present moment. The reformed ethics of Faizal (which has been disseminating in society as governmental and non-governmental initiatives of welfare distribution) is, perhaps, meant to heal a structural crack in society.

 

Notes:

  1. Partha Chatterjee has argued that with the rapid growth of corporate capital the informal sector which includes small scale enterprises become impossible. Chatterjee marks the distinction between corporate and non-corporate or informal capital thus: “The fundamental logic that underlies the operations of corporate capital is further accumulation of capital, usually signified by the maximization of profit. For non-corporate organizations of capital, while profit is not irrelevant, it is dominated by another logic – that of providing the livelihood needs of those working in the units.”(Chatterjee, P. “Democracy and Economic Transformation in India” in Economic and Political Weekly, April 19 2008, pp- 53 – 62)

About the Writer

Vipin K Kadavath teaches English at the Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. His doctoral work, completed from The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad looked at the lineages of the notion of kshemam or welfare in the literary and political discourse of Kerala. His interests include histories of social and political thought, vernacular literary spheres in India and contemporary Malayalam cinema.