Mourning and occasions of excess:
melodramatic transgressions in contemporary Malayalam cinema

by Muhsina K.K and Akshaya Kumar

In 2018, the dead body of Najmal Babu, aka TN Joy, a former Naxal leader and social activist in Kerala, was forcibly cremated according to Hindu rituals by his family with the support of state police to save the secular credentials around his life. Najmal Babu converted to Islam in 2013 and informed the authorities of Cheraman Jama Masjid in Thrissur about his last wish to be buried in the mosque’s graveyard. The incident not only evoked various discussions on the secularity of a dead body in a rational liberal public sphere but formulated massive mourning responses against the violence meted out to the deceased even after death. Protesting the injustice, social activist Kamal C Chavara converted to Islam and changed his name to Kamal C Najmal. Also, funeral prayers and condolence gatherings were organized across many mosques in Kerala, including Cheraman Masjid, in the premises of the secretariat of Kerala, Jama Masjid in Delhi, and many central universities in solidarity with his religious and political choices. Interestingly, the mourning responses formed in this case were not resultant of their personal or individual intimacy with Najmal Babu as a writer or an ex-Naxalite leader. Instead, conflicting affective solidarities were formed around his dead body as he was denied agency over his identity and political choices.

The Kerala police had to use force to remove the activists who protested the decision of Babu’s kin to cremate his body, against his wish to be interred at the Cheraman Mosque. Source: The Hindu Daily. October 04, 2018. The students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi offered a funeral prayer for Babu on 4th October 2023 on the premises of the campus. The students stated that their act of solidarity is symbolic of the fight for religious freedom for Muslims in India, in line with the spirit of Najmal Babu. Source: Maktoob Media. August 23, 2023.

The dead body, after all, offers a moment of reckoning to those who gather in the arena where claims can be made upon the private choices and traumas of the deceased individual. The contestations that emerge and the protestations that may be staged on his behalf are indeed an affirmation of the individual’s inability to defend or assert himself. But they are also occasioned by a temporary handover of ‘legitimate’ authority to the social unit that holds the unquestionable public sanction to perform and participate in his last rites. It is in this moment of transition, at the site where the representative community is not always a stable and identifiable unit, that individual voice can be seized as an opportunity towards ritual or symbolic outrage. At this delicate point of political inflection, therefore, not only could an existing community make a claim in contestation but new communities may also emerge in solidarity. This article interrogates the emergence of certain powerful films in which the dead body lends credence to the voices of underprivileged communities, in the form of an emotional outburst, an ‘irrational’ outpouring of grief that exceeds the occasion.

Malayalam cinema since around 2015 has witnessed a remarkable upsurge of narrative tendencies spread across genres, where such community formation is occasioned by the rise of ethical solidarities around dead bodies. This recent corpus of Malayalam films on mourning death, includes Ithra Mathram (2012), Shavam (2015), Ee.Ma.Yau. (2018), Iblis (2018), Koode (2018), Queen (2018), Soofiyum Sujatayum (2020), Nayattu (2021), and Jana Gana Mana (2022). These films illustrate an extensive preoccupation with collective mourning as manifested via the emergence of a transient but affective mourning community around death. On one hand, these community mobilizations bring a subversive turn in the spatial and aesthetic divide between the private and public spheres of mourning in contemporary Malayalam cinema. On the other hand, they make the bereaving subject’s conflict with institutional structures like the state, police, media, and religion public. They occasion a public reckoning with grieving and mourning responses to death on behalf of a community entangled in conflicts over identitarian and representational concerns.

 This article focuses on two films that showcase distinct modalities and reckonings at work within the political configurations triggered via public mourning: Ee.Ma.Yau. (Lijo Jose Pellissery, 2018) and Jana Gana Mana (Dijo Jose Antony, 2022). Ee.Ma.Yau. grapples with the material aspects of community formation around the dead body of a Dalit Christian fisherman vis-à-vis the corresponding power dynamics of Kerala. At the same time, Jana Gana Mana appropriates mourning as an affective trope to negotiate questions of truth and justice using the generic features of a thriller, so as to target a pan-Indian audience.

Nevertheless, to understand how community-centered mourning becomes a site of transgression in these films, it is imperative to understand the historical tension between realism and melodrama. The schism has been crucial towards the formation of Kerala’s public sphere, and constitutive of the spatial division of private and public spheres in Malayalam cinema. Let us begin by looking at a brief trajectory of the conflict between melodrama and realism both in the public sphere of the state and its cultural industries.

Melodrama versus realism

The 'rational Malayali spectator' has been at the heart of the aesthetic distinction of Malayalam cinema, tethered as it remains to the predominance of realism. The Malayali self-definition is at least partly pivoted on the social realist tradition of Malayalam cinema[1],[open notes in new window] which is often sized up as: i) against the neighbouring film industries[2], particularly 'the irrationality of the Tamil audience' (Pandian, 1992, 29)[3]; and ii) the interpellation of the Malayali spectator representing Kerala's progressive politics (Rowena, 2002, 29). As a result, while cinema was mobilised chiefly as a medium for linguistic sub-nationalism in other south Indian states, it was projected as an apparatus of the state's developmentalist politics in Kerala.

The public discourse lionizing secular rationality, vindicated by the Left political tradition, has been influential in turning realism into the dominant mode of address in Kerala. Jenson Joseph highlights the interventions of the communist party toward a populist consolidation:

“The aesthetic domain of social realism provided the Left-associated artists with a ground to negotiate with an industrial-cultural medium like cinema, marked by its popular, melodramatic excesses, and to mould a sphere of the 'new popular' that would address 'the masses'—the object of the Left's political mobilization—and, at the same time, negotiate the (high caste) middle class's position in the imminent modern nation of Malayalees” (2012, 69).

In addition, a public sphere produced around various informal, everyday social spaces, including local tea shops, public libraries, and its affiliated reading rooms, was projected as signifying the state’s progressive political consciousness. These representational spaces that cultivated a collective reading practice predominantly through public reading of newspapers in the 60s and 70s were marked as manifesting the centrality of reading to the Malayali public culture. They were also regarded as symbolic of an emergent progressive modern secular public sphere with the diminishing of traditional social spaces defined by caste hierarchies.

Similarly, the left-affiliated progressive movements like Purogamana Kala Sahitya Sangham (The Progressive Art and Literary Group), Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, known as People's Science Movement, and the rationalist group Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham, reformulated the spheres of the popular into a rational political space. Through the interventions of the artists and writers associated with the Progressive Writing Group and Kerala People’s Arts Club[4],  Left proposed a discourse of rationality, imagined as emanating from communism, as the uniting element of Malayali nationalism (Joseph, 2012). It occasioned anxieties concerning the position of various communities/castes in the newly imagined rational-secular Malayali nation forming the narrative preoccupations of literary texts and social realist films. Besides, Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) emerged as the main conduit for Malayalees' public engagement with science from the 1960s to the 80s. Through mass science education and various campaigns for civil action and community development programs, it proposed a rational public sphere cultivating public rationality and a secular conception of science (Biju Kumar, 2019).

Eureka, a children’s science weekly focusing on science fiction, and Saasthra Keralam, a science education magazine for school students published by the progressive movement Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) aimed to develop scientific rationality through promoting scientific awareness among the children.

However, the legitimacy of these rational, progressive public discourses has been widely contested. For instance, the discursive formation of a new public sphere around regional newspapers in the 1970s occasioned a major shift from the public engagement with science and rationality proposed by KSSP. Shiju Sam Varughese maps out how the galvanization of a scientific citizen public with the rise of newspapers as the primary locus of public engagement with science in the backdrop of various environmental challenges in the 1990s declined the hold of KSSP among the masses (2017).

Likewise, television, which became a key player with the popularity of satellite television in the 1990s, opened up a new deliberative sphere for public negotiation with scientific rationality in the state. Television retains an active media public sphere by mediating various controversies and deliberations over the public contestation of rational discourses. Also, the thriving of new media in the last two decades engendered a new digital public sphere, hosting various critical debates on science and rationality, and bringing out a significant change in the scientific-citizen public. Besides, the economic and social mobility achieved by various community groups has also been crucial in contesting the rational suppositions around the public sphere and the takeover of religion as an irrational category in the public domain.

It is imperative to examine how these rational postulations around the state’s public sphere and their contestations are manifested in its cultural industries, especially popular cinema. How do they inform the historical tension between realism and melodrama in Malayalam cinema? Realism has found itself positioned in a hierarchical contest over cultural authenticity against melodrama since the early career of Malayalam cinema. Widely regarded as the 'affective economy of popular cinema' (Radhakrishnan, 2012, 92), melodrama's ontological excess is used to relegate it within the private realm as a domestic genre of familial and emotional excess (Gledhill and Williams, 2018).[5] As a result, ‘women’s cinema’—mainly romantic melodramas and 'tearjerkers' considered appealing to the female audience—was devalued by the literary and film critics against social realism’s moral and aesthetic legitimacy (Joseph, 2012, 110). Derived predominantly from pulp fiction and painkili[6] literature, the tearjerkers were positioned against the realist standards of canonical literary texts.[7]

Alongside, realism in Malayalam cinema has been repurposed to endorse a ‘developmental aesthetic’ (Prasad, 1998, 189), claiming its exception against the star-fan relationship peculiar to other South Indian cinemas. Manju Edachira, in her analysis of the middle-brow Malayalam cinema[8] argues that realism manifested as the state’s developmentalist trajectory, particularly amplified by the popularity of Kerala’s developmental model—has been crucial in constituting “the figure of Malayali citizen-spectator" (2020, 4856).

The privileging of realism over melodrama, positing the emotional and melodramatic articulations as the irrational domain, has been crucial in the rational self-positioning of Malayalam cinema and its spectatorial subject. Correspondingly, the repression of melodrama as the irrational remainder was staged via the spatial restructuring of the inside and outside as the respective realms of melodrama and realism—central to the foundational schism upon which the rational, secular public sphere has been mounted in Kerala. Their split mandate has historically legitimized the repression of public mourning from Kerala’s visual culture. The interior has thus been posited as the space of melodrama against the exterior: ‘the privileged space of reality’ (Radhakrishnan, 2012, 94). Following this spatial division, mourning responses to death in Malayalam cinema have been equated predominantly with melodramatic gender roles that unfold in private, or else, they are adopted as a narrative device to justify the male protagonist's pronouncement of vigilante justice. In popular melodramas like Narasimham (2000) and Dhruvam (1993), the male hero's vengeance is set against the disrupted domestic harmony following the violent dismantling of the family. Vigilante masculinity in these films is valorized through the rhetoric of restoring the lost honour of a mournful interior/home/ region against the corporeal or symbolic violence unleashed by an outside force. Nevertheless, melodrama has left an undeniable imprint on Kerala's visual culture and popular imagination.[9]

As against the above, this article situates the eruption of community-centric mourning in Ee.Ma.Yau. and Jana Gana Mana as contrary manifestations of contemporary Malayalam cinema’s preoccupation with public mourning. Let us look at how community mobilizations around death in these films embody powerful conflicts and resistance of the bereaved against institutional structures.

A new narrative milieu

The narrative preoccupations of Malayalam cinema underwent a discernible shift after 2010. It has been predominantly an ideological shift marked by extensive engagements with new political questions including gender, caste, region, politics, and religion. Moving away from the “deep-seated feudal values, apolitical posturing, chauvinism, sexism, and a revivalist impetus” (Ramachandran, 1995, 3) that defined the superstar-driven films of the 1990s and early 2000s,[10] the question of social justice and equality emerged as one of the dominant thematic concerns of Malayalam cinema. It is manifested via the increased production of women-centric films, challenging traditional gender roles and middle-class morality, and a corpus of films set against discrimination based on caste, class, and religion.

Most importantly, the social and cultural life of many marginalized community groups appeared to be the narrative concern of Malayalam cinema, especially Muslims and Dalits, following the increased subaltern visibility in the public sphere of Kerala in the past two decades. As a result, the public mourning event in the films mentioned above is set around a community, either material or abstract. We will discuss it in detail in the next section. Apart from a diegetic shift, the community groups forming a vital narrative trope of mourning in these films are fashioned also by the cultural and political history of the state.

Community groups, especially religious communities, have traditionally been positioned as an irrational contrast to the rational discourses surrounding the public sphere of the state. Although the social realist films of the 1960s and 70s consolidated a new linguistic and cultural identity for the Malayalees, minority community groups, including Muslims and Dalits, remained outside the purview of the imagined progressive state. As a result, the Muslim characters in popular cinema during the time were presented as trapped in various social evils prevalent among the community including, the dowry system, polygamy, illiteracy, and so on, a precondition to augment the reformist self of the upper caste male hero (Umma (1960), Kandam Becha Kottu (1961)). 

Similarly, in the family melodramas of the ’70s, Muslims and Dalits were presented via individual character representative—featured through their dialects and accent of regional influences, food habits, and sartorial choices, projected as contrary to the cultural and political subjectivity of the upper caste male hero. However, in a set of films that came out in the backdrop of Gulf migration, especially in the 80s, the Muslim and other backward class (hereafter OBC) Gulf migrants formed an allegorical community. Ratheesh Radhakrishnan maps out these community groups in Malayalam cinema, delineating how the Gulf region creates an aesthetic universe that exists at odds with the imagination of a ‘unified Kerala’ (2020).

However, these communities made an appearance as a politically organized entity in a set of films that came out in the backdrop of the post-Mandal agitations, discussed later in detail (Dhruvam, 1993; Usthad, 1999; Shradha, 2000; Dada Sahib, 2000). The Dalit, OBC characters, in the popular comedies that ruled Malayalam cinema in the late ’80s and early 90’s, were however routinely represented as symbolic of the lower caste/ minority students in post-Mandal Indian campuses, essentially located outside the matrix of merit. Jenny Rowena (2002) examines how the increased presence of Dalit, OBC, and Muslim characters in colleges and university spaces in these films, manifest the Post-Mandal Indian higher educational sector, where their reservation status and social locations are placed against the meritorious upper caste students.[11] The “hegemonic masculinity” in Malayalam cinema has thus been constructed around the figure of ‘others’ that involve (comedians, and villains) who were most often drawn from non-hegemonic castes and religions (ibid)

Community groups including Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims, came to the forefront of Malayalam cinema by the 2000s. TV Chandran’s trilogy on the 2002 Gujarat riots (Padam Onn Oru Vilapam, 2003; Vilapangalkkappuram, 2008; Bhoomiyude Avakashikal, 2012) highlighted the plight of the Muslim community in the wake of increasing communal polarisation, while the confrontations of Adivasis with the mainstream social order and developmental projects appeared in Photographer (2006) and Papilio Budha (2013). The gradual ‘awakening’ resulted in Malayalam cinema exploring the experiences and struggles of other marginalized communities and identity groups, moving away from its dominant engagement with the mourning cultures of upper-caste Hindus and Christians.[12] Hence, the foregrounding of the mourning cultures of Dalits, Muslims, Christians, and other lower-caste communities in the films discussed above contests the ‘secular’ qualification and its historical subjugation of other identity clusters.