JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Family entertainers and
Malayalam cinema’s encounters with fascism: reading the films of Sathyan Anthikad

by Swapna Gopinath

India’s tryst with democracy has been a challenging one, with multiple identities and social hierarchies creating obstacles of varied dimensions. Yet it has survived over the past decades, evolving and constantly redefining itself to accommodate the shifts in socio-political and economic structures that define this nation’s identity. With economic liberalization and the forces of globalization, the country has witnessed massive shifts in perception itself, ushering in new sensibilities.

Films as cultural practices reflect these evolving social realities and respond to shifting paradigms in multiple ways. Indian cinema has a multifarious growth in multiple languages, genres, and forms. Malayalam cinema, from the southern state of Kerala, has been providing a vibrant cinematic experience within the larger framework of Indian cinema. Films in Malayalam occupy pride of place for its social realism in early cinema, new wave experimental cinema of later decades, and the varied expressions across genres in contemporary times. In particular, across the last decades, popular cinema has observed and captured the shifting sensibilities of the people of the state towards fascist ideologies. This trend is clearly visible in the work of a renowned director, Sathyan Anthikad. My goal here to explore the increasing presence of fascist trends and the gradual acceptance of a controlling government within Indian society in the past decades.

Malayalam cinema, from the southern state of Kerala in India, is a vibrant industry making a significant contribution to the world of cinema at large in terms of innovation and volume of production. In India, the Hindi cinema industry is the most popular, with a trajectory that evolved into popular cinema and art cinema, later transitioning into middle cinema, and then to the multiplex experience in the new millennium. Regional film industries like Malayalam cinema also flourished. Films in the Malayalam language include, for example, the art films of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G Aravindan, John Abraham and others in the 1970s and ‘80s (History of cinema 2019) [open references in new window] followed in recent times with directors like Lijo Jose Pellissery, Dileesh Pothen and Aashiq Abu.

G Aravindan’s Kummatti (1979) is another film of the Art film tradition. Source. Nanpakal Nerath Mayakkom (2022) by Lijo Jose Pellissery is a film that has been critically acclaimed in recent times.  Source
Thondimuthalum Drikshashiyum (2017) by Dileesh Pothen is another trend setting Malayalam movie of contemporary times. Source.. Virus (2019) by Aashiq Abu belongs to the new cinema that is appreciated by critics and mainstream audience alike. Source.

Malayalam cinema has had multiple growth arcs. While mainstream cinema remained popular, new wave cinema thrived because of its artistic content and form and was ably represented by well-renowned auteurs who were appreciated alongside filmmakers like Satyajit Ray. Art cinema enjoyed state patronage as government bodies like National Film Development Corporation provided funding. By the 1980s, a new cinema, the middle cinema, emerged. This movement was more popular as talented filmmakers like Padmarajan, Bharathan and others created artistically innovative films appealing to a larger public. These films depicted an emerging middle-class and so built connections with the audience. While art cinema directors exhibited a tendency to foreground leftist ideologies, middle cinema’s producers adopted what I would call a liberal approach as they sought to place their scripts within hegemonic structures like patriarchy and Brahmanical caste hierarchies. I will briefly elaborate these trends and the ideology they incorporate as I discuss Satyan Anthikad’s films in the context of national history.

Maker of 57 films, Satyan Anthikad

Satyan Anthikad enjoyed huge popularity and became one of the icons of middle cinema. He is to be studied in depth, because of his prominent position in the Malayalam popular film industry—middle cinema being the most profitable with its targeted audience as the family. Hopefully further research into Malayalam cinema will study his films not only for his voluminous output and his popularity, but also for the ideological position he adopted in his films, which incorporated and expressed the paradigm shift in India towards majoritarian right-wing ideologies in contemporary times.  

Sathyan Anthikad is an artist who perceived and responded to political, religious, economic, and cultural discourses; his films imagined a paradigm shift that began to materialize in the post-economic liberalization of the 1990s. Often with subtle satire and humor, his films suggested a new India willing to embrace the new order of neoliberal capitalism and an affective politics imposed by control societies. I will closely read these implications in his films since 1982 through 2019 and to the present. This is popular media that has achieved success in the context of a public sphere that has become receptive to the fascist tendencies. India, a postcolonial nation, has yet to free itself from forces of ethnic nationalism and religious and linguistic intolerance.

To comprehend this paradigm shift in the basic character of Indian identity, we need to analyze the historical journey from its colonial past. India’s tryst with modernity is intricately connected to its colonial history. As the nation moved towards independence, the fundamental principles reigning over the nation’s identity were shaped by ideals of modernity. In this way, a Nehruvian socialism that dreamed of the ideals of a welfare state was the driving force as the nation gained independence. Later, based on those principles, over the next couple of decades, five-year plans were designed to forge the country’s future and to ensure its prominent place in the larger South Asian region. Within the nation, the state of Kerala’s social development is unique, shaped by its early Marxist influences, an advancing consumerism, and large scale migration towards the rest of India and abroad. Kerala had the first Communist government in India in 1957 and is known for its “high-profile performance in respect of living standards” (Ramachandran 207). Also, the rural-urban continuum in Kerala, where the divide between the rural and the urban are blurred, as compared to the rest of India. But in cultural and cinematic representations of the village and the city, the distinct features of rusticity and urbanity was sharply maintained.  

Ningalenne Communistakki (You Made me a Communist 1970) by Thoppil Bhasi can be placed in the catefory of films that foregrounded social realism. Source. Anubhavangal Paalichakal (Shattered Experiences 1971) by K S Sethumadhavan is another film that scrutinised the social reality of the times. Source.

Apart from this, aside from Kerala’s phenomenal social growth compared to the rest of the nation, it did not have a parallel industrial growth. Economically, it faced “the persistence of the crisis (of low production and unemployment) as being a threat to the polity” and society (Ramachandran 212). “Kerala’s share in total industrial investments by the Government of India was 3.2% (1975), 1.5% (1990)” (Ramachandran 217), even though the state had “a large literate, skilled labor force” (Ramachandran 217). In the agricultural sphere, the Communist government introduced land reforms bringing an end to feudal structures of power, and the reforms continued to be implemented as a series of governmental bills but it “did not end capitalist landlordism” (Ramachandran 299). This complex development pattern was also accompanied by social interventions such as building public rationality through literacy programs or boosting science with bodies like Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP, Kerala Scientific and Literary Council with the slogan “Science for Social Revolution”). In fact, “public action ... was the locomotive of Kerala’s progress” (Ramachandran 328). Social change was initiated and accelerated by public policies to ensure mass literacy and health care, along with social movements that altered the lives of the masses. In short, “the action of mass organizations and mass movements against social, political and economic oppression and the policy actions of governments have been the most important constituents of public action” that enabled social change (Ramachandran 207). Such paradoxical social development in Kerala was then captured in middle cinema and especially in the films of Anthikad in interesting ways.

Padmarajan’s films belong to the category of Middle Cinema that focused on the concerns of the middleclass population. Thinkalazhcha Nalla Divasom (Monday, An Auspicious Day 1985) is a perfect example. Source. Bharathan’s Kattathe Kilikkoodu (A Nest in the Wind 1983) is another example. Source

Left: Fazil’s Aniyathipravu (Little Sister-Dove 1997) also discussed middleclass lives. Source.

Above: Satyan Anthikad films dealt with middleclass lives and communicated to the class, labelling these films as family entertainers. Sandesham (1991) belongs to this genre. Source

The 1980s was a productive decade for Malayalam cinema in terms of the quality and diversity of work produced by filmmakers like Padmarajan, Bharathan, Fazil and others.  Sathyan Anthikad, a young director, was one among them. Snce then, he has had a prolific career with a total of 57 films released to date out of which 19 deal with subjects which are strikingly similar. In 1982 he began his career as an independent filmmaker with the film Kurukkante Kalyanam (The Marriage of the Fox) and his latest film Makalku (For the Daughter) four decades later in 2022. Most of his films are satirical commentaries (Sandeshom: 1991), T P Balagopalan MA:1986) critical of emerging identities and sensibilities that threaten tradition. His concern with social realities has been shared by his friend and script writer Sreenivasan. Their films have found favor among younger generations, often repeatedly viewed, and recycled in social media.

Often scenes shared on social media, as memes and trolls use clips to satirize current political or cultural scenarios, and scenes from pirated versions of full-length feature films are used for this purpose. For example, a scene from the film Sandeshom which ridicules the Leftist ideology was uploaded in 2020 and has 4,55,000 views. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCqipb1dJ0Q. No longer available for public viewing). Of the hundreds of comments below that one video, a comment reminds us that even after 30 years of release, the film still has relevance. Another popular movie clip is the final scene of conflict resolution in Sandeshom that glorifies neoliberal values of individualism and apoliticality. It was uploaded in 2020 and has 2, 26000 views (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyLXXnL6X_c). Sathyan Anthikad himself has expressed surprise in several interviews, over the manner in which his film Sandeshom (The Message), which was hardly a successful film when it was released in 1991, has become a much-discussed and debated cult film in present times. This shift is a significant one. The renewed and increasing popularity of these films in contemporary times calls for a close reading of the political dimension of cinema as a cultural practice.

Sandesham was a film that remained popular over decades. The innumerable trolls and memes picked from the film to celebrate a neoliberal normative pattern, condemning political affiliation among the youth ought to be mentioned here. Source. Another popular video clip from the film Sandesham, which uses the space of a family to celebrate neoliberalism. Source.

As one takes a quick glance at the history of Malayalam cinema and its trajectory, we see shifting patterns—from myths, to social realism to parallel cinema and later middle cinema—before the cult of superstars became the trend.

“The tale runs something like this. Following a brief inception in which the films were exhibited as a scientific curiosity, filmmakers introduced the genre of the mythological film to cater to popular taste. Subsequently, in alliance with literary culture, a middle-class social cinema of reform evolved in the sound period, one at variance with other genres such as the stunt, mythological and costume films which catered to the plebian filmgoer. These currents continued, with greater or lesser influence after Independence and into the 1950s, the heyday of a nationalist ideology with socialist aspirations. From this period too, a more specifically art enterprise, one attuned to cinematic language, emerged, supported towards the close of the 1960s with systematic state investment in art cinema. The ‘parallel’ cinema emerged as the object of middle-class spectatorship, especially in the wake of the ‘massification’ of the commercial form into an encompassing and alienating package of spectacle, action and titillation.” (Vasudevan 3-4)

This period in Malayalam film history was followed by the rising acceptance in India of the middle-class as the prominent class, now caught in the conflicting sensibilities of tradition and modernity. 

“In the early 1980s, a third strand of Malayalam cinema, called madhyavarthi cinema (middlebrow cinema) and sandwiched between realism and the melodramatic popular, emerged. In film criticism and popular understanding, these commercially viable realist films constitute Malayalam cinema's lost golden age. These films mark the triumph of the realist contract, as it oversaw the deployment of melodrama in these films.” (Radhakrishnan 91-102)

This middle cinema adopted an aesthetic position equidistant from the previously prominent artistic and commercial cinema traditions. In particular, middle cinema was realistic and narrated tales of the middle-class, ordinary character whose life reflected everyday lives of many Indians. These films were touted as films that communicated with audiences who believed them to be safe viewing experiences for whole families. Thus, these films became more potent in disseminating liberal ideologies to a hapless community as the nation strove to establish itself as a powerful global entity.

Since Anthikad’s films are pitched to “family” audiences, packaged, and sold as “wholesome” family entertainment films, they align with and endorse familial values. The titles of his films convey this. The director maintained such a strategy throughout his long career, right up to his latest film in 2022. More than 20 films under his direction have titles that center around the theme of family relationships, mostly as a direct references. Here are a few examples: Makalku (For the Daughter), Kudumbapuranom (History of the Family) (1988), Snehaveedu (A House of Love) (2011), Pingami (Predecessor) (1994), Irattakuttikalude Achan (The Father of Twins) (1997), and so on. The posters for these films are no different either. They highlight the ordinariness of the characters and their lives, depicting them within families and the relationships between them that seem to define their identities as individuals. For example, Kadha Thudarunnu (2010) uses posters that draw our attention to the auto driver, a middle class protagonist; he has a Hindu identity, the crimson thilak on his forehead marks this well; and the female protagonist is a mother with a young child, domesticity clearly identified. Manassinakkare (2003) has a poster with a rural backdrop and a mother in traditional attire. The earthen pot and the umbrella also connote identity for the characters in this film. The poster of the film Irattakuttikalude Achan is equally powerful in conveying the theme of family and parenthood, in this case the nuclear family.  All these posters have children or parents along with the protagonists and the props used in these posters articulate well the ideological connotations of these “imagetexts”(Mitchell 89).

Snehaveedu (The House of Love 2011) by Anthikad is also about families. Source. Family dramas that contextualise the middleclass Hindu protagonist within the larger social structures. Pingami (The Successor 1994). Source.
Another example taken from Anthikad’s repertoire is Snehasagaram (A Sea of Love 1982). Source Families are highlighted in the film Irattakuttikalude Acchan (Father of Twins 1997) as well. Source.

Another example for the idealized rural space is Manassinakkare. Source.

 

The posters also foreground the theme of families placed within rural utopias. An example is Kadha Thudarunnu (The Story Continues 2010). Source.

Ideological shifts

In the last two decades of the twentieth century Anthikad’s films reflect Kerala’s rapidly changing social structures before and after national globalization. Kerala’s path has been unique with its massive migration history to the middle east and consequent early exposure to consumerism and commodification. When people wanted more buying power that resulted in a widespread dissatisfaction with the slow-paced nature of democratic processes; in addition many were fed up with the way social progress had gotten stalled by corruption and a consequent inordinate delay in delivering justice.

In the late 1960s and 70s, the Modernism that transformed Europe in the early twentieth century found artistic expression in Kerala. These emerging modernist sensibilities reflected the socio-political shifts during this time and there was general disillusionment with the many ways that the state manifested its power. In Kerala, Modernist texts, such as O V Vijayan’s Khazakkinte Ithihasom (The Legends of Khazak, 1968), challenged hegemonic structures through experimenting with form and exploring the existential angst of the youth, many of whom were denied opportunities despite being literate. M Mukundan also traced the decadence within the society and the alienation resulting from social anxieties. Social institutions had failed miserably yet Marxian ideologies, with a core strength among the working class in Kerala refused to address these concerns. The labor movement, originally initiated by Marxist leaders in Kerala, grew in power, but the corruption in within institutions led to the exploitation of workers’ bodies as well. Anthikad’s films emerged in this space of discontented youth and their response from new kind of orientation, constructing a neo-realist framework that sought alternate methods of resolution. However, this new perspective turned out to be disturbingly fascist in nature. In India and elsewhere, this fascist sensibility that has infiltrated into the collective psyche, functions as an integral component of modern existence, as a reaction to the “abominable excesses of the capitalist era” (Hake xxvi). Kerala is no different in this contemporary context.

With economic liberalization and globalization, India has shifted towards neoliberal capitalist paradigms of power. This has resulted in the infiltration of neoliberal ethos in the lives of the citizens thereby creating new subservient subjectivities that embrace authoritarian powers. With democratic institutions struggling to stay afloat, we see democratic subjectivity (Hake 4) in peril as well. Yet when democracy is built on abstract values, rather than ritualistic mythical notions, it becomes imperative to realign democratic machineries against the onslaught of fascism as a country becomes “synonymous with totalitarianism, militarism, antisemitism, right-wing extremism with ultranationalism” (Hake 8). Democracy now strives to acquire an “emotional vocabulary or affective habitus” (Hake 7; with an absence of stable meaning, “an empty signifier” (Ernesto Laclau qtd in Hake 8), emotions become substitutes for ideology. Affects are, therefore, “sites of ideological interpellation” (Hake 8) and films become vehicles of these ideological positions,  thereby creating a “utopian aesthetics'' (Sontag 92). Regrettably, films as cultural texts provide “empty optimism for the masses,” (Tomasulo116) and “satisfy mass desires” (Kracauer 5), but they are devoid of ideological frameworks that are capable of reflecting social dynamics in its totality.

In this way, I am interested in the way that Anthikad’s films function as cultural artifacts that reveal the presence of these ideological vacuums, driving people towards an acceptance of fascist ideologies. In this context, I discuss how the films use a concept of modernity as choice between binaries. Within conservative ideology, tradition and nostalgia for a mythical past constructed around majoritarian religious identity emerges as an idealistic alternative. In Anthikad’s films, for example, T P Balagopalan MA, he pits the modern against traditional Hindu identity; in this film, he merges this temporality with the spatiality of the village, a haven for the hapless grandson-grandmother duo.