On Neelakuyil – A Critical Study

Utharakalam Admin

Dickens Leonard M.

Yet, in their individual struggles, they fail to the dominant structures of the social collective. The films represent them as failures of an individual woman’s aspiration against a casteist patriarchy. The “upper” caste women actively desire the “lower” caste men in these films. Some of the addresses which are conventionally casteist are turned into an erotic, romantic address.



This Paper is an attempt to bridge the act of reviewing, in its historical contingency. It studies the film Neelakuyil in the context of the readings that has gone before it for the last 4 months on gender. In fact it is a comparative study of a 1954 film, not only in its context, but also importantly, in the context in which, one could read a relevant critique of it, at this juncture.

Neelakkuyil, the cinematic adaptation of Uroob’s novel of the same name, told a very socially charged story, that of a young dominant-caste schoolmaster and his relationship with a Dalit woman. They meet one rainy day when the woman, Neeli (Miss Kumari) runs into the house of Sreedharan Master (Sathyan) for shelter. They begin a relationship marked in the film with melodious folk songs. Sreedharan promises to marry her. However, he rejects her when he gets to know that she is pregnant.  He marries an aristocratic woman of his own caste, while Neeli, the Dalit woman, gives birth to a child in the open, and dies in childbirth. Sreedharan Master does nothing to save the woman or later look after the child. However, Shankaran Nair, his neighbor and the postman of the village, decides to save the child.  He takes the child home and brings him up as his own. Sreedharan and his wife are unable to have any children of their own even as Sreedharan watches his child grow in the neighborhood. Towards the highly melodramatic end of the movie, under the moral pressure of the postmaster, Sreedharan admits to his mistake and accepts the child and decides to bring him up as his own.

The film raises conspicuous identifications by staging themes of “modern” reform and social responsibility predicated on “ordinariness as realism.” However, the cinema viewing experience here is predicated within the parameters of an enlightened middle-class selfhood that is embedded apparently in the structure of caste.


Humanitarian Discourse

Many scholars have commented that the huge success of this film took Malayalam cinema into an era of “socially relevant” cinema. In fact, this film is extremely important in its contribution to the formation of the superior identity of Malayalam cinema among south Indian film industries, in its formative years. Jenny Rowena argues that the story of the schoolmaster who learns to accept his child by a Dalit woman became the story of the Malayalee (male, of course) – framed as he was, within the identity of a humanist self.  To this day, critic after critic pays homage at the altar of this “great” film. However, Rowena argues that it has been seldom noticed that the humanitarian narrative of Neelakkuyil itself does not accept the Dalit woman into its fold. It lets her die helpless by the roadside. Sreedharan marries an aristocratic woman of his own caste and his repentance does not come by way of the person most affected by caste discrimination – the Dalit woman herself, who disappears almost forever from the Malayalam cinematic scene. Rather, it comes through the actions of the postman, Shankaran Nair, and through the fact that the Sreedharan-Nalini couple cannot produce a child.

Here the question of caste/gender is not taken up from the perspective of the person for whom it is most problematic, the Dalit woman herself. A truly radical narrative about caste/gender inequality would have represented Neeli’s story from her perspective instead of Sreedharan master’s casteist dilemmas that spoil her life. As we can see, the entire narrative is represented from the upper-caste man’s perspective, for whom the discourse on caste/gender equality becomes a means to embellish his superior identity. In fact, it is by assimilating the radical discourse of caste/gender with pseudo-radical films such as this that he is able to posit himself at the center of Malayalee progressiveness and culture.


Spatial Identifications

In fact, the film could be read as participating in a discourse on dominant modernity, that stages notions such as reciprocal love, conjugality, family and fathering through its explicit liaison with casteist patriarchy. Neelakuyil’s inaugural realism in 1954, that depicts the various folk elements of malayalee society, constructs different communities that are in transition. For instance, the Nair caste gentry (a dominant Hindu middle caste), the Pulaya community (a Dalit community), the Namboodari Brahmin man and the Mapilla Muslim man are represented as agents and subjects who constitute the transforming Kerala social imaginary. The women are portrayed as subjects with/in the relative identifications of this project. The representations of Nair womanhood and the Dalit womanhood are constructed, as if they are at the mercy of the men, and therefore, at the whims of the “reformist” camera.

If the camera could be seriously read – “against the grain” – beyond being a “modern, brahminical, patriarchal and reformist” apparatus of the nation-state; one may interrogate the frame as constituting “oppositional gazes.” Neelakuyil, when read through spatio-temporal terms, constitutes the frame of the progressive and the regressive, the traditional and the folk, the citizen-subject and the not-yet-subjects. The fact that certain depictions are framed to a space and time, finds a scope for an interesting reading of the text, as spaces look at each other with respect to time, within the filmic narrative.

Conspicuously Neelakuyil frames two gazes with respect to spatio-temporality: the Nair space – the tharavad, and the Dalit space. The film begins with a folk song that crafts the Dalit space as communitarian; filled with labouring, dark bodies; devoid of control, lacking barricade; that which is free and open; and where the folk is present in excess. The tharavad space is objectified as the solitary and ancient; that which is enclosed and monitored by a custodian; and which is symbolic of tradition and antiquity. Significantly, the film does not employ a disagreement or opposition between these two spaces, as access to these spaces is marked by certain “ascriptions.” In fact the camera, through its “un-marked” frame, depicts a simultaneous obliteration of these spaces as the narrative proceeds to a seemingly sophisticated “secular-modern” closure. The tharavad house is sold and the Dalit space is evicted from the narrative frame after Neeli’s death. In fact, the obliteration of these spaces starts with the death of women from these spaces: the dalit girl and the nair “matriarch.”

However, interestingly, the obliteration of these spaces brings certain intermediary spaces into limelight; the Nair tea shop is one such. Always filled by men from different walks of life, the tea shop is a public space – a secular portrait. It is supposed to be devoid of any discrimination and is free to access. What one witnesses is a transfer of spatial indices to an intermediary space such as this. The Mapilla man sings his folk song at a later juncture here. In fact, progressive discourses on social reform are shifted to this “un-marked” space slowly. This important shift is made as the marked spaces are made to depart deplorably.


Secular-Modern Body and Others

That brings to the question of certain bodies that access these spaces with relative ease. The post master’s signifies the secular-modern identification which the camera constructs. Shankaran Nair, as secular-modern agent, suggests a certain un-tagging that necessitates a specific kind of preferential coding that is opposite to that of the Dalit and tharavad identifications. His is a desired identification where secular-modern is located and locked into his male body. Identification, despite its claims to be an “unmarked abstract” universal, not only constitutes “others” but also inscribes itself silently as “upper” caste. This transcoding offers one to read other bodies differently.

In fact Kuttan Nair’s (The Tharavad Uncle’s only son) citation of Charlie Chaplin is a clever deployment in this discourse. The emasculated, toddy-drinking, thieving offspring of a changing familial-imaginary, who intervenes with the social-imaginary of a transforming modern Kerala state as an ‘other,’ is created as a figure of mockery and marking who distances from spectator identification. The camera seems to encode in his body a residue that marks him as a subject, who cannot be seen as an agent of secular-modern identification. Precisely he survives the wrath of the reformist frame and stay merely as a not-yet-subject of civility. Though he is caught by the fishing net of the Mapilla man later in the narrative; he escapes the secular-modern destiny of the camera in the absence of a home, a family and a job.


Subjects of Feminisms

In her path breaking essay “The Impossible Subject,” Susie Tharu proposes a perspective that addresses the issue of caste and the feminist scene of desire. She compares two short stories from different constituencies and time periods to suggest a contextual, contingent subjecthood for Indian feminism. In her comparison, she says a “widow’s traditional life in the modern household testifies to the scope of an Indian modernity that can accommodate tradition without compromising its humanism. They signal a natural continuing in the new and altogether persuasive frame that the narrative sets up. She posits this against the Dalit subject, who is drawn into a frame that reworks the discursive logic of untouchability as it proposes a theory of caste. Their depictions are, she says, “bodies, that shuttle, always deficient, always in excess … as terror in the domain of the citizen-subject.”

Can the women in Neelakuyil: Neeli, Nalini and the Nair mother be seen as subjects of feminism? If so, on what terms? It seems Neeli’s and Nair mother’s representations are always deficient, always in excess. Hence their portraits are non-subjects or not-yet-subjects of feminism. However, the modern familial imaginary that is constituted by Sreedharan-Nalini-Mohan contrives to suggest subjecthood, which is a model for secular-modern identification. This identification is categorically important so that a subject for feminism would emerge from this.

However, contemporary Tamil films subject a new phenomenon for feminism, which are certainly different from that of the past. The women protagonists in the select Tamil films: Paruthiveeran and Kadhal intervene with casteist patriarchy. Yet, in their individual struggles, they fail to the dominant structures of the social collective. The films represent them as failures of an individual woman’s aspiration against a casteist patriarchy. The “upper” caste women actively desire the “lower” caste men in these films. Some of the addresses which are conventionally casteist are turned into an erotic, romantic address.  For instance, the heroine would lovingly address the hero as Chandiyare (Rowdy) in the Paruthiveeran or Azhukka (dirty man or boy) in the film Kadhal and so on. So it might be interesting to suggest that here is a new alliance between the subject of feminism (“upper” caste) and the dalit male.

The strong, expressive women portrayals intercede with patriarchy at moments. For instance, Muthazhagu (Priyamani, Paruthiveeran) expresses her love strongly and is not portrayed submissive. Having saved by her cousin at a young age; she decides to marry him. She is not at the service of Veera. She addresses him insistently. She questions him adequately about his careless life. She demands what she wants from him. She insists marital sexual intercourse with him as a virgin. The aggressive episode with her father and mother represent a tenacious “rustic” heroine, different from the “upper caste/middle class,” Hindu wife Roja. Muthazhagu’s character signifies explicitly the problem of an “upper” caste woman’s desire which is caught between casteist patriarchy and impulsive love towards a dangerous, rowdy-sheeter outside her caste.

Aishwarya (Sandhya, Kadhal) expresses her interest in Murugan and elopes with him. The casteist forces violently repress her aspiration to live with a “lowly” man of her choice. The dominant collective responds violently to the subjectivity of Aishwarya. Violence is inherently portrayed as the dominant caste’s prerogative on screen. The dominant caste structures suppress the individual aspirations of Aishwarya. She, at the end of the movie, is the only embodiment who signifies the memory of Murugan. She becomes the only agency to revive Murugan back to normalcy. Aishwarya also wields an individual response/responsibility to the problems caused by the dominant casteist structure towards Murugan. Her characterisation signifies the efforts of an individual woman against casteist-patriarchy.

These female protagonists suggest a new constituency for feminism. They are perhaps the “not-yet-subjects” of feminism. However they offer a complex identification to feminisms at this critical juncture.

Print Friendly

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Subscribe Our Email News Letter :