Indian films that sparked the critic in me: P Bhaskaran, Ramu Kariat’s Neelakuyil married caste, sexual politics and George Eliot

Anna MM Vetticad
·9-min read

(Editor's Note: This is the concluding essay in a 12-part series by film critic and consulting editor, Anna M.M. Vetticad)

Neelakuyil (Malayalam, 1954) translates to The Blue Koel or The Blue Cuckoo. The film's title comes from the nickname that the upper-caste schoolteacher Sreedharan Nair bestows on his lover, a Dalit woman. Her actual name is Neeli, and the affectionate rechristening notwithstanding, Sreedharan ditches her when she gets pregnant. Like most caste bigots, he deems her fit for clandestine sexual encounters but not for public acknowledgement; she is untouchable as per his convenience, clean enough to share his bed but too unclean for a socially sanctioned legal contract.

When Neelakuyil was released 66 years back, it was revolutionary for many reasons. On the website indiancine.ma, the academician Jenson Joseph notes that "the film is one of the earliest instances of the Left-affiliated artists' interventions in Malayalam cinema" €" Neelakuyil's story and screenplay writer, P Kuttikrishnan aka Uroob, was associated with the Progressive Writing Group, and P Bhaskaran, the co-director and lyricist, was a Communist Party member in Kerala. Joseph adds: "The involvement of these figures as well as the aesthetic lineage would qualify this film to be classified as a Left film; nevertheless, this would the only Malayalam film in this category that took up the theme of untouchability (rather than class relations) as its central concern." (sic)

In a newspaper review published in 1954 in Mathrubhumi that is excerpted on this website, Cynic €" "one of the prominent critics of the time" €" praised Neelakuyil for its relatable characters and culturally specific imagery. "The outdoor shots, used in plenty, succeed in conveying the sense that the story takes place in Kerala," Cynic wrote. "The uchikuduma [typical tuft of hair] of the Nair karanavar, the Namboodiri's paan-box, the traditional evening lamp customarily lit beside the thulasi [holy basil] plant at the Nair house, the village restaurant, the Marar and his drum, the Mappila's fishing net€¦ all these add to the Kerala-ness of the film."

Neelakuyil was the first film on a caste-based theme that I remember seeing as a child. It stood out since I watched it in the 1980s, a decade in which I associated serious cinema often with dreariness; the then-about-30-year-old Neelakuyil was designed as an entertainer so that it did not preach to the converted alone, and its soundtrack by K Raghavan remains one of the best ever created for Malayalam cinema €" the enduring 'Ellarum Chollanu' (Everyone is saying) remains a personal favourite till date.

Still from the song 'Ellarum Chollanu'
Still from the song 'Ellarum Chollanu'

Still from the song 'Ellarum Chollanu'

Coincidentally, I watched Neelakuyil around the time I read the 19th century English classic Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe by Mary Ann Evans aka George Eliot and if I recall correctly, my mother drew my attention to the commonalities between the two. Wittingly or unwittingly, Uroob's story draws heavily on Eliot's novel, but the alteration of the ending bothered me because it struck me, even at that early age, as senseless. Silas Marner's credible, realistic and logical climax was turned into an improbable, contrived finale in Neelakuyil as if intended as a crowd-pleaser to pre-emptively assuage the anger of offended upper-caste viewers.

Neelakuyil, therefore, is included in this series on Indian films that sparked the critic in me as much for what I loved and admired about it as for this and other problematic aspects. It gave me one of my earliest memories of understanding that pathbreaking liberalism and conservative/play-it-safe elements might be conceptualised by the very same writer and co-exist within the same film.

Co-directed by P Bhaskaran and Ramu Kariat, Neelakuyil further cemented the stardom of Miss Kumari who played Neeli. It also catapulted Sathyan, who acted as Sreedharan Nair, to fame that later transformed to legendary status. Bhaskaran himself played an upper-caste postman, Shankaran Nair, who adopts Neeli's baby.

In Silas Marner, Godfrey Cass, son of a wealthy landowner, hides his marriage to and estrangement from the opium-addicted working-class Molly. He is relieved when she dies, since it leaves him free to marry the more socially compatible Nancy Lammeter. Molly has a baby with Godfrey. When she collapses in the snow in a public space one night, the toddler wanders into the house of a weaver whose name is the book's title. Silas Marner decides to bring her up despite being a single man of limited means.

Godfrey does not acknowledge the child as his, but occasionally helps Silas financially. Years pass and he is childless with Nancy. The girl, Eppie, is a teenager €" well-loved in her village and adored by her adoptive father €" by the time Godfrey confesses the truth to his wife. The couple approach Silas, hoping to raise Eppie from then on. He is furious. Eppie politely declines.

Silas Marner is told from Silas's point of view. Uroob writes from the point of view of the Godfrey Cass of his plot, Sreedharan Nair. Neelakuyil builds empathy for the callous upper-caste protagonist, ultimately granting him redemption with plot developments that defy common sense.

(Spoiler alerts are rarely given in writings about old classics, but here is one all the same: the next paragraphs reveal intricate plot details)

In Neelakuyil, when Neeli dies by a rail track, locals try to dissuade Shankaran Nair from picking up the infant lying beside her lifeless body because they belong to a caste that is deemed untouchable. "Isn't the child of a Pulaya a human being? Does he not have a right over the Earth?" Shankaran asks while Sreedharan watches silently.

Sreedharan marries an upper-caste woman called Nalini (Prema Menon). Unlike Eppie, the boy Mohan is still little when the couple's childlessness and Sreedharan's guilt clawing at their marriage drive him to finally divulge his secret to Nalini.

One day, on being taunted by a classmate who tells him Shankaran took him in when he was abandoned by his real father, Mohan wanders off into the countryside. Sreedharan finds him collapsed with a fever and takes him home. When Shankaran arrives to pick up Mohan, Sreedharan tells him the truth about the boy's parentage and asks to have him for himself. Shankaran refuses, but oddly enough, soon after, Mohan rejects Shankaran in favour of Sreedharan. This turn of events is particularly incongruous because earlier in the film, Mohan is shown to be happy with Shankaran, even demanding to be taken to his "Acchan" (father, that is, Shankaran) when he is in Sreedharan's company. Mohan's abrupt change of feelings towards his biological parent is jarring and almost feels like it was tacked on as an afterthought for commercial purposes.

Far more natural and convincing is the teenaged Eppie's reaction in Silas Marner when Godfrey demands that Silas give her up. When he appeals to Eppie, she explains that she would be a misfit in upper-class society since the working class is all that she has known. It should be noted that Eppie does not romanticise Silas' lesser financial privilege than her biological father's, nor are she and Silas poverty-stricken and starving, but that she is comfortable with their financial position, her social status and the social milieu to which she is accustomed. But the first and foremost point she makes is this, "€¦I should have no delight i' life any more if I was forced to go away from my father, and knew he was sitting at home, a-thinking of me and feeling lone. We've been used to be happy together every day, and I can't think o' no happiness without him... And he's took care of me and loved me from the first€¦and nobody shall ever come between him and me."

Mohan is too young to make such a well-articulated speech, but his very smallness is why it defies believability that he would cast off the only father he has known in favour of a teacher, albeit one who appears fond of him.

Worse are the closing comments from Shankaran when he resigns himself to his fate. "Raktha bandham valiyathaana. Njaan avanude aarum alla," he says. (Blood ties are crucial. I am no one to him.)

Shankaran exhorts Sreedharan and Nalini to bring up Mohan as a good man, a big man, "don't make him a Nair, a Mappila or a Pulaya", thus implying that the travesty of caste is not socially imposed and that individuals born into lower castes can opt out of the caste system if they wish.

According to Neelakuyil's worldview, caste is a choice and love is genetic. This ill-informed position is astonishing, coming as it does from icons like Uroob, Bhaskaran and Kariat, and a reminder that icons are flawed.

The irony of Neelakuyil's seeming open-mindedness is that at its heart it is not the tale of Neeli, but an indulgent account of the exploitative Sreedharan. Despite his ruthless treatment of Neeli, he is still fashioned as a likeable man with far more screen time being devoted to his playfulness during their romance and his later repentance than to his heartlessness. The script is at pains to indicate that he does indeed love her in his own twisted, selfish way, by showing him mourning her loss and weeping for her when no one is watching. In the end then, Neelakuyil is about an upper-caste man who reforms himself and is rewarded for deigning to do so.

It is important to remember this even while celebrating the film for placing a condemnation of caste and untouchability at the front and centre of its narrative, especially through Nalini and subsequently Shankaran's impassioned, memorably unequivocal denunciation of the casteist mentality that spurred Sreedharan's cruelty to Neeli.

Neelakuyil was released in the decade in which the National Awards were instituted. In 1955, it became the first winner of the National Award for Best Feature Film in Malayalam. It also won a general-category National Award, picking up the now-discontinued All India Certificate of Merit that was given for a few years in the 1950s to a couple of films other than the winner of the National Award for Best Feature Film across all languages, sort of like a second and third prize.

In terms of its politics, Neelakuyil is not as evolved as Kariat's 1965 directorial venture Chemmeen that became the first south Indian film to win the National Award for Best Feature Film. Fifty-five years later, Chemmeen €" the story of a poor Hindu fisherwoman ostracised for falling in love with a Muslim man €" remains relevant and rebellious. Despite its beautiful music and cultural detailing, Bhaskaran and Kariat's Neelakuyil though is a glass half full of being remarkably progressive for its time and half empty of all-out defiance.

Also read from the series

Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Satyajit Ray's Mahanagar is the definitive feminist classic

Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Ramu Kariat's Chemmeen remains misunderstood and misrepresented €" even by its admirers

Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Jahnu Barua's Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door is an indictment of cold-hearted development

Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Was Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Namak Haraam a closeted gay romance?

Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Rituparno Ghosh's Dahan is every woman's story

Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Fazil's Manjil Virinja Pookkal owes everything to Jerry Amaldev's music and Mohanlal

Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Jwngdao Bodosa's Hagramayao Jinahari is a rare window into Bodo life

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