Exploited or foolish: How Adivasis are represented in Malayalam cinema

From depicting Adivasis as foolish to viewing them only as objects to be exploited, Malayalam cinema has a long history of misrepresenting the community.
Exploited or foolish: How Adivasis are represented in Malayalam cinema
Exploited or foolish: How Adivasis are represented in Malayalam cinema
Written by:

Recently journalist and anti-caste activist Divya Kandukuri, while breaking down how Brahmin-Dvija feminism is considered mainstream feminism, made a valid observation. When you type “Brahmin women” and “Adivasi women” on Google, the images that are shown are proof of how they are perceived in the public domain.

Fair-skinned, bejeweled, or it can be popular mainstream actors, or married women doing rituals as opposed to the images and videos of Adivasi and Dalit women getting beaten up, paraded naked and raped. The possibility of such exploitative images of a Brahmin woman reaching Google is highly unlikely. This is also true of the representation of Adivasis/ethnic minorities in mainstream Malayalam cinema.

The 2002 Ali Akbar directed Bamboo Boys, revolves around four “tribal men” who step into the city to find a doctor when their chief’s wife falls ill. Though they begin the narrative by saying that it is a “fictional” place, the stereotypes are hard to miss. Boys clad in tiger printed loin cloths, men and women wearing outlandish feather hats, tiger printed dress and silly boots made of tree barks.  They speak what seems like gibberish, which is passed off as the “tribal language.” Once they land in the city, these four “Adivasis” are shown to be at their wits’ end - running away from bikes and cars, “hunting” the cheetah on TV with bows and arrows, singing a weird celebratory anthem after every little victory, and leaving the city dwellers wondering about  these “creatures”, the film has one of the most caricaturish depictions of Adivasis in Malayalam cinema. 

“The SC community themselves are woefully underrepresented in mainstream Malayalam cinema. So, the representation of Adivasis is even more pitiable.  There aren’t any films that have addressed their issues at all. Bamboo Boys can be termed vulgar. Their colonies are called as spaces for crime and unsavoury activities. To some extent, Pappilo Buddha did try to address the issues and project them with dignity. Even Perariyathavar did that. A tribal colony is nothing like how it is projected in cinema,” says filmmaker Dr Biju, who spent time with the community for his film Perariyathavar.  

The stereotypes

The Adivasi men in cinema are shown to be voiceless, oppressed, ugly and untouchable, often relegated to the position of hunters or slaves.

Nellu, directed by Ramu Karyat, starring Prem Nazir and Jayabharathi, was based on a tribal community in Wayanad. It focuses on the Adiyar community, their customs and mores, religion, sycophancy and exploitation at the hands of feudal landlords.

MT Vasudevan Nair scripted and Hariharan directed Aranyakam had a subtext which talked about Adivasi exploitation at the hands of upper caste men. They were left homeless and helpless.

The combination of Hariharan and MT has attempted to include the depiction of the Adivasi community in quite a few films.

In the period drama Kerala Varma Pazhassiraja (2009), when Pazhassiraja flees to Wayanad to escape from the British, he seeks the help of a Kurichya soldier, Thalakkal Chandu (Manoj K Jayan) and his fiancée Neeli (Padmapriya) for the guerrilla warfare and they do manage to rattle the company and its men. But then, Chandu gets caught and is hanged by the British. In one of the most poignant and heroic moments in the film, Pazhassiraja, overcome with grief and anger on hearing the news, gets on his horse the very night and kills the same people who hanged his favourite commandant. This part is apparently recorded in history and the film never opts to dilute the tribal chief’s moment of glory. In fact, it was even rumoured that they had plans to make a film on Chandu himself, as his exploits are said to be quite heroic.

Some of the earlier films of IV Sasi (1921) also had Adivasis in their plot.

But in Panchagni, which was loosely based on the life story of Naxal leader Ajitha, the tribal woman is shown as a victim of sexual exploitation by the upper caste men. She is serving a sentence for murdering a feudal landlord who rapes an Adivasi girl.

In the Venu Nagavalli directed Lal Salaam, set during the Emergency period in Kerala, the cops are shown taking their rage on Adivasi women by molesting them.

Adivasi women have largely been depicted in cinema as easy prey for upper caste men to satisfy their carnal desires. Some of the Adivasi celluloid tropes include a Moopan/chieftain, a token group tribal song and dance, replete with drums, archaic wooden musical instruments around a fire, lazily put up bamboo huts in the middle of a forest enclosed by a river. They would be agile hunters, talk a distinctive language that sounds like gibberish, eat food on leaves that serve as plates and dress up in flimsy cloaks.  

In Ranjith’s Paleri Manikyam: Oru Pathira Kolapathakathinte Katha, based on a real-life murder story written by TP Rajeev, the leading character Manikyan belongs to a marginalised community. While her mother is branded as promiscuous, her husband is shown as a mute spectator to the atrocities around him (including turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse of his young wife by the upper caste men). There are also many exploitative scenes that showcase the power play of the feudal lords who treat the Adivasi laborers as cattle.

Jayan K Cherian’s Papilio Buddha, shot entirely in Wayanad, features around 150 Adivasi actors and addresses the atrocities committed on indigenous people, their battle with the upper caste over property rights and how they embrace Buddhism to escape from caste oppression. The narrative focuses on the land struggles, fought across the various regions of the state and India, and the struggles of the indigenous people against the powerful political and social establishments.

“In mainstream Malayalam cinema, they are projected as curio pieces, often giving the impression that they are fine with the atrocities meted out at them. It shows lazy research and writing. When you show a community like this, mere reading isn’t enough, it’s as vital to communicate with them, understand their lives. While Papilio Buddha attempted to give them an honorable depiction, I would say it still doesn’t get the gist of their life,” says Manoj Kana, actor and veteran theatre activist who has worked closely with the community in Wayanad for his plays.

If not rape survivors, Adivasi women get featured through the exotic gaze—like Silk Smitha in Adharvam.  She is the assistant of a sadhu (Mammootty) who practices exorcism. And as part of a ritual, she agrees to sit nude.

In Ranjan Pramod’s Photographer, Mohanlal who plays a wildlife photographer, saves a tribal boy from the hands of a notorious cop and ends up in trouble when he tries to bring the issue to the public. The child actor who belonged to the community, won an award. Last year, he resurfaced in Unnikrishnan’s Udalazham, playing an Adivasi trans person.

Priyadarshan, meanwhile, made a screwball comic spin in Chithram, thereby showing his blinkered vision of the Adivasis. The stereotypes around the indigenous minorities shown were all in order—dumb, illiterate, not fit to be associated with in public and surprisingly speaks Tamil with a strange dialect. It’s the Adivasi “dumb and dumber” image that prompts Sreenivasan’s character to make ambitious plans about taking over his Uncle’s fiefdom.

“These dumb creatures are buying my disguise,” says Sreenivasan, pointing at the “Adivasi youth” (played by Maniyampillai Raju) standing beside his mother. In another instance, Innocent’s character calls the Adivasi a “wild pig.” But the tone is light-hearted and comical, planted in such a way that the public laughs with them instead of getting offended by this outrageously caricaturish depiction.  He addresses Sreenivasan as “Thambran” (Majesty) and his only wish is to be given enough money to get a haircut from Pazhani.  In yet another scene, the heroine’s NRI father, rudely orders the Adivasi out— “Your place is outside this home.”  Then of course there are the bizarre rituals the hero and heroine are subjected to.

Similarly, his Thenmavin Kombathu was placed in an imaginary village inhabited by an indigenous tribe (colourful cloaks, weird hairdo, dialect and costumes) and he repeated his myopic vision with their depiction.

Ashiq Abu’s Salt N Pepper had the hero “kidnap” an old Adivasi Moopan to covet a special recipe. But the character is voiceless throughout the narrative.

Mohanlal starrer Pulimurugan (2016) primarily placed in a forest has a leading man who saves the Adivasis and others from man-eating tigers. There is a token Moopan who is assigned the task of singing praises about the hero’s heroic deeds.   

“In Wayanad there are seven types of Adivasi communities, while Nilambur there are 6 or 7. Paniya and Naika are the most common tribal identities in these parts. Palakkad and Idukki there are diverse groups. But in cinema they are all brought under a common umbrella. It’s like how Muslims are represented in cinema.  Our filmmakers have not even bothered to explored something as basic as their cultural identities. If their cultural identities are not even addressed in our educational system, our popular filmmakers and writers will continue to rely on these stereotypes,” says Devendra Nath who is doing a documentary on tribal language, culture and habitat in the process of education.

In Carbon when the hero goes on a treasure hunt in a dense forest in North Kerala, he is helped in this mission by two Adivasis. What director Venu achieves in this narrative is to show an interesting facet about the community and their fascinating link with history. Also about how deeply connected they are with the nature.

In the recent past, Amal Neerad’s fictional period drama, Iyobinte Pusthakam had Vinayakan (also a favourite to play that community in Malayalam cinema) play an Adivasi who is at the receiving end of upper caste tyranny. But eventually, he plays a crucial role in saving the hero’s (Fahadh Faasil) life in the film. Though the narrative shows the Adivasi women as objects of lust for upper caste men, it can be assumed that being a film set in another era, it comes across more as a reflection of the times they lived in.

This year’s State Award winning film KanthanThe Lover of Colour directed by Shareef Easa is set in Wayanad Thirunelly Nangara Adivasi colony and tells the story of Kanthan, an orphan and his bond with an 80-year-old Ithyamma who helps him to face the world and its challenges. “I haven’t seen the film but there is a superficiality in that English adage in the title. It also shows how our filmmakers use the community as award-baiting tools than a genuine attempt to lend a compassionate and empowering commentary on their lives,” sums up Manoj Kana. 

Loading content, please wait...

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute