At home and away: The Malayalee NRI's life abroad as captured by Malayalam cinema

The Malayalee NRI is broadly divided into two categories - the ones flourishing in the West and the ones struggling in the Gulf.
At home and away: The Malayalee NRI's life abroad as captured by Malayalam cinema
At home and away: The Malayalee NRI's life abroad as captured by Malayalam cinema
Written by :

Anindita Menon

The NRK or the Non-Resident Keralite in cinema is broadly divided into two categories—the economically flourishing, but dysfunctional American vs middle-class Gulf residents/returnees who aspire to a better standard of life. Within these two categories are many shades of grey—the economic ups and downs of life abroad and back home, identity crises, and heart-wrenching tales of incomplete lives. We bring you a cross section of the NRK experience as depicted in our cinema.

Ezham Kadalinakkare (1979) is the first Malayalam film shot extensively in the US  and it has K.R. Vijaya as a nurse—the stereotypical elder sister who sweats it out in a foreign land for her impoverished family. It also has Seema playing her younger sibling who goes astray in the razzmatazz of the new culture and country (another horrifying cliché!). Then of course, better sense prevails and she is back to being the goody Malayalee girl.  

MA Dhavan a.ka. Madhavan in Mazha Peyyunnu Maddalam Kottunnu (1986) is a self-proclaimed bourgeois. The NRI from the US who suddenly and typically develops a loathing for everything Indian—including his own parents. When his mom tries to welcome him with a hug, he shrugs— “Yes, mummy, this is not the place at all for such cheap sentiments.” And when they usher him outside, he is furious to see an Ambassador car awaiting him— “I told you to change this car. Ethra paranjalum manasilavatha cultureless people!” Interestingly, this doesn’t alter his conditions for his future wife—he wants only a coy Malayalee bride.

Varavelppu (1989) is probably the first Malayalam film that seriously addressed the issues of the Gulf Malayalee. Murali is initially welcomed with warmth by his brothers and family but once they realise that he is here to stay, their love turns sour. He tries to operate a bus, gets embroiled in a tiff with a union leader, loses it and decides to return to the Gulf. Written by Sreenivasan, the film touches a chord with every Gulf Malayalee who feels valued only so long as the money keeps coming in.  Murali also realises with this sojourn the double standards and apathetic work ethics of an average Malayalee. 

In Chithram (1989), we have the patriarch Ramachandra Menon who lives in the US and makes that yearly visit to his hometown. He is the polished, well-read, educated NRI who doesn’t make a big deal of his life there and takes pride in his roots. 

Akkare Akkare Akkare (1990), widely shot in the US, has detectives Dasan and Vijayan trying to find a missing crown and the mysterious Paul Barber. One of the characters in the film is a Malayalee nurse, whom the duo instantly develop a liking to, as well as the two unemployed chaps struggling to find a square meal.

The I.V. Sasi directed Varnapakittu (1997) had Mohanlal in the role of a rich Singapore-based businessman. His family falls to bad times and propels him to find his way in a foreign land. There is also a track with his girlfriend, also an immigrant there, who has to take up sex work to take care of her ailing mother and sister.

Major Ravi Mamman in Joshiy’s Dubai (2001) reaches out to a foreign land to reclaim his lost identity. In due course, he creates a business empire, lectures visiting Americans about the merits of punctuality and ethics, and is nearly indomitable. Written by Renji Panicker, they show the thriving Dubai, with its desert rides, unending skyscrapers, and the good life.

Chirakkal Sreehari in Chandrolsavam (2005) is a wanderer on a trail of self-discovery. Once home at his tharavadu, he claims the “fleet of cars reminds him of being in ancestral homes in Tokyo, Amsterdam, and the Middle-East.” He has been in and around the world— “masquerading in various get-ups…I have cried in the arms of Claude, a French beauty.” The Renjith rigmarole!
Arabikatha (2007) has “Cuba” Mukundan, a staunch Leftist forced to find work in Dubai against his ideology. Once there, he meets his compatriots struggling to make ends meet and doing menial jobs to send money to their families back home. Life in the Gulf lands him in unforeseen circumstances and forces him to change his perception about work ethics and he comes back home as a true blue Communist.
Mathukutty’s (Kadal Kadannoru Mathukutty, 2013) heart is still in his homeland and he hates every bit of his life in Germany as the husband of a nurse. When he gets an opportunity to be in Kerala, he grabs it with both hands, but once there, even the servile Mathukutty recognises that loving your land isn’t the same as making a living there.
Khaddama (2011), also the Arabic word for a housemaid, is taken from the life story of a lower middle class Malayalee woman hired as a maid in an Arab family and who has to live in inhuman conditions. How she escapes the confinement forms the rest of the story. It’s probably the most unfaltering and accurate depictions of Malayalee housemaids who slave it out in the Gulf. It’s an eye-opener. 
Diamond Necklace (2012) has Dubai in the backdrop and tells the tale of a young doctor who, after initially opting for the fast life, tries to get a hold of himself and marries a girl from Kerala for money. He meets a heiress, and a young Tamilian nurse and they all make a positive impression on his life and choices. There is a nice segment where the doctor gets unexpected help from a fellow Malayalee.
Ustad Hotel’s (2012) Faizi is a third generation NRI—the one with a British girlfriend and is unaware, therefore unappreciative, of his cultural roots. He aspires to be a sous chef. When his dad refuses to see his ambition, he travels to Kerala and learns an invaluable lesson from his grandfather. His dad is the archetypal North Kerala Malayalee who migrated to the Gulf for a better life and has no time or love for those living in Kerala.
ABCD (2013) or American Born Confused Desi is a fun, realistic take on third generation NRIs—the cool dude born and brought up abroad and who identities himself as an American rather than a Malayalee. But they are torn between retaining their native roots, thanks to parents who have lived a major part of their lives in Kerala, and sticking to a culture they are more accustomed to.
When John’s father realises that his son has had a bit too much of pubs and cars, he packs him off to Kerala with the hope of making him a responsible man. John and his NRI friend are forced to survive on a paltry sum (according to them) of Rs.5,000. There are hilarious moments when they find themselves being branded heroes for reasons they can’t fathom. Back in New York, the trip hardly makes a difference and they are shown as being back in their element. Moral of the story: Stick to your roots!

Shyama Prasad’s English: An Autumn in London (2013) is replete with intriguing characters from diverse backgrounds in the backdrop of London. The womanising bachelor who is infatuated with his friend’s wife, the homemaker who is shocked to discover that her husband is homosexual, a Kathakali artiste turned waiter who is an illegal immigrant and dreams of marrying his childhood sweetheart, and a middle-aged man with an extended family battling a high strung teenage daughter and ailing mother make up the character list.

Salim Ahamed’s Pathemari (2015) is a candid portrait of a middle-class Gulf Malayalee, tracing his life from the early 80s to the present. It’s an honest representation of the travails of every Gulf Malayalee who slaves it out for a lifetime, doing odd jobs to send money to his extended family back home, but whose sacrifices are often disregarded. 

Director Sugeeth’s Madhura Naranga (2015), based on a real-life tale, traces the story of three Malayalee immigrants in Dubai.  There are no attempts to glorify the city or its culture. It’s more a love story between a Sri Lankan girl, who is tricked into a job but ends up in a dance bar, and a Malayalee taxi driver who decides to take care of her. They maintain the realism in setting though, and there is also a casual mention of the plight of husbands who miss their wives back home and so look out for minor flings for instant gratification. 

To save his debt-ridden family, Josutty marries a divorcee nurse settled in New Zealand in Life of Josutty (2015). It’s a new world for him and he soon makes himself useful by being a house husband. But once he finds her cheating on him, he decides to stay back and make a living running a restaurant. The worn-out cliché of a man being stuck in a foreign land for his family stands here too.

Jacobinte Swargarajyam (2016), based on a real-life story, has Jacob—an ambitious, thriving Malayalee immigrant who has struck gold in Dubai. When the global recession strikes, he moves for a lucrative deal with a Pakistani dealer but gets cheated. Finally, it's left to his son and wife to pick up the pieces when he is forced to escape to Liberia to escape arrest.

We are shown the upper middle class Dubai, where happy families reside, where sons look up to their dads for inspiration, and wives are the nurturers. Jacob is proud of his roots, even more proud to narrate his struggles in Dubai, and loves his family. The modern Dubai, the educated Malayalee, and the smart, practical third generation Malayalees who are proud of where they come from and recognise the idiom 'the survival of the fittest' feature in the film. 

This article was first published on The News Minute has syndicated the content. You can read the original article here.

Elections 2023

No stories found.
The News Minute