The 'painkili' genre in Malayalam literature and how it captured the hearts of lakhs

Muttathu Varkey, who wrote his first novel ‘Ina Pravukal’ in 1953, is often called the pioneer of the painkili genre in Malayalam.
Drawing of a painkili magazine story
Drawing of a painkili magazine story
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Pages of a magazine flit about as Alice watches George Kutty walk through the yard towards where she stands. She imagines every man’s pencil-drawn face in the magazine to be George’s and cannot stop staring at him when he speaks of life realities. If his eyes were a little wider and the moustache trimmer, George would have looked like Sunnykuttychayan, the hero of her magazine story.

Sunitha, in this 1991 film George Kutty c/o George Kutty, plays the stereotypical young woman of those decades, whose day-long entertainment involved serialised romantic novels that appeared in weekly Malayalam magazines. A practice that began sometime in the 1960s, after popular fiction of a new kind emerged in the '50s, pioneered by the likes of Muttathu Varkey. The genre, telling cheesy love stories, came to be called 'painkili', named after a novel that Varkey wrote in the '50s: Paadatha Painkili (A bird that won't sing).

Poster of Paadatha Painkili, adapted to a film

In the next three decades, these stories would grow increasingly popular as they got serialised in Malayalam magazines – primarily, Malayala Manorama, Mangalam and Manorajyam, sometimes dubbed as the ‘Ma’ magazines. They appeared alongside pictures of beautiful men and women drawn and illustrated for the stories – like Alice’s Sunnykuttchayan. In essence, they are the Malayalam equivalent of pulp fiction.

“It began as a movement for the common reader, in the 1950s. The stories were written and set mostly in the high ranges of Kottayam and Idukki. In those hill ranges, dominated by Christians, lived many workers for whom these novels created a dream world,” says literary critic and cultural historian PK Rajasekharan.

In an article titled ‘Kamukarum Kolayalikalum’ (Lovers and Killers) published in the 2009 new year edition of the Madyamam magazine, Rajasekharan wrote, “A literature that offered simple solutions to life problems and worries, that promised an unreal world of joy where dreams and desires are fulfilled, had been written since the 1950s – in parallel with the realism in prose and the fantasy in poetry. It is this literature that was later called painkili sahithyam (pulp fiction), looked down by connoisseurs of serious literature.”

Reaching out to the masses

The novels had set themes – stories of a family in a village, a poor hero and a rich villain, romance between the rich and the poor and the opposition they face, failed relationships and so on.

People embraced it. Magazines carrying painkili stories got sold in lakhs – one magazine sold over 17 lakh copies in a week. Mangalam’s owner MC Varghese charged more when the demand rose and used the extra money to build a hospital block.

From Mathew Mattom's Aalippazham published in Mangalam, in 1988 / Courtesy - Mohan Manimala

Late poet, critic and scholar Ayyappa Paniker, in ‘A short history of Malayalam literature’, wrote this about painkili fiction: “These works set a trend in story-telling, involving simple domestic characters in their everyday life with their joys and sorrows told in a rather sentimental melodramatic language. No wonder it attracted a vast number of readers and considerably helped to promote the popularity of the novel form.”

Like in any other language (NE Sudheer, literary critic and columnist, lists the work of contemporary Indian English writers Chetan Bhagat and Ravinder Singh as examples), Malayalam pulp fiction reached out to the masses.

Kamalram Sajeev, editor with a cultural portal and who was earlier editor of the Mathrubhumi weekly magazine, says, “Painkili or the true Malayalam pulp school has definite political influence in the cultural history of Kerala. Painkili never initiated any great contributions towards an otherwise cultivated and sophisticated literature in Malayalam.”

Muttathu Varkey, the pioneer

You can see a marble tombstone in the graveyard. There rests two skeletons in that tombstone. Once upon a time, two hearts, bright with love, had beaten within those skeletons. Two poor villagers. Anthony and Rahel! With expensive marble, Rajan inscribed this on the tomb of love: Inapravukal

–   From Inapravukal by Muttathu Varkey

Muttathu Varkey / Courtesy -

Muttathu Varkey, often credited as the pioneer of the painkili genre, was born in Chethipuzha, a village in Kottayam. His first novel – Inapravukal (A pair of doves) – published in 1953, established the new genre that would capture many thousands of hearts. In the next two years he wrote two more – Thekkan Kaarum and Paadatha Painkli. Varkey had arrived.

This was a time when Basheer, Thakazhi and Keshavadev wrote their realism novels beginning in the '40s. Two hundred and fifty novels came out of the 1940s. In the ‘50s, the number rose to 974.

Increased literacy, more women readers

Rajasekharan attributes the increase in readership to the rise in literacy rates in Kerala, especially among women. In 1931, the literacy rate of the state was a mere 21.34% with only 11% of the women achieving literacy. Twenty years later, there was more than 40% literacy and still 20 years later, the number rose to 60. More than 54% of the women in Kerala achieved literacy by 1971.

Nisha, a journalist in Kochi, read her first painkili novels on magazine pages used for wrapping the pappadams and eggs they bought from shops. Her parents did not allow the girls – Nisha and her sister – to subscribe to these magazines, and so this was their first taste of painkili sahityam. “At that time, I didn’t know it was painkili. We got drawn to the beautiful pictures that came with the stories – handsome men and pretty women. The words too offered a visual treat – a lorry man driving in, a woman on a bridge drawing water from a pond. It’d set off our imagination.”

One of the works artist Mohan Manimala drew for Malayala Manorama magazine

Rajalekshmy, who grew up in rural Thiruvananthapuram, remembers the family subscribing to at least two of the magazines that printed these novels. Her mother was an even more avid reader than her and wouldn’t pass the books on before finishing the stories. “She wouldn’t even read the newspaper before finishing those magazines,” Rajalekshmy says, laughing.

What young Raji liked was however another genre of writing also included by critics among the painkili sahityam – detective fiction, that too got serialised in these same magazines. “I enjoyed them more than the romantic fiction. I must have read everything by Kottayam Pushpanath. They’d always stop at a point of suspense where you have to wonder what happens next and then wait eagerly for the next issue. Like television serials do these days,” she says.

Anju Minesh, a psychologist in Kochi and a reader of the painkili novels, also enjoys the thrillers. “There will be just so many twists within the twists, it could be even more thrilling than some of our movies. I wouldn’t say the stories have changed much over the years – the basic stories at least are the same. A man or a woman protagonist suffers for some time and then they reach a better place and help others or make them guilty (for hurting them earlier). They are good at building up your curiosity week after week.”

A novel by Kottayam Pushpanath / Courtesy -

“It became a main source of entertainment for women who were spending most of their time indoors,” says Sudheer. “The stories too catered to the woman reader, appealing to their ‘soft emotions’.”

Which would include the familiar subjects of love, relationships and betrayal – says Chandramathi, a writer who grew up through those times. Women who were limited to reading ‘puranas’ were drawn to the joys of literature through pulp fiction. 

“It was the need of the time. It was easy to digest, easy to understand, a time killer. Men were supposed to do the economic function and went out while women were stuck at home. That’s the time they got attracted to reading such lighthearted fiction. Writers of painkili literature handled a world well-known to the women, and especially to homemakers.”

Bringing language closer

Kamalram and Sudheer, however, point out the massive role the genre played in bringing ordinary people close to language. “It may not be serious reading, it may serve as mere entertainment, but it brought people close to language. Literary fiction could only serve a niche of readers, the language does not become democratic,” Sudheer says.

It became a stepping stone to serious literature for some readers while others stayed back for good, as loyal painkili readers. “Pulp is meant for one quick read, it is not something you go back to and read for its value and beauty. You stay with it only during the time you read it,” Sudheer observes.

True enough in Rajalekshmy’s case. She stopped reading the painkili novels more than two decades ago and got hooked onto serious literature afterward. Chandramathi says that while some, like Rajalekshmy, progressed to serious reading, others got stuck reading pulp fiction and could not come out of the net.

Nisha is an exception. There was a phase when she began reading more serious literature in her teenage and realised why the parents hadn’t allowed the reading of painkili novels before. “But even while we admired the serious literature and quoted diligently from it for our romantic lives, we still enjoyed going back to the painkili novels once in a while,” she says. 

There were, like Rajasekharan wrote, those who looked down upon the painkili literature with contempt. “From the very beginning, liberals, radicals, reformists and revolutionaries took an argumentative offensive against this genre of habit-forming literature. Most of them took a remarkable volte-face when they were honoured by a medal established in the name of the greatest painkili monarch Muttathu Varkey,” says Kamalram. 

He also says that many a time, these stories were patriarchal, but that paradoxically the majority of the readers were women.

Cinema adaptations

But through all the criticism, the popularity of the novels rose and caught on to the world of cinema. At least 30 popular films in Malayalam were based on Muttathu Varkey’s novels, including Ina PravukalPaadatha Painkili and Azhakulla Selina, all three starring Prem Nazir, Malayalam cinema’s ‘evergreen hero’. The more recent movie (1990) is Mammootty’s Kottayam Kunjachan, adapted from Varkey’s novel Veli.

Watch: Funny scene from Kottayam Kunjachan

Veli, set in the fictional Odankara village in central Kerala, has all the features of a popular novel, wrote Rajasekharan. “High range region of central Travancore is in the background. Christianity. Money from plantation crops. Veli is the picturisation of raw village life.”

Varkey wrote a script too in addition to more than 75 novels, 17 short story collections, poetry and translation. Following his footsteps were many writers from central Kerala – Kanam EJ, who went on to found the Manorajyam magazine, one of the above-mentioned Ma magazines, Mathew Mattom, another Kottayam native and the still-active Joycy among many others. There were women writers of painkili fiction too, like Mallika Yunis and MD Rathnamma.

From Vivaha Varshikam by Joycy - courtesy artist Mohan Manimala

Ragesh, member of the Facebook group Malayalam Movie and Music Database (m3db), recently posted a few memories of novels which later became movies. He wrote of pictures accompanying the novels often resembling movie actors. "Mohanlal pictures were drawn for the novel Ranger written by Batten Bose in the Manorama magazine. In another novel Kanakachilanka, the pictures looked like they came from a photo shoot. The heroines of that story had the faces of actors Renjini and Sreeja. That didn't become a movie but another novel called Nandini Oppol which got serialised in Manorama was adapted into a film. The novel was accompanied by pictures of Nandini Oppol resembling actor Geetha, the work of artist Mohan Manimala. And Geetha played the character in the movie too. Those days, Manorama came on Fridays and Mangalam on Tuesdays,” Ragesh writes with more than a touch of nostalgia.

The novel Sthreedhanam by CV Nirmala too became a movie. Snehamulla SimhamMay DinamAnnakutty Kodambakkam VilikkunnuBharya and other novels published in the Manorma-Mangalam-Manorajyam magazines later became movies.

Market interest

When the magazines played to the market, the painkili literature accommodated emotions that were saleable. Real problems got reduced to ‘emotional ones’, Rajasekharan wrote.

Sudheer points out that these stories were not about life experiences, they were not meant for value or aesthetics. “They were,” he says, “for the mass market.” It is today even more so, he says.

But today there are no more Muttathu Varkeys.

The advent of television serials and soap operas changed everything. There was no more need to read when pulp stories were visualised for you.

“By the 1990s, the cable television broke into our lives and people switched from reading stories to watching them. The pulp fiction novels began to have less takers. Muttathu Varkey’s novels did not have new editions anymore. The magazines which once sold 17 lakh copies got reduced to two lakh copies by the end of 2000s,” says Rajasekharan.

Kamalram puts it this way: “Miserably, its mutated viruses are passionately domineering our visual culture, through serials and movies.”

Sudheer also attributes the fallen readership to an even newer invention – the social media. “You read all that you like there. You write there too.”

If the same stories that once people enjoyed so much got printed again, it will still have few takers, he says.

You almost feel sorry for a genre that reigned for decades and then got left behind for newer, more attractive pleasures of the world. Like the tiring tales of the landline or the internet café or a posted letter. But even as it dies a slow death you cannot sideline the historical importance that painkili played in Malayalam literature, Rajasekharan reminds you.

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