Velayudha Panicker’s story has been little celebrated even in Kerala, where he fought to end the many inhuman acts unleashed on the oppressed caste.

A rich photo of siju wilson, shirtless and wearing a top knot on the horse with a sword in his hand, and behind him, a woman acting as a nageli on another horse with a swordIMDB
Flix Film analysis Friday, September 16, 2022 - 19:07

When Siju Wilson is first introduced in the film Pathonpatham Noottandu (‘the nineteenth century’), he appears as a mild-mannered young man, keeping his distance from the ruling class men of the dominant caste. In the few minutes he is inside the premises of their domain, he observes the injustices that go on in there – an oppressed caste virgin forced to go to sleep with a lustful Britishman, two slave men made to fight each other until one of them dies. He finally reacts when one of the men is being asked to kill the other, snatching the weapon, and riding away on a horse. That is how Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker, a social reformer believed to be the first martyr of the renaissance movement in Kerala, is introduced.

With prolific producer Gokulam Gopalan on board, director Vinayan has spared no expense with the period film. The sets are massive, the visual effects grand. And Siju Wilson got one year to transform into the physique of the strongly built Velayudha Panicker. With admirable ease, he hops onto horses like a pro, brandishes his weapons and fights his battles. Siju looks almost unrecognisable as the indomitable Velayudha Panicker, a small top knot on his head and grave expressions on his face. That this is the man who played the funny sidekick to Nivin Pauly’s George in Premam is hard to believe.

The movie becomes significant just by the choice of its subject. Velayudha Panicker’s story has been little celebrated even in Kerala, where he fought to end the many inhuman acts unleashed on the oppressed caste. Belonging to the oppressed Ezhava caste himself, he took up the issues of the people who belonged to his own caste, as well as the others that traditionally fell below it. Coming from a rich family of merchants, Velayudha Panicker could afford to build temples in protest against the existing ones that do not allow entry to the oppressed caste. He could organise Kathakali performances, at a time when men and women from the oppressed caste were shooed away from watching these outside temples. But most of all, Velayudha Panicker was known for standing up for the rights of the oppressed caste women, who were not allowed to cover their upper bodies, wear clothes below their knees, or have nose studs.

In his film, Vinayan tries to stick to the truth of Velayudha Panicker’s story as far as possible, with obvious cinematic exaggerations. The man who was introduced as a meek person in the beginning is shown to have grown into this powerful figure, respected among his peers, with a large number of the oppressed who see him as their saviour. In Vinayan’s take, Nangeli, another celebrated figure – her existence still a matter of debate – lived at the same time. Nangeli’s story portrays her as a fighter for the rights of the oppressed women, to cover their bodies, and not pay taxes for it. There existed a tax called mulakkaram (breast tax) imposed on the women of oppressed caste by the feudal lords of the time. In an Open magazine story, historian Manu S Pillai says that the tax was not meant for the breast, as it is commonly thought to be, but for women of the oppressed caste in general. Like there was a thalakkaram (head tax) – a tax for men of the oppressed caste.

Watch: Trailer of the film

The story that has however been passed on through generations says that Nangeli fought for her right to cover her breasts, and refused to pay the tax. When a king’s official came to collect the money, she chopped off her breasts and laid it on a plantain leaf in protest, before dying. Her husband Chirukandan is said to have died by jumping on her funeral pyre. Director Vinayan keeps this story for the end. In an interview with The Cue, he says that Nangeli’s is a story that he had heard growing up, and whether it be a legend or not, it is ingrained in the culture of Kerala. Because, he says, that was the truth of the oppressed caste women in those days. If not Nangeli, other women of her caste and age went through worse in those days.

Though Manu Pillai says that men and women of all castes had no qualms about baring their upper bodies at the time (“it was the Victorian gaze that brought in the idea that the female body ought to be covered up”), he expresses no doubts about the caste discrimination of the time. The distance that every “lower” caste in hierarchy had to keep from the respective “upper” caste, the untouchability, the many restrictions ranging from walking on public paths to entering temples, and the cruel punishments if any of these were broken, the inhuman acts were many.

Vinayan’s film very explicitly shows many of these injustices – Dalits tied up and beaten up or burnt, killed or parts of their bodies severed. When a young woman chose to wear a mookuthi (nose stud), her nose was cruelly cut off by dominant caste men. In one of his famous retaliations, Velayudha Panicker fought for the rights of oppressed caste women to wear mookuthi, and bought studs for scores of oppressed caste women and had them wear it.

Depicting the many atrocities of the dominant caste members of the time clearly didn’t go down well with certain sections of the audience, especially since the movie has portrayed it so convincingly. Vinayan told The Cue that someone who watched Pathonpatham Noottandu asked him why he took a film against the Hindus. The director asked the man if he meant ‘savarnas’ (dominant caste), and whether both savarnas and avarnas (oppressed caste) were not Hindus.

He had always wanted to take a film on Velayudha Panicker, who is from Arattupuzha, he says, having grown up in a nearby village of Ambalapuzha. Both are in Alappuzha district. Nangeli’s story too placed her in Cherthala, another town in Alappuzha. He wanted to make the film because he could not understand why a historical figure as important as Velayudha Panicker has been eliminated from textbooks and popular depictions such as cinema. When biopics were made about everyone from Kunjali Marakkar to Pazhassi Raja, why was Panicker’s story neglected, Vinayan asks.

He portrays a third important historical character in the film, that of Kayamkulam Kochunni. Only in this case, he goes against the story that has been handed down generations. Kochunni, a thief, was believed to have been a Robinhood-like figure of the time, taking from the rich and giving to the poor. He is such a respected figure in Kerala that a shrine has been raised for him in Kozhencherry of Pathanamthitta district. But in Vinayan’s film, Kochunni is a nasty villain, only making a show of giving to the poor, while he made off with large amounts of money for himself and his cronies. Chemban Vinod plays the character so well, it becomes a sad depiction of a beloved character. 

Kayadu Lohar plays Nangeli fittingly well. Only, even though she is introduced as someone trained to fight, her stunts end with a few kicks and throws, and she is overpowered by the villainous soldier Nambi (Sudev Nair). It takes Velayudhan to come and finish her battles.

The king is also shown to be soft towards Velayudhan, actually bestowing him with the title of Panicker as a reward for one of his brave acts. Anoop Menon plays the softhearted and sensitive king, who, though is shown to be sympathetic, doesn’t really act against the many cruelties towards the oppressed caste. He is shown to be more sad about losing the temple deity’s gold than the hardships of his subjects.

Despite its cinematic exaggerations and the fictionalised elements, Vinayan’s Pathonpatham Noottandu is significant simply for baring the realities of the time. When attempts are made across the country to cover up uncomfortable truths in history books, it is remarkable that films of this kind are made in Kerala. The makers also deserve a pat on their back for producing this film with all grandeur, so that it receives the recognition it deserves.

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