Film history
Though PK Rosy was a trailblazer, it took decades for Kerala society to take an interest in her life.

She was Malayalam cinema's first woman actor. But far from being hailed for breaking the glass ceiling, PK Rosy was hounded out of the state. The reason? She was from the Pulaya community, which is classified as Scheduled Caste, and dared to play an upper caste Nair woman in the 1930 film (some say 1928) Vigathathakumaran, directed by JC Daniel.

In an effort to restore her name in the annals of history, the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) of the Malayalam film industry recently announced that they would launch a film society named after PK Rosy. In a statement, the WCC said, "This act of naming our film society a PK Rosy Film Society is a humble attempt to be sensitive and to take note of all those who have been excluded from dominant cinema histories through their gender, caste, religious or class locations and our own imagination, and have been brought to light by many scholars, historians and activists."

The WCC was formed after a prominent woman actor from the Malayalam industry was sexually assaulted in February 2017. After Dileep, a popular male star from the industry, was arrested and charge-sheeted for being the mastermind behind the attack, members of the WCC found themselves increasingly ostracised by the rest of the industry. Apart from showing solidarity with the survivor, the WCC has also asserted that they are here for the long haul, to make meaningful changes to cinema. Naming the society after a woman who was oppressed by her gender and caste is a small step in that direction.

Who was PK Rosy?

PK Rosy is believed to have been born as Rajamma in 1903 to Paulose and Kunji. The family lived in Nadankode, Thiruvananthapuram. She was reportedly a grass-cutter who showed immense interest in acting, and would insist on going for rehearsals at the traditional school of performing arts where she studied Kakkarissi Natakam. This folk art form originally comes from Tamil Nadu and uses a mix of Malayalam and Tamil in a musical drama format. The stories told revolve around Shiva and Parvathy who arrive on earth as Kakkalan and Kakkathi, fortune-tellers from a nomadic tribe.

JC Daniel initially brought Ms Lana, a woman actor from Mumbai, to act in Vigathakumaran, which translates to 'The Lost Child'.

Speaking to TNM, film critic GP Ramachandran says, "No woman in Kerala was ready to act in films back then, so JC Daniel brought someone from Mumbai. He even shot a little bit of the film with her, but he wasn't able to meet her requirements and she went back. It's after this that PK Rosy is said to have stepped in. Back then, even those who acted in theatre were looked down upon, and that's probably why Daniel had such a tough time getting an actor."

When the film was screened at Capitol Cinema in Thiruvananthapuram, the audience was angry that a Dalit woman had played the role of a Nair woman. The film reportedly had a scene showing her lover (played by Daniel) kissing a flower she had worn in her hair, and this angered the people so much that they pelted stones at the screen and damaged it.

While some say that Rajamma became Rosamma and eventually Rosy because her family converted to Christianity, others say that it was JC Daniel who changed Rajamma's name to 'Rosy', a more glamorous name.

JC Daniel anticipated the trouble that would come their way and did not invite Rosy for the screening of the film at Capitol Cinema. Many prominent personalities had threatened to boycott the event if she was present, including Malloor Govinda Pillai, a famous lawyer who was given the honour of inaugurating it. Rosy had supposedly not known that the film would be screened publicly when she shot for it, but was keen to attend the screening. She could, however, only watch the second show of the film.

"JC Daniel was shattered by what happened at the screening of the film. There are many accounts of what took place. There's a novel by the name of Nashta Nayika (The Lost Heroine) by Vinu Abraham which also narrates these events with some fictional elements. Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan and Kunnukuzhi S Mani are others who investigated this story; quite a few books have come out on the subject. But we can't say that these books are entirely accurate. There has been criticism that these accounts were coloured by the writers' own feelings and perspectives of what happened," says Ramachandran.

Apart from a still from the movie, there are no existing prints of Vigathakumaran, and in the place of Capitol Cinema, which once stood on MG Road in Thiruvananthapuram, there is now Marikar Motors.

What happened to Rosy?

PK Rosy was subjected to such harassment that she was forced to leave Thiruvananthapuram. Some accounts even say that her hut was burnt down by the upper caste groups. She is said to have married a truck driver named Kesava Pillai and left to Tamil Nadu, where she named herself 'Rajammal'.

According to Kunnukuzhi's account, Rosy and her husband did not disclose her past to anyone. Their children, while aware of some details, are reluctant to acknowledge their mother's story because they live as Nairs (their father's caste) now.

In a video titled "PK Rosy's daughter Padma: 100 years of Indian cinema" which was published by Asianet News on YouTube in 2013, the team tracked Rosy's daughter to Goripalayam, Madurai, and spoke to the family about their forgotten relative.

The video features Padma, her tailor husband Shanmugham, daughter Rajalakshmi and Padma's grandchild.

"I don't know how she was before she got married. But after she got married, she wasn't into anything (acting)," says Padma. Shanmugham adds that his father-in-law had told him that people in his family had acted in films and theatre but that he did not know any more details.

The team also found Rosy's brother Govindan from Kerala and his son Anil. In the video, Anil says, "Rosy's children grew up with the father's identity. The son (Nagappan) got married to a woman in Alappuzha and settled down there. The daughter is living in dire poverty."

Govindan, however, is more forthcoming in the video. According to him, it was Rosy's uncle who encouraged her interest in the arts and even got her a teacher for music and acting. "There were no objections when she acted in theatre, as far as I know," says Govindan.

But, when Rosy had to flee the state after acting in the film, her mother Kunji turned against her brother. Govindan remembers Rosy's husband Kesava Pillai as a progressive man who did not discriminate against Rosy's family despite being upper caste. Govindan adds that he'd asked Rosy to visit Kerala many times but that she never did. 

Bringing Rosy back

It took about four decades for Kerala to take an interest in PK Rosy once again. Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan's first article about Vigathakumaran and its tragic fate was published in the late sixties while Kunnukuzhi, who traced JC Daniel to Nagercoil, published his first article on Rosy in 1971 in Kalapremi.

There has been renewed interest in PK Rosy's life in the past few years, but the acknowledgement of her contribution, from the industry itself, has been muted. This isn't surprising because the cinema field till date is dominated by the upper castes and consequently, there are very few stories with Dalit characters that make it to the big screen.

GP Ramachandran says, "Even if Kerala society may have overcome many caste-based discriminatory practices that are there in other states, caste is still very much prevalent in the state. There was an uproar in those times because she played a Nair woman. But even after that, there haven't been too many Dalit women actors. Among men, Kalabhavan Mani, who was Dalit, rose to prominence but it is said that many women actors were reluctant to act with him. This has been reported in mainstream magazines like Chithrabhumi. Also, if you look at the kind of roles he got, it mostly wasn't that of the hero. There have been very few films with Dalit women characters and even when they come, those roles are performed by others. Two films that come to mind are Neelakuyil and Kismath."

In 2013, Celluloid based on the life of JC Daniel and his attempt to make the first Malayalam film, was released. Directed by Kamal, the film won seven Kerala State Awards, including for Best Film and Best Actor (Prithviraj). However, the film was criticised by Dalit intellectuals for failing to give Rosy her due.

The same year, at the first PK Rosy Memorial Lecture organised at Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi, professor Jenny Rowena discussed the critical responses to the film which pointed out that Rosy was "portrayed as a woman without any mind of her own and as someone who is only capable of showing docility to savarnas to the system of untouchability and run away after being defeated".

PK Rosy's legacy, however, continues to be kept alive by the Dalit community who celebrate her as a trailblazer. There's also an award in her name which has been instituted by the PK Rosy Smaraka Samithi and is given to women actors in theatre, TV and cinema.

Speaking about naming the society after PK Rosy, WCC member Archana Padmini told Film Companion, "With the other names, we thought we could be questioned, but we knew PK Rosy would be acceptable to all." The irony in the statement would be evident to all those who are familiar with PK Rosy's story - from a woman who was brutally ostracised, she's now a personality who is eagerly embraced. However, the fact remains that a real tribute to Rosy can only be making the film industry more inclusive, thereby creating a workspace where all kinds of stories are told because there are people who can and will tell them. In their own voice.