Puzhu row and the absurd rightwing effort to focus on Mammootty's Muslim identity

At the time of its release two years ago, ‘Puzhu’ directed by debutant Ratheena PT had sparked a limited yet necessary conversation about the caste bigotry and violence prevalent in Kerala.
Mammootty in Puzhu teaser
Mammootty in Puzhu teaser
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*Spoilers ahead for Puzhu

Hindu right-wing activists in Kerala are currently angry with Mammootty over a two-year-old anti-caste film. In the 2022 Malayalam film Puzhu, directed by debutant Ratheena PT, the veteran actor played the role of Kuttan, a Brahmin man who chillingly murders his sister (Parvathy Thiruvothu) after learning she is pregnant with the child of her Dalit husband (Appunni Sasi). At the time of its release, the film had sparked a limited yet necessary conversation about the caste bigotry and violence prevalent in Kerala, where Dalit activists have often alleged that incidents of casteism are swept under the rug in pursuit of a progressive image. 

But two years after the film’s release now, in what seems like a family dispute gone out of hand, director Ratheena’s [estranged] partner Sharshad has taken to YouTube channel Marunadan Malayali to claim that the film was made with the ‘deliberate intention’ of hurting a community. Alleging that Puzhu was a film that “insulted the upper caste”, Sharshad said he did not understand why Mammootty agreed to do the role. He also hinted that the film’s co-writer Harshad – whom he considers an “extreme Islamist” – was brought into the project as per the superstar’s suggestion. His allegations appear to stem from a badly-gone divorce, during which he was found guilty of domestic violence by courts, and was handed a restraining order to stay away from his former wife and children.

Soon after the interview was out, a barrage of trolls was unleashed upon Mammootty, many of them accusing him of communal propaganda and calling for the boycott of his films. Some even resorted to using his birth name Mohammed Kutty (a common Muslim name) in a purported attempt to question his choice to be part of the movie. In his career spanning five decades, Mammootty has played several villainous characters cutting across religion, including the vile feudal Muslim landlord Murikkinkunnath Ahmed Haaji in Paleri Manikyam (2009).

In Puzhu, Mammootty's character is carefully built up as one with obsessive compulsive disorder, overly disciplining his little son and remaining stubbornly estranged from his younger sister for marrying a Dalit man. The extremes of his casteism is revealed in stages, and the worst of it comes out just when you think he is mellowing down and would have a change of heart. The actor not only carries this complex character with the smoothness of a maestro, but has the viewer reaching for the handles of their chair by the creepiness he brings to the hateful Kuttan. Apart from the few moments where his inability to connect with his son and his fear of the ghosts from his past translate to vulnerability on screen, the film also makes no attempt to humanise him or his toxic caste pride.

Puzhu, well-received in the OTT platform it premiered in, was not exactly a mainstream favourite. Even so, his huge fan base exploded on the scene when Mammootty was unjustly cornered by rightwing elements. Fans, well-wishers and politicians of varying hues began rallying behind Mammootty, in a massive show of support. Minister for Labour and Education, V Sivankutty was one of the first to air his support, posting a picture with the superstar and saying, “This will not work here, Mammootty is our pride.” Minister K Rajan followed suit with a dig at the communal tactics used by the Sangh politics that expands the names of celebrities to expose their (non-Hindu) religious identities, as if to make a point by it. “The politics behind calling Mammootty as Mohammed Kutty, [director] Kamal as Kamaludeen and [Tamil star] Vijay as Joseph Vijay will not work here, this is Kerala,” he said.

Congress leader KC Venugopal made a long comment, appreciating the contribution that Mammootty had made in raising Malayalam cinema to international standards, citing the roles he played from the overpowering Bhaskara Pattelar in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Vidheyan to the slave-like title character in TV Chandran’s Ponthan Mada. “You can never tie down this man to the shackles of a religion or caste. Only those with a clear political agenda will try that; in their hate-filled minds, Mammootty becomes Mohammed Kutty," Venugopal said, adding that cinema is both the caste and religion of Mammootty. He too cited the secular character of Kerala that will not allow the [communal] branding of a person like Mammootty who has clear political understanding and artistic values. 

Congress legislator Shafi Parambil also spoke in solidarity of the actor, naming his celebrated characters like Pranchiyettan, Sethurama Iyer, Narasimha Mannadiya, Achootty, Belari Raja, Ahmed Haji and Kuttan, and adding that Malayalis clapped and cried for these characters not by looking at the religion of the actor or his role, but by the performance of the great artist. 

Interestingly, BJP leader AN Radhakrishnan also came out in support of Mammootty, writing that the actor has played everything from Nair and Namboothiri to Nadar and Dalit, Christian and Muslim, fantastically, and should not be dragged into the issues of a film with “extremist ideas”. He said that the director and the writer of the film have to answer for the film, and not the actor. His comment, however, invited abuse from rightwing supporters, after which Radhakrishnan wrote in another post that he would stand by Mammootty while still being a staunch nationalist. 

In the midst of it all, fans made viral a part of Mammootty’s promotional video for his upcoming film Turbo, in which the actor hails his followers for standing by him for 42 years, and who, he says, will continue to do so.

Mammootty in Puzhu teaser
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