5 films on Variyamkunnath and Malabar Rebellion: Creative freedom or political ends?

Many in Malappuram and the state feel that making different versions of the episode to score political points will impact society negatively.
5 films on Variyamkunnath and Malabar Rebellion: Creative freedom or political ends?
5 films on Variyamkunnath and Malabar Rebellion: Creative freedom or political ends?
The Malayalam movie industry, which has a history of more than seven decades, has rarely portrayed Malappuram realistically, and a large chunk of those rare portrayals have actually come up only in the last five or six years.

Now, back to back announcements about five films based on a single theme revolving around the contentious Malabar Rebellion or Moplah Rebellion which occurred in three taluks of Malappuram in 1921, have created a furore.

Amidst laments and outright rejection, the debates on the Rebellion and the hero of the Rebellion -- Variyamkunnath Kunhahammed Haji -- that followed the movie announcements, have raised concerns about these ventures leading to a scenario in which the world of the past is replaced by the frames of the present. Some even fear that these frames may disturb the amity and harmony of our secular lives.   

It was acclaimed director Aashiq Abu's recent announcement about his upcoming film Variyamkunnan that triggered a loud debate on the Malabar Rebellion and the role of Variyamkunnath Kunhahammed Haji, the main protagonist of the Rebellion who was later executed by the British. 

Sangh Parivar organisations strongly opposed the movie project, alleging that Variyamkunnath was responsible for atrocities against Hindus during the Rebellion. State leaders of the BJP and Hindu Aikya Vedi leader, KP Sasikala, alleged that the film has an agenda to glorify Haji.

Amid the controversy, Sangh Parivar affiliate and director Ali Akbar announced a movie on the Rebellion featuring the ‘real face’ of Variyankunnath. Immediately after this, PT Kunhumuhammed, former CPI(M) supported legislator of the Kerala Assembly, who is also an award winning Malayalam director, announced that he too was planning a movie  based on the same theme. Joining the bandwagon, renowned playwright Ibrahim Vengara also announced a movie on Variyamkunnath as the hero of the Malabar Rebellion. Yet another movie based on the incidents of the Rebellion, Ranabhumi, written and directed by Shahbaz Pandikkad, is also in the offing. A trailer of the movie has already been released on YouTube, with the tagline ‘story of an unsung hero’ and a song glorifying Variyamkunnath.

However, many intellectuals in the state are of the opinion that movies on an episode from history, made with an aim of scoring political points, will only impact society negatively. 

According to writer MN Karassery, the Malabar Rebellion is a very complex episode in the freedom struggle of India, and featuring different versions of it through different films, and the subsequent debates over contradictory versions will only end up in creating a communal divide.

The Congress party and the Muslim League consider the Rebellion as a revolt against the British raj and landlords; the communist parties believe that it was a peasant revolt or agrarian revolt; ring wing organisations such as the BJP argue that it was an anti-Hindu rebellion. All of these arguments are true to a certain extent. However, the underlying danger in the current debates is that now, neither the British nor the landlord system exists in India but communal rivalry does. These narratives may therefore have serious ramifications on society. 

"Films with varied interpretations of history may further divide the different sections of society," Karassery said, adding that those who are behind the proposed film projects have creative freedom but that the complex nature of the Malabar Rebellion will leave behind a negative impact.

“In 1924, Mahatma Gandhi himself said that the real facts behind the Malabar Rebellion can never be traced. The name of the event ‘Malabar Rebellion’ itself was misleading as it did not affect the entire Malabar region, but only Ernad, Valluvanad taluks and some portions of Ponnani taluk. Earlier, the episode was called Ernad rebellion. Then it was called Moplah Lahala and later it was changed to the Malabar Rebellion," he said.

According to former CPI(M) legislator TK Hamsa, who is working on a book on the Malabar Rebellion, the move to produce different films with the same theme revolving around Variyankunnath is politically motivated and may cause a divide in society.

“There is no need for different narratives like the CPI(M) version or BJP version or Jamaat version of history. The filmmakers should be ready to come out with a single movie that features the real history of the Malabar Rebellion after conducting detailed research. Many historical documents related to the Rebellion are available in the public domain and writers can depend upon them to find out real facts. Otherwise, the distorted versions of history will dominate over the real facts," he said.

In 1988, legendary filmmaker IV Sasi had come out with 1921 based on the same event and the movie was a big success in the box-office. There was no controversy over it. But, the current situation is different and filmmakers should realise it, he said.

Historian Dr Hussain Randathani, who has authored two books on the Malabar Rebellion, said that the public should be vigilant against the distortion of core facts in history that may have far reaching consequences. 

“Movies like Pazhassiraja and Veeraputhran, which featured historical figures, were successful in retaining the core elements of the respective historical episodes. The history of the Malabar Rebellion is an important chapter in the history of Malappuram. Though filmmakers have the freedom to depict their own ideas in a cinematic way, they cannot hurt the sentiments of any section of the society by misinterpreting historical facts," he said.

Well-known Malayalam writer KP Ramanunni opined that history should be used to unite people for their well-being. He added that distorting history to cause a schism among people was a method used by Hitler and the British. 

“Sadly we see the same method in practice here now. An unfortunate episode from the past has been ushered into discussions and debates for narrow political ends. Enmities are to be forgiven and forgotten," he said. 

“We cannot deny the freedom to produce different films on the Malabar Rebellion. But, the different versions of the Rebellion will cause communal polarisation in the region because modern society will find it difficult  to understand the context of the violent episodes in the Rebellion that occurred around 100 years ago. Presentations of contradictory versions may bring negative results," he added.

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