Specters as a Tool of Uncovering the Past: An Introspective Analysis Sampling two Decades-Apart Malayalam Movies
(Student, St Albert’s College, Ernakulam)
In every culture, ghosts are seen as spirits of people who died an unnatural death before fulfilling their most sought dreams or having failed to realize the main objective behind their human existence. Sometimes, supernatural elements are used as a means of covering the truth behind an incident by a character in the film which turns the movie into an ordinary one devoid of supernatural elements, while some movies explicitly depicts the presence of ghostly characters. Bhargavi Nilayam (1964) and Devadoothan (2000) are two supernatural Malayalam films, and both the plot structures of these films revolves around ghosts trying to uncover the mystery behind their existence to the world with the help of a human character inside the story. A deeper study of these films reflects change at various levels: in the attitude of people towards supernatural; surrealism; patriarchy and the traditional culture that bound Keralites.
In the film Bhargavi Nilayam, the story starts when Madhu (a novelist) moves to a desolate mansion named Bhargavi Nilayam (House of Bhargavi), located in a rural area inside Kerala. The protagonist (Madhu) on that day itself learns about Bhargavi from the village tea stall, but he refuses to believe the rumours that the villagers had about Bhargavi. Madhu then decides to uncover the truth behind Bhargavi’s unnatural death and to write a novel about Bhargavi as a tribute to her. Bhargavi’s ghost in the movie makes her appearance in a white sari and scares away anyone who wanders or trespasses into her mansion. Bhargavi was murdered by Nanukuttan (Bhargavi’s cousin brother) who intended to marry Bhargavi through force. As Bhargavi was in love with her neighbour Sasikumar (a musician), she refused to get married to Nanukuttan and got enraged when she learnt that Nanukuttan had murdered Sasikumar. In the struggle that ensued, Bhargavi was forcefully pushed into the well and murdered. The ghost, who is depicted as an antagonist in the beginning turns into a character possessing heavenly traits as the movie progress. Bhargavi helps the protagonist when he is in trouble and in one instance saved his life when he fell into the well. The ghost’s phantom attitude is simultaneously used to create fear as well as to reveal the truth behind her murder.
Many types of supernatural gadgetries are used in the film which are shown before Bhargavi makes her appearance. The gramophone, armchair, swing, well and kerosene lamp are the symbolic objects used in the movie to induce fear and anxiety in the viewers. The gramophone playing itself is the first instance where the ghost uses physical objects. She also uses the armchair and the swing to make the protagonist aware of her presence. The swing tied to the mango tree and the well is shown frequently during the movie. During Bhargavi’s human life, the swing is frequently used by her to attract the attention of her lover Sasikumar. The swing and the well are also shown in the final struggle between Bhargavi and the villain. All the objects mentioned above, which are part of everyday life gets a supernatural dimension with the death of Bhargavi. Association of such everyday objects with a gothic image had augmented the feeling of superstition on the already superstitious mindset of the Keralites. Keralites attach immense importance towards such trivial objects they use in everyday life. This sentimental value towards physical objects is clearly depicted in the film. Bhargavi Nilayam was the first Malayalam gothic movie in which the concept of ghost was first introduced. During the 1960s, movies were very popular among Keralites, and people took everything shown in the movies to be true. This was perhaps the most prominent factor which helped induce the fear factor in this movie. The Kerala society attributes various stereotypes for ghosts. The archetypal ghost is viewed as a woman in a white sari. The colour white is in fact worn by widows and is seen as a colour which repels all light and colors and therefore, when a widow wears white, she disconnects herself from the pleasures and luxuries of active and normal participation in society and life around her. White is also widely accepted as the colour of peace and purity. Introspection into these two facts reveals the Keralites perspective towards widows and ghosts. In the Indian culture, a woman whose husband had died is considered to have lost all glory irrespective of her caste. Therefore, a woman is equated to a ghost. These factors used in the movie four decades earlier had a great impact on the people’s psyches and also reflects the features of the Keralites society. The Malayali society steeped in superstition believed in any supernatural phenomenon. Low level of literacy and the conservative mindset are the reasons why people took such things as granted.
In the film Devadoothan, the supernatural element gets reduced to a significant extent. The ghost, Nikhil Maheshwar, depicted as a heavenly spirit wants his lover (Aleena) to realize the truth behind his sudden disappearance. Here also a false story about him was circulated and the protagonist, Vishal Krishnamurthy (who is a playwright), refuses to believe this story. The ghost uses the protagonist as a tool to uncover the mystery behind his murder. The ghost helps the protagonist in uncovering the truth and protects him from various troubles. The ghost, however, never makes an appearance and his presence is felt only through his supernatural action and therefore the movie utilizes numerous physical objects. The apparitional attitude of the ghost is only depicted in the climax when the protagonist decides not to tell the truth behind Nikhil’s death to his lover Aleena. The most used physical object by the ghost is the seven bells instrument which plays music during some nights. This instrument was played by the ghost during his human life and is a symbolic object which represents love. The seven bells were preserved and maintained by Aleena who attached great importance to the instrument. The Malayali’s sentimental attachment towards such symbolic objects is portrayed in this film. Nikhil was blind, but he was also a talented musician and composed incredible melodies using the seven bells instrument. The blindness was used to endorse sympathy towards the character. The Keralites are considerate about people with physical disabilities, especially people who were born blind. The Keralites were more empathetic than sympathetic in their approach towards such differentially abled people.
The fear factors in this movie were reduced to a very subtle level. The ghost is seen as an unseen force who uses his supernatural powers to clear the mystery about his death. The ghost’s main objective was to convey to his lover the true love that he held for her and wanted her to join him.
Many symbols were used in this film such as the seven bells (the instrument which belonged to Aleena and played by Nikhil), the fan which rotates itself in the college library, the light bulbs, doors and windows of the college, all which played a great role in creating a supernatural environment. Living symbols used in the movie include the white pigeons, which represents peace and paradise; the barking sound of the bodiless dogs; the horses which appeared during the protagonist’s sleep; and the skeleton (Nikhil Maheshwar’s skeleton) kept in the library. But these elements induce very little fear in the viewers. This can be attributed to the increased literacy levels that Kerala had in the 2000s and the change in the conservative setup. This has made the Kerala society less sensitive towards supernatural phenomenon. Reducing the supernatural to a very limited level and focusing more on concepts such as love and mystery has led to the tremendous success of this film.
The film “Bhargavi Nilayam” and “Devadoothan” displays the consequences that can emerge from pre marital relationships. To put it simple, women had no voice in deciding their marriage. In addition to this, colour also played a crucial role in patriarchy. White, which was worn only by widows and ghosts, was given the colour’s negative trait. But when men wore white, they were depicted as good characters and given the positive traits of the colour. When men died, their wives had to renounce all worldly pleasures and possessions. They were not allowed to remarry. But for widowers, it was a different case; they could still enjoy life and could get remarried again if they want to. This practice has less prominence in Kerala in the beginning of the 21st century with only a few castes following this ritual. But during the 1960s, this practice was followed by almost all the castes. According to tradition, when a man dies his entire property would be transferred to his children, or to his wife who would be the custodian of all his wealth till their children attains maturity. On the contrary if the widow has no children, she will not be given any compensation or rights over her husband’s property (except the Nayar caste which follows matrilineal inheritance of property rights).
During the 2000s, patriarchy in Kerala had undergone very few changes. Women were still condemned if they desire to marry someone outside their caste or religion. But this feature of patriarchy was reduced to a great extent. Women realized and attained voice over their rights during this period. The two reasons behind this were: 1.high literacy rates of women in Kerala, especially urban women; 2. Increased tolerance towards all religions. In the film Devadoothan, patriarchy was not explicitly displayed, and characters were mostly materialistic in their approach. Nikhil Maheshwar in the film was murdered because of this reason. Aleena’s father William Ignatius was the one who got Nikhil murdered before 35 years when he saw love building up between Nikhil and his daughter. The main reason why William killed Nikhil was because the latter was not rich enough to marry the former’s daughter.
A lot of difference had happened over the years when it comes to social setup. “Bhargavi Nilayam” film was shot in a rural village in Kerala. The Protagonist arrived in a cycle rickshaw and paid just 2annas to the rickshaw pullers. The meeting place of the villagers was at a tea stall where most men came and had food. This tea stall was also the breeding ground of gossips and rumors. Kerosene lamps were used at that time because of the scarcity of electricity. Illuminating objects plays a very important role in conveying the supernatural; the light’s intensity of brightness was used by the ghosts to express their existence.
To conclude, these two films separated by a temporal gap of four decades convey the attitude of people towards supernatural phenomenon in these two eras, and the altered view that people had towards supernatural, tradition and culture. This paper focuses on the depiction of supernatural in Malayalam movies and with it patriarchy, which still continues to exist in the Kerala society in a weak but consistent form, the sentimental value that Keralites attach towards physical objects and the supernatural gadgetries which were used to generate fear and mystery in the film.
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