Between the Colonial and the National Modern: Gender Dynamics in Early Cinema in Keralam

Abstract : Keralam, with its erstwhile tradition of matrilineal forms of kinship pattern, has evolved into one of the most advanced states of India in terms of social development indicators. Yet in 1933, its unique form of matrilineal kinship became the first kinship system in the world to be legally abolished. In 1928, the first Malayalam silent movie Vigathakumaran was produced. Since then to the first talkies Balan (1938) and Jnanambika (1940) Malayalam cinema shows a curious fascination with the erasure of the mother and the trope of the step-mother. This paper seeks to study the emergent discourse of cinema in Keralam in the nineteen thirties and forties and explicate how it has sought in varying degrees, to consolidate and reinforce the ‘patrifocal’ ideologies of a society that was continually struggling to efface a matrilineal past by pegging down with a vigour, infused by colonial modernity, the contours of a normative, ‘native’ femininity.

Keywords: Keralam, social development, matrilineal kinship system, early Malayalam cinema, discourse of cinema, colonial modernity, cinematographic narrative, women in cinema, cinema’s constructed women

Keralam, with its erstwhile tradition of matrilineal forms of kinship pattern, has evolved into one of the most advanced states of India in terms of social development indicators. Yet in 1933, its unique form of matrilineal kinship became the first kinship system in the world to be legally abolished. In 1928, the first Malayalam silent movie Vigathakumaran was produced. Since then to the first talkies Balan (1938) and Jnanambika (1940) Malayalam cinema shows a curious fascination with the erasure of the mother and the trope of the step-mother. Even when cinemas from all over India sought to install ‘motherhood’ as the epitome of the ‘Indian woman’, early Malayalam cinema is permeated with negative stereotypes of the mother, based on formulaic misogynist myths like those of ‘Parasurama’ and ‘Poothana’. This served to situate the sign ‘Malayali woman’ in a liminal narrative and cinematographic space and thus laid the cornerstone for the future tokenisation and marginalisation of images of women on the celluloid in Keralam.

This paper1 seeks to study the emergent discourse of cinema in Keralam in the nineteen thirties and forties and explicate how it has sought in varying degrees, to consolidate and reinforce the ‘patrifocal’ ideologies of a society that was continually struggling to efface a matrilineal past by pegging down with a vigour, infused by colonial modernity, the contours of a normative, ‘native’ femininity.

Keralam with its long coastline and strategic location was a land where traders, missionaries, refugees and travelers arrived and mingled and where ‘modernity’ in the sense of re-viewing ‘tradition’ would not be a misnomer from as early as the first century AD when St. Thomas is believed to have spread Christianity here. As William Logan says ‘Whether St.Thomas the Apostle visited the Malabar Coast about this time and founded the Christian Church, which certainly from a early period down to the present day has existed there, is likely ever to remain a subject of controversy. But it will be seen that, had he been so minded, he would have found in these annual pepper fleets every facility for effecting his journey to Malabar’ (252). And again ‘The Malabar Coast with its Christian settlers must have been one of the chief centres whence European influences spread throughout the land, so it is not to be wondered at that Vedantism at the hands of its expounder, the ‘gracious teacher’ – Samkaracharyar – spread from Malabar over the whole of India’ (255). Jewish and Roman settlers, Chinese travelers, Persian traders and after Vasco Da Gama’s historic landing at Kappad in 1498 the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and finally the English sought Keralam. The arrival of modernity in Keralam is a much more natural, eager and complicitous process than the rest of India, facilitated as it was by long standing trade and commerce with the west, and a culture open and malleable to the influences of global migration, religious syncretisation and the flow of capital. Thus compared to the rest of India the arrival of modernity was a longer drawn out process in Keralam. Probably because of this long drawn exposure and influence of the West, Keralam tends to show traits of ‘societal modernisation’ based on the doctrine of progress under the aegis of colonialism rather than traits of ‘cultural modernity’ with its tilt towards the ‘aesthetic self’. The former envisages a break with tradition while in the latter tradition ‘haunts and instructs’ the new. Thus, modernity in Keralam, at least to some extent signals a willingness and an urge to break out of the continuum of tradition.

The ideas of Max Weber seem to have great relevance as far as Kerala modernity is concerned. Weber argues that the reason why the occident and the orient cultures are so different is mainly because of religion. Protestantism influenced the development of capitalism, bureaucracy and a rational – legal state in the west. Therefore, in contrast to Marx, Weber argued that religion also shaped human institutions and not material causes alone. In Keralam the Christian missionary zeal in all walks of life as also the influence and conversion to Christianity of large sections of people created a shift in harnessing human effort into employing a rationale for economic gain. Thus, enterprise, especially an economic enterprise became a marked trait of the Malayali. Therefore, the spread of Christianity did accelerate and strengthen the pace of the social movement here to a capitalist economy. In contrast – many other parts of India show signs of domination by strong Hindu religious beliefs, which according to Weber slows down the pace in development of capitalism. Modernity in Keralam seems less tradition bound than elsewhere in the country. Therefore, it can be argued that Keralam does offer a great scope for the notion of an alternative Indian modernity emphasising ethnic, ideological, religious differences, the role of the family and kinship patterns, legal forms of property and administration. In the face of the homogenising, universal convergent model of modernity, it interrogates and problematises the ‘universalist’ model of colonial modernity one keeps referring to in countries like India.

Today, Kerala’s high social development indices have given rise to the ‘myth of Malayali women’ as enjoying higher status than their counterparts elsewhere in the country especially in view of the fact of high female literacy in the state. This myth has been augmented and nurtured by evidences that matrilineal forms of kinship patterns were prevalent among certain communities in Keralam. However what is to be taken into consideration here is that between 1896 and 1976 as many as twenty legislations were enacted in the erstwhile states of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar and later on in the current state of Keralam (which was an amalgamation of the earlier princely states), in order to gradually revoke the legal framework of matriliny (Eapen and Kodoth, 2001). These legislations sought to radically change the structure and practices of families through changes in marriage, inheritance and succession patterns that were largely patrifocal and aimed at weakening women’s access and control over inherited resources while at the same time curtailing their power over their own lives. Thus the seeming idealisation and nostalgic glorification of Kerala’s matrilineal past today is a sham that needs to be critiqued from the point of the conjuncture of woman, modern and Malayaliness, thus problematising and pitting the Malayali modern vis-à-vis the Indian national modern. The process of carvings out of a national subject being worked out in Keralam in the early 20th century was in numerous ways different from that in many other parts of India.

Before the British colonial rule, households in many parts of Keralam were sufficiently flexible and adaptable to changes in political, economic and personal factors. With sufficient social mobility, no overtly rigid systems or customs pertaining to descent, succession or inheritance were prevalent. However, it was only by the mid-nineteenth century that ‘colonial jurists and judges identified co-residence and the impartibility of property as the main organisational principle of the matrilineal households. In the pre-colonial period, none of these identifies surface as crucial indices, along which households were organised’ (Arunima 36).

Matriliny itself, not as a well-defined or monolithic pattern of kinship system had in the course of the 18th and 19th century become an ambivalent and fluid set of amorphous practices and relations echoing and reflecting the hegemonic power system existent in the society in which it was located. Colonial rule vested the eldest male with all legal powers to be the ‘head’ of the ‘tharavadu’. Thus, women were relegated to being mere dependents from their earlier position of power. One of the most crucial issues debated around matriliny was the practice of ‘sambandham’ or marriage of a hypergamous sexual nature entered into by Nair womenfolk. The reformers of the late nineteenth century, imbibing Victorian moral standards viewed ‘matriliny’ as immoral, unnatural and barbaric. Thus they believed that the polyandrous and ‘promiscuous’ Nair women could only reproduce ‘unnatural families’. By the late 19th century, there were vociferous demands in courts for the natural right of the father over his children and above the legal, authorities of the ‘Karanavar’. ‘Significantly, such debates never extended to examining questions of mother-right. The mother (woman) was increasingly seen as a mere conduit for the continuation of the ‘tharavadu’, and the household a matrilineal variant of patriarchy’ (Arunima 192).

These debates and conflicts also point to an internal conflict among certain sections of the Malayali men – their negotiations with a new kind of modernity, an aesthetic modernity that made them aware of the ‘self’, of their identity as being part of larger identities of caste and the nation. In order to belong to these larger groups, an attack and decapitation of the mother-centered family form became imperative.

Early Malayalam cinema provides very useful insights into the construction of the Malayali modern whose logic runs counter to that of the ‘Indian modern’ and traces a different trajectory to modernity albeit played out on the woman as in the larger national context but from an entirely different angle. Reforms impelled by the fear that the Malayali models of conjugality, domesticity and motherhood were far from modern and were in fact anti-modern, unsettled large sections of Nair reformers of Keralam. Along with this was also a palpable anxiety of being left out of the larger ideological project of nation building. A shame that their women conformed to what by then was an ‘immoral’ and ‘barbarous’ system of polyandrous and polygamous conjugal relations made them want to disown and hide their exogamous matrilineal lineage. Thus if the spiritual essence of the home and motherhood became celebrated in the national context, this became for many in Keralam a ‘licentious’ past that had to be systematically buried.

It is no wonder then that though Keralam is one of India’s foremost states in terms of socio-economic status, health conditions and general standards of living, where social history has recorded liberal thought, progressive movements and emancipatory struggles at far higher levels than elsewhere in the country, ‘feminism’ here remains in popular parlance a word evoking derogatory and hostile reactions. Though there has been movements & agitations by women’s groups and collectives for equality and gender justice, they have been by and large issue based and have not really sought to address basic issues such as women’s subordination within the family or reframing the parameters of man- woman relation within which is located the main issue of women’s oppression. Feminism perceived as a threat to the bourgeois family has forced many women to steer clear of the label and adopt a defensive and conservative stance when forced to confront gender reform issues at any level whatsoever.

Keralam’s peculiar native brand of what I would call a ‘liberal patriarchal pseudo-feminism’ has provided women a semblance of emancipation with equal legal & property rights, the right to education and other rights guaranteed by the constitution. Yet education and social grooming have been kept at conservative levels with continuing emphasis on the ‘feminine mystique’, teaching girls that they are essentially wives and mothers. At no level of education has any attempt been made at consciousness raising to create women of independent thought and action. Therefore, the family continues to be the unchallenged bastion of patriarchy where inspite of the so-called political & legal equality, women’s subordination begins, brews and spills over to other societal structures at large. Even as large numbers of women from the middle & working classes step out of their homes to make a livelihood, there is yet a visible hurry to get back and re-emphasize their own roles as mothers, wives and daughters-in-law as though to gain sanction and sanctimony for their further forays into the outer world. It is in this context that I propose to situate the emergent discourse of cinema in Keralam in the early forties and how it has sought from then till now, in varying degrees, to consolidate and reinforce the ‘patrifocal’ ideology of a society that was and is continually struggling to efface a matrilineal past by pegging down with vigour the contours of normative femininity that deny women their identity.

This paper began from a question I often asked myself – why does the nationally and internationally acclaimed Malayalam cinema fail to represent women’s experiences from their varied and different social locations? This question naturally leads to the problem of defining/ framing Malayalam cinema and how it speaks for/of the cultural/ national identity of the Malayali. The category ‘Malayalam cinema’ by its territorialisation makes cinema stand for a sub-national/regional identity making it a means by which Malayalies can represent themselves. By probing how ‘Malayaliness’ is imagined and how it shapes objects and subjects in the contemporary social cultural life of Keralam, it becomes possible to reterritorialise Keralam not as an exclusive and clearly demarcated geographical and political space but as one where fluid subjectivities are constantly remapping themselves.

In the early years of Malayalam cinema we see women portrayed either as paragons of virtue or vice incarnate, with female chastity being treated as the natural correlative of male valour. The titles of early films such as Jnanambika, Nirmala, Prasanna, Chandrika, Nallathanka – all names of the heroine in the respective story, vouchsafe for the predominance of the image of the woman on screen. The heroine of the period is a romantic ideal, with fluttering eyelids and timid gait, treated with loving reverence by the camera. But it is her essential submissiveness, and coy charm which she offers at the altar of her male ego ideal that earns her this halo of romantic reverence. In retrospect we can see in these films the first effort, however unconscious, to give shape to the ‘myth of the Malayali woman’ where the myth is as much a public dream as an oral culture trying to find new fables in order to represent itself in a visual medium in tune to hegemonic social structures. Right from the first talkies – Balan (1938) and Jnanambika (1940) – Malayalam cinema shows a remarkable propensity to stereotype women characters. Serving a hegemonic function, these stereotypes strive to naturalise and legitimize the gender hierarchies existing in society even in those times.

It is interesting to note here that the mother image as in Mother India which catapulted Nargis to fame and served as one of the prime symbols of national integration in India, is not central to Malayalam cinemas as it has been in Hindi. Mehboob Khan’s Mother India was released in 1957 and its tremendous popularity helped Nargis become an icon that represented India. This film, in a sense, installed motherhood as the epitome of the Indian woman, symbolising her dignity, purity and suffering. In contrast the mother image in Malayalam from the time of the first talkie has been torn by the negative and positive stereotypes. In fact Malayalam cinema seems more preoccupied with the theme of the step mother – a stereotype embodying greed, selfishness and moral degeneracy. Indian cinema, especially Hindi cinema, has used many myths and archetypes to tie down the sign ‘woman’ on screen to certain patriarchal, ideological functions. Myths of Sati, Savitri, Sita and Durga have all surfaced again and again to circumscribe and delimit women in specific epochs to certain motifs, icons and frameworks laid down by traditional mores and values of caste Hinduism. Women were not allowed to step beyond the parameters of these traditional codes. Like Sita ordered not to step beyond the sanctity of the Lakshmanarekha, women on the Indian celluloid screen have ‘sung’ and ‘danced’, ‘loved’ and ‘revelled’ but only within the confines of the Lakshmanarekha. Once she transgresses, she is punished. Cinema by skillfully using these myths camouflages the sexism latent in them and weaves an invisible web around the woman, constricting and limiting her.

Roland Barthes calls myth a stolen language that transforms meaning into form. Indian cinema in order to justify its existence within a tradition bound nation-state and naturalise it values, has allowed the language of cinema to be pilfered by myth in film after film. Malayalam cinema has put up a certain amount of resistance to this trend, as can be seen by some of the avant-garde and resistance films that have come up here. The myths of Parasurama, Poothana, Soorpanaka revolve around the notion of man’s power to punish and woman’s powerlessness before the punishment man inflicts to curtail her from trespassing beyond the limits of the Lakshmanarekha. Through the skillful use of these myths the sign woman appearing in these films is already laden with meaning, postulating a certain kind of knowledge, historicity and function. The contemporary reality of women’s oppression and the conflicting issues confronting women are all impoverished and tamed by the connotative denotedness of myths. Thus the contingency of real women’s experience is hollowed out, drained and the very process of signification appropriated or distorted. But the most subterfugous aspect of myth is that it effaces itself, and even as it steals meaning looks innocent on the surface, thus performing a vanishing trick in the last act of its kleptomaniacal exercise. Thus in Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair’s Sthree (1950) the director sets out to prove that a fallen women can only give birth to wanton daughters, furthering/nurturing the notion of women’s sexual chastity and its implications in reproducing the purity of the nation. The plot revolves around a hero who marries the daughter of a prostitute, but one who true to the bad blood in her veins fails to be satisfied by her husband. Her unbridled desire makes her seek other men and finally the hero ‘punishes’ her by killing her daughter in order to bring to a stop the lineage of ‘transgressive feminine’. One can see here how the woman is constructed as the she-demoness as in the ‘Soorpanaka’ myth, whose transgressive desire is punished by Lakshmana by chopping off her breasts and nose. Crystallising into an eternal reference meant to establish the fallen nature of women, the Soorpanakha myth acts here, maneuvering the process of signification with invisible hands, revealing itself by concealing. As Barthes says,

On the surface of language something has stopped moving; the use of the signification is here, hiding behind the fact, and conferring on it a notifying look; but at the same time, the fact paralyses the intention, gives it something like a malaise producing immobility, in order to make it innocent, it freezes it. This is because myth is speech stolen and restored. Only speech which is restored is no longer quite that which was stolen: when it was brought back, it was not put exactly in its place. It is this brief act of larceny, this moment taken for surreptitious faking, which gives mythical speech its benumbed look. (Barthes 125)

Though Malayalam cinema is never outrightly mythical in its representation of women, it does often seek to transform ‘history’ into ‘nature’, ‘freezing’ women’s oppression, both social and linguistic, into something ‘natural’ and propelling the audience to read what is only a semiological system for a factual system.

Early Malayalam cinema has used the myth of ‘Poothana’, the ‘she-devil’ as stepmother who rubs poison on her breasts before suckling the little Krishna. But ‘the Lord’ feeds on innocently until he draws the very life out of Poothana. Poothana has also occupied a significant amount of space in the aesthetic realm of the performing arts of Keralam like Kathakali, Nangiarkoothu and Krishnanattam, thus displaying a predominantly misogynist trait in the Malayali psyche. The very evolution of the land of Keralam has a misogynous myth at its root. It is believed that this land surfaced form the ocean, when sage Parasurama threw his axe (parasu) into the ocean. Parasurama is himself one of the Dasavatara (ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu) and, according to mythology, decapitated his own mother Renuka at the behest of his father sage Jamadagni for neglecting her wifely duties. Thus the negative stereotype of the mother that permeated early Malayalam films like Balan, Jnanambika, Jeevithanauka and Nallathanka, based on formulaic myths such as those of Poothana and Parasurama served to situate the sign ‘Woman’ in a liminal narrative and cinematographic space and laid the cornerstone of future tokenisation and marginalisation of images of women. This point becomes extremely significant when viewed in the context of the fact that this was a time when other regional cinemas all over India were passionately embracing the devotional and mythical.

Malayalam cinema from the time of its inception was strongly rooted in contemporary social reality. Social realism at the level of thematics and stereotyping at the level of characterisation especially those of women characters is a peculiar brew for a cinema to adopt. Early Malayalam cinema, rejecting the devotional bend of cinema in other parts of India and displaying a propensity for socially realistic film that depicted agrarian revolts, feudal tensions and the evils of class and caste, paradoxically enough remains mute over the women question in a fast changing social milieu. While it proves modernist in discarding the retelling of devotional stories from epics, puranas and mythologies, it is curiously conformist in its portrayal of women as mere stereotypes, acting out roles positive or negative as already drawn out in traditional myths and symbols. Women thus subjected to the new rigorous gaze of the camera are forced to classify themselves under one of the two signs of the new discourse – the spiritual essence of femininity or its crass materialistic embodiment. Thus in the new discourse of cinema in Malayalam we see how ambivalently women are located as stylised representations amidst realistic portrayals of ordinary men and objects. Early Malayalam cinema is seen to create a shift in taste attempting to shape an aesthetic pleasure from an ‘objective’ and ‘realistic’ representation of ‘reality’, while as far as women are concerned ‘naturalising’ stereotypes seem to be the norm. What evolves and matures in Malayalam cinema across the decades in varying degrees is this dichotomy of representation of male character subjects and female character subjects. Interrogating and analysing these double strategies of representation reveal the tangled mass of gender issues that cinema so skillfully hides and reveals in the process of creating the myth of the veracity of cinematic representation. So a study of representation in early Malayalam cinema as posing both political and epistemological problems makes one aware of a gross misrepresentation and tokenisation of the female subject in the very process of attempting to represent the woman. The new discourse of cinema naively believed to ‘represent’ hitherto marginalised groups and voices was in fact hand in glove with the hegemony of ‘representational realism’, which distorts and misrepresents, assimilates and appropriates, in the name of mimesis. Thus, early Malayalam cinema fails to represent the heterogeneity of women’s experience and identity in Keralam. But paradoxically enough without ‘really’ representing the reality of women’s life or situations this cinema did shape at least to some extent the contours of the ‘feminine’ in Kerala society.

One must also keep in mind that these were the years of the nationalist struggle for Indian independence and the emergence of the nation state of India. However, Malayalam cinema seems curiously untouched by the nationalist agitations or the pre-occupations of imagining a national identity. Yet the gendered politics of the transactions of Indian nationalism surfaces in Malayalam cinema too with a characteristic regional flavour and ethos. The gendered subjectivity of the woman constructed in Malayalam cinema is premised not on the concept of nationalist identity politics but on the particularity of Malayali identity. Malayalam cinema, during its nascent stages, was inordinately influenced by Tamil, but later on it learnt to deploy popular folk idioms to garner popularity. This could be the reason why, as mentioned earlier, the mother figure which literalised the nation and acted as a trope for the motherland elsewhere in the country, never enjoyed great popularity in Keralam. The mythic status of motherhood did not seem to hold any undue fascination for the Malayali audience. Paradoxically enough this comes in a society, which was predominantly matrilineal. The liminality of the figure of matriarch could also be in part due to an attempt to inscribe humanist and masculinist myths of power into the discourse of cinema.

It is significant that during these early years there were no female stars in Malayalam cinema. J.C. Daniel, the director of the first Malayalam

movie had to search far and wide for nearly six months before he could get a woman to play the lead role in Vigathakumaran. He finally had to make do with an Anglo Indian lady playing the role of a Malayali woman. However, the Malayali audience could not accept a woman ‘acting’. Love scenes were rejected with cat calls and there was much agitation among the audience. Stones were pelted leading to the screen being torn (Vijayakrishnan 23). This speaks volumes about the gender bias, sex role expectations and definitions prevalent in Kerala society at that time.

The critique of matriliny in Keralam was part of the political and cultural logic of colonial modernity. However, Keralam’s access to the modern, especially in terms of the ‘woman’ question becomes problematic. Partha Chatterjee’s famous argument that Indian nationalism resolved this question by attempting to remodel modernity in tune to the nationalist project does not hold water in Keralam. The dichotomisation of the spiritual and material, of home and the world, privileging the former and thus emphasising the spiritual superiority of the colonised would became a doomed project in Keralam given the shame of a what was perceived in those times to be a tainted matrilineal past. Therefore, the home and the domestic had to be cast as a space that needed a male logic, which would help create order and restore harmony. This necessitated discourses that would not valorize tradition, but instead seek to work tacitly with colonial modernity to entomb a kinship practice that defied the new male order. In a sense this led to an ironic situation – for on one hand the Malayali could not identify and align with the national modern, neither was it possible to dissociate himself from the colonial modern. That many women of Keralam, following patterns of polygamous marriage would not qualify for the high ideals of the traditional ‘Indian woman’ account for the liminality of the ‘mother’ in early Malayalam cinema and the presence of the loud, greedy, vulgar, scheming and potentially disruptive ‘anti-mother’ or stepmother. Thus invoking ‘Indian tradition’ was not something that could be resorted to by the new discourse of cinema in Keralam. Such discourses would also eventually aid the new patriarchy in warding off questions of women’s freedom and agency, thus laying the foundations of women’s future tokenisation as citizens here.


1 Part of this paper is borrowed from my forthcoming book Women in Malayalam Cinema to be published by Orient Blackswan.


Arunima, G. There Comes Papa: Colonialism and the Transformation of Matriliny in Kerala, Malabar c. 1850-1940. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2003.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. London: Vintage, 1972.

Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and its Fragments. Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1993.

Eapen, Mridul and Praveena Kodoth. Demystifying the “High Status” of Women in Kerala: An Attempt to Understand the Contradictions in Social Development. Thiruvananthapuram: Centre for Development Studies, 2001.

Logan, William. Malabar Manual. Vol. I. 1887. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 2004.

Vijayakrishnan. Malayalam Cinemayude Katha. Kozhikkode: Mathrubhumi Books, 2004.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Trans. Talcott Parsons. New York: Scribner’s, 1958.


MEENA T. PILLAI. Is Reader, Institute of English, University of Kerala.

Default image
Is Reader, Institute of English, University of Kerala.

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

Leave a Reply

Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124