Friday, April 18, 2008

A Tale of Two Movies

The acclaimed Malayalam movie 'Paithrikam' came out in 1993, the year I finished school. Directed by Jayaraj the movie told the story of two generations of a Kerala Brahmin family. The father is a soft spoken orthodox Brahmin well respected in the community and a learned scholar-performer of rituals and Yajnas. His eldest son is a vocal atheist who is openly against theism in all its forms including his family's rituals and cloistered lifestyle. Caught between the two are a loving younger brother and a largely silent mother. The movie builds towards a confrontation between the beliefs of father and son culminating in a final act where the son undergoes a spiritual conversion and takes his father's place.

The movie is commendable on its own merits. However I remember it for different reasons. As a Brahmin I witnessed first hand how 'Paithrikam' became quite popular in the Brahmin community shortly after its release. For a while after the movie came out its name came up during conversations in many families including mine. Relatives had good things to say about the movie at family gatherings. I distinctly recall seeing advertisements for the movie endorsed by prominent Brahmin priests and scholars. These usually said something like "I strongly recommend everyone to watch it" or "a poignant narrative". I believe that for some people the movie came as an affirmation of their strongly held beliefs about the "superiority" of Brahmin culture and tradition. Some perceived the movie to be in agreement with their reservations against atheism and progressive trends in the community.

I will not discuss the merits of such beliefs but instead skip ahead to narrate the tale of another movie that came out barely a year later. Hariharan's 'Parinayam', scripted by veteran Malayalam writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair also centred on a Brahmin family. The movie was set in the turbulent decades of late 19th and early 20th centuries that witnessed several changes in India's social order. The events portrayed in the movie occur not long after the Kerala Brahmin community was scandalised by the ritual trial of a Brahmin widow Savithri, alias Thathrikkutty, for adultery. The accused named no less than sixty four prominent persons from different castes as her lovers. This was also the time when progressives led by reformers like V.T. Bhattathirippad organised a movement against social ills prevalent in the Brahmin community.

'Parinayam' is the story of a young Brahmin girl who becomes the fourth wife, and widow shortly thereafter, of an old Brahmin lord. She becomes pregnant after her husband's death and is tried by a communal tribunal. The movie ends with her being cast out from home and community and starting an independent, defiant life with the help of her rebel/reformer stepson.

Here again the movie shines and can be enjoyed for its own merits. What I want to point out however is how this movie was hardly ever mentioned by the same people who were all praise for the earlier one. Going strictly by quantity and extent of Brahmin traditions portrayed the second movie should have attracted a much wider audience. And yet it failed to be even so much as mentioned in gatherings, much less admired.

Why this difference? I thought about this after I watched 'Parinayam' again very recently. I think that many in the Kerala Brahmin community are guilty of selective adoption and propagation of events defining its History. The dark tales are entirely left out when the story of a vibrant socio-religious past is told. Consequently many youngsters grow up with a skewed knowledge of history which only serves to enforce their illogical belief in superiority by virtue of birth in an "upper" caste.

In this context it is interesting to inspect how the community organisation formed by Bhattathirippad to combat social ills has evolved. What once was the refuge of rebels and progressives is now the gathering place for conservatives and the orthodox. Where membership was once a statement of rebellion today it is a bellwether of social prominence.

I have a firmly held belief that a person's caste has nothing to do with how good or bad a person he is. My beliefs aside I still wish that those who give importance to belonging to a community were more objective in drawing lessons from its past. For it is a fact of history that for every 'Paithrikam' there are all too many 'Parinayam's.


James said...

Your post was very well written Manoj although of course I am not qualified to comment on it. I only wonder what you would make of Brahmins over here. I work with one and have been in the houses of a couple of others. Everybody seems pretty laid back. I worked at one place years ago where a lot of women worked together (pressing ceramic add-on tank armour of all things) and a couple of them were Brahmin; they worked alongside Mistrys, Patels and Solankis and all sat and ate together at breaktimes. One solitary Muslim woman sat alone.
I don't know how it works here. Sorry if my comments are not welcome or intrusive, I just find it interesting.


Manoj Govindan said...

[Quote]Your post was very well written Manoj although of course I am not qualified to comment on it.
[End Quote]

Thanks for your kind words. Your perspective on Brahmins in the UK is most welcome.

[Quote]... they worked alongside Mistrys, Patels and Solankis and all sat and ate together at breaktimes. [End Quote]

This description fits a good chunk of urban India too. I don't know enough to speak about the rest of the country.

In the relatively more literate/educated Kerala most Brahmins *are* laid back at the workplace. And in that they have come a long way from early 20th century. However many working and middle class Brahmins seem to cling to ideas of a glorious past and refuse to stop dwelling on past injustices both perceived and real. Very rarely is any of this discussed openly in non-Brahmin company, somewhat like race in the US.

Another interesting aspect is the willingness of Brahmins to adapt to the social rules when abroad. This applies to all Indians in general. I have seen this happen in the case of some people I know.

Sarath said...

Good Observation and well expressed. I agree with you, but let me tell you from my experience that in Kerala, caste is not as big a part of our daily lives as it is in a state like Andhra Pradesh - where it permeates every single aspect of your life.
One can only imagine how horrible the caste system would be in relatively backward, illiterate states like UP or Bihar.