Monthly Archives: March 2023

Malikappuram: a movie discussion

A story of a little girl and her family who have everything but financial security in a small town in Kerala. A girl brought up on stories of Swami Ayyappan by her grandmother. A gentle and caring school girl who thinks the world of her father and trusts his decisions. A doting father who wants to fulfil his daughter’s request of visiting Sabarimala where Swami Ayyappa manifests in a powerful Brahmachari form. The blissful relationship is shattered when the father is humiliated by the money lender in front of his daughter. The father had dealt with his financial situation relatively well, anchored by the strength derived from his daughter’s happiness. This anchor disappears when he sees the fear and terror in his daughter’s eyes for the first time. Her smile and cheer go missing and the father soon ends his life.

Can death break the deeper bond, bandhuta, between them? Malikappuram’s answer is: not in Swami Ayyappan’s own country, and for all those who are unable to come to terms with the loss of loved ones, this movie offers a message of positivity and hope.

‘Malikappuram’ is a Malayalam movie that follows the adventures of the little girl, Kalyani (Deva Nandha), and her impish yet brave classmate Piyush (Sreepath Yan) as they make a trip to Sabarimala. The duo have to face many challenges and wade through thorny paths in dark forests while evading a gang of hardened criminals. A mysterious stranger, played by the dashing Unni Mukundan, shows up out of seemingly nowhere to guide and protect them along this arduous journey.

It would have been nice to watch ‘Malikappuram’ in a theater but it was not screened in movie-houses nearby. As a viewer not proficient in Malayalam, I’d say that unlike the staple B/Kollywood fare, you require good subtitles to appreciate such Malayalam cinema for their craft is rooted in a minimalism that eschews hyperbole and expects a certain intellectual maturity from a viewer to connect the dots. Having said that, no textual-translation is essential to experience the universality of human emotions and Rasa this is perhaps the reason for Malikappuram’s widespread appeal. 

The background music and theme gradually draw the audience in and allow us to participate in the sacred trek to Sabarimala along with the children. How do the ancient Nadaswaram and Indian flute conjure up such melody out of thin air? We can analyze the relevant equations of fluid-flow and acoustics but like Brahmanandam garu once claimed in a Telugu film: ‘if you focus on the logic, you will miss the magic’. Composers in Malayalam cinema are able to seamlessly blend Carnatic/Sastriya Sangeetam into their music scores, like this brief interlude in Reetigowla ragam linked below. These images and sounds of dharmic India take us to a spiritual Kerala that detoxifies our senses rather than assault them like some other movies do.

A Malayalam movie once argued that ‘Taare Zameen Par’ was not a children’s movie but a movie about kids for parents. Malikappuram, on the other hand is a movie for young and old alike. In this sense, it is closer to Indic storytelling where every Sahridaya member of the audience walks away with an experience and understanding that is valid and meaningful in the context of their age and stage in life. There are some touching moments in the film and none more so than the scene where the girl reveals why she is so desperate to see her Ishta Devata that she left home without informing anyone. Her intent is neither childish stubbornness nor the grown-up foolishness of woke activism; It is a child’s genuine and deep concern for her late father’s wellbeing after witnessing the sheer despair of his last days. Kudos to Deva Nandha for enacting such a strong, caring, and sensitive character of ‘Kalyani’. Another strong Kalyani in the 1989 TV series ‘Udaan’ once inspired so many girls and parents to aspire for something beyond the mundane.

Like many, I have been a fan of Mohanlal the actor since ‘His Highness Abdullah’, but Unni Mukundan’s role in this divine story of Ayyappa Swami will remind some of the era when (the original) NT Rama Rao garu appeared as Sri Rama on-screen and few could imagine anyone else, north or south of the Vindhyas, more suitable. Screen presence, personal integrity, and Shraddha is required to do justice to dharmic roles and Unni Mukundan, with an understated performance deserves all the praise coming his way.

The last few minutes of the movie are worth revisiting, so get a streaming version even if you’ve watched the movie in a theater. Unni Mukundan’s character explains the intent (critical to dharma ethics) behind helping the girl to Sabarimala. The movie also explains the limitations of an ‘objective reality’ in a matter-of-fact way. A seemingly unknown ‘do-gooder’ stranger is sure he spotted Kalyani first but is startled to hear her calmly reveal that she has known him for a long time. Is he really an avatar of Swami Ayyappan, or is he Kalyani’s Ayyappan (is there a big difference between the two?), or is he another mere mortal in rationalist Kerala? Can an eight-year-old know us better than we know ourselves? They sure saw through the emperor’s new clothes earlier than the rest.  For some reason, the movie also reminded me of the Amar Chitra Katha story of the hardworking young girl who innocently walked on water to deliver buttermilk on time, following the sarcastic request of a learned but vain scholar. The stunned scholar is humbled and also enlightened. The movie will encourage the seeker within us to ponder the Vedantic understanding of the nature of ultimate reality and what is or isn’t ‘god’. Such manthan can go a long way in cultivating mutual respect between communities, ideologies, and religions.

The turbulence in the mind of Kalyani when her carefree life is shattered is reflected in her inability to complete the beautiful drawings she once used to effortlessly sketch. This anxiety persists throughout the trip, but as she wades through the chaotic crowd and ascends those last steps to the deity on her own, fearless, it also comes across as an ascent of her consciousness. Swami Ayyappa will always be there with her. All misgivings dissolve into pure ananda. It is a sublime scene.

After reuniting with her family, Kalyani appears to have returned to her original cheerful self. Her sketches come out nicely once more. She will face more challenges in life but she is in no hurry. She is ready to wait until Swami Ayyappan wishes for her return to Sabarimala.

சுவாமியே சரணம் ஐயப்பா 

PS: Modern Indian cinema has taken some baby steps toward decolonizing itself. ‘The Kashmir Files’, ‘Kantara’, and ‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’ are the only movies I’ve watched on a big screen in decades and all within a year. These movies deliver original, diverse, and unapologetic Indic content. They have also shown that language is no barrier to pan-India success and it can even be a bridge between communities. Every Indic language is dharma’s natural expression in that region. I learned of a Nepal-origin person who liked ‘Kantara’ as she could relate to it through her own native tradition. Change is in the air and unless the star-hype driven Tamizh cinema learns from this it will continue its downward spiral.
Acknowledgment: Thanks to @shalinispv for her valuable feedback on this article. Any error in this post belongs to the author.