No amount of watching tragic romances in the movies can steel you against being shattered by a new one. Even more so in the case of small-town romances across communal divides, because they are too close to home. You know that for every such reel romance that was not to be, there are a thousand real-life ones, in all likelihood more tender in their promise and more devastating in their ruin.
Still that did not stop me from seeing Kismath, set in small-town Ponnani in Kerala, in which a 23-year-old Muslim boy and a 28-year-old Dalit girl fall in love. You know immediately that there won’t be a happily ever after for the protagonists, just like in Sairat (2016), or like in Kismath‘s spiritual predecessor Annayum Rasoolum (2013).
Kismath begins in a police station where the couple have gone to seek protection after their families have made it clear that their transgressive relationship will not be allowed to continue. Before that, the very first title card states, “Apathy is more brutal than atrocities”. The stage thus set for tragedy, my eyes turned moist as the narrative cut to flashbacks of their romance, seeing how beautiful and innocent they looked together, knowing that it will all eventually be torn apart mercilessly.
In Kerala everyone talks about communal harmony – but what do they mean by it? About the town squares where a temple, a church, and a mosque have stood in harmonious proximity for the longest time? About Muslim and Hindu neighbours treating each other to biriyani and sadya on their respective festival occasions, all washed down with those terribly banal pictures of a tilak-wearing dude holding his topi-wearing friend in the most religiously harmonious embrace ever. Mention a romantic relationship and this facade crumbles, revealing a stubborn orthodoxy that will go to any length to maintain the purity of their fold.
While difference in faith is a choice ingredient of the average tale of forbidden love, what makes Kismath a bold and political film is the female lead’s Dalit identity. For all its claims of human development and progressiveness, the venom of casteism still courses unfettered through the veins of Kerala. Caste lines are still not to be breached in marriage. Sickening matrimonial ads, which brazenly state “SC/ST excuse” still run in the dailies. Dalit representation in popular culture and entertainment is close to zero. Malayalam cinema only has savarna (those who belong to the four caste groups) heroes and heroines. To add to this the movie’s director’s stated in an interview that some producers offered to bankroll the movie on the condition that the female lead’s character be changed from Dalit and her age reduced as well, thus making her ‘suitable’.
The brutal apathy is revealed gradually as Anitha and Irfan, the two protagonists, wait their turn at the janamaithri(public-friendly) police station for help. Business goes on as usual at the station. The police maintains the status quo with a weary resignation, roughing up a migrant worker to settle a dispute in favour of a local middleman and extracting a false confession from a station aide to save a nefarious colleague’s job. The couple’s situation is only a passing annoyance for them, to be washed off their hands without much hassle. So they do the natural thing and intimidate them and call in their families. In a poignant scene – that shows the terrible, dull regularity with which injustice is served – the police gets lunch packets for everyone at the station, including those who have been reduced to tears at their hands. The police station here has a striking resemblance to the institution of family, where your material needs shall be benevolently taken care of and your rights shall be summarily taken away.
And then there are the men out to defend communal honour, the foot soldiers of patriarchy. If Sairat had one set of men determined to not let the terrible dishonour befall their family, Kismath has two. Irfan’s father and brother will have nothing to do with the Hindu, lower caste, lower class Anitha, and Anitha’s brother would die rather than see her marry a Muslim. Interestingly, the mothers on both sides are sympathetic to the wishes of their children, while the men cannot see beyond the loss of their social status brought about by this transgression. In a parallel to the policemen’s sense of duty, they too have a rigid, cold sense of order, which must be preserved at all costs.
Kismath also comments upon the role of the Sangh in widening the communal fault lines. Anitha’s brother and his friends are shown with the trappings of lumpen Sangh cadre, hanging out at the local adda, looking for trouble, and keeping a patriarchal watch over Anitha. They assault Irfan shouting “these meat-eating Muslims daring to lay hands on our women!”. It was amusing to hear such passionate anti-beef invective in Malayalam, as beef is verily a non-issue in Kerala. However much the Sangh wants to change this reality, they only manage to sound ridiculous whenever they mention beef. In due course they make ‘Love Jihad’ accusations too against Irfan.
A detail common across Kismath, Annayum Rasoolum, and Sairat is that the lovers have hardly gotten to know each other when they take the drastic decision to elope. Is it not a little too much too soon? How do these almost strangers know if they won’t hate the sight of each other in three months of living together? Should you not survive a few meltdowns together before you plunge into the serious business of marital union? Truth is, small-town patriarchy will not allow you the luxury of a slow, sweet courtship possible in the nameless, faceless anonymity of a city. The walls have ears and news spreads like wildfire.
Annayum Rasoolum captured this pervasive surveillance particularly well. Anna always speaks to Rasool on the phone from the dark shadows of her house, her eyes constantly darting around, watching out for somebody walking in on her. All their meetings are in the relative safety of the city, away from the prying eyes of the family and the neighbourhood. The only time they risk being seen together in their community is when they unite for a fleeting encounter in a friend’s house next door, with dire consequences. As Anna sneaks out of her house to meet Rasool, almost out of the corner of our eyes we see one of the local troublemakers pass her. Soon her brother and his gang are upon the scene, dragging her away and thrashing Rasool. In Kismath, the local middleman, who hangs around at the station, circles the couple like a hawk after he recognises Irfan and senses that the couple is upto something. He is later seen at the forefront of the machinations to part them. It takes a village to keep the woman chained to the village.
Kismath is also remarkable in its eschewal of heroics, which is atypical for a story of perilous love. Instead of embarking on an adventurous getaway from the forces that oppose them, the protagonists attempt to reason with them and beseech them to let them be. They are inevitably let down by the refusal of these institutions to rise above their rigidity.
I loved Kismath because it dared to portray a real-life love deemed too risky to sell, the quiet dignity and emotional intensity of the lead actors, Shane Nigam and Shruty Menon’s performances and the starkly observed depiction of the heartlessness of institutions that preserve the status quo. But I wish for a Kismath, a Sairat and an Annayum Rassolumin which love triumphs over apathy and hate. I wish community barriers weren’t a plot point for tragic movie romances. Before that I wish love across community barriers wasn’t a potent recipe for tragedy in this country.
The Article First Appeared in THE WIRE
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