Friday, July 22, 2016

The Gulf on the Malayali Big Screen: an outline history

Mohamed Shafeeq K. 

(Shafeeq teaches Comparative Literature at University of Hyderabad and can be reached at

The first Malayalam movie to refer to what is called the Gulf came out in 1980, and was called Vilkkanundu Swapnangal – Dreams for Sale (dir. M. Azad). Who did the selling was not clear, but there were clear buyers, the Malayalis being foremost among them. Written by M.T. Vasudevan Nair, the movie begins with a voice-over telling us
[how] we [were] always attracted by the promise of a land where we can harvest gold.  Once upon a time it was Ceylon, then it was Malaya. In the last one decade there have been stories doing the rounds of a land where you end up being rich if you somehow, even selling off the roof over your head, you can manage to reach there. Thousands of youth now found a dream to cherish – Dubai.
The movie depicts the hardships and perils of the journey of the days then where many did not even make it to the other shore alive.  It also offers other conclusions:  as the protagonist of the movie, Rajagopala Menon, discovers, (i) Gulf can make you rich beyond your dreams, (ii) but all the richness of it, the villa there, the house in Kerala – none of it – can help you win your love, Sridevi, who would bang the door of her crumbling Nair tharavadu (feudal household) on your face, and (iii) there are more migrants on the way. The movie offers glimpses of what Dubai used to be back then and is thus a rarity.

Mass migration in Kerala started by the mid-1960s and peaked post the oil boom of 1973 such that ever since almost 10% of Kerala’s total population has been employed in the Gulf.  However, Gulf as a term took its own time to establish itself, with Persia being the first cover word for the Middle East, a reference to Iran which had been a mass employer in the days of yore. Gulf also took its time to establish itself in the imagination of the Malayalam film.  The migration had already made its mark in the popular culture, an interesting marker of which is the popularity of letter songs in the Mappila song culture.  The Mappila, a Muslim community in Kerala, provided the bulk of the migrant labourers to Gulf from Kerala.  The letter songs was a genre with a longer history, but it underwent a transformation in 1976 with S.A.Jameel’s Dubai Kathu (Dubai letter) song, and with the cassette revolution of the 1980s, it became a popular genre of Mappila songs.  Soon the letter songs also gave rise to “Phone songs” in which the putative phone conversations between the migrant labourer and his loved ones back home were put to tune.  These songs followed certain generic forms and were easily identifiable due to its form and also because they were brought out as collections of letter songs or phone songs.

Money from the Gulf revolutionised social relations in Kerala, and compounded with the changes at home, such as the effect of the Land Reforms Act in Kerala of 1970 brought in a new age in Kerala’s social life, but oddly enough, the Malayalam film was slow to make any direct reference to this new category of people on Kerala’s social space – Gulf-karan, or the Gulf-man.  The gender marker was justified to the heavily skewed sex ratio of the migrants. 
Gulf was a phantasmic presence for almost the entire 20th century Malayalam film.  Gulf existed as a reference point but strangely enough it wasn’t a real place.  Or, one could say that it existed as a fantastic void around which the social relations of the social actors were governed.  Thus, in Akkare Ninnoru Maran (A Groom from Elsewhere; dir. Girish, 1985) the lover fakes a job in the Gulf and even has a fake Arab (his friend in disguise) coming over to Kerala and meeting his uncle just so that there is no room for doubt in his rich and stingy uncle’s mind who has decided to marry his daughter off only to a Gulf-karan.  The Arabic of the fake Arab is still a staple laughter clip for the late night comedy shows in Malayalam channels. Ironically, the traditional Nair system of Murappennu (marrying one of the first cousins – the practise is not exclusive to Nairs, though it wasn’t systemised in other communities) in which the cousin is also one’s love from childhood thus wins over the villainy of a potential groom from outside and his unmatchable resources by faking a Gulf connection in one’s own life.

Gulf thus became the symbol of not just instant success, often of the outsider and at times of the undeserving, an American dream where one is surely and swiftly rewarded brooking no challenge from social relations back home, and even threatening to change the social equations at home, it also became the inaccessible lifeline for the Malayali film protagonist, even as the social life of Kerala was undergoing one of its most important and silent revolutions in the span of a decade because of Gulf’s accessibility.  This unattainability took the form of tragedy as well as comedy representationally. In Visa (dir. Balu Kiriyath, 1983) the youth duped over promised visas by agents have to find their own way in Bombay from where they were supposed to fly out but are now stranded, going back home not being an option.  In Nadodikkattu (dir. Sathyan Anthikkad, 1987), Vijayan and Dasan set out on the seas awaiting the dawn in the Gulf, after having paid all of what they could gather to an ‘agent’ (whose name was Gafoor  - “Gafoorka dost” is an instantly recognisable Malayali phrase describing a con situation), only to swim across to a land which seemed uncanny – MGR’s Madras. The movie, one of the most successful comedies in Malayalam cinema, made Vijayan and Dasan the iconic couple of Malayalam bachelor comedies, a genre particularly in vogue in the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s.  In Devasuram (dir. I.V.Sasi, 1993) the inheritor of a vast feudal realm of a (realized later in the movie) mixed caste parentage refuses to sell part of his property to a Muslim Malayali “who made a few bucks in some other land” because the latter’s father would not even dare to enter the premises of that household (due to its high [read upper caste] stature) and so he obviously doesn’t deserve it, thus articulating newer definitions of the inside and the outside in what would become an important turning point in Mohanlal’s career as a Superstar.  Later however the protagonist is forced to sell the land to this outsider precisely because no one else (read: other than Muslims) has money, a view on the changing social structure put in place a few years back in Thinkalazhcha Nalla Diavasam (1985) by the renowned film maker Padmarajan, and redeployed as a laughable stereotype in the recent Pranchiyettan and the Saint (dir. Ranjith, 2010) – on this occasion it is “Christians and Muslims”.

The Gulf returnee became a figure of absurd tragedy in Varavelpu (dir. SathyanAnthikkad, 1989) where the absurdity in the plot was provided by the villainous trade unions and a helpless but well-meaning bureaucracy; and a figure of despondency in Garshom (dr. P.T. Kunju Muhammed, 1999), an attempt to showcase the out-of-placeness that the Gulf returnee faces in his social and personal relationships back home.  With its biblical reference on the one hand and the diegetic reference to a Palestinian on the other, the movie drew analogies and deliberated on issues of homelessness and exile. 

The late ‘90s already set in motion the discourse of the impending doom of the Gulf dream and this was complemented by the discourse on the changing preferences of the employers there along with the figure of the cheaper migrant from other countries (Bangladeshi, mostly) in gulf who would do any job for a cheaper wage.  Sharja to Sharja (Venugopan, 2001) and  Perumazhakkalam (Kamal, 2004) have deaths in the Gulf at the centre of the plot, and Dubai (dir. Joshiy, 2001), the first touch of extravagance with extensive screen time for locations in the UAE seemed oddly in sync with its touch of the exotic, for the Gulf as a real location was rare in the movies so far, and rarer still was Gulf outside the genre of social realism.  Diamond Necklace (2012) offered further glimpses of exuberance of life in Dubai, but was more than matched by the working class environs and sympathies of Arabikatha (dir. Lal Jose, 2007) and Khaddama (Kamal, 2011), of which the latter stood out for what should be the first ever depiction of female household migrant labours in the Gulf. In Oridam (dir. Pradeep Nair, 2005), the sex worker finds Gulf the only way out of her demeaning profession but fails to save enough to pay the agent who would arrange for a visa.

Gulf has been part of Malayali’s life for at least three decades now.  The earlier generation of low or no-skilled workers amongst who even the more fortunate could meet their family back home only once in a year (it is not rare to find those who had to wait for some five years, at least in their first trip) have now given way to a newer generation who, though fewer in number, has with their higher salaries and changing market culture made Gulf not just a place of strife and hope but also a zone of the present, of vacationing, and shopping with family.  Priyadarshan’s OruMarubhoomikatha (2011), also filmed in the Gulf, announced the arrival of Gulf as a normal “foreign” film location, a purpose which Mumbai had served for him and for the Malayalam film industry earlier.  Dubai (2001) could be called a predecessor in this regard.Diamond Necklace is till date the best representative of this Gulf and its new relationship with the Malayali.

Pathemari (meaning dhow, an early mode of smuggling oneself to the Gulf; dir. Salim Ahmed) which came out in 2015 signals the coming of a retrospection on the Gulf era, a gesture towards the impending end of a way of life so common to this south Indian state.

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