If there is a single place that has been much maligned in an otherwise celebrated Kerala, it’s Malappuram in the north. In the past, what brought disrepute to the district was its disproportionate socio-economic backwardness; but since the emergence of the Hindutva forces, it has also been burdened with charges of fostering Islamic fundamentalism.
Although still comparatively backward, the district today has a completely different socio-economic profile, with some sparkling examples of participatory development and democratic governance. And, the charges of Islamism have been proven to be motivated. But the bad image still sticks. In popular imagination, Malappuram is still that stereotypical primitive blackhole where women are kept at home behind veils, youth are engaged in bigotry and bomb-manufacture, and life is governed by humourless Ulemas and Saudi-funded radicals.
But one look at a charming new movie titled KL Pathu (KL Ten), you will fall in love with the place. You get to discover a new terrain that has been completely unknown to you, and get immersed in a milieu that’s vibrant, democratic, funny and even mystic. What you see on screen is a beautiful place, simple people and their delightful lives that are so different from what you have been told over the years. And debutant director Muhsin Parari doesn’t sermonise even once.
Instead, what he does is telling an ordinary love story set in the typical Muslim milieu of the district in a slightly unusual way: a boy and a girl, both Muslims, drive away from home to get married while the former’s brother chases them in another vehicle with a group of local friends. There is nothing thrilling about the elopement as the couple casually drive north towards Kannur district, where some Marxist friends are trying to arrange their wedding at a local sub-registrar’s office.
They talk, reflect and relax, while the chasing team also indulge in fun, friendly fights and a lot of conversations about food and football, two inalienable obsessions of the people in the district.
In a typical mainstream movie, this part would have provided the “road” thrill, but Parari uses it to take us closer to the soul of Malappuram and subtly weaves in a number of socio-political and cultural contexts. This is also the time when the movie drifts to flashbacks to reveal the rest of the story. Although over-fed on politically convenient multiculturalism and the mandatory Hindu-Muslim conflict that precedes lessons on secularism, we are hardly surprised that all the characters in the movie, except those in Kannur, are Muslims. Perhaps, this is how life looks in a district that is 70 per cent Muslim. (Outside Jammu and Kashmir and Assam, Malappuram is the district with the highest Muslim population in India).
The movie intelligently brings out different stereotype-defying aspects of Muslim social life in the district. Many women in the movie are in hijab, but that doesn’t mean that they are domesticated and are prevented from being gainfully involved in public life, including politics. In fact, the heroine, is always seen in hijab, but she is also modern, progressive, fun-loving and quite demanding professionally and personally. And the men are not chauvinistic patriarchs, but easy, funny and romantic.
The Islam that Parari presents in the movie is mystical – something that strikes a chord with everyone. To deepen this mystic experience, the narrator that he chooses is a kohl eyed Djinn. Besides him, there are a number of Sufi elements – the architecture, colours, music and poetry – that contextualise religion and social life in KL Pathu.
Parari achieves a minor victory in breaking the
Malappuram-stereotype, sought to be created by right wing bigots and popular media, without ever making his attempt obvious. He cleverly conceals a political film in an endearing romantic musical. It’s not just the unique dialect that the characters in the movie speak, the depiction of their love for food and football, the shades of altered realism, the beautiful hills, forests and rivers, or the Djinn that make the film work, but the way the director strings them all together.
KL Pathu, the title, is also metaphorical. It’s the Road Transport Office’s registration number for vehicles in Malappuram. A KL 10 vehicle in another district can arouse suspicion, thanks to the stereotyping of its demography.
KL Pathu is one of the most significant movies of recent times in Malayalam. The director has almost nearly found a breakthrough in placing a political idea in a mainstream entertainer. And it works.