The OTT release of Nayattu has sparked off a debate on social media platforms, while some are accusing the film for its anti-dalit politics, others see it as a step forward since the film engages with caste, especially for Malayalam cinema, given how negligent it has been towards the social reality of caste all these years. Before making my points on Nayattu, it is important to know that the basic problem with the film is that it force-fits the big canvas IV Sasi and T Damodaran styled political drama into the mould of neo-noir realism. These films follow a specific template showing a hierarchical political order of ‘common man to party machineries to state machineries to ministers in the cabinet’. Particularly, in the Damodaran set up, in terms of characters, the common man will be brahmin savarna, while dalit MLA/police officers, who are reservation candidates, will usually be negatively stereotyped and all other conflict in the story will revolve around upper-caste politics.
Nayattu, written by Shahi Kabir, changes this set up and shows dalits as part of the system. It follows the same big-canvas drama but the narrative revolves around dalit organisations, dalit political parties and dalit police officers. This is indeed a positive development. At least, the generic Damodaran set up, where politics is only a savarna ballgame, is changed to bring the spotlight on a community which is otherwise invisibilised from the mainstream space. But, the problem with Nayattu begins where director Martin Prakkat fails to see this basic idea - an alternative/idealistic political drama that will appease the bahujan theatre audience - he rather envisions Nayattu with serious undertones, force-fitting it into the realistic mould of ‘new-gen’ Malayalam cinema. This completely changes the idealism that the dalit bahujan audience wishes to see back into the same status quo equivalent picture.
This gritty realism approach becomes problematic since while taking this route, Prakkat is absolutely blind to the social realism of Kerala and the fact that state machineries largely suppress dalit and adivasi rights and movements using the police force. Social realism has to see us through the fact that Kerala police force is a savarna dominated nexus.
But, with his dangerously problematic approach, Prakkat automatically translates Nayattu into an anti-dalit or rather, a police propaganda, that will practically add to the savarna consciousness of Malayalis.
1. Real vs Unreal
The drama in Nayattu stems from a small feud between a young dalit man and a middle-aged police officer (also a dalit) played by Joju George. The man spits on the police station's wall outside, threatens an inspector inside the station and even creates a ruckus in the police station. Yes, you heard that right. In a state like Kerala, where an organisation like KPMS (a dalit organisation) is not even 1/10th visible as NSS (a savarna Nair organisation) - here's a dalit thinking he can get away by acting like Rajnikanth inside a police station. The realistic treatment by Prakkat reinforces the stereotype of a vile, misogynistic and uncivilised dalit youth.
2. Dalit vs Dalit vs Dalit
With this dramatic plot point, the writer also establishes some major character dynamics. Nimisha Sajayan's character Sunitha (a dalit) happens to be another police officer who's also embroiled in the incident. Yes, talk about coincidences, a dalit in conflict with another dalit in conflict with another dalit. The social realism here again doesn't see us through the fact that the Kerala police force is a savarna dominated nexus, while the writer ‘coincidentally’ allocates all the conflicting plot points to dalits. They are at both ends of the spectrum, trouble creators and victims. Enmity between dalits is after all a classic upper-caste narrative.
3. Power and Socially Oppressed Groups
The police force is a toy in the hands of the state, this is largely true. But the writer emphasises on Maniyan’s (Joju George) dalit identity while pointing this out in a sequence in the film. Pictures of Mahatma Ayyankali and Dr BR Ambedkar are shown in Maniyan’s home just before the scene where we see him reluctantly framing false charges on a civilian after receiving orders from his higher officials. It’s hard to not believe that the writer is slyly implying the repercussions of reservation here. Maniyan might or might not be a quota candidate, but we get the same narrative we've been getting for decades, like how dalit MLA/MPs get special auditing that others don't. When films like Unda are accurately and more so, humanely, representing this conflict inside the police force― by emphasising the need of reservations for oppressed social groups so that no dominant social group can use administrative power to suppress other marginalised people―Nayattu seems to be vehemently making a status-quo statement through its dalit representative.
4. Dalit Power and Kerala Elections
The tension in Nayattu further builds at another dramatic plot point where a person dies in a road accident. Well, guess what? He's also a dalit. The driver of the jeep that kills the youth―Maniyan's relative―runs away. He becomes crucial to the plot as he never confesses that he drove the vehicle. This again is the fourth time that writer Shahi Kabir gives the impression that dalits hate each other. However, it’s beyond ironic that the larger picture that Kabir paints and Nayattu depicts is about how a dalit organisation shakes the very foundations of electoral politics in Kerala. Where is the logic?
The accidental death of a dalit youth by a police jeep is apparently going to create unimaginable frenzy in Kerala's political landscape - this is what the scriptwriter implies through Maniyan. Well, we have seen how much the Walayar case has affected Kerala politics - a dalit issue is as simple as that to Kerala's concern. The film is built on the plot point around a dalit man's death, that’s misinterpreted by the media and political parties for electoral gains. In Prakkat's pseudo-realism, more serious issues like custodial deaths and fake encounters are watered down as a coincidental accident. It is stupid that a political drama of this scale is operating on the basis of this butterfly effect.
While Nayattu supposedly blames the state, the Chief Minister of Kerala, played by Jaffar Idukki, is nothing more than a caricature who's given only a few scenes in the film. Karl Marx defined the state as a form in which the individuals of the ruling class assert their common interests - he added that even the civil society is completely controlled by the bourgeoisie. But sadly the state in Nayattu is influenced by the Dalit organisation. This might be a parody of Kerala's 'new' reality.
5. Reality of Munnar's Working Class
Also, Nayattu adds several ‘realistic’ dialogues to give the impression that the working-class of Munnar are organised criminals. If the writer actually had any interest in showing this nuance, he should have shown a scene or two to show the actual exploitation they face under bourgeois estate owners. The police force specifically says they can only make limited operations here. But history tells it quite differently, that it is in these high-range tea and rubber estates that the most number of police encroachments and firings have happened.
Nayattu also adds to the misinformation that the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is widely misused, and how it gives special agency to a section of people to get away with anything and everything.
There are already posts on social media where savarnas are slyly injecting this discourse, while at the same time heaping praises on the film.
Ultimately, if a film doesn't have much to say apart from blaming the system and government and leaving space for its bourgeois elite audience to rant out lines like, ‘the system is totally screwed man, damn!', then in my opinion, it's merely a mediocre film. An effective political film would rather make the audience realise that they are also part of the system, part of the problem.
(The writer is a Chartered Accountant student who's also a cinema lover. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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