Kakkothikkavile Appooppanthadikal: The Magic of Malayalee Folklore

Janaky Sreedharan
30/12/2016

It’s a film I enjoy with unmitigated glee every time I watch it. It’s a film I look forward to watching with a renewed curiosity. There’s a celebration of irreverence and innocent subversion at the heart of its pleasure centre. And it makes you wonder — can a film be so hauntingly sweet and chilling at the same time? Kakkothikkavile Appooppanthadikal (1988) with its folkloric magic and rhythm in its title is a  heady mix of  myth, fantasy and school life stresses and anxieties.

Written by Fazil with its thematic anchoring in Madhu Muttom’s idea, directed by Kamal and  livened up by an endearing musical score by Ouseppachan, it has stayed with us over the years without any superstar gimmicks and fanfare. Vipin Mohan's cinematography is in admirable tune with the soul of the story, its ambience and rhythm. Revathy’s mesmerizing  performance becomes one of a kind, as pathos and mischief blend in her, never slipping into the dangers of cloying sentimentalism. Laced with a deep melancholia and  spunky humor around the world of children and their complex imaginary worlds, the film is spun around the nomadic lives of beggars and communities on the move; those who live on the edges of the so-called civilization. As the plot threads itself through the lives of the  drifters or wandering groups, it strikes an emotional chord — even as  one watches it embedded within the  web of carefully nurtured  prejudices and phobias.

They are the groups who stand begging at our doors, reminding us of our possible destinies. Street is always a possibility and a threat. And the human beings or animals who refuse to be housed are dangerous to us. 

And fascinating too.

There is a Tom Sawyer within us who wants to connect with the Huck Finn who is hiding within, and we project him onto the one happy outside the structures. This apparently fun film works into us from this primeval schism that doesn’t easily heal. Art is one way we try to negotiate this divide.

There is the folk myth of Kakkothi at the very center of this colorful narrative. The story of Kakkalathi Subhadra doing its rounds in a typical Kerala village with its small and simple community of teachers, shopkeepers, farmers, beggars, and wandering singers. And there is Murali, an absolutely adorable gentle  boy who is abused by his family, shamed by his class mates, and like Huck Finn, wants to run away from civilization and all efforts to civilize him.

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There  are many narrative layers to this apparently children’s film which enable different sections of viewers to connect on different levels. Murali, like all other children of the village, is bred on the myth of the tragic romance of Kakkalathi Subhadra who after her death has become the reigning deity of the place, a spirit who haunts the wilderness at the edge of the village. Many values and norms  of the village life are built around the fear of this Kakkalathi who is said to reside in  Kakkothikkavu. Watch again carefully, and you see the seeds of a Nagavalli nestling within  Kakkalathi Subhadra. Not surprising, as inspiration for both the femme fatales sprung from Madhu Muttom’s imagination. And did the name ‘Subhadra’ ring a literary bell rousing the memories of a fiery rebellious Subhadra in one of the early novels, Marthandavarma? A Subhadra brought to life much later by Bhanupriya in Lenin Rajendran’s Kulam? Looks like there is a pattern in the way our psyche works.

But then all these elements come much later. The opening song sequence sung liltingly by K.S. Chitra has become synonymous  with the Malayalee nostalgia for sisterly love and affection. A heavenly dreamy sequence rudely interrupted by the  nasty cruel beggar ( enacted memorably by Sreeraman) plays cleverly on the fears and insecurities at the crux of our middle class lore. Isn’t beggary always othered as a source of all criminality and violence? It’s a fear ingrained so early in life to also sow the seeds of class hostility  early on in a child’s psyche. At once  primal and cultural.

Murali’s bonding with the gypsy girl whose real name is curiously absent is a rare and precious one. She is ‘vava’ to her elder sister and father and Kakkothi to Murali. Her adopted  father figure calls her ‘child’  and Lakshmi too? While  the old lady calls her 'penne.’ A girl without a name, a vagabond loose and wild. The film grows through the adventures of this unique duo who con the neighborhood and are street smart enough not to be caught. Kaakkothy's  naughty cry ‘kallu kothanundo kallu… kalan mathaiyindo kaalan” warms the  rebellious child spectator in us even today.

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Ultimately, the film is pegged on the clash of civilizations. The settler versus the nomadic, the insecurities and longings of each for the other. How one bonding is valorized and the other is demonized  as immoral and untrustworthy. Vava loses her natal family in the beginning, and gains a life outside in the street with the destitute. She loses her adopted family and gains her natural family toward the end. Yes, it must have and it still does appease the viewer that finally the children have been salvaged by a safe orderly life. In between the traumatic beginning and the reassuring end, we enjoy the carnivalesque moments of disorder lurking within each one of us, reconnect with the contrary disobedient child within, relive  our desire to run away from the  teacher’s cane or the  policeman’s lathi and roam around at will.The screenplay and its visualization touches the nerve centre of a vital contradiction within the journey of human civilization. The split is embodied in the female nomadic voice singing ‘Kakkothi ammakku thirukuruthi venam” rendered by Janamma David as opposed to K.S. Chithra’s `cultured’ timbre. Vava is darkened and looks disheveled.

But the film is sensitive to the forces of good and evil active on both sides of the moral fence. What is striking is the delicate balance the maker strikes between hope and darkness. There are the grim forces ever ready to rupture a young naive girl’s life; they are hinted at and overcome. Unforgettable is the way Revathi is picturedas the rustic belle who plays innocent, but is ready to take on the world and its dangers in her own inimitable way. Kakkothi outstaring the dog from the treetop and outwitting  the potential molesters have gone down in Malayalam cinema history as some of  the iconic scenes of comic brilliance and girl power.  The girl and the boy walking out with goggles on and cigarettes fuming on their  lips speaks much for our notions of social class and transgressive femininity. Moreover, the deep impact of that sequence lies in its deft editing. The middle-class viewer is relieved that Vava is restored to her rightful position in the social order, and Murali gets a family back. All has to be well that ends well. Yet there is a loss we know for real...their lives will be a lot less fun now.

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Again, what about that motley orphaned group which sustained her and gave her a home, an identity and space? They are caught and imprisoned by the police. Who will speak for them? Who will speak for the gentle father who took care of the girl trough all these years of growing up? Who does she really belong to? Why isn’t the film or we the spectators not troubled by the  unfortunate fates of those essentially good at heart people? What do such prerogatives of a screenplay tell about us as a community of spectators who enable a film to succeed? Gender, caste, and class intermesh in highly nuanced ways in this film. Vava's narrative calls for a sequel. How will a girl who has tasted the street enjoy the restrictive joys of home life? Will the call of the wild beckon her again?

Movingly brought to life by Surasu, that good Man of the street being put behind bars foretells the Kerala today in the ways in which we stigmatize and outlaw certain forms of life  and certain forms of livelihood as undesirable. The Caucasian chalk circle lives on. The endings are important but never the final word.This film opens itself up again and again offering more pleasures, more surprises and more challenges. Therein lies its enchantment.

 (This is the 10th article in a series about some important Malayalam films.)