There are two kinds of people. One, who look like immortals, and two, who look like mere mortals. Rest falls in between expectations and ordinariness, and they are called the 'middle class.' But death, the great leveler, doesn’t differentiate between the seemingly immortals and the mortals. Kalabhavan Mani (1971-2016) who passed away yesterday in Kochi after a small spell of liver disease, was a mere mortal who rose to the heights of the immortals with his whining like laughter, mimicking skills, acting and singing prowess, and above all, the humility that he maintained throughout his life.
Many more years before flex boards became a cultural phenomenon in Kerala, Mani had become the icon of his native Chalakkudy where he was the son of a Dalit farmer who toiled, drank and sang to death. Mani inherited perhaps all those qualities and took it to a different level. His was not a rags to riches story: his was a story of rags to raagas and from rick to riches. Mani transcended his lower class/caste-ness with his art, initially by singing to the local commuters in his native from his auto-rickshaw’s driving seat, then scorching the stages with his scintillating performance of singing folk songs to a jiving crowd while grooving himself to the tunes, and from there to the blazing performances on screen.
'Umbai kucchaandu paanan kathanumma/vaynela pottichu pappmudakkanumma' (Oh mother, I am dying of hunger/And you are making some snacks in a leaf) -- there won’t be eyes without a drop of tear when Mani sings this song. Time and again he has said this is a song that his father had taught him. There is something wailing about it. The problems are lamented in a sing-song fashion. Most of the agricultural songs which have been identified later as tribal/folk songs had originated from the complaints of the toiling folk whose grievances had never been redressed by the rich and the powerful. They sang while they worked, they sang while they fought, they sang their plights while they drank, and each song was filled with the pathos of the underdogs. When Mani sang them on innumerable platforms both in India and abroad where Malayalees thronged to see their beloved actors and actresses live in action, they realized perhaps for the first time that in the songs of the downtrodden there is a grain of truth that demanded equal rights and justice. It was Mani who revolutionized songs towards a socio-political purpose after the legendary K.P.A.C. singers such as K.S. George and Sulochana. Mani’s bold renderings, which at times were self-critical, also gave an impetus to singers like Praseetha, Sannidanandan, Pradeep Irinjalakkuda, Muraleedharan Iringalakkuda and so on.
Cultural theorists of the future would definitely see Mani in a different light and I feel that it is important to start a discourse regarding his contributions within that 'different light.' Mani, without knowing it for himself, stood in the same line of the black singers of the 1960s and 1970s such as James Brown, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Alfa Blondy and Jimmy Cliff. By singing the folk songs with the accompaniment of the rhythmic digital orchestra, Mani brought the black power songs to the sonic culture of Kerala, which in fact, I should say, made the arrival of musicians like Jassie Gift and troupes like Aviyal, Thaikkudam Bridge and many other under and over ground music practitioners. Nobody has acknowledged Mani’s contribution in this sense, but had it not been for him, the Malayalee’s audio culture would have still been oscillating between K.J. Yesudas’ baritone devotional songs and Jayachandran’s soft romantic voice. Mani, like James Brown and Jimmy Cliff, liberated the whole idea of singing. Mani jumped out of the stage and walked through the audience and perhaps, after our national anthem, it was Mani’s songs that a vast audience of men, women and children could sing back in unison without reference. He was a true rockstar who changed music to a visceral art form for the stiff-necked and stick-hipped Malayalee. This liberation that Mani gave to the music renditions also liberated the very paraphernalia of white pants, white shirt and white pair of socks and heavily dyed beard (which K.G. Markose, Kallara Gopan, Panthalam Balan and even Unni Menon followed with reverence.) Mani could dance and sing in the typical Malayalee dress code of a printed lungi and T-shirt. In that sense, Mani was the first rockstar of Malayalam film industry.
It was in late 1990s that Mani climbed up to the minds of the Malayalee in the guise of a toddy tapper in Sundar Das’s 'Sallapam.' Since then, the sidekick comedy in Malayalam cinema got a new make-over as the characters Mani enacted started getting equal screen presence. Still, Mani’s black identity was bringing him a lot of slaps and kicks (just watch Summer in Bethlehem.) Vinayan, the dissenting filmmaker, gave Mani some interesting roles and he convincingly presented the role of a poor blind singer. But Mani’s black identity still became problematic though he deliberately tried his best to transcend it by singing Ayyappa Devotional songs and airbrushing his promotional photographs in such way that his black identity was subdued with fake fair skin and the sandal paste on the forehead. Mani started facing a crisis in his career when he became more assertive as a subaltern hero claiming a mainstream space amongst the fair skinned stars by doing some super hero police roles. He was losing his hold over the mainstream Malayalam movies. This made him cross over to Tamil and Telugu films where he shone as a villain. While crossing over to other languages is considered a good thing, escaping to another language embodies the crisis in an actor’s career.
Mani was suffering from this crisis. He was a much wanted presence in reality shows, annual film and television awards, stage shows, travel shows and so on. But he was not getting enough meaty roles after his convincing performance in Rakshasa Rajavu as the stammering corrupt politician, Gunasekharan. In many a film, Mani got killed to save the heroes from their untimely death. In a way it was metaphorical within the film narrative, but in real life too, this was happening in its painful symbolism. Mani rubbed the law on the wrong side when he got into a scuffle with a forest officer. He was no Salman Khan with a major hold over the industry, and he faced media trial. Perhaps to cover this, he sang devotional songs with some kind of an obsession, and in my view, the mainstream Hindus in the industry somehow refused to accept him. His sandal paste and gold lined white dhoti and polite language somehow didn’t help him integrate completely. By this time, a new generation of films came where balding, fat, stammering, short heroes could flourish. And Mani had already been out of the mainstream industry in Kerala.
Despite his failures, Mani tried to be the best buddy of his local friends. Every year during Onam, he made special programs for his village which were even televised. Mani was like a little Robin Hood of Chalakkudy. He even started collecting tribal and folk art to be one with a dying culture that in fact had given him a 'life.' I believe Malayalees loved Mani and definitely jived with his music. But somehow they kept a distance, which was more skeptically conceptual than practically real. He would have bounced back had it not been this untimely claim of death. I say good bye to Mani whose songs gave me company during my lonely lunches in Delhi for many years on. Rest in peace, brother.
(Photo credit: Glory Oman Images- Gulf Madhyamam Daily via Foter.com / CC BY-NC)