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Malabar Musings

Last week we celebrated Onam in our office adhering to the strict tradition of having women stand around a grand floral arrangement and pose for pictures. While we men stood further around sticking to the older tradition of watching the women.

Seriously, Onam seems to have to no place for the guys. I have never seen an Onam celebration photo featuring the men folk. Probably King Mahabali returned to his country when the men were away. Or he came back, because he knew that the men weren’t around.

Anyway, we, the guys in the office, in a bid to ring in the true spirit of the occasion, had turned up in traditional veshtis worn most traditionally, which is over Bermuda shorts. We rounded off the celebrations with a sumptuous Onam sadhya lunch, the vegetarian festival feast traditionally ordered out from a restaurant that on all other days specialises in beef fry. (As an aside, these days, the generic ‘home food’ is available only at restaurants. Meanwhile, at home people are attempting stuff that even the French have given up as being too complicated).

That night, after all the celebrations had come to an end, I wondered to myself as to why it was easy for us in Tamil Nadu to celebrate Onam and not, say, Polbanthi. It was at that moment that an important truth struck me: There was nothing called Polbanthi. Probably, what I had in mind was Poila Bhaisakh, which anyone with even a fleeting acquaintance of Bengali will realise is a Bengali word. I, of course, don’t know what it is.

The thing is Kerala and its traditions have always fascinated many of us here in Tamil Nadu. Vishu is another festival that is well known here. Vishu, signifying the birth of the Malayalam New Year, enjoins you to wake up early in the morning and open your eyes to a room filled with different varieties of fruits. Technically, you need to be a Koyambedu market loadman to observe this festival.

And then there are Malayalam movies, always popular in Tamil Nadu among the discerning audience who carefully pick and choose their films by the state of undress that the heroine is depicted on the posters.

Malayalam cinema, at one point of point, stood for —- here I will be responsible and carefully word this as I realise that there will be plenty of young impressionable-minded guys readings this — sex movies. Or in other words, exactly the kind of stuff that are available today to young impressionable minds at the touch of a button on their mobiles.

In those days, Kerala seemed to produce only two types of movies. One, the sleazy type, shot in shady darkness. The other, the classy art house cinema, pictured in complete darkness. To view one, knowledge of language wasn’t important. To understand the other, it didn’t matter even if you knew the language. For, hardly anyone seemed to speak. I once saw a serious Malayalam movie whose total dialogues could be, if you tried hard enough, compressed at the back of a court-fee stamp.

But Malayalam cinema has now changed beyond recognition. I actually mean you cannot recognise them, because all Malayalam films are titled in — why not? — English. This is understandable and acceptable if the idea is to slyly get a release on HBO or MGM. Otherwise it is silly, but still not totally stupid like what we do in Tamil Nadu, which is to have a chaste Tamil title propped up a cheesy English line. Vithagan (With a Gun!).

Malayalam as a language is always taken to be a close cousin of Tamil. I think it is actually possible to speak Malayalam in Tamil. Or at least that is what Sathyaraj did in the film Malabar Police. He spoke Tamil that magically became Malayalam because — this is the innate beauty of the language —- there was sandalwood paste on his forehead and he smoked beedi.

Another famous Malayali character in Tamil cinema is Bhagyaraj’s Palakkad Madhavan in Andha 7 Naatkal. In the film, the heroine, who falls in love with him, is forced by circumstances to marry a widowed doctor. But when the good-hearted doctor gives her the option to go back to her lover, she develops cold feet at the last moment because — as a true and traditional Tamil ponnu — she possibly remembered that he had a horrendous accent.

Anyway, Bhagyaraj plays an aspiring musician, who never quite makes the grade. Thanks to the many super singer contests, we now know why. To be a good musician, especially a singer, the core quality is, quite logically, dancing. And Bhagyaraj, we all know, was endowed with the feet of platypus when it comes to dancing.

In the song sequences, he was a riot.  Perhaps realising his shortcomings as a dancer, Bhagyaraj, the director, sometimes pictured much of the song on the heroine, while he, as the hero, just stood around watching.

Maybe, the whole thing was a subtle metaphor for Onam celebrations.


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