The Chaathan As Metaphor: Different Ways To Read Mammootty's 'Bramayugam'

Who is the chaathan in Kerala folklore and what does it represent in Rahul Sadasivan's powerful horror film?
Reading Mammootty's Bramayugam
Reading Mammootty's Bramayugam

In a dilapidated mansion in south Malabar, a devious Brahmin man rules over two underlings – his cook and a folk singer who happens to stumble into his house. It’s the 17th century, when Kerala society was steeped in caste oppression. Using stock characters from Kerala folklore such as the chaathan and the yakshi, director Rahul Sadasivan in Bramayugam combines oral narratives with history and elements of the horror genre to examine the shifting dynamics of power structures.

Starring Mammootty, Arjun Ashokan and Sidharth Bharathan in pivotal roles, Bramayugam is shot entirely in black and white, and has raked in Rs 50 crore worldwide. In the film, Mammootty plays Kodumon Potti, the autocratic owner of the mansion. Later, we discover that his body has been possessed by the chaathan. But, who is the chaathan in Kerala folklore and what does it represent? 

The chaathan as a metaphor

AV Ajayakumar, Secretary of the Kerala Folklore Academy, said that the study of folklore isn’t so much about analysing primitive thinking as it is about looking at these stories from a moral science perspective. The metaphorical meaning of these stories and characters is just as important. 

A still from the film
A still from the film

“The chaathan is a mythical figure. We don’t know if such a figure existed or not. In north Kerala, we only have the character of the kuttichaathan (an adolescent mischievous character) who is controlled by the thampuran (high caste ruler). But in central and south Kerala, in districts like Thrissur, there are practices like the chaathan seva or worship of the chaathan,” he explained. Here, the chaathan is viewed as an unseen or unknown power who is coveted by the Savarna castes or those interested in black magic. 

In Bramayugam, the chaathan is gifted to Chudalan Potti, Kodumon Potti’s ancestor, by Goddess Varahi. Chudalan Potti abuses the chaathan to a point when the latter rebels and sucks in Potti’s soul. His descendent, Kodumon Potti, tries to vanquish the chaathan and end its reign in the mansion, but the chaathan outsmarts him and possesses his body instead. The original Kodumon Potti is chained in the attic and eventually dies while the chaathan takes over his ancestral home. 

Interestingly, the chaathan in the film is both oppressor and the oppressed. In one scene, the unnamed cook (Sidharth Bharathan) tells the folk singer, Thevan (Arjun Ashokan), that the chaathan is master and prisoner in this realm because it needs to be imprisoned in Potti’s body for it to have control. Speaking about this duality, music composer PS Jayhari pointed out that people from oppressed castes were historically forbidden from entering places of worship. “The Manusmriti, for instance, prescribes very harsh punishments for oppressed caste people who flout caste rules. It is possible that such communities were drawn to other deities who were outside of the Hindu pantheon or were not considered as important by upper castes,” he said. 

Mammootty as Koduman Potti in Bramayugam
Mammootty as Koduman Potti in Bramayugam

The Dravidian-origin god Shasta is one such example. There is a popular theory that “chaathan” is the corrupted version of the name “Shasta”. “The ancient Punchaman family of Kottayam is said to worship Balashastav or the kuttichaathan,” said Jayhari, noting the similarity in the names. According to this line of thought, the “chaathan” wasn’t necessarily considered to be an evil force but may have acquired such a colour when it was worshipped by people who were in the lower rungs of the caste hierarchy. 

“In Bramayugam, the chaathan gets into the skin of Kodumon Potti. That’s when it becomes autocratic – because it is this Brahmin man who has the power. The chaathan by itself can be considered a deity or a force, but in the 17th century where the film is set, it is the Brahmins who had the power. It is to experience that power that the chaathan gets into his body,”  Jayhari. “That’s why the cook says in the film that the identity of the chaathan is locked inside the Brahmin man’s body. The chaathan is the most powerful in the mansion and yet a slave at the same time. I thought it was a marvellous interpretation.”

Master or slave?

The most popular representations of the chaathan come from Kottarathil Sankunni’s Aithihyamala, a collection of legends and stories about Kerala that were compiled in 1909. “In one of the stories, an upper caste magician called Panchanalloor Bhattathiri has about 400 chaathans who obey his every command. The belief is that once you please the chaathans, they are at your beck and call,” said Delhi-based journalist Charmy Harikrishnan. The household name of “Potti” features in the Aithihyamala too. “The chaathans are the invisible oarsmen of Punchamon Potti, an upper caste sorcerer, whose boat seems to magically float on the waters with no rowers,” added Harikrishnan. 

The chaathan in these folk stories indulges in mischief against the enemies of its master – like dropping stones or dead lizards in their food or setting fire to their clothes. “The chaathans are, in fact, a horde of supernatural servants or even slaves that quite mirrors the lower caste-upper caste power dynamics in society,” she said. 

In caste-entrenched Travancore, a kingdom in southern Kerala, the Census of 1875 even separated the deities, drawing a distinction between “higher” and “lower” divinities, depending on who worshipped these deities. “The Madan, Yakshi, Bhoothathan etc., were classified as inferior deities, worshipped in the temples of lower castes. In the Aithihyamala, Panchanalloor Bhattathiri calls the chaathan “an inferior deity” and gives his entire throng of chaathans to Avanangattu Pannikar in return for the latter’s “higher deity” Ganapathy,” said Harikrishnan. When Sree Narayana Guru tried to break the stranglehold of casteism in Kerala in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he directed the lower caste Ezhavas to stop worshipping “inferior deities” and installed “superior deities” like Siva and Saraswati instead. “That was an appropriation of what was denied to them. That was a subversion of power structures,” said Harikrishnan. 

In the late 20th century, with the emergence of comics like Mayavi and the blockbuster film My Dear Kuttichathan (1984), India’s first 3D film, the chaathan became an impish boy who helps his friends and wants to be freed from his powerful, magical masters.

Reading Mammootty's Bramayugam
My Dear Kuttichathan: The Unforgettable Story of India’s First 3D Film

Bramayugam’s chaathan

Though Bramayugam’s chaathan is also tormented by its powerful master in its origin story, it later usurps his authority. The cook – who is Kodumon Potti’s son sired with the low caste maid – uses Thevan to fight the chaathan and diminish its power. But, in the end, the cook is killed by a group of Portuguese soldiers who arrive in the region, Thevan dies as the mansion crumbles and the chaathan escapes in Thevan’s form, flashing a knowing smile at the camera as a new form of power arrives in the form of colonialism. There are two symbols associated with the chaathan in the film – a flame that powers it and a ring that contains its authority. While the cook and Thevan manage to extinguish the flame, the chaathan retains possession of the ring as it escapes in Thevan’s form. 

Harikrishnan, however, questioned the historical veracity of the depiction. The Portuguese were on a decline in the 17th century, and it was the Dutch who were gaining power in Kerala. “In his book The Dutch Power in Kerala, MO Koshy points out that by 1663, the Portuguese flag ceased to fly over the shores of Kerala,” she said. 

She further opined that the film is confused about how to take the caste-power matrix forward. “In the beginning of Bramayugam, the chaathan appears in the image of the upper caste Kodumon Potti. Although that is not revealed to the viewer, the film heaps clues and stereotypes – he is not wearing his thread, eats meat and appears ugly with stained and crooked teeth. Such associations with evil are troubling,” she said, pointing out that Thevan is silenced and stripped of his agency by the end of the film. Commenting on the final sequence, she said that the film draws a false equivalence, suggesting that power is equally evil, whether it’s in the hands of the low castes or the high castes. 

Arjun Ashokan as Thevan in Bramayugam
Arjun Ashokan as Thevan in Bramayugam

But, Jayhari has a different view on the ending. “It is said of Kerala caste society that here, the Brahmin will kick the Nair, the Nair will kick the Ezhava, the Ezhava will kick the Pulayan and so on. All of them are in the Hindu religion but we see such a chain of oppression,” said Jayhari. “The basic thought behind the film, I feel, is that humans want to oppress other humans – either through caste, religion, money or any other form of authority.”

It is the half-Brahmin cook who desires to wear the ring of authority while Thevan tries to stop him, protesting that if he wore it, the cycle of oppression would continue for people like him. “The mansion is in a terrible state, so it’s not as if the chaathan wants to enjoy the riches of the place. But it knows that it is Potti’s caste identity that will give it the greatest power in that society. Potti’s son, the cook, knows it too and wants that recognition for himself,” said Jayhari. 

Thevan and the cook (Sidharth Bharathan) in the film
Thevan and the cook (Sidharth Bharathan) in the film

When a new form of power enters the scene in the form of colonialism, the chaathan understands its superiority to caste. The smile can be interpreted as a smile of recognition and an eagerness to exploit the opportunities that lie ahead. 

“Until the entry of the Portuguese, the film runs like a grandmother’s tale. But with their arrival, the film segues into history. When the colonial powers arrived, the Brahmins were forced to bow to their authority too. They had to pander to the colonial powers to retain their right to oppress other castes,” said Jayhari. Comparing Bramayugam to Jordan Peele’s films that explore racism through the horror genre, Jayhari said that the film attempts to expose what real horror looks like – something real life has plenty on offer through its endless loops of oppression and suffering. 

The silent and seductive yakshi 

Bramayugam also has a yakshi who is shown to seduce and kill innocent men while cavorting with the chaathan who is in the form of Kodumon Potti. “The yakshi is the epitome of beauty and is said to live on the paala tree (also called the Devil’s Tree). The nocturnal emission of harmful gases from this tree is said to be high, and in the popular imagination, this is tied to the seductive image of the yakshi,” said AV Ajayakumar.

Amalda Liz as the yakshi in Bramayugam
Amalda Liz as the yakshi in Bramayugam

Amalda Liz is captivating in the role of the yakshi in Bramayugam, but she does not have a single dialogue. Charmy Harikrishnan asked why the creators couldn’t imagine a half-decent female character when they were able to conceive the figure of the chaathan as simultaneously relatable and unrecognisable. “The yakshi’s nose ring is far more elaborate and striking than her role – a few minutes of a silent woman with hair long enough to cover her breasts,” said Harikrishnan. 

Was the exclusion of a fleshed out female character a failure on part of the makers or was it deliberate, considering women had very little power in a caste-ridden, patriarchal society? It can be argued either way, and that perhaps explains the success of the film despite its unconventional making. It opens itself up to multiple readings, interpretations and debates. Much like the chaathan who changes form, depending on who is viewing it. 

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