The Shakespearean Kaliyattam: Othello And Goddesses In North Malabar, Film Companion

When “All the world’s a stage” to the bard, Indian cinema is no exception. Adapting Shakespeare’s work into the Indian ethos has always held its own charm. Cinemas of India have always been overarchingly Shakespearean in their temperament, featuring star-crossed lovers, disapproving families, conniving villains, love triangles, comedy, convenient coincidences and mistaken identities, all mixed with song and dance. This is the very reason that Indian cinema has seen a substantial amount of Shakespeare adaptations on the big screen and otherwise. We are all aware of Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of the bard’s tragedies into a trilogy: Maqbool (Macbeth), Omkara (Othello) and Haider (Hamlet). But almost a decade prior to Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Othello, Malayalam film-maker Jayaraaj loosely adapted this tale of love, jealousy and identity crisis as Kaliyattam (1997). He wove this tale of love and jealousy into the tapestry of Theyyam,  a folk art form of Kerala.

Kaliyattam: The play of gods

Understanding Kaliyattam as well as Theyyam is imperative in deciphering Jayaraaj’s decision to place the complex world of Othello within the complexities that the art form of Theyyam brings with it. Theyyam is a form of ritual performance which is generally performed by castes such as Thiyya, Vaniya, Maniyani, Kammalar, Malayan and so on. In the early years of Aryan invasion, due to rigid caste restrictions, the people belonging to these castes were not allowed to enter temples and hence they created their own shrines and coves and started their own forms of rituals, which then later got assimilated into the Brahmanical temple structures. Kaliyattam is the festival that takes place in the North Malabar region of Kerala, where various Theyyam performances take place. Jayaraaj has done a brilliant job in seamlessly merging an ancient art form of Kerala with a play written in the seventeenth century and placing it beautifully in the backdrop of the verdant climes of Kerala.

Jayaraaj intelligently combined the duality of Theyyam with the intrinsic conflict and contradiction that lies at the heart of Othello. The contradiction of this nature is visible on various occasions throughout the course of the film. The biggest and most evident contradiction is the one that comes with the caste and class identity of Perumalayan (the Othello character, played by Suresh Gopi). He is a Theyyam artist who performs the kolam theechamundi. While outside the performative space he is nothing more than a pockmarked lower caste Theyyam performer who dared to elope with an upper caste thamburatti, Thamara (the Desdemona character, played by Manju Warrier), within the performative space he gains the status of a goddess. This kind of elevation in status within this space is to such an extent that when Thamara’s father Thampuran (Brabantio) is informed about his daughter’s elopement and he goes to confront Perumalayan, he does not let his men even touch him because Perumalayan is in his attire at that moment, just about to perform. Instead of confronting him for the blasphemy he has dared to commit, Thampuran merely bows down in front of Perumalayan, and asks for the blessings of the goddess he is impersonating/manifesting. In an interview with Shobha Warrier, Jayaraaj explains that in Theyyam, “when the artist dons the makeup, he is considered as God (…) When he removes the makeup he becomes a man once again. I saw in Theyyam the best opportunity to express a split personality. I saw the same dichotomy in Othello’s mind also.”

Whenever we see Perumalayan most despondent and on the verge of breaking down, we see an image of the kolam visiting him, which basically is just a physical manifestation of the deep schism that is created in his mind due to the jealousy that creeps into the deep recesses of his mind as a result of his own insecurities. This kolam thus represents the alienation that he feels within himself. The reason that he feels this divide in him, as well as his rationale for believing Paniyan’s (Iago) words is that deep down he believes that Thamara can never love him as he is: a dark skinned, pockmarked, lower-caste man. This is the very divide that even Othello felt.

Another striking scene of the play is the final killing scene of Desdemona. The asphyxiation scene is one of the most important and most powerful ones in the play. Within the course of the play, knowing well that he is about to commit a crime against the Venetian society by killing his wife, Othello calls himself the ‘turban’d Turk’ (Venice’s sworn enemy). Hence, we find that he sees himself as the ‘savage’ outsider which Brabantio and others have been calling him from the very beginning. It almost seems like Shakespeare is trying to ask whether or not this is the inevitable outcome when a society keeps telling a man that he is a “savage”. In the movie though, the final scene of violence unfolds in a very different manner. Perumalayan acts out of desperation and a kind of madness that he feels due to his own insecurity, which is fuelled by Paniyan. Furthermore, in this scene he enters Thamara’s chamber with half of his makeup on. This is an important and fascinating element, because as mentioned before, when a Theyyam artist has their makeup on, they are believed to have transcended beyond the human realm, into the divine. Since the makeup is not complete it can be assumed that he is suspended somewhere between these realms. Thus, he moves beyond his human doubt but does not reach the realm of divine graciousness. When we read the play we would never imagine this scene to unfurl like this, with a man in Theyyam makeup killing his wife in the most horrific manner. Thamara’s fingers ruining his makeup in an attempt to hold on to something in the final moments of her life, are an indication of the blemish left on not just his character but even the role of the goddess that he has put on. Apart from this, the makeup plays a major role in making the entire spectacle even more terrifying.

It is therefore evident that it is only through his performative garb that Perumalayan discerns any sense of power or acceptance within the sociocultural milieu of his times. It is almost paradoxical as even though he is a man, it is a female deity who can grant him even a remote sense of power or acceptance within the patriarchal matrix. As a man belonging to a lower caste, with neither caste nor looks to fall back upon, Perumalayan believes every narrative that feeds into his insecurities that lead him further away from Thamara’s unsullied love for him. It is therefore only through his Theyyam performance that he finds any comfort or solace. Furthermore, it is by hiding behind the deity that he commits the crime of murdering his own wife. The insecure Perumalayan therefore finds a sense of overarching power through the role of theechamundi, and once he realises his mistake, ends his life in the attire of theechamundi itself. Having committed the crime of murder, he now has no possibility of going back to being Perumalayan as that would deepen his internal chasm. This act of murder has finally made the alienation that he felt within him tangible, hence separating the insecure Perumalayan from the ‘terrifying’ goddess.

As an art form of resistance, Theyyam provides the right canvas to paint the inherent contradiction that Perumalayan/Othello experiences.  Therefore, Jayaraaj’s choice of bringing the tale set in Venice and Cyprus to the hinterlands of Kerala with the rich tapestry of Theyyam draped over it gives Shakespeare’s Othello an intrinsic Indian flavour.

Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.

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