Patriarchy, agency and the question of caste: A review of Geetha J’s debut feature film Run Kalyani

By Aritra Bhattacharya

Run Kalyani, Geetha J’s debut feature film about a working-class girl who works as a cook in two households in Thiruvananthapuram, has garnered accolades as well as rejections in its initial run in the film festival circuit. Since the film is shot entirely in Thiruvananthapuram, where Geetha was born and grew up, she was keen to show the film at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) 2019.

“Although there were 14 Malayalam films and six debut films in the Malayalam Cinema Today section in IFFK 2019, there were no films by woman filmmakers. This, and the fact that my film, featuring the story of a young girl, was rejected by the organizers struck me as strange,” Geetha, who also teaches World Cinema and Documentary Production at Film@CultureLab, Newcastle University, in the UK, told me during the Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF) 2019. The IFFK has been attacked by many independent filmmakers who formed the Movement for Independent Cinema, questioning the increasing presence of commercial hits in its line-up.

Run Kalyani had its world premiere under the Competition on Indian Language Films at KIFF 2019, where it also won the Special Jury Award. Geetha was overjoyed—the award was a validation of her decade-long, daunted struggle to tell stories of the lives of ordinary women through cinema.

Geetha at the KIFF awards ceremony.

The film, which pans out over four days in the life of Kalyani, follows the young woman going about her daily routine—waking up in the morning; cooking and caring for her old, paralyzed aunt; dealing with suitors and debtors as she prepares to leave for work; walking across neighborhoods to the apartment of Vijayan, a middle-aged bachelor in a high-rise building, where she cooks in the first half of the day; cooking in the house of a wealthy joint family in the second half of the day, where she witnesses the son physically abusing his wife Nirmala; and finally making her way back home, where she falls asleep hearing fantastical stories told by a young man who wants to be a scriptwriter. Every day, Kalyani serves as a messenger, carrying love notes between the middle-aged bachelor and the physically abused wife, whose only succor is reading and writing literature and poetry. Eventually, all these ordinary events build up into a crescendo to shape something extraordinary that transforms the lives of the main characters in the film.

Through its course, Run Kalyani foregrounds how class and gender intersect in different ways and contexts constituting the terrain for oppression as much as for resistance. Through its course, Run Kalyani foregrounds how class and gender intersect in different ways and contexts constituting the terrain for oppression as much as for resistance. I watched the film and spoke to Geetha J at length to understand why she was interested in telling women’s stories in her films and to grasp her struggle as a woman filmmaker making films in and about Kerala.

Cinema as Politics

A lot in Run Kalyani revolves around art, literature and cinema. The two lovers, Vijayan and Nirmala, for instance, speak to each other only through poetry. That the duo doesn’t communicate at all in any other way in the age of social media and smart phones seems a bit far-fetched, but their silences beyond the notes also accentuate the impact of their poetry, which we hear as voiceovers. Geetha explained that the letter-writing between the lovers was a conscious choice. “There is a romance in letter-writing that is absent in the digital [domain]. It is not even about what is written, but the fact that it is written, by hand, on paper, using the highly decorative (especially to non-Malayali eyes) text. It has a materiality, a texture, and brings a haptic quality to the exchange between lovers whom we never see touch each other,” she said.

Nirmala reads a note from Vijayan.

Vijayan speaks to Nirmala through the words of three internationally acclaimed male poets— Vladimir Mayakovsky, Federico Garcia Lorca and Xu Zhimo. Nirmala responds with the poems of two iconic female bhakti poets-performers from India—Aandal and Meera, all in Malayalam translations.

When Kalyani goes back home after a hard day’s work, her ailing aunt is already asleep; she relaxes and falls asleep to the stories told by a friend, who shares the room in the loft with her and wants to be a scriptwriter. On the first of the three nights that the film encompasses, he tells Kalyani he is writing a script about a young girl called Ulina, whose parents met on a white night – a reference to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story by the same title, which was adapted into films on several occasions. The second night, he recounts another script about a time machine and multiple parallel universes – alluding to the popularity of science fiction literature and movies among the youth in Kerala. The third night, he narrates the story of the Kathakali performance of Nala Charitham (the story of Nala and Damayanti from the Mahabharata) that he is writing into a film.

Kalyani with her ailing aunt in the Agraharam

That Kalyani and her friend are familiar with world literature despite their working-class background isn’t surprising. Neither is the fact that acclaimed international writers are read and quoted in translation by the wife of a rich businessman, Nirmala, or an unassuming government employee, Vijayan.

The communist cultural movement played an important role in popularizing progressive world literature in translation since the 1940s in many states of India, including in Kerala, where the film is set. In the ensuing decades, the works of authors like Vladimir Mayakovsky, Maxim Gorky, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Federico Garcia Lorca were translated and published in Malayalam and other Indian languages by activists, who were keen to bring tales about the lives of common masses from other places and times to people in their areas.

Performances were often held in public spaces and open grounds for common people who were mostly illiterate, and they contributed to the appreciation of acclaimed literary texts beyond members of the reading public.In Kerala, many world literature classics like The Power of Darkness and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky were also adapted and performed as kathaprasangam, a popular story-telling form, by many left-leaning activists and groups through the second half of the twentieth century. Performances were often held in public spaces and open grounds for common people who were mostly illiterate, and they contributed to the appreciation of acclaimed literary texts beyond members of the reading public.

The Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (The Kerala Forum for Scientific Literature), founded in 1962, took up the publication and dissemination of science literature in the local language with the objective of popularizing a scientific outlook among common people. Backed by communist parties and activists, it transformed in to a people’s science movement in 1972, leading to the establishment of hundreds of units across Kerala’s districts and small towns. Local forums organized their own book fairs and discussions, making available a variety of progressive literature in translation along with writings on science.

Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital, was an important center of these cultural and scientific movements. It was home to many progressive, left-leaning authors, filmmakers, artists and intellectuals, as well as a hub of production, publication and dissemination of art, literature and cinema. Growing up in the city in 1980s, Geetha was aware of these currents, but it was literature that eventually drew her to politics.

“A poet and a dramatist were my earliest gurus in political thinking,” she exclaimed, recalling how she started voraciously reading PB Shelly and Bernard Shaw when she was studying English Literature in the 1980s. “I was not much interested in politics till I started reading their works. Shelley’s passion and Shaw’s polemics gripped me, and I started reading more and more authors who were political. My family was Gandhian with a dash of Nehruvian optimism. Although I remember discussing the birth of the universe and possibilities of time travel with my father, a well-known professor of Civil Engineering and veteran Ham Radio operator, we rarely discussed party politics at home. But as I began reading more and more political writings, especially feminist literature, and my thinking became more socialist.”

Stirred by these learnings, Geetha founded an autonomous women’s organization with her friends, but her association with activism was short-lived. “I soon realized that revolution was not simply about issue-based activism. Praxis was key. And each person had to find their path in their own way.” Telling stories of ordinary women, of their struggle and resistance, was how Geetha wanted to practice politics. She pursued this interest initially as a journalist, then as a PhD scholar researching women in Indian narratives at the University of Calicut and then in Kairali Television (started with funding from Communist Party of India (Marxist) workers and sympathizers) before moving to the UK for a while, after meeting and marrying the UK-based documentary filmmaker Ian McDonald. The move gave her a much-needed critical distance and a detached perspective on Kerala. She returned to Kerala armed with a digital camera, gifted to her by her husband, to tell women’s stories, this time through films. Her first film was a creative docu-fiction titled Woman with a Video Camera (2005): a Vertovian salute to the ordinary women of Kerala juxtaposed with a Maya Deren-esque psychodrama about the objectification of women in film. She began dividing her time between India and the UK and collaborating with her husband as a producer for his documentaries, the most notable being the multi-award-winning Algorithms on young blind chess players in India. But she remained interested in telling women’s stories through cinema, especially fiction. In 2008, she completed her fiction script titled A Certain Slant of Light, courtesy a grant from the Goteborg International Film Festival’s development fund. Producers however were not willing to back her and her film, recalled Geetha. In those days, there were hardly any women making films in Kerala and producers were reluctant to back a film by a woman and about three women. Kerala is a land of riddles. We are progressive and yet very patriarchal. We are fully literate with high film literacy to boast of, but there are very few woman filmmakers around. So I was not surprised when a few producers suggested I make it into a story about three brothers,” she said. She continued to write scripts, even one with no female character titled End Game, but still failed to find producers, until friends suggested she try something small-budget and doable without compromising on quality, and offered to chip in with funds. This is how Run Kalyani was born.

Run Kalyani Poster
The poems that give Nirmala her words, that throb with longing and sexual desire, however, are rarely discussed or performed, and their use in the film alludes not only to historical registers of women’s agency in the subcontinent, but also their relevance in current times.The film – built on a cyclical pattern that follows a similar sequence of events over four days – in most scenes, settings and conversations reveals minute details about the everyday life of the young cook and her employers. The poetry in the film is evocative and sensuous, particularly the lines of the medieval bhakti poet-performers Aandal and Meera, who become Nirmala’s voice. These female poet-performers were allegedly persecuted for defying social norms, but are now widely revered as saints across the country, and their devotional songs and poetry enjoy wide popularity. The poems that give Nirmala her words, that throb with longing and sexual desire, however, are rarely discussed or performed, and their use in the film alludes not only to historical registers of women’s agency in the subcontinent, but also their relevance in current times.

The juxtaposition of the rundown agraharam (terraced row houses forming a garland in front of a temple) where Kalyani lives with her aunt in a tenanted row house, with the homes she works in brings out the stark class difference between the settings. Kalyani’s narrow and windowless house is small and claustrophobic. She gets ominous visitors there—the landlord who threatens her with eviction if she fails to pay up the rent; an older relative wanting her to marry his obviously shy and awkward son; an aggressive debt-recovery team from the bank. Kalyani fends them off from the front door, not allowing them to trouble her ailing aunt, whom she bathes, feeds and dresses every day.

Kalyani walks through the opulent residence of the joint family

These incidents reveal Kalyani’s vulnerability as a poor, young woman who is also the sole breadwinner of the family. They also reference to the deep-seated patriarchy in Malayali society, apparent in how hundreds of women in the State hit the streets in recent months in support of a ban on the entry of menstruating women in the Sabrimala temple. While Vijayan lives in a relative’s apartment in a high-rise building, the likes of which are fast dotting the state’s lush landscape, the joint family lives in one of the quirky sprawling houses that are fast disappearing. The son in the joint family, who is abusive to his wife Nirmala, also holds a top job in a multinational company, and his family’s behavior reveals the silent complicity in the abuse within families. In fact, they never ask after Kalyani, unlike Vijayan, who shares his name and more with Kerala’s Communist chief minister. Vijayan is disinterested in taking up a job or earning money—he tells friends who visit him that he has enough and wants to enjoy his life “doing nothing.” Though he does not speak much with Kalyani, he shares a bond with her, asks a doctor to check on her ailing aunt and offers her money for rent. He tells her that everything will be alright several times over four days, referencing the current chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s electoral slogan, as well as the role that communist governments in Kerala played in helping the working class with doles, subsidies and other entitlements.

Eventually in the film, the little, ordinary acts of solidarity come together to shape a new reality that transforms the lives of the main characters, giving wings to their deeply-held desire for love and freedom. The film asserts that whatever our circumstances may be, and contrary to what we are told or what appears to be the case, we all have agency.Kalyani is a willing messenger between Vijayan and Nirmala—she takes and delivers the lovers’ notes with a knowing, suppressed smile. She waits for them to be alone, and hands them the day’s note only after ensuring no family member or friend is within sight – for, if they discover anything about the affair or Kalyani’s role, it could spell trouble for all of them and Kalyani could lose her job, or worse. This solidarity between a working-class woman, a well-to-do housewife and a progressive man, each dealing with their own crises, is rarely expressed in dialogues, but it is conveyed through gestures, silences and poetry. Eventually in the film, the little, ordinary acts of solidarity come together to shape a new reality that transforms the lives of the main characters, giving wings to their deeply-held desire for love and freedom. The film asserts that whatever our circumstances may be, and contrary to what we are told or what appears to be the case, we all have agency.

The Caste Question

Although the film’s narrative makes no direct reference to Kalyani’s caste status, those familiar with the milieu would identify Kalyani as belonging to the Tamilian Brahmin community in Kerala. This is evident, partly, by the fact that she lives in a rundown agraharam, the kinds of which came up across south India on land grants by the royalty to Brahmins who were engaged in the running and upkeep of village temples.

The division of labor between maids in the houses Kalyani works is also an indicator of her caste status. The families she works for have other maids for chores like sweeping, washing and cleaning, considered easy and less specialized. Anecdotal references suggest that well-to-do families irrespective of their caste background take pride in hiring Brahmins ‘as they know the correct way of cooking’.

In positing Kalyani as a Brahmin who labors through the day but is still unable to earn enough to even hold on to the tenanted house she shares with her ailing aunt, Geetha draws our attention to the circumstances facing working-class upper castes in India today.In positing Kalyani as a Brahmin who labors through the day but is still unable to earn enough to even hold on to the tenanted house she shares with her ailing aunt, Geetha draws our attention to the circumstances facing working-class upper castes in India today. Left-wing parties, invested in class politics, have largely failed to implement ameliorative measures for this segment of the population, whereas Ambedkarite politics mostly ignores them. This has left the field open for BJP and other Hindutva parties to claim themselves as the sole and rightful representative of working-class upper castes. Keen to retain this segment’s vote bank, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government in New Delhi implemented in 2019 a 10% reservation for economically weaker sections (those from general/ unreserved category with an annual income lower than 800,000 Indian Rupees) for education and government jobs.

Unlike many working-class upper castes, Kalyani and her family do not seem to be supporters of Hindutva politics. The roads and neighborhoods Kalyani walks across are instead awash in red Communist flags; boundary walls are adorned with portraits of Communist leaders and icons, and characters like Vijayan and Nirmala embody an egalitarian ethos. These, and the referencing of the current chief minister Vijayan and his electoral slogan, clearly indicate that Geetha sees hope for the emancipation of working-class upper castes in Communist politics, and her film breaks fresh ground in drawing attention to their plight.

Nirmala’s husband

At the same time, however, Run Kalyani does not conceptualize an emancipatory politics that is attentive to caste and its place in social life. Although caste is an important part of the setting of the film, it is never a talking point or a basis of dominance or subservience; caste does not contribute to or hinder the narrative in any way, nor does it apparently play any role in Kalyani’s worldview, the opportunities she has access to and the ways in which she asserts her agency.

This aspect of the film resonates with a major criticism of Communist politics in India, where parties largely ignored the caste question till the turn of the millennium, fearing it may threaten and break up working class unity. While most Communist parties are attentive to caste identities today, they fail to recognize how caste ideology is also a material force. In fact, growing up in Communist-ruled West Bengal in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I thought that caste played no role in shaping worldviews or skillsets, and that it would cease to exist if we disregarded it in our individual capacities till I began researching the anti-caste cultural movement in Maharashtra as part of my doctoral research. It was only then that I started becoming aware of how caste is embodied, and how it intersects with class, gender, language and region in multiple ways, undercutting and shaping the social, political, cultural and economic spheres in the subcontinent.

Although Run Kalyani deftly depicts the co-existence of resistance and oppression in the everyday lives of ordinary citizens and the possibilities of solidarity across class and gender, it also reveals how caste continues to structure knowledge and worldview in India and how politics still struggles to envision and realize an anti-caste solidarity that is also attentive to class and gender.

Aritra Bhattacharya is an independent journalist and a PhD scholar at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. He has reported extensively on politics, culture and conflict for The Statesman, Caravan, Scroll, Quint, Himal Southasian and other outlets and his doctoral research focusses on anti-caste cultural resistance in post-1960s Maharashtra. He can be at @b_aritra on Twitter and Instagram.

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