Artists and Critical Presence: Beyond Dalit as a Representation

The article attempts to examine the idea of critical presence in opposition to representational realm by examining the presence of two Dalit actors from Malayalam film industry: (the late) Kalabhavan Mani and Vinayakan, in Indian media. Instead of focusing on their characters and films, this article seeks to explore the possibilities opened up by these actors through their critical presence in the industry though they differ in their approach. 

It is always a tough task to distinguish between the ideas of representation and presence (Derrida1978) especially when it comes to the discussion on Dalits and visual media. Perhaps, it is the over presence of structuralist or the post-structuralist ways of understanding the discourse on representation, which suggests that meanings are not given but created through representations (Derrida 1982; Said 2001). Reiterating these formulations, Indian media has succeeded in creating certain stereotypical images of Dalits through various forms such as literature, films, television series, cartoons and so on which contributed to the creation of certain “default” as a pattern of representation (Wankhede 2013; Sundar 2019). Interestingly, the creative imaginations have changed recently, as more films, writings and art works by Dalits have emerged and questioned available representations (Yengde 2018; Nisha 2020). Perhaps the emergence of anti-caste filmmakers is one of the significant changes that prompts one to move beyond the questions of representation to presence (Edachira 2020). However, the present article attempts to examine the idea of critical presence in opposition to representational realm by examining the presence of two Dalit actors from Malayalam film industry: (the late) Kalabhavan Mani and Vinayakan. 

Kalabhavan Mani was a popular actor, singer and a performer from Kerala, who is known for his comic as well as negative characters in South Indian film industry. Died at the peak of his career, Mani was a household name in Kerala, through his singing, mimicry, and on-stage performances especially in the wake of satellite channel era. Studies show that Mani’s characters were typecasted as subaltern (Parayil 2013), and how the industry underestimated the metaphysical potential of Mani as an actor (Anilkumar 2012). A closer look at the Malayalam film industry would prove that how the identity of the Dalit actors become a factor in deciding their characters in films. For instance, Mala Aravindan (1939 – 2015), Kalabhavan Mani (1971 - 2016) and Vinayakan are some of the very few prominent Dalit actors in Malayalam cinema. All of them, multi-talented in their own ways (Aravindan was a theatre artist and tabla player; Mani was a mimicry artist, folk and playback singer, and a stage performer; Vinayakan is a dancer and a music composer) were mostly offered characters belonging to marginalised identities.[i] However, instead of focusing on their characters and films, this article seeks to explore the possibilities opened up by these actors through their critical presence in the industry though they differ in their approach. 


From ‘Talking back’ to ‘Talking With’

One of the major limitations of the representational discourse for an oppressed community would be that it largely talks back, if not only, but particularly to the Other; it informs the community but never engages with the community. It comes as a response to the act of “talking down” (Guru, 2013), by the liberal discourse. Thus, it talks “at” or “to”; but never “with.”As in the case of cinema, where Dalit presence is minimal, the discussion is often reduced, if not only, to the dominant representation of the Other. While it is absolutely necessary to understand, and even deconstruct, the politics of representation; it is also necessary to recognise that the representational paradigm often fails to engage with oppositional aesthetics. It is in this context that one needs to recognise the significance of

“presence” (Nancy 1993). To explore the possibilities of critical presence for the oppressed communities, let me elaborate the models articulated by Cornel West, one of the prominent public intellectuals of the United States. 

In his “Dilemmas of the Black Intellectual,” West (1991) discusses four models for Black intellectual activity: the “Bourgeoise” model where Black intellectual as humanist, the “Marxist” model where Black intellectual as revolutionary, the “Foucauldian” model where Black intellectual as post-modern sceptic, and the “Insurgency” model where Black intellectual as critical, organic catalyst. While acknowledging the contributions of the first three models,[ii] West urges for the adoption of the last one – the insurgency model: Black intellectual as a critical and organic catalyst – which not only engages with the Other but continuously dialogues with the community. West argues that “the bourgeoise, Marxist and the Foucauldian models indeed relate to, but do not adequately speak to, the uniqueness of the Black intellectual predicament” (1991:144). Whereas the insurgency model “privileges collective intellectual work that contributes to communal resistance and struggle” (West 1991:144).  He stresses on the need to understand the Afro-American life and history while engaging with the Western paradigms of knowledge. Hence, the insurgency model builds upon, yet goes beyond, the other three models. 

Drawing on West, I would argue that Dalit presentation builds upon the critical discourse on representation, yet goes beyond, the reductive reading of Dalit as a representation alone. Here presentation does not mean pure presence (if there is one), but as an act of being present, which does not subsume into the framework of representation. To understand Dalit presentation in Malayalam cinema, let me elaborate the example of Vinayakan. He takes on the caste notions of Malayalam cinema and media through his interviews, as an act of anti-caste presentation. For instance, when he received the state award for the best actor category for playing the role of Ganga, a Dalit character from the movie Kammatti Paadam (2016), one of the questions he had to face was whether the award belongs to the character Ganga. The question very clearly comes from a caste unconscious which immediately rejects Vinayakan’s performance as an actor in the film and wants to confer the recognition at the representational level – for the character he played. In a way, the question places Vinayakan’s presence only as a re-presentation of Ganga, an angry Dalit man, a quotation gang leader, who immediately resorts to violence, losing his life at the end. Interestingly, Vinayakan, quickly retorts to the question by responding that “this recognition is for Vinayakan not for Ganga. Ganga is a fool. He is no more. Nobody should become Ganga.” Vinayakan’s response not only addresses the caste notions of the “historic viewer” (Vijayan 2017) but also talks back to the representational discourse on Dalits in Malayalam cinema, where they are either stereotypes or absented presence. This, I would argue, is a move towards an embodied performance which rejects the stereotypes in real-life and claims actorhood irrespective of the characters played on the screen.

Unlike his predecessors, Mala Aravindan and Mani, Vinayakan asserts his Dalit identity and politics in the media. In an interview given to Asianet, a Malayalam television channel,[iii]Vinayakan notes that he will never feel inferior because of his Pulaya identity as he believes in Ayyankali[iv] thought. When asked about his performance, Vinayakan says that it was Michael Jackson who inspired him to pursue dance and Bob Marley was the one who pulled him towards music. He even addresses Michael Jackson as Brother Michael, Michaelettan, to show affection and intimacy he felt towards Michael Jackson as a performer. Both Bob Marley and Michael Jackson, popular Black performers, become the immediate influence of a lot of artists from the oppressed sections around the world. Vinayakan was a professional dancer which helped him to enter the Malayalam film industry with the movie Maanthrikam (1995), where he performed as a dancer resembling Michael Jackson’s movements. Throughout the interview, Vinayakan stresses on the importance of dance in his life, not as a structured performance but as a freestyle presentation, which he calls thullal or the Tamil equivalent of dappan koothu. He wishes to create music for such dance, as “an impromptu performance without rules.” Vinayakan also suggests that “the most priceless concept in the world is art itself.” Vinayakan’s aspiration to create music for a dance performance, that too, an impromptu performance without rules and regulations, can be seen as an aesthetic presentation by a Dalit artist, which is not limited to his onscreen representations. One could argue that, this vision of Vinayakan, is the anti-caste presentation which breaks the conventions of dance and music in Kerala.

While discussing the need to dance without inhibitions, Vinayakan takes a dig at the Malayalee hesitation towards such an art/act. Such performances are seen as acts, rather excess (over action) in Kerala society but not as an art which could affect the Other. This should be read along with the ban on cinematic dance[v] in Kerala educational institutions and Yesudas’s (one of the most popular playback singers from Kerala) contempt for fast music,[vi] which constructs certain rules and regulations on music and dance by rejecting the presentational aspects. Whereas Vinayakan foregrounds the spontaneity of a performance, which does not correspond to any preconceived notions of art, but only as an aesthetic outburst. Hence, Vinayakan’s idea of dance, as thullal or dappan koothu (which hurts the sentiments of the rational Malayaleehood), is an affective aesthetic presentation against the caste regulations of art. Moreover, he was also critical of the media who wanted him to behave in a particular manner to show his happiness after the declaration of the award. All these acts, or presentation, rupture the representational realm of Dalit stereotypes and questions the entrenched nature of caste in Kerala.

This classification between classical art and the spontaneous performance prompts us to think about the complications of art as act and vice versa. The Malayalee conscience which rejects the spontaneity of a performance and embraces the classical forms of structured art, in fact conceives art as an act. It is an acting out of an art form. Whereas the freestyle performance which Malayalees consider as an act, or an over action, is an art which is sudden and unplanned. Vinayakan’s anti-caste presentation reiterates the role of an embodied performance which is affective and participatory than being exclusive and mimetic.

Malayalam Media and the Entrenched Presence of Caste

One could note that the initial stage of Dalit engagement with cinema in Kerala begins with the critique of representational issues, particularly foregrounding Dalit erasure and stereotyping. The late 1990s and the early 2000s witnessed the emergence of studies on the question of representation from various oppressed locations (Ansari 2016; Rowena 2011). Following such readings, social media discussions have also highlighted the casteist and sexist connotations of Television shows in Kerala, especially the seemingly unproblematic comedy shows and reality programmes. It is in this context that one needs to look at the way caste is entrenched in the television screens of Malayalam channels.

For instance, Mani, with a Marxist background, foregrounded the issues of class and not caste in the Kerala public sphere. He was strategic in not revealing his caste identity. It is significant to compare the interviews of Mani and Vinayakan simultaneously to show the similarity in the kind of questions posed towards them and the differences in the way they answer. Showing Mani’s character in the film, Sallapam (1996), where he acted as a flirtatious toddy tapper, John Brittas,[vii] the anchor of “J. B. Junction,” a popular show in a Malayalam television channel ‘Kairali’, asks him: “This is Mani, isn’t this?” And, Mani instantly agrees to his statement. Brittas adds that this character reflects Mani’s natural behaviour (swatha siddhamayama swabhavam). Brittas immediately identified Rajappan, the character played by Mani, with Mani, the actor. Moreover, Brittas states that, “when we think of Mani, the first thing that comes to our mind is an auto driver’s face.” One wonders how an auto driver should look!

This essentialist and reductive statement proves the way caste operates in the modern Kerala society. What is significant here, is Mani’s past, as an auto driver, before starting his career in cinema. These statements by the anchor remind Mani, in extension the audience, that whatever Mani does, or wherever he has reached, he still resembles the same old auto driver, or the toddy tapper. In that moment, Mani was “reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility” (Vemula, 2016). The Brahmanical discourse on Dalits can only imagine the question of being as a frozen category – of suffering and humiliation – but never as a possibility of becoming. Becoming something other than the caste society prescribed them to be. A becoming, when the being itself is invisibilised/erased/threatened by the hegemonic forces. Becoming which talks back to a reductive caste discourse. But all such possibilities were denied in Brittas’ essentialist statements. Without doubt, one could argue that Brittas exemplifies the Malayalee unconscious of caste, the historical viewer who reduces Mani to a character, to a mere re-presentation, and to his struggling past. 

Mani was acceptable to everyone in Kerala, as Manichettan, mainly because he presented himself in a way that the elite Kerala public wanted a Dalit actor to be. As Anilkumar notes that the metaphysical side of Mani would have foreseen the repercussions of challenging the system and offered what is expected of him by the Malayalee public: the surface, the humour, the spontaneity without reflection, “a mere appearance” (2012:196). Drawing on Deleuze and Guttari’s reading of Kafka, Anilkumar attempts to read Mani metaphysically. Kafka, one of the prominent figures of European literature, is often known for his existential and absurd writings. However, Deleuze and Guttari go beyond these available readings and try to delve into the politics of Kafka’s humour. They accuse the apolitical reading of Kafka which could only see the surface level alienation and existentialism but not the laughter and politics. Similarly, Anilkumar argues that, in Kafka, we miss the politics and humour, but in Mani, “we perceive the humourous and sometimes the politics, but misses his metaphorical depth and its politics” (2012:203). One could even go further and suggest that Mani, with his signature laughter, which is characterised as “idiosyncratic” (Parayil 2013), actually laughed at the Malayalee narrow mindedness. Or he understood what needs to be spoken to the Malayalee public, and laughed along with them, even on himself, thereby presented himself through his performances, both onscreen and offscreen.

On the contrary, Vinayakan disturbs the imaginations of the Malayalee public, by not becoming “a mere appearance” but as a critical and organic presence. A presence which embodies the “rejection of rejection” (Guru 2009). He brings into presence the expressive physicality of anti-caste aesthetics, through music and dance, without any guidelines.[viii] Mani was once denied the Kerala state award for the best actor for his role as a visually challenged guy in the movie Vasanthiyum Lakshmiyum Pinne Njanum (1999). More importantly, the media and the film industry had equally predicted and publicised his name as the best actor much before the award declaration. However, when the award was declared, it was Mohanlal (a popular Malayalam actor) for his Kathakali performance in the film Vanaprastham (1999) had won it.[ix] It is in this context that we should see the success of Vinayakan, who became the first Dalit actor to win the Kerala state award for the best actor. When asked whether he expected this recognition, Vinayakan tells, “No. I didn’t expect because I am not interested in the system.” Perhaps it is Mani’s bitter experience with ‘the system’ which prompted Vinayakan to say this. In a way, Vinayakan won the award which was once denied to Mani. Neither he thinks twice to reveal his Dalit identity, nor is he apologetic about it. This assertive nature upsets the caste consciousness of the Malayalee public who used to accept Dalit actors only if they perform according to popular stereotypes.[x]

Both Mani and Vinayakan enacted the popular stereotypes of Dalits on screen, though what differentiates them is their off-screen projection, rather presentation of themselves. While Mani does not differentiate between the reel and the real, especially when it comes to interviews and talk shows, Vinayakan clearly distinguishes between the both. He does not extend his screen persona, or in fact many a times rejects the representational realm entirely while it comes to presenting himself as Vinayakan and not any of his characters. As actors, it is also significant for them to do any characters, but the opportunities of breaking the stereotypes within the screen becomes more difficult. Whereas while presenting themselves, Mani through folk songs and stage shows, and Vinayakan through his dance and music direction, offer an affective expressive aesthetics.[xi]

For instance, Mani is known for his folk songs, stage shows and playback singing apart from acting. Sometimes, his songs became inevitably necessary over his acting as in the case of Kazhcha (Sight 2004, Dir. Blessy). Mani was supposed to perform a character in Kazhcha but due to lack of time, he could not act in the film. Even though he did not act, he sang a song for that particular character (played by Manoj K. Jayan) he was supposed to act, thereby making his presence (through voice) irreplaceable.[xii] Perhaps, Mani’s way of establishing his critical presence was through his voice. There were stories that Mani received more remuneration for his songs, almost as equivalent as the major singers in the industry. In fact, he popularised folk music and performed in national and international venues, thus opened up new possibilities for the art form and the artists.

Thus, critical presence is more about challenging the established representational regime, which are essentialising and reductive. In other words, this opens up possibilities of transcending the essentialised identities, not only through “talking back” but also through “talking with” the community. And when it transpires through arts and aesthetics, the possibilities are limitless beyond the default imaginaries. In that case, Pa. Ranjith’s films, Ilayaraja’s music, Kalabhavan Mani’s songs, Therukural Arivu’s lyrics, Malavika’s illustrations etc, are critical artistic presence that transcend “immediate identities and nearest possibilities” (Vemula 2016).




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