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Malikappuram: Why the audience in Kerala and the world showered so much love on the movie on Lord Ayyappa

Offering a nuanced approach to the revered subject of Sabarimala, Malikappuram also explores the concept of Tat Tvam Asi, the profound philosophy embedded in Sanatan Dharma

When Sabarimala came into the eye of a storm a few years ago due to the fracas over permitting temple entry to women of menstruating years, I doubt whether most of those who grabbed the opportunity to gain some attention by opining on the subject even bothered to delve into the history that predates the place, the traditions and customs involved in the worshipping of Swami Ayyappa in Kerala. All those who strongly opposed the age-old beliefs followed in the place perhaps didn’t even know the whys and hows of it. Or what makes thousands of pilgrims flock to the temple to pay their respect to their God. In the noise on the issue, not much was said about the devotion or love that defies legal reasoning.

In fact, the pro-left and Islamic lobbies in the Kerala film industry saw it as an opportune moment to defame the faith behind Sabarimala further. In 2021, Jeo Baby’s immensely successful The Great Indian Kitchen tried to prove how men who are devoted to Swami Ayyappa are misogynistic and patriarchal at home. They insensitively abuse their wives for their selfish sexual needs. The agenda wasn’t exactly subtle in the ‘feminist’ drama targeted to malign Sabarimala in particular and religious Hindu men in general.

The recently released Thattassery Koottam, directed by Anoop, wasn’t that vicious, but casually commented how a Hindu lad, though a Sabarimala volunteer, has a glad eye and is a foul-mouthed lothario. He lazily shirks family duties as well. While it is not our place to comment on the legalities regarding the Sabarimala case it is amusing how the Malayalam film industry has never really broached the topic objectively. There are hardly any movies showcasing the faith that drives people to Lord Ayyappa or delve into why women do not mind waiting for their time to come to meet him. How the restraint is woven into the very fabric of the faith.

There seems to be a shift in the narrative though. The epilogue of Vishnu Mohan’s surprise hit Meppadiyan released last year showed the protagonist take a pilgrimage to Sabarimala after sorting out issues in his life when he is duped by Islamic property sharks. This was a rare montage depicting the lead flaunting his Hindu identity unapologetically. The actor Unni Mukundan seems to have taken off from that well-written work to deep dive into exploring not just Sabarimala in his latest blockbuster Malikappuram but also other concepts of Sanatan Dharma. No wonder, after the unprecedented success of SS Rajamouli’s RRR and Rishabh Shetty’s Kantara, the audience in Kerala first, and then the world, showered love and laurels on the film that celebrates Hindu iconographies proudly, without any monkey balancing. After being thoroughly bored with movies that repeatedly indulged in anti-Hindu agenda peddling, families went back to the theatres to enjoy something that invoked the true essence of Swami Ayyappa in their minds.

Vishnu Sasi Shankar’s movie might seem like a simple story with two child protagonists, but the thought-provoking writing by Abhilash Pillai drives home certain significant points about Sanatan Dharma, beliefs, customs and ultimately the core values of a family system that urban Indians seemed to be gradually losing connect with. For instance, Kallu’s strong urge to meet Lord Ayyappa is not divorced from the story telling sessions she enjoys with her muthassi. Stories from ancient Upanishads, Puranas and Hindu religious texts were always told by grandparents to their grandchildren earlier when the joint family system formed the basis of a Bharatiya social setup. These carried forward folklore traditions. Kallu too, hears tales of wonder and valour from her grandma and father that instill in her a heartfelt desire to travel to Sabarimala. Guided by her deep faith and devout instinct, the eight-year-old requests ‘her Ayyappa’ to take her to meet the Lord.

The story is a celebration of the strength in beliefs. So strong and real it is that while leading the children, Mukundan’s character, in response to Piyoosh’s doubts, refers to the jungle as his ‘sthalam’ and then casually brushes away the boy’s fear of a roaming elephant by calling it ‘our Ganesha’. It is quite telling how not just Kallu but the audience also envisages Mukundan as Swami Ayyappa then, as he dozes off in a seated stance, lulled by the distant melody of Yesudas’s ethereal rendition of Harivarasanam.

His closed eyes and content demeanour calms as well as reassures those witnessing the imagery. It is these buildups in the journey of Kallu to her destination that makes Malikappuram such a relevant, satisfying and exciting tale. Because unless the Lord is ready to meet the devotee, there is nothing that can drive the difficult journey. In a spectacularly shot sequence where Kallu walks up the 18 celestial steps, it is this very truth depicted about a devotee’s extreme faith that ultimately steers him towards the Almighty. The chaos around a faithful is silenced as utmost reverence bridges the distance between the man and the God he loves and believes in. What a splendid moment captured in cinema by Vishnu Narayanan, for posterity!

Offering a nuanced approach to the revered subject of Sabarimala, Malikappuram also explores the concept of Tat Tvam Asi, the profound philosophy embedded in Sanatan Dharma through the words of Swami Haneef (a masterstroke in casting that highlights its power to welcome all believers in its fascinating fold) as he disentangles the reasons why his colleague rescues and helps the children. Therein lies the attraction of this languid but sensitively written film showcasing the gravity of a devotion that makes pilgrims throng to Sabarimala frequently to pay their obeisance to Swami Ayyappa. God appears in the form of humans before those who have absolute faith in divinity. You are what you seek, remarks Swami Haneef.

The narrative is not devoid of characters who make us question the very tenet of human values and strength. For instance, while it isn’t clear whether Ajayan ends his life to evade monetary hassles or due to the humiliation he faces in the hands of a ruthless loan shark, there is no denying that his decision reeks of weak personality. Similarly, crooks like Mahi tend to bring disrepute to holy places. However, the bad is balanced by good. That is the sacred beauty of Bharat—a land of punya, tolerance and harmony. The evil in humans must be destroyed by the divine in them. That is our Dharma, and this order in peace and chaos is what takes one closer to Swami Ayyappa one step at a time.

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Sharmi Adhikary
Sharmi Adhikary
Senior Lifestyle Journalist and Film Writer with a yen for films that spark interesting conversations.

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