The ‘Burned Star’: Life Sketches of Rosie, the First Malayalam Movie Actress (1903-1928)
By Vineeth Mathoor
While nodding her head to show consent for being an actress in 1928 in a Malayalam movie, P. K. Rosie did not even know what acting actually was. She had some experiences of acting in Tamil Dalit theatre called Kaakarashi Drama in which she played certain roles. On the one hand, it was her caste, Pulaya, that made her fit into the Dalit Kakarashi Drama and as we would see; on the other hand, it was her attempt for a temporary (dis)placement as a higher caste Nair woman that made her a victim. She was not negatively displaced due to her caste or social engagement but for her attempt for an affirmative placement as a Nair woman. She wanted to be displaced from her Pulaya status to a Nair status, though temporary it was. Performances and cultural activities of outcastes, including Pulaya community, were always mocked and considered to be senseless by the upper caste consciousness in Travancore during colonial times. Caste-ridden social systems were so horrible in Travancore that the attempt by a Pulaya girl to play in a movie or perform in a public sphere was considered unpardonable. We must note that majority of Travancoreans did not even know what a movie would be when Rosie agreed to act in 1928. It was in this context that Rosie agreed to be an actress. It seems she agreed for three reasons: first, out of curiosity of her age and taste to know and experience what is meant by performing in a movie. This can be expected from a girl who had already expressed many times her talents in Kaakarashi Dramas. Second, it is natural that being in Trivandrum in 1928, the poor and lower-caste girl had perhaps been attracted towards the changing nature of performances, which offered her a role to act as a higher-caste Nair woman. This desire of Rosie to perform the role of a Nair woman might also indicate a wish to become a Nair woman, or to be ‘placed’ as a Nair woman even temporarily. As social consciousness in Travancore in the first half of twentieth century insisted in the negation of the qualities of lower-caste identities, it was not a pleasant experience to remain as a Pulaya but to become a Nair. Such affirmative placements, she might have thought, would provide social capital and recognition for not only satisfying her personal psyche but her community psyche as well. For instance, it would have never been possible for Rosie to wear a Set-Sari, or keep some flowers on the hair, all typical marks of Nair women. Though she could not foresee, she was opening a pot of evils when she agreed to Mr. J. C. Daniel, a passionate Nadar Christian convert who is considered the father of Malayalam film industry today, to act in his debut movie, Vigatha Kumaran (Lost Child).
The plot of the movie is simple and it tells the story of a child who has been abducted to Ceylon. As per the story, Chandrakumar is a wealthy boy who was kidnapped to Ceylon by one Mr. Bhoothanathan. As his parents were unable to trace Chandrakumar, the boy happened to be a laborer in a British estate in Ceylon. After many years, the owner of the estate, a British entrepreneur, liked Chandrakumar and he was appointed the Superintendent of the estate. One day one Mr. Jayachandran arrived in Ceylon and he was robbed of his possessions by Bhoothanathan. Jayachandran met Chandrakumar incidentally and they established a good relationship. Chandrakumar and Jayachandran together left Ceylon for Trivandrum and settled for a while. Sarojini, Chandrakumar’s sister, fell in love with Jayachandran. Bhoothanathan appeared at this point and tried to kidnap Sarojini but the intervention of Jayachandran and Chandrakumar saved her life. A scar on Chandrakumar’s back revealed his identity and the movie ends in the happy moment of a family reunion.
The story of the movie is, of course, very simple and it did not offer great contributions as per today’s standards. But it has to be remembered that the time was 1928 and Trivandrum under the rule of Princely State of Travancore was in transition towards colonial modernity. The land was a fragment of various bucolic villages, and films and such modern technological performances were a ‘luxury and surprising factor’ to Travancoreans. As well, the region was experiencing social issues with regard to reform movements in the field of caste, religion, morality, and socialization. It was at this time that Rosie was invited to perform the role of Sarojini, a Nair woman. Rosie was barely 25-years-old at the time of the movie. Born as Rosamma to Paulose and Kunjiin in the then untouchable caste of Pulaya, Rosie’s parents were daily laborers and converted Christians. She had a slave-like childhood and was a grass-cutter in her adolescence. In the caste structure of Travancore, the Pulaya community was considered to be polluting and therefore untouchables. J.C. Daniel, a dentist by profession, fixed Rosie as he could not find out anybody else to act in his movie. We must realize that while for a Nair woman performing the role of a character in a movie was a negative form of displacement from her superior position, for a Pulaya woman, the role of a Nair woman was an affirmative placement in colonial Travancore society. Acting in drama or movie was considered to be immoral by the then established standards of Travancore society and any upper caste woman’s attempt to do so would displace them as unchaste. Therefore, Rosie was chosen under these circumstances to avoid real displacement instead of affirmative placement. However, initially J.C. Daniel could not screen the movie in Trivandrum due to the lack of public sphere in Travancore and the concept of spatial displacement in Travancore was so strong that caste Hindus opposed the screening arguing that a Pulaya woman had acted in the film as a Nair woman. For them, screening of a movie with a Pulaya actress placed as a Nair woman was nothing but questioning the caste-patriarchal hegemony of Travancore society on the one hand and spreading the message of affirmative placement on the other. More pathetic, Rosie was not allowed to watch the movie as none could agree to sit with an untouchable outcaste women. While the movie was screened after very strenuous efforts, a particular scene irritated the caste-patriarchal fury of the audience. One scene presented that Rosie was keeping some flowers on her hair and Jayachandran kissing those flowers on her hair. This particular part of the movie was taken as a negative displacement of social norms by the already irritated audience, who were now more annoyed by the fact that the whole idea of movie was aimed at displacing what was ideal to their hearts. We need to enquire why caste-patriarchal fury was not turned towards J.C. Daniel the director and producer of the movie. It could be because he was a member of a powerful community and an English-speaking doctor. Instead, the target of the caste-Hindu audience was Rosie, as they argued that by acting as a Nair woman she has displaced the customs of Travancore. Subsequently, Capitol Theatre in Trivandrum, where the movie was screened, was burnt down by the angry mob of Savarna Hindu audience. The movie screening turned out to be caste violence against the Pulayas; the hut of Rosie was burnt down, and she was spatially and physically displaced forever. It is believed that Rosie jumped onto a lorry, while the upper-caste crowd was trying to kill her. However, she has never appeared in public ever and nobody knows her whereabouts. There ends the life of Kerala’s first film actress – in displacement, pain and anonymity.
Almost a century has passed since the Rosie incident took place. Her life remained quite unknown until recently, when a movie named Celluloid presented her life story. What are the significant lessons that we learn from Rosie’s life? How can we articulate the concept of culture and Rosie’s attempt for an affirmative temporary placement in the light of tragedy that she experienced? Based on these questions, this paper examines the case of Rosie in the light of Johan Galtung’s theory of cultural violence. We see that Travancore’s modernized society and the whole movements for social reforms during this time redefined notions of spatial displacement in agreement with notions of caste, culture, and public sphere. Therefore, we may note that ‘public sphere’ in the typical European sense had been virtually absent in Travancore in the 1930s. Moreover, the tragedy faced by Rosie is a product of authoritarianism of established customs and patriarchal domination. Notions of spatial purity was at work in colonial Travancore and Rosie’s attempt for affirmative placement of her caste norms was targeted because in the patriarchal imagination of colonial Travancore, she dared to question the norms and customs established by the patriarchal society. She wanted to imitate a Nair woman and to be ‘displaced’ from her sanctioned role, which was unacceptable. More than caste, what is important here is the concept of spatial legitimacy in preserving social identities as static and concrete entities. In the spatial ‘displacement-placement’ discourse in Travancore, every member of society was assigned with particular spatial freedom. Their space was their life and any attempt to violate the spatial norms would bring displacement, as what Rosie had experienced. This is why the temporary placement of Rosie into a Nair woman irritated Travancore’s established social facts in the Durkheimian sense. In the upper caste ethos of Travancore society, women going for employment or for education were considered to be displaced from the established norms, and that explains why J.C. Daniel could not find anybody from upper castes to perform in the movie. This vacuum of upper caste actress was filled by Rosie. But this angered the upper caste people as her role-playing indicated that a Pulaya woman could transform into a Nair too, if situation demanded, even in the make-believe world of cinema. However, we must recognize that the mob who went on to watch the movie was already irritated and violent by the fact that an outcaste woman had dared to displace the whole social fabric of Travancore. The upper-caste society was violent, the audience that consisted of them was violent, and they were waiting for a spark to unleash their anger. Even if that particular scene was not shown, the irritated caste feeling and patriarchal hegemony would have resulted in the inhuman insult of Rosie.
Rosie and Colonial Modernity: Historical Background
What actually Rosie suffered can be traced in the light of Travancore’s history of social norms, based on concepts of spatial freedom, displacement, and individual identities. As Habermas has shown, industrial capitalist changes and the development of public sphere worked hand-in-hand with the formation of modernity in Europe since the time of industrial revolution. Whereas in Travancore, and of course in India as well, the diffusion of colonial and industrial capitalist notions did not succeed in creating a public sphere because the psychological norms of spatial freedom and displacement were orthodox and forceful in 1930s as well. This is why Rosie’s birth place, the remote princely state, in 1920s retained very orthodox notions of space, gender, and caste. It was ruled by princely rulers belonging to caste Hindu background and was mandatory for the state to care for the customs and practices of Brahmanical Hinduism. The incident of Rosie indicates the tip of an iceberg with regard to oppression of women and caste violence in Travancore. In other words, the whole debate of what happened to Rosie indicates the conflicts between changing notions of spatial freedom and orthodoxy of pre-colonial psychological conditions. Moreover, the brutal incident orchestrated by patriarchic caste-Hindu sections in 1928 reflects the unchanging attitude towards women and untouchable in one of the ‘most advanced states’ in British India. It is also interesting to note that Travancore had already experienced the first and second wave of socio-religious reform movements by 1920s. In addition, a very strong communist movement and labor movements had been in operation throughout Travancore in 1920s. What the incident of Rosie indicates is the lacuna in both socio-religious reform movements and the communist movements in not addressing the caste question.
In recorded history, the breast-cloth rebellion of 1840s can be cited as the first example of anti-caste struggle for spatial freedom and affirmative placement in Travancore. In fact, the breast-cloth rebellion had been the result of a combined effort by colonial missionary engagements, modern education and the assertions of Nadar/Channar community to get dignity and a respectable place in social order. By 1830s, Travancore society had produced a good number of English-educated people consisting of converted and non-converted outcastes, along with caste Hindus. For these educated people, who were ‘displaced’ from the conventional social order by virtue of their education, certain restrictions imposed upon their women were demeaning in the changed circumstances and the seed of breast-cloth rebellion can be traced back to this social situation. Similarly, the diffusion of European moral concepts started to replace the caste-dominated moral codes of Travancore by 1830s and such transitions were also reflected in the breast-cloth rebellion. Samathwa Samajam (Society for Equality) was already established by Vaikunta Swamikal in 1836, six years after Ram Mohun Roy’s Brahmo Samaj. While Ram Mohun argued for monotheism mixed with Vedantic thought, Vaikunta Swamikal organized the Samathwa Samajam for equality among all classes and castes. It was in this period that the Shannar/Nadar women of south Travancore organized themselves with the help of colonial missionaries to protest against the custom that compelled them to keep bare-breast in public places. In Travancore, it was customary for women belonging non-Brahmin and non-Kshatriya communities to not wear clothes above their bosoms, as a permanent marker of their conventional displacement and spatial restrictions. After a prolonged struggle for months, the Channars/Nadars succeeded in obtaining the royal proclamation allowing Channar/Nadar women to cover their bosoms.
Men and women belonging to the Pulaya community were considered untouchables and slaves in Travancore. Their freedom was limited to the hut and its vicinity. In terms of spatial freedom, they were displaced onto the margins of mainstream society as it was assumed that their very sight would pollute the upper castes. Until the abolition of Uzhiyam (free labour) and slavery in Travancore in 1812, Pulaya men and women along with children could be sold or bought in the markets. It was such that in the later parts of 19th century, Mahatma Ayyankali (1863-1941), a prominent leader from the Pulaya community tried to reform the community and get certain rights for the members of the community. These rights included the right to walk on public roads and the right to wear ornaments. The right to walk on public roads was linked to the question of spatial freedom and to the displacement-placement debate. But there is no point to think that Ayyankali’s effort could radically democratize Travancore society and transcend it towards a pro-Dalit social consciousness. Community/caste structure in Travancore, just like any other parts of India, had intra-caste notions which produces superiority-inferiority dialectic from each caste directed towards the superior and subordinate castes. This is what actually resulted in the incident of Rosie, as she belonged to the most backward Pulaya community, because caste movements and the general public in 1930s did not take her sufferings as a serious issue. It has been seen as ‘normal’ that a displaced outcaste woman is punished for trying an affirmative placement. This negation of Rosie incident as ‘normal’ is visible because in 1924, socio-religious reform movements in Travancore had organized a massive strike before the Vaikkom temple for right to get entry on public road near the temple for all communities. While the Vaikom Satyagraha received nation-wide attention, including Mahatma Gandhi’s intervention, the Rosie incident attracted none. As a result, she vanished and was displaced forever.
In the 1920s, Travancore society was experiencing its transition towards modernity. But this transition to modernity in Travancore did not denote that existing social norms about spatial freedom and displacement were abandoned. On the contrary, in Travancore’s entry into modernity we may be able to find what can be termed as naturalization of violence. For example, if the 1840s anti-caste movements and breast-cloth rebellions freed the Nadar/Channar community from their earlier sufferings, the establishment of Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) organized Ezhavas into a dominant political class. However, the same social conditions which enabled the Ezhava community to rise to an elevated and safe position left the Pulaya as untouchables and displaced in 1930s as well.
Through the life sketch of Rosie, we get a completely different picture of movie industry and the notions of spatial freedom in the ‘most advanced model state’ of British India. Today, film actors and actresses are ‘holy men and women’ or ‘stars’ in Kerala as well, just like in other parts of India. Rosie may be the first and most profound exception to the cult of fans and their heroes/heroines. She acted not for money, not for fame, not for recognition but for an affirmative placement from the torturing culture of violence that surrounded her people. We don’t know whether Rosie knew that she would not be accepted as an actress and caste-patriarchy of Travancore would not recognize her in ‘their spaces’. She might have enjoyed while acting because she could never ever imagine that she would get a chance to dress like an upper-caste woman. She paid for that, and that explains the history of British India’s most progressive state’s entry into modernity.
The Rosie episode reminds that life was not easy for a Dalit woman in colonial Travancore in 1930s as well. While the numerous waves of socio-religious reform movements and the spread of communist movements are celebrated even today as factors responsible for Kerala’s modernization and success in various level of life in independent India, what exactly these movements ensured regarding questions of spatial freedom, recognition, and displacement in the region remain unanswered. Today, Travancore or Kerala society has transformed rapidly, but the vestiges of these forces still remain as ‘new incidents of many other new Rosies’ are reported in the state. It shows that social hegemony and established norms of displacements cannot be overpowered by socio-reform movements, communist political activism, colonial economy or technological advances in the Indian context. We need to re-address the issue with very serious rethinking on our pattern of social consciousness.
Dr. Vineeth Mathoor has finished his PhD on Travancore’s social history from JNU New Delhi and at present he teaches at the Post-Graduate Department of History, N.S.S. Hindu College, Changanacherry, Kerala. His areas of interest include missionary activity, colonial modernity, and cultural history.
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