Written by M.T. Vasudevan Nair and directed by Azad, the film was the first to capture the realities of Gulf migration, setting the stage for a new wave influenced by the expatriate experience

Vilkkanundu Swapnangal (1980), written by M. T. Vasudevan Nair, directed by Azad, shot partially in Sharjah and Dubai, was the first Malayalam film to be shot on location in the Gulf. The film begins with the protagonist Rajan (played by Sukumaran) making his way to the Gulf through undocumented means, in a dhow. He is accompanied by many others, and not all of them make it to the fabled land of gold. The voiceover at the beginning of the film introduces the movie to be the story of young men who left for the western shores of the Arabian Sea.

We were always attracted to the idea of a place which yielded gold. Once upon a time it was Ceylon; then Malaya. In the last decade there were rumours going round the western shores, of a land, where, if you could somehow reach there even if you had to sell off your house, you would be rescued (you would prosper). For thousands of youth there was now a dream to nurture — Dubai!

A tale of upward mobility

The protagonist Rajan, in his initial days in Dubai, is told that the Gulf has its own share of problems, like unemployment, and is quite similar to Kerala in that manner. ‘When we land up at home with all our boxes of goodies, people think we lead such luxurious lives here’, says one of the characters early in the film, contrasting it with what he sees around him, their packed dorms and frugal ways. Even so, the film depicts the life of the protagonist to be a constant movement towards greater heights of riches and opulence. It is a tale of upward mobility for him. The sparse and oppressive landscapes which greet us early in the film grades up into high rises and spacious living rooms.

We see that the landscape of the Gulf changes along with the changes in the protagonist’s station in life. The glitzy cityscape of the Gulf is produced along the progress of the migrant labouring body. Rajan, who had come to the Gulf unable to bear the insults he was heaped with back home, including the accusation of being a thief, is now able to build a spacious house for himself in Kerala exactly where their former wretched house stood. While he enjoys his new-found respect at home, the movie ends with him having to return to the Gulf, unable to belong to his village.

Vilkkanundu Swapnangal thematizes many of the social fantasies in Kerala around Gulf migration. The space of the Gulf is presented as a space of strife but also that of fantastic mobility for those who didn’t have any means to go on in Kerala. M. T. Vasudevan Nair, a formidable name in Malayalam literature known for his novels such as Naalukettu and Asuravithu (Demon Seed) which thematizes the fall of the former landlords, combines the tragedy of the fall of the former order with the rise of a new breed of rich men who have made their money outside one’s view, who have access to illicit comforts in that strange land, and who are disrespectful of the social custom. In the movie one also hears about the newly mobile Mappilas preying on the fallen times of the former landlords and are buying up the land at bargain rates. The space of Kerala after the migration is a space of social churning. The rise of the migrant in this social–realistic space of strife both at home and away imbues it with a greater force of fantasy.

Gulf as an illegitimate source of wealth

By the 1980s the Gulf had become a prime source of funding for Malayalam movies. As the Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema notes, “The 80s is Kerala are marked by the ‘Gulf money’ remitted by expatriate workers, spawning a ‘newly rich’ consumerist sector and fostering a lumpenised urban mass culture.” Ratheesh Radhakrishnan draws a link between the sudden astronomic spurt in the number of Malayalam movies produced from the mid-1970s (to mid-1980s) and the influx of Gulf money.

Though this be the case, after Vilkkanundu Swapnangal, the Gulf as a diegetic space was absent in Malayalam cinema until the late 1990s, though references to the Gulf, verbal as well as in terms of props, abound in Malayalam cinema of the period. As Radhakrishnan notes, it was in the formal features rather than in the thematic space that the Gulf made an appearance. On the one hand the influence of the Gulf was evident in the rich sets which marked the commercial Malayalam cinema of the time. “The new economy was marked using objects that clearly had a semiotic link with the Gulf, including clothing of the latest fashion, fancy watches, transistor radios, sunglasses, suitcases, gold bars which were called ‘gold biscuits’ and through narratives of mobility.”

A condensed rendering of this can be seen in Visa (Balu Kiriyath, 1983) where the migrant who has returned from the Gulf is shown surrounded by such riches — wrist watch, perfumes, gold — that can only be termed consumerist fantasy at a time when India had a state-regulated market with heavy import duties. On the other, the art cinema (understood to be the Other of commercial cinema) produced the Gulf as an illegitimate source of wealth. The sea and its shores were the arenas of smuggling, and as the moral of the movie would have it, crime never pays.

Gulf as a diegetic space in Malayalam cinema

The 1980s saw the struggle over the definition of Malayalam cinema and a new aesthetic of cinema, called the ‘middlebrow’ or ‘middle cinema’ (madhyavarthi) assuming hegemony. “The genre of movies called madhyavarthi cinema was ubiquitously staged as a genre of quality, in-between films which defied some of the cinematic conventions of both Malayalam kachavada (commercial) and kala (art) cinemas and self-consciously indulged in new film practices, carefully developed through principles of adaptation and refusal.”

The middle cinema of the 1980s and early 1990s, in its bid to formulate an aesthetic which was opposed to commercial cinema and its gaudiness, shaped an austere look which while deploying star bodies and songs — two staples of commercial cinema —moulded these to fit its understating style. This bid to create a regional-specific genre of cinema derided the migrant as a threat to this universe. In these films, the migrant and his new-found wealth threatened to destabilize families, buy out their land, dissolve their families, and occupy spaces they weren’t meant to.

After Vilkkanundu Swapnangal, the Gulf would start appearing as a diegetic space in Malayalam cinema only towards the late 1990s. As multiple crises beset the Malayalam film industry, the 1980s would be recalled as the golden era of Malayalam cinema. A marginal film movement, associated with the name of Salam Kodiyathur, would ride on the back of the digital technological leap of the late 1990s to attempt a reconciliation between the 1980s film ethic and a Gulf migrant point of view.

Excerpted from The Gulf Migrant Archives in Kerala: Reading Borders and Belonging by Mohamed Shafeeq Karinkurayil, with permission from Oxford University Press

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