Life after film

J Devika | Updated on January 19, 2018
Reel and real Kanchanamala (right) with actor Parvathy who portrayed her on screen in

Reel and real Kanchanamala (right) with actor Parvathy who portrayed her on screen in "Ennu Ninte Moideen". Photo: S Ramesh Kurup

A still from

A still from "Ennu Ninte Moideen"

The immense agency that love can confer on the merely mortal is the true protagonist in the tale of Kanchanamala and Moideen

I was standing by the road at Tirur in north Kerala one morning, when a friendly-looking taxi driver approached me. “Just 25 km from here,” he said. “Want to go see Kanchanamala?” He was referring to Kerala’s Kanchanamala, whose story of undying love is now a legend of sorts, mainly because of Ennu Ninte Moideen, the wildly-successful Malayalam film based on it. The tale of star-crossed lovers is timeless. But at a time of Hindu right-wing ascendancy, this film, based on the tragic real-life story of love and longing between a young Hindu woman, Kanchanamala, and BP Moideen, the son of a powerful Muslim elder in the village of Mukkam in Kozhikode, proved particularly fascinating for Malayalis. Kanchanamala and Moideen are separated from each other, but they resist family and community pressures for decades. When they finally decide to leave the village together, the river takes him. Moideen drowns in the Iruvazhinji river in a canoe accident, while trying to save his co-passengers. The distraught Kanchanamala attempts suicide but Moideen’s mother embraces her; she finds life again, animated by his memory, and devoted to serving the poor in Mukkam. The real-life Kanchanamala continues to live in Mukkam and her home now buzzes with awe-struck visitors.

There can be little doubt that it is the violence of the present that has endowed the film with such great healing power for so many cine-goers. How can one forget that the viciously divisive talk of ‘love jihad’, which accuses young Muslim men of luring away young Hindu women, originated in the Kerala of our times? Ennu Ninte Moideen instead offers a tale of passion — in which passion lies precisely in the boundless determination with which the lovers affirm their undying need for each other. The immense agency that love can confer on the merely mortal is the true protagonist of this tale. Set in the 1960s and ’70s, the story harks back to a period that evokes deep nostalgia in many Malayalis, a time when individuals were not so closely swept up in the rising tide of community identities. Many have remarked that Ennu Ninte Moideen counters the discourse of ‘love jihad’ and the freezing of community identities that deeply disempower the young today. Of course, Hindu-Muslim romances are not unknown on the Indian screen. But this story reverses narratives in which the hero who represents resistance to communalism and embodies secularism is almost always Hindu, and the heroine, who the hero must ‘rescue’, is most frequently non-Hindu. Yet such analyses may be seriously mistaken, given the Hindu right-wing’s preoccupation in the present with the ‘good Muslim’ (the figure of Moideen certainly approximates to that), and its distaste of imagining an inter-faith domestic scene in which the Muslim-born man may be the head of the household.

Therefore, for me, the movie is valuable for the way in which it declares love as the merger of two individual lives, impossible. It simultaneously gestures towards the possibility of a greater love enabling movement and not inertia — love as sneham, or lubrication, two proximate surfaces in harmonious, friction-free movement relative to each other. This is love in which sexual attraction may indeed be secondary. In other words, the exact opposite of two surfaces sticking to each other. It is the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick who captures Kanchanamala’s love most accurately. In her A Dialogue on Love, she writes:

“For me, what falling in love means is different. It’s a matter of suddenly, globally, “knowing” that another person represents your only access to some vitally

transmissible truth

or radiantly heightened

mode of perception,

and that if you lose the thread of this intimacy, both your soul and your whole world might subsist forever in some desert-like state of ontological impoverishment.”

Also, to me, the fascinating presence of water — as monsoon rain and the ever-flowing Iruvazhinji — was the truly poetic element in the film. As Gaston Bachelard has remarked, there is something about water that draws us to the infinite. And water in Ennu Ninte Moideen is flowing, falling — not the stagnant pool in the bosom of which the dead may sleep forever, or the mirror which holds us in thrall, offering us our own image. It is the flowing water that imparts tragic finality to the impossibility of love-as-merger.

No wonder that she clings to his memory even as the river of time flows by. I do not know if the real-life Kanchanamala experienced such love, but I hope she did!

At Tirur, I was struck by the taxi-driver’s assumption of the shared knowledge of Kanchanamala, but what rushed into my mind was his choice of words: ‘see’ rather than ‘meet’. In order to become saleable, Kanchanamala’s love must be reduced to ‘romance’. Only then may she become the object attached to it, an emblem, a talisman. Worse, the waters of the Iruvazhinji are being carried away by visitors in bottles as souvenirs! Alas, do these foolish souls realise that they will see in the trapped water not love but their own images, stilled forever?

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on February 12, 2016

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