ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Dalit Body in a Brahminical World

The life and work of Kalabhavan Mani, the Malayalam actor who passed away recently, reminds us how film narratives are far too bound by upper-caste, middle-class desires, dreams and biases.

How does one describe a rare phenomenon in Indian cinema like Kalabhavan Mani, who passed away recently? Very seldom has a Dalit film actor-singer like him commanded such popularity and a large fan following anywhere else. His unfortunate death at the age of 45 marks the exit of a great actor, singer and performer who couldn’t find his place in a casteist cinema world like ours. Why did a brilliant, multitalented actor like Mani not get his rightful due in Malayalam cinema, which is otherwise known for its social outlook and thematic diversity? This question has dark ramifications in post-Rohith Vemula India, where Dalit excellence and agency are systematically denied even acknowledgement, let alone recognition.

Kalabhavan Mani’s career was very short and spanned only two decades, yet his presence as an actor and, more popularly, as a singer, was indomitable and inimitable. In his first major film appearance (Sallapam/1995), Mani plays a toddy tapper who taunts and harasses the heroine by singing suggestive songs. One scene depicts a gathering of the village heads discussing the music programme planned for the upcoming festival. One elder is particularly sarcastic: “Should a toddy tapper sing? Can you imagine how good it will sound?”

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