In the climactic scene of Vishnu Sasi Shankar’s film Malikappuram, its female protagonist, Kalyani, climbs the 18 stairs leading to the sanctum sanctorum of the Sabarimala temple, finally fulfilling her long-held desire to meet Ayyappan, the deity to which the pilgrimage site is dedicated. However, this is not a pathbreaking story about a woman making the trek to visit the deity in defiance of the social mores that prohibit women of menstruating age from entering the temple’s premises. Kalyani—known to all as Kallu and played by the child actor Deva Nandha—is eight years old, and her stubborn insistence on meeting Ayyappan is indulged by everyone she meets.
The film’s worldview becomes clear even before it starts. Among the many people thanked in the opening credits are the prime minister, Narendra Modi; the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s sarsanghchalak—supreme leader—Mohan Bhagwat; the RSS’s prant pracharak—provincial leader—for Kerala, S Sudarshan; the union minister of state for external affairs, V Muraleedharan; the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Kerala president, K Surendran; the veteran RSS and BJP leader and former governor of Mizoram, Kummanam Rajasekharan; the Kerala state president of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, Viji Thampi; the BJP’s former state spokesperson Sandeep Warrier; and the Hindutva activist Rahul Easwar, whose Ayyappa Dharma Sena played a key part in the protests against the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision to allow women of all ages to visit the temple. I tried hard, but failed, to recall another Malayalam film that had extended gratitude to the RSS, leave alone the entire slate of Sangh Parivar leaders in the state.
There have been a number of Malayalam films on Sabarimala, most notably the 1975 film Swami Ayyappan, starring the popular actors Sukumari, Srividya, Gemini Ganesan and Thikkurissy Sukumaran Nair. The film narrates the myth of Ayyappan’s birth and his adoption by the tenth-century Pandya dynasty. The deity is projected as a symbol of inclusivity because of his friendship with Vavar, a Muslim. Sabarimala is open to men of all backgrounds—unlike other popular temples in Kerala, which explicitly ban the entry of non-Hindus and, before the Travancore government’s Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936, prohibited Bahujans from even approaching them—but not to women of menstruating age. In Swami Ayyappan, a man asks an elderly pilgrim about the prohibition. The pilgrim repeats the oft-cited rationale that young women cannot visit the temple as Ayyappan is celibate. As if to emphasise the argument that female devotees are still encouraged, the film features a story about Ayyappan appearing in the guise of a snake charmer to protect a young girl from a snake during her pilgrimage.