Embedded in the title of Sakhavu, the Malayalam movie in praise of communism in the times of Trump, Modi and Erdogan, is a code. In communist parties in Kerala, only a few larger than life figures take the prefix Sakhavu, meaning comrade. One of the founding fathers of the party, P Krishna Pillai, was just that, Sakhavu.

After smartly planting a memory trigger in the title, the makers of the Nivin Pauly starrer serve a heady mix of nostalgia and emotions, with posters taking after old Soviet art, music from early communist propaganda plays, and a lot of communist mythology. Things seem to have worked for them.

Sakhavu tells the story of new-generation communist Krishnakumar, a student leader who is a ruthless and corrupt climber. He meets Sakhavu Krishnan, whose life story is revealed to him by various people in a series of flashbacks. Inspired by Sakhavu’s story, the young despicable wannabe turns into a good communist.

Sakhavu (2017).

In the 1940s and ’50s, when leftism was a dominant idea in Kerala, it was theatre and literature, more than films, which were the major mediums of propagation. The All India People’s Theatre Conference in 1943 gave birth to a robust left-oriented theatre movement in many Indian languages. Bijon Bhattacharya’s Nabanna in Bengali, Desasathi in Marathi and or Prarambham in Telugu were some of the popular plays of that period.

The left theatre movement’s greatest success in the state, both in terms of reach and legacy, was the Malayalam play Ningalenne Communistakki (You made me a communist), presented by the Kerala People’s Arts Club for the first time in 1952. The play was staged more than a thousand times and was proscribed many times. Like modern-day flash mobs, the actors would assemble from nowhere at appointed places, stage the play and melt into the crowds before the police could catch them. Ningalenne Communistakki played an important role in preparing the ground for the first communist government in Kerala.

Back then, Kerala was one of the poorer and most grossly iniquitous states. In 1951, the decennial population growth of what later became Kerala was almost double that of India. In 1957, 3% of the population owned 42% of Kerala’s land holdings. Kerala was transformed by land reforms initiated by the first communist government and carried on by subsequent governments, greater investment in health and education, and good governance – governments were kept on their toes by an intelligent electorate that alternated them in almost every election. Migration to the Gulf came later, but that sustained and accelerated the growth.

Communist parties could not escape the changes. Their last debate about the nature of the Indian bourgeois or the strategy for the revolution occurred way back in the early ’60s, when the party split into the dominant Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the vestigial parent body, the Communist Party of India. On the other side, the Congress, shorn of its nationalist and Gandhian past, stitched up communal coalitions, and their leaders were perceived as more interested in feathering their own nests.

The political class, as a whole, was gentrified, with a serious disjoint with the lofty slogans they mouthed and the way they lived.

Cinema for the people

Malayalam films closely followed the political narrative while cherry-picking what would sell in the market and what would be hidden. Early movies, including remakes of KPAC plays such as Ningalenne Communistakki and adaptations from the progressive literature of the ’50s, were sympathetic to communist ideology.

The caricaturisation of political parties, especially of those donning red hues, started in a big way in 1991 with Sandesam (The Message), which attacked the hypocrisy of politicians on both sides of the divide. Even more than 25 years after its release, the movie’s pithy dialogue is quoted by Malayalis. It was an assault on the political system, and critics panned it for advocating apolitical naivety.

The next round of political movies saw the rise of the macho upper caste Hindu heroes (typically played by Mohanlal or Suresh Gopi) with vermilion marks on their foreheads and mouthing punch dialogue. They told tales of vendetta, or of reviving village temple festivals. Canny filmmakers probably anticipated Hindutva – a new, saffron dimension to Kerala politics.

Sandesam (1991).

During this period, the CPM was witnessing an internal feud between warhorse VS Achuthanandan and the party strongman Pinarayi Vijayan. The struggle for dominance was neatly constructed by a generally hostile media as one between a good old communist and a ruthless and ambitious new-generation leader. This binary played out in many movies such as Oru Arabi Katha (An Arabian Story), in which the villain’s body language and articulation left nothing to imagination – they were unmistakably Vijayan’s.

During the period, only a few movies, such as Neythukaran (The Weaver), an allegorical tale about EMS Namboodiripad’s life, were sympathetic to the communist cause. Some of Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s movies, such as Mukhamukham (Face to Face) critiqued the party in a non-partisan way.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Mukhamukham (1984).

Sakhavu is another movie in the binary tradition. Its in-your-face communism is deceptive – the actual message is that communists are no good any more. Its template is borrowed from proto-Hindutva movies of the ’90s. If in Narasimham (The Man-lion) Mohanlal fought his enemies with Shiva’s dance chant on the soundtrack and incendiary images on the screen, so did the senior comrade in this movie. The old comrade, packing off enemies in a fight scene despite a half-paralysed body is a take-off on Mohanlal in Ravanaprabhu (Lord Ravana), another of his macho films.

Sakhavu’s climax, in which the elder and younger communists battle encroachers at a tea garden, is the mother of all ironies. Even as the movie was running to packed houses, news channels were playing a clip of MM Mani, the CPM strongman and a minister from Idukki, the tea garden district of Kerala, profusely abusing officers for carrying out an anti-encroachment drive. Neither reality nor the movie is helping the communists.

Nothing more needs to be read into the recent spate of pro-communist movies. Filmmakers are only finding new ways to capture the audience’s passing fancy. For now, there is no rise of a new red star over Kerala.