Digital Divide, Online Offense: Malayalee House, “Pandit Phenomenon” and Morality Debates in Contemporary Kerala
In this post, Darshana Sreedhar, one of the researchers who received the Social Media Research grant for 2014, introduces her proposed work.
My project looks at two contemporary phenomena in the Kerala mediascape—the emergence of the “Internet celebrity” Santhosh Pandit, and the recent reality TV show, Malayalee House, both of which have been amplified by the digital-social media’s potential to unsettle intended trajectories and uses of media circulation. In corollary, these have also inaugurated new ways of thinking about what it is to be a “media celebrity” in Kerala’s highly media saturated space which boasts of, among other things, more than ten 24 hour news channels. As opposed to political leaders, film-actors and sportspersons who mostly don the celebrity tag in the popular media, the Malayalam media has a different set of criteria that define a “media celebrity.” Here, the term “media celebrity” is used to refer to figures who get airplay either because they are implicated in sensational and controversial news items or are part of media phenomena which have the potential to go viral. It is in this zone of controversy that the two instances I want to interrogate find their place.
The first instance I look at is the emergence of Santhosh Pandit, a “film buff” turned “filmmaker” and his sudden popularity as an “Internet celebrity” through online platforms such as YouTube and Facebook. Till the release of the song of his debut film Krishnanum Radhayum (2011) , Santosh Pandit was relatively unknown among Malayalis, let alone the film community. Songs from this film went viral on Youtube, and Pandit soon found himself amidst serious allegations of producing “offensive” content for cheap publicity. But this one film inaugurated a trend of “digital low-budget” films, with more film enthusiasts joining the fray. However, Santosh Pandit’s films were distinct as he managed to handle almost all the major departments including story, script, direction, music, lyrics, fights, and editing and at the same time starred in the lead role as well. Moreover, these films mobilized a crowd of film aspirants who were willing to be part of any film production to kick-start their careers. The mainstream Malayalam cinema industry was harsh on Santosh Pandit for ignoring organizational and trade union affiliations and releasing the film directly on social media networks.
Pandit’s attempts to produce films with a shoe string budget of approximately Rs. 5 lakhs were seen by many as being reminiscent of the production models of the “Glamour Films” of film makers like K.S Gopalakrishnan in the 1980s and the soft-porn boom of the 1990s and 2000s. Crucially, the charge of “moral debauchery” that was leveled on these kinds of cinemas, also got mapped on to Santhosh Pandit’s films, marking it as an instance in which low production values were also seen as being symptomatic of “low” moral values. The sarcastic and often derisive comments on Youtube as well as the negative publicity paradoxically made Pandit a “celebrity,” giving him the sobriquet, “Pandit Phenomenon.” He soon became a much sought after “guest” in talk shows where his films were pitted against the commercial cinema and he was left to defend his stance against the bitter attacks of his co-panelists.
But Pandit’s “popularity” (if by this one means the number of hits or likes) in the social media paved way for the theatrical release of his films. This was a rare privilege for a low budget filmmaker who had no backup of any of the film-related organizations such as Association of Malayalam Movie Actors (AMMA) and the Kerala Film Producer’s Association, that have tight control over distribution and exhibition in the state. These films went on to have an unprecedented viewership, in spite of their kitschy quality and technical flaws, with the B-center theaters to back them . Therefore in one way, the “Pandit Phenomenon” has managed to unsettle the unwritten taste and class-based hierarchies inherent in the division of the film exhibition sphere into these categories. Crucially, this also accentuated the conflict between the Film Cine Exhibitors Association, (which is the organization of B- center theaters) and the Kerala Film Exhibitors’ Federation (A-center theaters) over the former’s sanction of what were seen to be essentially, “low quality” films.
The catch was that Pandit’s films attracted audiences, but his cinema was “interactive” in a different sense. His films elicited participatory response in unique ways, with audiences responding to his films with jeers and verbal abuses. There was a peculiar kind of a relay between the audience and the “star” here, as Pandit has himself admitted that his films are deliberate spoofs of mainstream cinema. For instance, one of the allegations against Pandit has been that his films and videos featured young girls, possibly school-going girls, hinting at a subtext of “unacceptable” inter-generational eroticism. Pandit’s response however, has been that if one looks at the conventions of mainstream Malayalam cinema, the practice of casting younger females opposite much older male superstars such as Mamooty and Mohanlal is an accepted norm.
If the coming of Santhosh Pandit into the limelight has unveiled latent tensions within the Malayalam film industry’s commercial models and accepted norms of “hero-dom”, then the second instance also takes engages a similar debate over taste and propriety with the telecast of Malayalee House (see the above video), a recent reality TV show in 2013. Telecast by Surya TV, one of Kerala’s many Malayalam satellite channels, Malayalee House’s structuring principle was to inaugurate debates on normative “Malayali-ness” by placing its participants under a constant, televised surveillance. Publicized as a Malayalam edition of Bigg Boss, Malayalee House soon ran into controversy with the filing of the injunction at the Bombay High Court by Endemol Goup, the makers of Bigg Boss who alleged copyright infringement. This was followed by protests by women’s organizations and an outcry for “television censorship.” The making and telecast would leave the participants and the producers at loggerheads about the unsaid norms that govern the so-called “appropriate” content to be telecast during the prime time. More than a deployment of “electronic eyes” and voyeuristic gaze, Malayalee House was an attempt to push the limits of tolerance that Malayali society would have towards the open expression of intimacy and sexuality.
These two instances are interconnected on many levels, albeit in different ways. First and foremost, the discussions triggered off by these phenomena through platforms like Youtube, Facebook and Twittertook unexpected turns, when bitter critics and their conflicting views became partially responsible for the immense popularity they have managed to gather. Again, both these instances triggered off the memory of the Malayalam “soft porn” boom of the late 1990s. In fact, these events were seen as an extension of and an alleged return of “mulyachyuti” or immoral excess that soft porn ostensibly signified. Perhaps nothing encapsulates this better than the reference to Shakeela, arguably most famous soft-porn star of the 1990s in an internet meme about Malayalee House. The caption for this cartoon said “If there was only one Shakeela in the 1990s, there are many Shakeelas today in Malayalee House,” reinforcing how an ostensibly “modern” technologized form of media can reignite what are entrenched debates about morality and propriety in a given local situation. On the other hand, Santosh Pandit’s participation in Malayalee House (see the video below) and the popular support he managed to gather among the audience was such that despite being evicted by his housemates, Pandit was brought back to the show through a wild-card entry because of the protests from the audience.
The intersection between Malayalee House as a format that elicits cultural debate, and the “star” phenomenon of Santhosh Pandit is an indicator of how both these instances draw on a similar set of anxieties about both, forms of media and social life that feed into one another in Kerala’s essentially conflicted gender-scape and mediascape. The specific moment and the phenomena that I look at are crucial tangents that have mobilized certain strands of memory from a period of cultural production that has been consigned to collective amnesia. By referencing these past moments, the production and circulation of such media also affected the reception in social media platforms like Youtube and Facebook by creating alternative audio-visual economies. The participatory interfaces such platforms created initiated an active community of bloggers and social media users inscribing new meanings to the content.
 Biscoot Malayalam. 2013. Krishnanum Radhayum 2011 Malayalam Movie Full | Santosh Pandit | കൃഷ്ണനും രാധയും. April 25. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYkkV94WtVA.
 The theaters where films are exhibited are broadly divided into “A”,“B” and “C” centers. While the “A” center, otherwise known as the “Release center” has the privilege of screening the new films, “B” and “C” centre theatres have to wait till the films finish with the initial run in the “A” center theaters. There are many factors which culminate in the slotting of a particular theater into any one of these categories, of which the provision of the seating arrangements, capacity of the hall and most importantly the locality of the theater are the most crucial ones.