Vigathakumaran (1928) was the first Malayalam film. The silent film was J.C Daniel’s directorial debut who cast PK Rosy as the lead heroine. History may not have remembered her, but she was the first leading lady, also the first Dalit woman actor to star in a feature film.
In the early 20th century, the society in Kerala was highly casteist with patriarchal forces in full swing. In the nascent stage of Indian Cinema, it was not common to have female actors. In fact, the task of finding a woman actor was so daunting and almost next to impossible that many directors in the early films cast men to play the female lead. Raja Harishchandra (1913), the first Indian film is an example of this.
Daniel also faced a similar situation, no woman in Kerala was ready to act in a film, which was a public and visible space. Acting as a profession for a woman was looked down upon, and stigmatised, labeling them as a woman of loose morals.
Daniel initially cast a woman actor from Bombay and even shot a few scenes of the film with her. Not happy with the performance, he began hunting for a replacement, which he found in Rosy, who was already by then performing for Tamil Dalit theatre.
It was a big leap of faith on Daniel’s part to cast a talented Dalit woman, that too, to play the role of an upper-caste woman, Sarojni. At the same time, it was a courageous decision for Rosy too as she decided to pursue the opportunity despite knowing about the challenges she would have to face later on only too well.
At the film’s screening at the Capitol theatre, the audience refused to watch the film in the presence of a woman who was from the Pulaya community, which is classified as a scheduled caste. In an era when casteist sentiments were high and practiced with strict religiosity, it was unthinkable for these men to be in the presence of ‘lowly caste’. Unable to mask their discontent, the ravaging audiences took to stone-pelting and condemned Rosy and her family to a witch hunt.
The enraged men hunted down Rosy and her family, attacked them, and burnt their hut house to the ground.
This ostracisation forced Rosy to flee the state to Tamil Nadu, where she changed her identity, and lived a life of obscurity.
She ventured into a realm as public as the movie screen at a time when most women would stay away. She dared to break free from her caste-barriers and carved an identity based on her talent. Despite the social baggage that Rosy carried, she pursued her passion for acting tirelessly.
She was reportedly a grass cutter. Encouraged by her uncle to pursue her interest in acting which grew at a very young age, she always insisted on going for rehearsals for performing arts.
Against her grandfather’s wishes, she joined a theatre company called Thycaud in Thiruvananthapuram, where she began to live as well.
Unfortunately, the violence that she faced didn’t allow her story to turn out into a fairy tale, and somewhere her courageous story was shown the door.
She became a victim of caste and patriarchal forces and was shunned from society. Her first and the only film, probably destroyed or lost with time, is an irretrievable loss for the cinema at large.
So, when a woman cinema collective in Kochi decided to create a film society, they dedicated it to PK Rosy and named it after her.
On a Facebook post, the WCC wrote, “This act of naming our film society as PK Rosy Film Society is a humble attempt to be sensitive and to take note of all those who have been excluded from dominant cinema histories through their gender, caste, religious or class locations, and our own imagination, and have been brought to light by many scholars, historians, and activists.”
The film society is open to all, but only women can be qualified to be members.
According to Indie filmmaker Don Palathara, “The activities of a film society depend on its members. One thing I have noticed in several film societies in Kerala is male domination. PK Rosy Film Society would also be hijacked by men if they start allowing male members. So, the move to keep it exclusively for women is positive.”
A small step towards a greater fight, the PK Rosy film society aims at initiating conversations that can address the issues around ostracism, misogyny, and stereotyping. At the same time, this endeavour is their way to pay homage to the unsung story of a very courageous and talented artist.
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