As a cinema-loving adult, one of my most vivid childhood memories is of going to watch the film My Dear Kuttichathan as a 5-year old in Palakkad’s Aroma theatre. The fantasy movie, directed by Jijo Punnoose, a man who was way ahead of his time, made history as India’s first 3D film. Kuttichathan was a hero for many a child in 1980s Kerala, especially since the film shows how the demigod in the form of an adolescent boy used his powers for good.
Almost 39 years later, looking back at this film, one cannot help but be amazed with not just how well it was produced at that time.
Thanks to the film, Kuttichathan was looked upon in a very positive manner by the wider public in the 1980s. However, a century earlier, the demigod, who is a part of Malabar’s celebrated folklore, received a great degree of negative publicity, especially in the Western world. An anonymous journalist writing for the now-defunct Madras Weekly Mail in 1896 made the demigod out to be a demon.
'Demonolatry' in Malabar
The article titled “Devil-Worship in Malabar” found its way to the United States and New Zealand after it was published in India, giving the Western audience its first glimpse of this legend. The journalist claimed the “great bulk” of the people of Malabar were immersed in “demonolatry” that was allegedly introduced to the region by Parasurama.
Editors of newspapers in Western countries would have most likely thought that the article was appealing for a religious and puritanical readership in their countries. The journalist wrote, “A proficient durmantravadi is the possessor of many evil powers of witchcraft, sorcery and magic, and has at his beck and call, as it were, a good many low, malevolent imps, such as Chathen, Chamundi, Kodankali, Karinkali, etc, but the ordinary sorcerer is generally possessed of control over the first-named alone, who is however, as will be seen, sufficiently dangerous and destructive to satisfy the most cruel vengeance-seeker.” This was most certainly not the Kuttichathan of the 1984 film.
“Chathen, or Kutti-Chathen as he is familiarly called, from the fact that he is said to be, by those privileged to see him, a demon of very dwarfish stature, is not easily brought under control,” the article said. “The aspirant for this honour has to undergo a very rigid course of mantrams, based, I believe, on the Shastras, before he attains the coveted condition known as pratiyaskschum - the condition, that is, in which his very thought has power to bring Chathen before him to do his bidding.”
The article went on to say that some men had greater power over Kuttichathan than others and that magicians competed to control the “demon,” as the author put it.
It is obvious from this 1896 article that there were many stories and legends about Kuttichathan spreading across the Malabar region. “Again, it is related that possessing all the spirit of the wild schoolboy, the little demon will, in his master’s absence from home, go there and start playing havoc by throwing about the cooking pots and chattels, destroying them wantonly,” the article added.
Interestingly enough, there was a 1975 film titled Kuttichaathan, directed by Crossbelt Mani and starring K P Ummer. Whatever little information about the production that is available in the public domain suggests that it was a serious film for adults.
The 1896 article said that villagers from a house or area haunted by Kuttichathan would have to go and find a powerful sorcerer elsewhere who could come and set things straight. In some cases, when a magician would refuse to come, he would write a note on a palm leaf asking Kuttichathan to desist from his mischief. “The note would have to be taken and placed in some named spot in the haunted house, and as soon as this is done the annoyance ceases,” the journalist wrote.
The article also mentioned that Kuttichathan’s weakness was women! Apparently, a woman who the demigod fancied could command him without the usage of any mantras! There was also blame attributed to Kuttichathan for ruining marriages or causing problems for couples.
It’s hard to imagine now in 2023 that anyone in Malabar would believe in such stories, but such folklore is a very strong part of our cultural heritage. Over the past few decades, there has been a concerted effort to record and preserve these legends from different parts of Kerala. They make fascinating reading for those interested in the Malayali adult psyche.
For those who want their children to know about the legend of Kuttichathan, there will be always be that beautiful and benign film made by Jijo.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)