SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Kathanar magic

SLICE OF LIFE

V.GANGADHAR

Kathanar magic

WHEN my eldest sister and her husband visited us, they did not want to be disturbed for half-an-hour from 9.30 p.m. They sat glued in front of the television watching their favourite serial on "Asianet" channel five times (now six) a week. The Malayalam serial was called "Kadamatathu Kathanar".

It was my first introduction to a Malayalam serial based on the exploits of a Catholic priest. I was told that a Kathanar (priest) did exist at a place called Kadamattam in Kerala. On the screen, the priest cut a fine figure.

Kathanar was a do-gooder. In the first few episodes he was shown fighting evil practitioners of magic. One had sacrificed many young girls to acquire supreme power. Of course, he was thwarted by the superior magical powers of Kathanar.

In the loud title song, Kathanar was referred to as "Mandrigan" and performed several miracles. The first few episodes I saw were badly photographed, reminding me of scenes from Ramanand Sagar's "Ramayan". The evil men created huge and ugly monsters destroyed by the Kathanar.

My sister told me that the serial was enormously popular in Kerala and I found it hard to believe. How did the people of the most literate state in India believe in miracles and mumbo-jumbo? The female ghosts in the serial always wore white, were quite good looking but laughed in the most irritating manner. Kerala was presented as a feudal state where the rich and the landowners held sway, getting away with murder and torture. There were no policemen or authorities. The poor were cruelly exploited and had none to turn for help, till Kathanar came along.

As I watched the serial regularly, it was clear that it did have something to offer besides the childish magic, ghosts and demons. Some of the terrestrial villains were more menacing than their celestial counterparts, cruelly exploiting the labourers, landless peasants and fisher folk. Now the serial appeared to have a focus. Haunted houses, phantom women and Draculas appeared and disappeared. But, for several episodes, Kathanar camped at a fishing village and took on the exploiters who were preying on poor fishermen. The priest now became a social reformer, fighting injustice and exploitation. And he continued to do this with his "divine" powers.

Obviously, this was the message of the serial. It showed supernatural power being used to combat greed, lust and villainy. Katharar's presence and personality were certainly impressive. Though a Catholic priest, his adventures stressed the secular character. He helped anyone who came to seek his help.

Why do educated Keralites and the rest watch the serial? In the fight between goodness and evil, we all want the former to win. Kathanar symbolises goodness. Secondly, in a world where George Bushes, Togadias and Narendra Modis are thriving, we need someone like him. When the law of the land fails to check such men, who can do it? Only saints like Kathanars.

I would not mind Mumbai and the rest of the country getting a sample of Kathanar's exploits. He could solve the Cauvery water dispute, provide water to Punjab and Haryana, solve the mystery behind Priyamvada Birla's will and untangle the Ram temple issue. Kathanar's secular approach in refreshing contrast to the outburst of men like the VHP stalwart, B.P. Singhal, who recently condemned the Christian community of being interested only in conversion. A dose of Kathanar magic could put the Singhals in their place.