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Migrations Into Servitude: 
From Kerala to Saudi in Kamal's Malayalam Film, Gadhama


image attribution:

image attribution:

Shreerekha Pillai Subramanian

The southernmost state of India, one of twenty-nine states recognized by the modern nation-state along with seven union territories, Kerala houses the fourth-largest film industry that is also given the moniker, Mollywood, or Malayalam cinema. Known for its thoughtful neo-realist portrayals of the travails of ordinary people, deeply influenced by the political culture of a state that elected communist party as its ruling party for decades, Malayalam cinema enfolds within its screen the simulacrum of a world that mourns its lost ideals, past, and an ever-receding landscape that is now known more than ever for its devastating loss of wetlands and desertification of its tropical soil. From its earliest era, Malayalam cinema staged a filmic narrative that went against the dominant trend of simply entertaining the masses, but worked a political lever at educating and politicizing them as well. Several films in this tradition have gained notice in world film festivals and prestigious awards such as Chemmeen (1965), Elippathayam (1982), Vanaprastham (1999) and Adaminte Makan Abu (2011), to name a few. The first Malayalam film - JC Daniel’s Vigathakumaran/The Lost Child (1929) - predated the constitution of the state of Kerala (1956) by a good twenty-seven years; evidence perhaps, that the artistic imaginary has always foregrounded the political in Kerala. Film scholars have long contended with the polyphony and the many regions encoded within the syntactic and geographic imaginaries evoked by Malayalam.[1] What are the many texts and sensuous subtexts haunting this imaginary?[2] How is gender and subalternity an always-already erased other within the socially sensitive neo-realism of Malayalam cinema’s diegetic space?[3]

From its origins to its “Golden Age” in the 1980s, Malayalam cinema has not only pioneered  realist techniques of social representation, it has also kept its ear to the ground and accorded primacy to the plight of the common person, often focusing on unemployment, and the concomitant desire to leave one’s homeland due to economic insecurity. As Adam Bingham notes in his sweeping study of Malayalam cinema, “One must contend with the fact that, arguably, a more committed and socially conscious, verisimilar cinema cannot be found anywhere in India.”[4] In this article, I undertake a close study of the Malayalam film Gadhama, commenting on the long shadow of capital and the subject’s experience of capital as lack in order to read its imagination of the conditions and resistance of dispossessed and uprooted migrant workers, especially female domestic servants in Saudi Arabia. Each representation of the female servant, the migrant worker from Kerala, the community of struggling South Asians in Riyadh, and other cities in Saudi can be unpacked as metonymic statements on migration and exile for South and Southeast Asian workers in the larger more complex site identified as the Middle East. In representing the condition of migrant laboring classes within the framework of a vernacular cinematic tradition, this paper argues that the film draws attention to the protagonist’s state of dispossession, exploitation and exile. As such, it opens radical potentialities and quotidian foreclosures that merit critical analysis in our contemporary moment.



With over a quarter of its population spread over the Middle East and the Global North, Kerala has reckoned for decades with diaspora and nostalgia. Some recent Malayalam films, in tacit homage to an older tradition have self-consciously distanced themselves from the bombast of reality television and the cacophonous soundbites of corporate sponsorship to create a tradition of “new cinema”[5] in Kerala. Malayalam cinema has been historically interested in questions of the personal/political, religious/secular, gender, caste, and nation in ways that mainstream cinematic traditions of India have elided, in their incessant productions of noisome love stories and maudlin domestic dramas. I focus here on one such countervailing effort: the Malayalam film Gadhama (2011) directed by Kamal. The film defies market pressure and big budget profiteering to reflect critically on significant themes in modernity such as nation, border, and gender, all in the shadow of capital.

Imagining the Middle East, in particular the oil-rich consortium of emirates has been an ongoing project in my life. Since the 1970s, I have known family relatives distant and near who made big money and transformed their homesteads in natal lands as a result of the “foreign exchange advantage” of the riyal or dinar that go a longer way in the informal economy of the hawala, a system of currency transfer and remittance established between individuals based mostly on trust, rather than banks and other formal channels of currency flow.[6] Like the Bolivian miners in Taussig’s study who continue to resist and remember their former selves as they mine literally locked in the belly of modern capital in the tin mines, spiriting in a premodern god to ensure their precarious safety,[7] stories circulated about how family and friends we knew spirited their “wealth” across borders and past customs officials, stowed between precious documents or borne in folds of clothing. Concealed gold biscuits, currency stitched into suitcase linings, bejeweled watches hidden in perishable goods: these acts of transgression were justified invariably with reference to the brutal conditions under which the money had been earned and accumulated. Equally, we heard stories of relatives coming back with nothing but the clothes on their back, having lost their livelihood, earnings, and opportunity of returning to Mammon.[8] Many recollected harrowing tales of ill-treatment, harsh circumstances, and a feeling of being completely alienated in these sites of labor wherein they could not even communicate to their employers or native citizens, who formed generally a very small and elite echelon of the society.

The Malayalee migrant labor diaspora that moved back and forth between the homeland and various cities on the Arabian Gulf made its presence felt in the surplus capital that flowed back to the Indian coastal state of Kerala. In that tropical land, the divide between urban and rural was all but erased as the diasporic remittances hatched into the gargantuan cake-styled architectural extravaganza of mansions that dotted the national highway. The houses are populated with one or two elderly parents of sons and daughters working elsewhere. The Middle East, as a landscape of excess, opportunities, and ordeals, became a destination in the 1970s for a fourth wave of migrants from Kerala (the first three trekking out to places within India and Asia), and to this day the greatest number of migrants from Kerala work in cities in Saudi Arabia and UAE, as shown in the map below:



Nearly 90% of migrants from Kerala head for nations in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia forming nearly a third of this diaspora. For the last four decades, the Middle East, for those who actually journeyed and others who stayed behind, has been a clear and large part of the Malayalee imaginary. Since the world of cinema has been such a visible simulacrum of the late twentieth century imaginary, it has, along with other visual media such as the political cartoon and satirical comedy, kept pace with imagining, critiquing, and interrogating the ontological conditions of this migratory journey.


The multi-religious community that coalesces to celebrate births and bury the dead is a “disappearing” Kerala represented in Kamal’s Gadhama, as resistance to a hegemonic conservative material politics formed of chauvinistic religiosity emerging from Hindu nationalism, “Hindutva,” and capitalism. While the film draws on the neo-realism of Kerala’s “New Cinema” and a deeply Malayalee “rasa” (theories of aesthetic pleasures that speak of at least 9 rasas/emotional registers for spectators emerging from the experience of theatre as espoused in textual traditions from Indian antiquity that are also utilized in the twentieth century to explain the pleasures of viewing Indian cinema) of sentimentality, it critiques power, aggression, and imperialism by drawing from particularities in tradition and speculating on the condition of humanity. The analytic scope of this paper thus centers on the structural exploitations framing the narrative of migration, and more specifically the Kafala system of sponsorship practiced by GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). My argument considers anti-capitalist resistances in the Global South, socio-cultural dialectics of home (Kerala) and the world (Gulf), regional cinematics, and feminist theories of the present.


Kamal (Kamaluddin Mohammed) has directed Malayalam milestones like Unnikale oru katha parayam (Children Let Me Tell You a Story, 1987), Azhakiya Ravanan (Beautiful Ravana, 1996), Meghamalhar (Rain Cloud, 2001) and Perumazhakaalam (A Season of Heavy Rain, 2005) and is known for his fluency across multiple genres, reigning supreme over mainstream blockbuster hits of the Indian simulacrum. His recent film, Gadhama centers on the performative capacities of Malayalam super star Kavya Madhavan, cast here as  a young widow who travels to Saudi Arabia as a housemaid or “gadhama.”  She is both enslaved and imprisoned, highlighting the condition of service sector migrant workers from South Asia to the oil states of the Middle East. Research by scholars such as Neha Vora’s fieldwork on Dubai, part of the GCC, which includes Saudi Arabia, as well as a host of recent publications, highlights the indignities of the GCC Kafala system of worker indenture-hood and immobilization.[9] Rhacel Salazar Parrenas and Rachel Silvey note,  

The Kafala reforms have been welcomed by migrant rights advocates. However, domestic workers have been excluded from the reforms, leaving them distinctly susceptible to multiple forms of abuse and exploitation, exacerbated by the continued application of the Kafala system to their segment of the labor force. Whereas migrant workers in construction, retail, hospitality, and transportation can now claim some limited rights with respect to mobility in the labor market, the estimated 300,000 domestic workers in the UAE have gained no such ground. Domestics can be fired at will, at any time, and without explanation. They can also be denied release from their contracts, making them especially vulnerable to persistent overwork and forced labor. The ongoing application of the Kafala system deepens the structural disadvantages that they face, locating them in positions of indentured servitude, bound labor, and permanent exclusion from citizenship rights abroad.[10]

Research on the transnational labor force points to a host of reasons that contribute to the vulnerability and precarity of this population. Andrew Gardner’s research on the Indian proletariat in Bahrain reveals a whole number of reasons for the terrible circumstances of the workers, which range from the debt they leave back home, an exchange rate that is debilitating, and extenuating family circumstances that make it so that the worker feels obliged to suffer rather than return and cause more damage to the family. Gardner explains:

To recapitulate, the kafala is the Gulf-wide sponsorship system by which the large transnational populations at work in the Gulf states are organized, managed, and controlled. The kafala is the sponsorship system itself; kafeel is the Arabic singular noun for the individual sponsor with whom each arriving foreign worker is associated. To continue building my argument that the kafala itself is key to understanding the structural violence levied against foreign workers in Bahrain … the transnational laborer enters a linguistic and cultural context in which his capacity as an agent is severely constrained … Together, these arrangements and practices comprise another facet of the structural violence foreign workers encounter in Bahrain: by constraining their ability to assert their rights, to take collective action, or to put their case before the state, these policies and practices enable the violence these workers endure in their everyday lives. [11]

Gadhama stages the suffering of a Malayalee woman from Kerala, who after losing her husband and economic security, undertakes the journey to Saudi Arabia, with the promise of a good job and steady salary to send back home. Upon arrival to her destination, it quickly becomes clear that she joins the rank of hundreds of other domestic servants, gadhamas, initiated into servitude through exploitative working conditions with little food and sleep at her employer’s residence. The film follows her journey from captivity to freedom as she escapes horrific conditions through a perilous journey that leaves her at the mercy of natural elements and state violence until she succeeds in securing a ticket to return home.

Ashwathy (the main character portrayed by Madhavan) suffers at the hands of her sponsors, a Saudi family living in a sprawling mansion in Buraydah, about 400 kilometers north of Riyadh. The first half of the film stages her descent into panic after periods of abuse, punishment, and torture at the hands of her sponsors, leading to a second half that narrates an attempted escape across the desert.  She flees her employers, inveigled by men who offer to take her to Riyadh. She flees from her “rescuers” with help from a fellow captive, Basheer (Shine Tom Chacko), who sacrifices his life to help her escape. Basheer’s friend Bharathan (Murali Gopy) takes Ashwathy to Riyadh. However, in Riyadh Usman (Suraj Venjaramood) - the family’s driver who jeopardizes her life after running away from the sponsoring family with Fatima (Abigail de Jong), a fellow gadhama from Indonesia who develops a secret intimate relationship with him - reneges on his promise to help her. Bharathan, the truck driver, houses her and eventually incurs the wrath of the Saudi state that decides to imprison them under an anti-blasphemy law for cohabiting outside matrimony. After Ashwathy is detained for two months, the film audience views scenes of her being whipped in an octagonal prison yard in abject silence, the absence of any intradiegetic sound creating a sonic space that expresses the extreme suffering of the punished bodies. She is bailed out by another central character in the story, a trader named Razak (Sreenivasan), who moonlights as a social worker, helping Malayalees in various states of peril. Razak aids migrants who are wounded, imprisoned, or lost in Saudi and have nowhere else to turn. For a beleaguered diasporic Malayalee community, he is the one stop for goods and grief counseling, the go-to person when calamity strikes. 

The closing moments of the film show Ashwathy heading to the airport accompanied by Bharathan. Razak is called to the mortuary to identify sand-covered, bruised and beaten Indian bodies in various stages of decay.  In an opening segment in the film, men who cannot identify a body demand cab fare from Razak in jovial protest for their wasted trip to the morgue. This is posed as tragic in the finale because Razak cannot recognize Basheer’s body, the man who sacrificed himself to become the ticket for the woman to be able to go home. Gadhama forces serious reflection on migration as refracted through nation, gender, religion, and class and these tropes become clear when considered through the prism of the particular imaginary named “Saudi.”

The GCC, which includes Saudi Arabia along with smaller countries like Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, and Kuwait, positions itself as not needing to abide by the UN pact on migrant workers’ rights because it sees the mostly South Asian and South East Asian work force as temporary, who come of their own accord and can be ejected at any point. To the GCC, the rights that western nations accord to migrant workers does not apply to their laboring migrant populations, as ratified by the UN Migrant Workers’ Convention of 1990.[12] Steven Roper and Lillian Barria’s hypothesis that the states with the greater number of migrants will ratify a smaller number of international labor conventions is proven incorrect. In fact, GCC countries like Kuwait, Qatar, and UAE with a larger number of migrants have ratified more international conventions than the GCC countries with lower number of migrants like Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Bahrain.

Roper and Barria’s conclusions emphasize the importance of nationalization of the labor force. They hint that the jobs desired and taken by the Arab citizenry of GCC countries will be the white collar positions of privilege and power, whereas the construction and private sector menial work will continue to be performed by large swathes of Asian and increasingly African migrants, who are seeking jobs to support families and catch up with debts back home.[13] Both Ashwathy and Fatima from Kerala and Indonesia respectively, signify this condition of indentured immobility in their sites of migrant work due to debt and remittance expectations for families they have back home. Once Ashwathy arrives, Usman informs her that thankfully now, Fatima is not the only recipient of the family’s sadistic ire and children’s malevolent behavior. One of the boys whizzes by and cuts Ashwathy’s skin through her abaya with a blade and gleefully chuckles at her suffering. Innocence itself is sliced through - the children seem to metonymically represent the structural violence of the entire institution of migrant labor. At one point, as Ashwathy is being relentlessly whipped, the little girl she was helping in the scene prior moves her legs playfully in percussive rhythm to the lashes as if it was a melodic strain in the background. Despite all this, leaving is not an option the gadhamas can entertain, as is the reality for migrant workers straddling invisible markets in the Middle East.

A report published in 2009 (the year this film was in production) estimated that 200,000-500,000 workers (primarily from the construction sector) would return to Kerala from the Gulf.[14] Of the nearly 2 million Keralites who are abroad, 90% work in Gulf States and their remittances are twice the state revenue, nearly 8 billion dollars. The melancholic pall of capital and border crossing as represented in the film is not far from the reality of nearly half a million unemployed new workers in a state economy that has no manufacturing industries to offer sustainable income for these Gulf returnees. Ashwathy’s origins are in an impoverished community in rural Kerala.  Deprived of land rights and any access to economic security in the old order of pre-capital, she finds a husband, an equally poor subsistence farmer. Upon his sudden death due to drowning, symbolic of their very real material conditions, she inherits debt from both sides of the family. For someone who has not even traveled to cities in the vicinity, journeying to a faraway site stands as the only possible remedy to economic dispossession. Saudi, a state that dwarfs neighbors like Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman, and Yemen, thus becomes the pivot of this geographic imaginary for the Malayalee Gulf diaspora. Its central role prompts questions about what filmic representations of Malayalee “Saudi” reveal and occlude.          


In 2006, Arundhati Roy posted an internet documentary lecture titled “We” for free public viewing.[15]  Roy’s lecture, just over an hour in length, speaks of her relationship to fiction in a world divided between the powerful and the powerless where she seeks to talk about paranoia and physics of power. Speaking over images of war tanks, advertising, and simulacra, Roy ranges across the subjects of the nuclear arms race, the war against terror, the many 9/11s that preceded the one privileged in the United States, concluding with an emphasis on the depredations of corporate privatization. Considering her dissidence against orthodox Kerala Marxism and her fist shaking at global-corporate hegemony, Roy’s resistance to oppression and structural economic inequality resonates with Kamal’s vision, which tacitly critiques the mainstream cinema of Kerala. Kamal’s film constitutes a structure of feeling, (Raymond Williams coins the term “structure of feeling” to describe aesthetic strategies to counter prevailing norms),[16] forming an emergent politics of opposition against the dominant bourgeois culture of religious conservatism, free market capitalism, and hegemonic nationalisms. It speaks to a continuing affective order of a sentimental past and presents a form of resistance to privatization of labor. The film undercuts the residual and dominant norms with an emergent progressive perspective. ​

Kamal’s gadhama returns to her nadu (signifying both Kerala and India) and although her enclosure in the SUV foreshadows enclosure in heteronormative and religious order, the new couple (Ashwathy and Bharathan) reject the exploitative underbelly of free market capitalism that promises only further disenfranchisement. While the film stages the disposability[17] of subalterns who have migrated from South Asia and other sites of the Global South, the characters reject their ossification in this penetrative order. Kamal’s film is representative of a new generation of cinema that generates an affective space that parallels the earlier era of 1980s films where employment at any cost, would frame the film’s denouement.[18] In Kamal’s film, while employment is problematized, the material and corporeal extent of punishment of the employable body is sutured over through the slow montage sequences and ultimate escape to the homeland without allowing for a full-blown critique to develop of the structural violence of the Kafala system. In Razak’s advice to Ashwathy to think of it all as a bad dream, the film seemingly stages her scenario as an exception rather than part of a larger system of global injustices and human rights violations practiced upon vulnerable migrant bodies. In closing on the return to normalcy, the film’s Marxist critique of Late Capital remains entombed in the larger heteropatriarchal status quo.

In the vein of over three decades of Malayalam cinema that honors rural and urban working class and poor, this film suggests an emergent anti-bourgeois structure of feeling that probes an ideologically encrusted and uncritical Keraleeyatham,[19] the current ethos of representing the self, especially evident in mainstream cinema, that performs a simultaneous fluency in languages of power, capital, globalization alongside Kerala-specific culture, language, and identity.  The film questions standard West/non-west binaries common to this cinematic tradition where the West signifies all things modern and alienating and the non-west nadu is rural, authentic, traditional, and performs gender correctly. Here, the marunadu (videsh or abroad) is neither the West nor the Global North but the “Gulf,” a deterritorialized imaginary integral to the Malayalam cinematic project in both aesthetic and economic terms. In the Malayalee imaginary, “Saudi” functions as the geographic site where the woman is reified into a classic patriarchy[20] in that her body functions as the veil.  Ashwathy, freshly covered in a hijab given to her by a traveling companion, sits patiently, waiting for days on end in the airport with a whole row of women of various hues and nations. The image suggests an emergent nation in the Andersonian sense[21] – based on the affect and empathy, of women for whom the national borders have been crossed as they sit in the middle space of an airport. Yet for these newly inscribed bodies awaiting their labors, vulnerable, alone, and disenfranchised, the nation becomes a series of borders that begin in their new work place; for the runaway Ashwathy, these demilitarized border zones include store fronts that do not hide her, the highways on which she walks with her bleeding feet, the desert she navigates on foot. Both in the sponsor’s home and the state prison, she is ritualistically punished and both sites promise complete isolation without the respite of mobility or freedom.  In rethinking the potential of spaces between places, the liminal zones where vulnerable bodies unsettle old notions and devise a new way of being, Gloria Anzaldua’s radical reworking of the borderlands is crucial here. Anzaldua’s creative genius in re-invigorating the nepantla, the middle space of extreme exploitation as one of awakenings and creative reinventions,[22] remains a privileged dream act for women who might shuttle from home to deportation centers or prisons and early graves.  For Ashwathy and countless other vulnerable working migrants like her, is it possible that the right amount of solidarity and collective awakening could transform these borderlands into zones of resistance and labor power?  The material reality is that having crossed the border of nation, these women encounter the nation as borders where every step made by the woman (the migrant, transnational, domestic laborer) is regulated.    

On day one of her employment, Ashwathy’s boss keeps her passport. Shortly thereafter, a child walks by her newly-veiled self and cuts her arms with a blade for fun. Women yell instructions to her in a language she does not understand and punish her for her inability to act quickly. One after another, such scenes of inhumanity lay the stage for her entry into the dehumanizing conditions faced by global migrants in the era of Late Capital. Rutvica Andrijasevic, in speaking about the dehumanizing conditions faced by mostly Libyan migrants in southern Italy, especially the Lampedusa Detention Camp, builds on Giorgio Agamben’s work on states of exception. Agamben speaks of the sites and moments when certain subjects were placed outside the polis by the sovereign in a state of exception where the law is not accessible to them. Andrijasevic, building on Agamben, explains, “The camp stands for a material spatial manifestation of the abstract juridical dimension that is the state of exception in which, through the suspension of the normal Rule of Law, the category of citizen is no longer operative and in which the individual is divested of all rights and placed in the state of “bare life”.[23] The analogy of being cast in a state of bare life, where one’s life is an exception to the state of law, and not worth being interpellated by the law in order to avail of justice, addresses the condition faced by gadhamas. These “exceptional” bodies, such as the migrant workers in GCC sites, can be maltreated, violated, exploited, and disposed of without any reference to a state of law.


Alongside Ashwathy, the film stages migrant lives deprived of security, dignity, and rights. Basheer, the man who sacrifices his life so that Ashwathy can escape, works in a goat pen as a modern-day slave. Usman, Bharathan, and many other characters on screen live in absolute terror of being caught by the Saudi state for one violation or another to be punished and/or deported. Asma Azhari’s analysis on Islamic jurisprudence, the Sunnah, and international human rights attests that the two – tenets of Islam and global human rights policies - are actually contiguous. What is an anomaly is that Saudi Arabia has still not ratified the one convention that would directly improve the lives of its millions of migrant workers mostly from Asian countries, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW). Closely reading the life of the Prophet and laws prescribed in the Qur’an, Azhari finds that Islamic jurisprudence lays a foundation for mutual respect and reciprocity between worker and employer, and that the punishment for not paying a person for their wages will be seen as a vital infraction on the Day of Resurrection. Azhari concludes that the Kafala system “creates a dilemma that allows both sponsors and workers to manipulate the Law. Such defects place the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in a critical position internationally.”[24] Here, the author, who is in many ways invested in the economic and cultural security of Saudi interests, argues in favor of revamping the Kafala system by establishing a body that oversees all matters relating to migrants and encourages both human rights and working conditions for the migrating classes of poor citizenry from the Global South. The Kafala system as depicted in the film highlights the gluttony and appetites of the sponsoring classes; within the home and in their trips away, their constant feasting and eating, all dependent on the work of the laboring classes, is depicted: a metaphoric eating of the laboring bodies.​

The film opens and closes with a close-up of the corpse of an unknown Indian. Through the diegetic sequence of the film, we piece together the truth that this is the face of Basheer, the person who sacrifices his life so that Ashwathy can have one. Basheer’s anonymity attests to the unknown many laboring migrant bodies in Saudi who suffer under harsh conditions and whose actual plight or exact numbers are not fully known. In a recent expose on the abuses endemic to the Kafala system, James Montague writes a searing critique of the upcoming FIFA 2022 in Qatar, in light of the recent impasse between the GCC and Qatar because Qatar has abolished the Kafala system, at least in policy. Montague notes that the senders’ countries or embassies are not willing to speak up or advocate for the rights of the migrants since their remittances constitute a bulk of the GDP back home. Montague remains cautious about the putative reforms as he points to the truth that no one is fully privy to the number of migrants who are tortured or dead in Saudi Arabia even today.[25]


In a summit that convened on human rights in Saudi Arabia, scholars attest to the structural and systemic patterns that bolster the conditions of human indignity, dehumanization, and exploitation that exists in Saudi Arabia. Sharat Lin of the San Jose Peace and Justice Center speaks of the four million or more undocumented workers who remain in Saudi seeking work after making the Haj, or staying on, undocumented. He speaks to the practice of employers taking the employees’ passports leaving them with no possibility of mobility or any other form of agency, as confirmed by the narrative in the film. Ashwathy’s first interaction with her boss at their home involved him commanding her to show her passport, which, after inspecting, he pockets. Also, on this panel, Sanjeev Berg of Amnesty International, speaks of the close affiliation between Saudi Arabia and the USA, especially the status of Saudi as the United States’ largest foreign military sales (FMS) customer with nearly 100 billion in active cases.[26] Bery contends that in the kingdom’s crackdown on civil society, imprisonment of political dissidents, military action in Yemen, and terrible treatment of migrant labor, the US is directly implicated in providing the vehicle to keep the political machinery humming.[27] What the film conveys is a narrative that is at odds with the larger structural violence that makes such abuse systematic and every day; in highlighting the woes of Ashwathy, the film belabors the spectacle of one wounded female body while forgetting that wounded bodies are a given in Late Capital global circuits of mass migration of labor across nations. In the journalist’s desire to feed the South Asian migrant community’s appetite for a juicy story, what is left out is the endemic and everyday nature of it.​

Ashwathy’s state of entrapment begin at home and continues to torment her in her journey to the world beyond her home. At the heels of her young husband’s sudden death, she is seen standing still behind the black bars of a traditional window of her dilapidated home as relatives off-screen discuss her fate. The director cuts from Ashwathy’s entrapped condition to her employer’s home in Buraydhah, where she is looking at the high barbed wire, broken glass and bars where once again she is locked. The director reverses back to the scene of her behind the window at her home in Kerala. To the unseen relatives determining her fate, she responds affirmatively, agreeing to work in Saudi as a domestic. When she says, “I will go,” it sounds like the resigned acceptance of carceral conditions faced within domestic servitude the world over.


According to Guyatri Devi,

The absence of the laboring class in Malayalam cinema is a crisis of representation as well as a crisis of literacy, both symbolic and literal at one and the same time. In populous and poor developing countries such as India, the masses might never have access to the instruments of literacy – such as reading and writing – to grasp one’s history, the entire scope of which may happily be disseminated to you in the course of one afternoon at the local movie theater, to which the great success of propaganda films and the cult of the politician-actor, replete with shrines where the fans can pray, can testify in many parts of the country.[28]

Devi’s recent opus includes an extended lament on the state of Malayalam cinema, which arises ostensibly out of Leftist social consciousness but airbrushes away the figures at the margin – the dispossessed, the landless laboring classes, and the proletariat. Instead, the other figure of “marginality” – a hegemonic ideal of woman – arrives by “disappearing” her subaltern brothers and sisters. The laboring woman genders the radical project of revolution in very reactionary ways. While Ashwathy is able to “choose” her partner, the filmic text subscribes to orthodox notions of the familiar, sidelining larger issues of rights for the suffering masses. Neither does the woman fully arrive nor does the subaltern completely recede. Ashwathy’s laboring body disappears on the run appearing briefly as a suffering body in the prison and is finally returned to the familiar comfort of heteronormativity by the film’s closing credits. As we see her enter the van that will take them to the airport, we see her nodding demurely to Razak’s advice on forgetting the horrors she experienced in her Middle-Eastern sojourn. Under the sign of ‘woman’ in patriarchy, Ashwathy symbolizes the passivity and silence inscribed upon women’s bodies. Neither does she look at the audience directly nor do we see her face; the woman remains in shadow as she is swallowed whole by the vehicle, symbol of the nexus of patriarchy and capital.  The metal enclosure of the vehicle segues dramatically into Basheer’s open casket. Basheer[29] saves Ashwathy from rape and violence and his death haunts the cinematic text.​

In the film’s diegetic plane, he is the “unknown Indian,” unrecognized, and disposable in the economy of commodity fetishism and free market enterprise. His name eludes the film’s narrative sequence. This misrecognition creates an aporia but his presence is not categorically denied. In fact, in the film’s representation of the linear sequence of events, it ends on an extreme close-up of his weathered sand-cloaked face, lest we leave the story thinking of Ashwathy and Bharathan’s happily-ever-after. The film’s ending restores the dominant order of Kerala simulacra at home and abroad, i.e. Hindu heteronormativity; Devi’s work unpacks thyagam (sacrifice) in Leftist cinematic logic: in Gadhama, the “thyagam” is performed by “helpful” Muslim subjects, dead (Basheer) and alive (Razak) for the sake of restoring balance, following the age-old script of restoring romantic harmony, and thereby, cosmic harmony as divined from rasa theories. Ironic but true that in India, the cinema of the Left has at times colluded, supported, or left undisturbed the telos of the Right.

Gadhama works on the differences between nadu or home, as in concentricity of regionalisms (nation, state, district, or village) and world (Gulf, and Saudi in this case) as it emerges here. Ratheesh Radhakrishnan delineates a framework for reading the Gulf in Malayalam cinema from the 1970s-2000s. In an earlier era, Gulf signifies desirable modernity, but over time, with the dwindling of remittances and loss of overseas jobs in the service sector, the Gulf dream morphs into failure. More recent films at times sympathize with the fate that awaits the travelers, returnees, and families. Radhakrishnan’s work also articulates an erasure of labor that has been a motif within Malayalam cinema in the era of Late Capital. Radhakrishnan raises two key points. Early on, he highlights the subsidy provided to Malayalam films that articulate a clear regional identity. The second point is the binary Radhakrishnan draws between the NRK (non-resident Keralite or cultural Malayalee) vs. the Gulfkaran (migrant working class or subaltern subject) who drains the home economy. As the NRK is legitimized in the modalities of free market capitalism, the Gulf recedes from the collective unconscious.[30] This logic pertains to Gadhama, which decenters the Gulf in the Malayalee imaginary through an invocation of “Saudi,” cementing the distance between the home and the world, “nadu” (land/home) and “marunadu” (faraway land/a foreign place/exile). In the heartfelt conversations between Ashwathy and the Indonesian kitchen help, Fatima, the women speak in their own languages and try to explain what is beautiful about their homes. Ashwathy vigorously motions her arms up and down to denote rainfall while saying, “Water! Water!” - an ironic counter to her near death experience in the arid desert and Fatima’s tragic past where the tsunami takes away her entire family. Before the scene cuts into the analeptic song sequence in which Ashwathy remembers her past with a husband and a home, “nadu” is signified through iconic signs of Kerala: rural landscape, paddy fields, and rain.​


Gadhama arrives at the heels of a decade’s worth of films that have blurred the boundaries of commercial and arthouse cinema, and in so many ways continues to bear the markings of “new cinema” from a previous era. As Carlo Celli cautions, “to study such physical characteristics without taking into account the larger context of the more nebulous concept of cultural identity with roots in geography or religious traditions” is counterproductive.[31] Here, the regional nadu identity emerges and plays a significant role in pushing this film in the direction of Third Cinema. While Rajadhyaksha’s theorization of “gigantomania” in the Bollywoodization of Indian cinema speaks to the genesis of a national identity inscribed upon the Hindi cinematic order,[32] Amy Villarejo points out that “new cinema”[33] does not encompass the polyvalence of this category.[34] In blurring the boundary between the commercial and the arthouse, cinema revitalizes the struggle of the peripheral simulacra against the hegemony of Bollywood.  ​

Kamal’s film exhumes the very real material conditions of domestic servitude of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, where over 9 million foreign workers were last counted in a Human Rights Watch world report (2016).[35] In HRW’s World Report, completed under Kenneth Roth, Executive Director, the report counts that over half of the Saudi working sector, nearly 9 million people are migrants primarily from South Asia who work in suspect conditions due to the Kafala system of sponsorship that leaves little choice for the workers despite unjust and inhumane working conditions.​

Asian embassies report thousands of complaints each year from domestic workers forced to work 15-20 hours a day, seven days a week, and denied their salaries. Domestic workers frequently endure forced confinement; food deprivation; and severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. After returning home in August, a Sri Lankan domestic worker had dozens of metal nails extracted from her body that she claimed her Saudi employers had hammered into her as punishment for complaining about long working hours. In September a Filipina domestic worker was found dead with acid burns and stab wounds in her employer’s home in Khobar.[36]

Romina Halabi gives a trenchant critique of this situation calling it “contract enslavement” and catalogues the numbers, events, and structures of oppression that keep these exploitative practices in place reducing “migrants to mere objects to be bought and sold in the global marketplace.”[37] Halabi’s exhaustive annotated bibliography is itself a catalogue of iniquities faced by migrant workers in the Middle East.[38] It delineates movements in global human rights calling for recognition of subaltern erased, muted, and killed just because the wealthy cannot do their chores. Kamal and his cinematographic team have produced a chronicle of abuse that has Ashwathy being burnt by a hot iron, maimed by sharp objects and left hungry after extensive beatings – “fictive” instances that pale in comparison to the grotesque horrors to which the migrant laborer is actually subjected.     

Joel Mowbray’s “Maids, Slaves, and Prisoners: To be Employed in a Saudi Home” discusses the connections between conditions this down-trodden population of workers receives in Saudi Arabia and the working conditions for slaves in the American south. Along with identifying the conditions akin to slavery, Mowbray speaks about a loose network of localized migrant community that helps its own, something mirrored in the film’s diegetic frame of Ashwathy finding her way home through the Malayalee diaspora: Basheer, Bharathan, and Razak. In the moments when a cowering Ashwathy at the back of the pickup truck recognizes a fellow human being at the other end of the truck looking at her, the commonality of the people and the goats as bodies transported for slaughter comes through. Mowbray writes, “Saudi Arabia abolished slavery in 1962, but it treats domestic servants in much the same way fugitive-slave laws treated blacks in pre-Civil War America. Saudi newspapers run bounty ads announcing the “escape” of domestics and requesting the help of fellow Saudis in the return of this “property”.”[39]

Configuring an iatrogenic (cultural consciousness that develops as a result of cultural/filmic interventions)[40] social consciousness for the audience anchored in the figure of the subaltern, Gadhama stages transnational subjects interpellated into state structures in their encounter with the border. Gadhama opens with an eye-line shot of Ashwathy looking through a camera to attest to her identity as a slave in a new mode of production. Initially, the camera zoomed in on her arms as she worked in a factory back in Kerala. Now her entire body is commoditized as is evident in the row of women covered in black abayas and hijab waiting for their sponsors’ arrival. The subaltern is named only for a process in the annals of the state and thus, the naming is contiguous with erasure. This social consciousness, arising out of audiences’ emplacement through point-of-view shots with these figures of marginality, produces empathic spectatorship. Turning to Christopher Pinney’s reading of late nineteenth century anticolonial sentiments through the neologism of iatrogenesis, the sphere of religion offers what is denied to the political and thus the political seeps out from the sphere of religion. In a way, Gadhama articulates a discourse on piety. The director, Kamal, delivers a searing testimony on behalf of all the “marunadan Malayalees”[41] (maru as in outside and nadu signifying home, so colloquially, this phrase means Malayalees abroad) who suffer in the Gulf, especially in the state with the strictest regime, Saudi, and he wants to deliver the message of their suffering. In an iatrogenic sense then, the discourse of piety allows for the critique of capital in ways that new systems of domination cannot fully support or condemn. Inversely, the dynamics of piety are reified in the production of culture that is resistant to the political.


Michael Chanan theorizes the definitive imaginative geography implied by Third Cinema through late modernity and its concomitant cementing of free market capitalism. Third Cinema is useful cinema in that it helps develop consciousness in people and augurs radical political possibilities. While a film could be experimental, even unfinished, it is produced in the margins and interstices of power structures. It is experimental in that its trajectory opposes dominance and encodes a third world allegiance. It anticipates polyvalent reception and its mode of production is nomadic.[42] Anthony Guneratne and Wimal Dissanayake elucidate how the project of Third Cinema continues in Malayalam films that capture the subject of the disappearing present.[43]  These calls for a new geography of praxis are answered to an extent in the Gulf configured in Gadhama. In the characters’ rejection of the sponsor system – Ashwathy leaves the domain of sponsored servitude – the film generates an explicit critique of the logic of capitalism that structures our desires and dreams. 

Michelle Buckley’s work across the disciplines of geography and environment is significant in attesting to the complexity of power relations amidst the migrant workers and their sites of work and urban landscape in Dubai. She discusses the informal sector of resistance created by workers in conditions of exploitation and duress in her analysis of construction workers in the fast-growing autocratic city. Buckley speaks of transient insurgencies and practices of both disciplining and resistance within the private sphere of the household and community. In summarizing a well-organized strike to demand living wages from the state, she notes, “These closed-door debates about migrant builders’ agency contrast starkly with the tales of abject labour that run through some of the neoliberalism literature on Dubai. They also, moreover, draw to light the distinct limits of autocratic state power.”[44] The film bespeaks this pull and push of oppression and resistance by staging it through the grassroots work led by the shop owner, Razak, who freelances as a Social Worker, and speaks up for the rights of the South Asian migrants in all the different sites of his encounter with power/powerlessness. Usman, the driver who reneges on his promise to offer shelter to the runaway Ashwathy, busy protecting himself in his condition of precarity, questions Razak, “What is she to you? Is she your sister?” because without kinship, Razak’s humanity runs counter to Usman’s utilitarian rejection of it.

Though the older triadic separation between first and second and third world cinema no longer remains true in the new global circuit, this film, despite its grand scale production and auteur centered vision, performs the radical work of Third Cinema. In the song sequence where Ashwathy sings along Fatima and eventually helps her escape, the film stages a third world solidarity resonating with the 1955 Bandung conference.[45] The narratological impulse interrogates and rejects the bourgeois Weltanschauung of normative cinema that rest on happy endings resulting from the melding of capital, culture, and desire.    


Women workers of particular caste/class, race, and economic status are necessary to the operation of the capitalist global economy. Women are not only the preferred candidates for particular jobs, but particular kinds of women - poor, Third and Two-Thirds World, working-class, and immigrant/migrant women - are the preferred workers in these global, “flexible” temporary job markets. The documented increase in the migration of the poor, One-Third/Two-Thirds World women in search of labor across national borders has led to a rise in the international “maid trade” and concomitant exploitative practices of women’s labor from domestic work  to sites of international sex trafficking and tourism.[46] Many global cities now require and completely depend on the service and domestic labor of immigrant and migrant women. The proliferation of structural adjustment policies around the world has reprivatized women’s labor by shifting the responsibility for social welfare from the state to the household and to women located there. The rise of religious fundamentalisms in conjunction with conservative nationalisms, which are also in part reactions to global capital and its cultural demands, has led to the policing of women’s bodies in the streets and in the workplaces.[47]


Mohanty’s theorizing of a transnational feminism, feminism outside and away from earlier first world rescue missions, articulates itself necessarily as feminism without borders. In these border-crossing narratives where the characters encounter an endless labyrinth of new borders that regulate their every step, or the figure who wishes to cross but literally stays ensconced with the domestic, the gains made by feminist activists of the last few decades, especially in the putatively liberatory and progressive space of a state like Kerala, have been waylaid.

The rasa of “New Cinema” in Malayalam capitalizes on the suffering of women in articulating gendered oppression. Systems of viewership are formulated around the scopophilic pleasure of violating, beating, and witnessing the bruised and weeping body of women.  The modern gendered body stages its protest through a series of violations that triumph often in the annihilated or punished body of the woman.[48] A peculiar direct relationship remains in place in the Malayalee simulacra in the context of its traditions of sentimentality:  diegetic sequences of female subjection equal female representation. The more the body of woman is punished and bears mute witness to the excesses of patriarchy, the more the film’s logic affixes her cultural identity (Keraleeyatham) unto the grounded reality of home (nadu).

Globalization produces concomitant femininities to parallel new masculinities where the racialized and gendered body remains unmarked. To work toward transnational feminist solidarity, it is critical to see ways that the feminist project is derailed through the representation of the figure of woman. Ashwathy remains locked in patriarchies of South Asia and Saudi Arabia so that each lockdown is a descent, rather than difference. Her first love (played by the actor Biju Menon) is a local thug who pursues her, wins her love, and then, reifies the woman’s place at home. She is seen washing dishes or cooking in a darkened kitchen and asks, albeit coyly, if her employment wouldn’t be of use considering their financial distress and the responsibility of younger siblings for both of them. Upon her husband’s refusal to allow her to re-enter the public sphere, she smiles acceptingly and continues her work. The logic of patriarchy folds into a heteronormativity that interpellates the affect of masculine love with feminine guilt. When she steps outside the home of the in-laws, thereby stepping outside the Law of the Father, she does it with his sanction and remains entombed in a purposeful silence within the diegetic sequence of events. Rather than subversion, her silence and her veiling are simply the interiority and exteriority of regulation. For the female subject within this cinematic order, the patriarchal and the carceral provide the same regime of surveillance and control of women’s bodies and choices. The film accumulates sentimental charge from the repeated episodes of abuse and abjection where she remains the mute witness, always the object of rescue. An exception is when she steps up to scold Usman for having betrayed his wife at home by sleeping with Fatima. Her intervention in this instance, rather than any form of transnational solidarity, is the reification of patriarchal regulation of women’s bodies and she participates in further cementing a system that defaces the body of woman while speaking of ‘saving face’.[49] Fatima’s ejection from the narrative suggests the teleology of impossible solidarity. ​

Throughout the film, “woman” remains alienated and surveilled. Razak, the social worker who stages the final rescue and enacts this important project of worker solidarity, negates the very same gesture in the powerful advice he imparts to the new young couple. He explains, just as a tiny seed can survive the harshness of the desert, you, as human beings, can survive this experience, chalk it up as a nightmare and leave it here before you leave. Forgetting augurs future when history is unrelenting oppression. As the door of the van closes, we see an extreme long shot of the departure from prison to airport, border to border, with any possibility of feminist or activist solidarity foreclosed because Ashwathy will perform the familiar old role of feminine decorum (silence). The camera tracks back and cuts to the morgue; it is no surprise that Ashwathy does not speak. Despite the Marxist impulse in a figure like Razak, a trader who does not see the value of private accumulation, the film forecloses on its feminist dialectic. It would seem we never left the earlier era of Spivakian evocation,[50] which parallels an earlier epoch in the Malayalee Gulf dream; the third world subaltern subject cannot speak.

Dawit Woldu’s ethnographic study of an Eritrean migrant woman named Natsnet who travels to Saudi and then the United States is informative, in that he studies the real-life struggles and conditions of a woman who functioned as a domestic servant in her journey away from her homeland. In his book, co-authored with Irvin Bromall, Faces of Oppression and the Price of Justice: A Woman’s Journey from Eritrea to Saudi Arabia and then the United States, Woldu describes Saudi society and sheds light on a subject that is not easily researchable due to challenges posed for scholars’ access to their field work:

Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf states are the only part of the world in which a large portion of their societies are migrant workers. However, the concept of multiculturalism is absent. Saudi Arabia hosts millions of migrant workers from Asia, particularly from the Phillipines, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh and from different parts of Africa particularly the Horn and northwest Africa. However, other cultures and beliefs are not respected, most of the time looked down upon and punished, even when these services take place in private homes. In this, the Saudi Arabian mutaween, the religious police, play a significant role.[51]

Woldu compares Natsnet’s working environment in Saudi Arabia, as domestic servant in a familial home, to a horrifying prison cell. In reports culled from Human Rights Watch, Woldu shares testaments of exploitative conditions of abuse that mirror enslavement and other dehumanizing systems of migrant abuse. The Kafala system of contractual labor becomes an alibi for systemic torture and brutality experienced by the migrant worker, according to Human Rights and Human Welfare reports written during 2004-2008. Woldu explains, “Life for these domestic workers in the Gulf is as bad as slavery with little chance to escape or for anyone to voice concern. This is the life of millions of domestic workers in the Gulf, a large desert that consumes the lives of so many domestic workers.”[52] For Ashwathy, from the moment she steps off the tarmac onto Saudi soil and waits nearly two days without food at the airport, and upon her arrival into the residence of her sponsor/employer/master, she is treated like a person without rights, dignity, or agency. Once her passport is confiscated, and she is left without language to communicate, she scrambles to understand commands to prevent further humiliation and punishment in her abject condition.​

Not only is the cinematic text a screen of sorts between worlds and about worlds, it veils as it shows. Much can be said about the off-screen space, relevant in the staging of abuse in Gadhama from where more perpetrators of violence beat Ashwathy’s on screen suffering body. Ashwathy seen as a veiled Muslim woman (see image above), is a false record, a gendered compliance performed by all female subjects of the land subject to Saudi law. Ashwathy has to be veiled in order to comply with an Islamist doctrine in place, rather than by her own will. This is an important distinction, for as Trinh T. Minh-ha elaborates, the woman who is able to choose to veil or not to veil is agential and is able “to claim a new difference in defiance of genderless, hegemonic, centered standardization.”[53]  So, Ashwathy’s image, does not attest to her own recollection of her past or identity. The gendered subject remains enclosed in signs that do not permit a fuller account of the real. How, then, can reality be represented fully when it is in a state of constant slipperiness, even as the camera does its painstaking labor of recording what appear to be shots of the authentic. Shahnaz Khan’s extensive work on the difficulties of ‘being and doing Muslim’[54] sheds light on how cinema sutures the reality of intersections of gender, religion, class, nation, and migration.​


The critical interconnections within this film defy popular binaries between sacred and profane, mainstream and art house, political and commercial. The film interrogates normative ideologies of capital and empire. Returning to the emergent of this film: in doing the work of raising consciousness and encoding radical political possibilities in a geopolitical order that allows the audience to choose from a smorgasbord of cinematic options, Roy’s internet documentary may well provide the subtext to films that intend to question the ideology of bourgeois visual culture. Gadhama indulges in nostalgia and attachment to the land whose sign as “Kerala” is marked through rain, wet earth, a lone sapling, a jackfruit tree, cow and a calf, all integral functionaries in the story world.

For the subjects, the hegemonic superstructure of national borders authorizes only a lack of mobility for some subjects. The film’s narratological order cements the failure of migrations, especially of the vulnerable, impoverished, female laboring classes, and gives visual proof through its filmic imaginary that migration fails to uplift the lives of the dispossessed. While it might lift the GDP of the sending-nations, the lives of the “sent” remain mired in carceral regimes of debt, patriarchies at home and abroad, national immobilities, and finally, the failures of decolonization. The characters’ nostalgic remappings along the axis of nadu (home) authorizes an indigenous imaginary that constitutes “Saudi” as the land of infinite hope, sacred longings, belongings, and relentless torment at once.  By bringing the violated migrant body back into focus, Gadhama makes room for decolonial critiques of capital and contemporary migrations of the working class. 

End Notes

[1] For a deep reading that critiques the teleological given of Kerala as producer of a cohesive Malayalam cinema, read Ratheesh Radhakrishnan’s article on the regions of this regional cinema as well as Jenson Joseph’s history of the studio films of 1950s.

[2] For a brilliant analysis of the absent presence of Malayalam soft-porn industry in its filmic past and present, read Darshana Sreedhar Mini’s article on the “Spectral Duration of Malayalam Soft-porn: Disappearance, Desire, and Haunting.”

[3] For more on tropes of marginalization, read the co-authored pieces by Raj and Gopinath.

[4] Adam Bingham, “Malayalam Cinema,” 116.

[5] Asha Kasbekar offers a helpful definition that is useful as an entry point in this discussion.  “…the smaller states of Karnataka and Kerala have been at the forefront of the “new” Indian cinema, one that eschews stars and formula to offer more personal cinematic visions.  In doing so, they have won acclaim in the art-house circuits in India and at international film festivals abroad.” (Asha Kasbekar, Pop Culture India! Media, Arts, and Lifestyle [Oxford, England: ABC CLIO, 2006], 215.).

[6] John Wilson, “Hawala and Other Informal Payment Systems,” Talk given on May 16, 2002.

[7] Michael T. Taussing, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 143-154; All prayer to Christ, the religious figure who also represents colonial and capital power, is left at the entry to the mines. Once inside, the miners worship a tio figure, an anti-Christ who also helps form a site of resistance, empowerment and education within the mines that helps remember a precolonial premodern past.

[8] As Taussig narrates about the miners, the site of the mine is inscribed by the figure of the devil.


[9] Kafala system of sponsorship makes the taking of worker passports and other documentation by hiring agency, which makes it nearly impossible for workers to exercise any rights or change jobs. For research on the subject of the class and social gaps between migrant workers and GCC citizens, read the edited work by Andrew Ross, The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor and Neha Vora’s book, Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora. Paula Chakravartty and Nitasha Dhillon explain about the Kafala system and the easy misunderstandings regarding this system in the west in Andrew Ross’s edited volume, “Researchers and activists from the region have shown that kafala is best understood as a modern and especially lucrative visa-trading system. The political compact that separates migrants from citizens within the GCC is not a product of premodern cultural difference. Rather, they argue, the vast wealth from oil and natural gas is central to how the ruling classes in the GCC maintain their autocratic power, protected in no small part by the United States and Western allies. Their wealth allows the Gulf’s ruling elites to “rent” foreign working classes who have far fewer political and labor rights compared to the citizens who make up 10 to 15 percent of the region’s population” (from Chapter 1: Gulf Dreams for Justice: Migrant Workers and New Political Futures).

[10] For an updated survey of labor rights in the UAE, read Rhacel Salazar Parrenas and Rachel Silvey, “Domestic Workers Refusing Neo-Slavery in the UAE,” Contexts, 15:3, 37. 

[11] Andrew Gardner, City of Strangers, 58, 64.

[12] Kanna Dubai, 45.

[13] Roper and Barria, Understanding Variations in Gulf Migrations, 49.

[14]  ‘Reverse Exodus: Gulf Workers Return to India, Bringing New Travails’ (2009):

[15] Arundhati Roy film, ‘We’ (2006): 

[16] See Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, for a full explication of the residual and the emergent (pp. 121-127): “What has really to be said, as a way of defining important elements of both the residual and the emergent, and as a way of understanding the character of the dominant, is that no mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy, and human intention” (125). While Williams himself acknowledges how difficult it can be to separate the residual, a continuation albeit as an alternative to the archaic past, from the oppositional, new, and resistant strain of what he names as emergent, I believe these films stage an ‘emergent’ rather than the ‘residual’ in their affect.

[17] See Ranjana Khanna’s article, ‘Disposability’ for a full understanding of the ties between psychoanalysis, Marxism, and feminism that shed light on the material reality of the disposable body.

[18] I am making a mimetic gesture to Darshana Sreedhar Mini’s work here. In her article, she constitutes an affective layering of imaginary geographies: “soft-porn” striking “chords in the collective memory of Kerala’s public space” (135).

[19] See Ritty Lukose’s article, “Consuming Globalization” for a full definition of her coinage, Keraleeyatham. Ritty Lukose’s study on youth and gender in Kerala frames identity-formations under colonialism, nationalism, and capitalism as she teases out ideas of resistance and agency by addressing the complex mediations on the site of consumption or consumptive practices.  Lukose charts the changes from the 1970s labor-centered public sphere bodypolitik to a consumption-oriented commoditizing global reality; she locates in female ownership and choice a distinct new aura of identity she labels “Keraleeyatham” which brings in line fluency in the global language of capital alongside a grounding in identity, language, and culture that distinctly forms under the sign of Kerala. 

[20] See Deniz Kandiyoti’s chapter, “Bargaining with Patriarchy” to gain a full understanding of Kandiyoti’s systemization of women’s accommodations in patriarchal systems across religious and geographic differences.

[21] See Anderson’s text, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, to gain insight into the way Anderson defines the nation as an imagined community knit by empathy, intellect, and affect.

[22] See Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza, for an elaboration of middle spaces. In Anzaldua’s work, ‘nepantla’ is a key term that signifies feminine mythology, spirituality, self-transformation, a veritable middle-zone, an interstitial place of creative possibilities inverting the traditional mapping of the border as walls, guns, wars, and damage.

[23] Andrijasevic, “From Exception to Excess,” 148.

[24] Azhari, “The Kafala ‘Sponsorship’ System in  Saudi Arabia,” 71.

[25] Expose on FIFA 2022 written by James Montague and narrated by Joe Devine. Feb. 9, 2018. In another one of the innumerable news pieces, often covered by Al-Jazeera, the Doha-based news agency, there are segments on the terrible working conditions for South Asian migrants in GCC countries ranging from UAE, Qatar, Saudi, etc. In a video segment provided by the Guardian on preparations for FIFA 2022, the report highlights the plight of Nepali workers in Qatar, and the tragedy of families back home who have to receive the dead bodies of sons they sent abroad, while still remaining mired in debt from that send-off. Hundreds of workers crowd in the backroom of their embassies, waiting for their identification papers to be returned to them from companies that did not pay them for months on end, so that they can leave the country. One workers shares, “I came here legally, but now I am illegal.” (qtd. in "Qatar’s World Cup ‘slaves’ People are Dying in Qatar because of World Cup 2022,” DarstvIslam, Oct. 6, 2013, based on an investigation led by The Guardian,


[27] Both Sharat Lin and Sunjeev Bery were panelists invited to speak at the ‘2016 Summit on Saudi Arabia: Human Rights’ on March 5, 2016, hosted by Andrea Miller, (

[28] Gayatri Devi, “Between Personal Cataclysms and National Conflicts,” 171.

[29] It is useful to note the character’s literary namesake here: Vaikom Mohammad Basheer (1908-1994), the famous Malayalam novelist, wrote extensively against religious orthodoxy and spoke up for the rights of women, especially in Muslim communities.

[30] Radhakrishnan, “The Gulf in the Imagination,” 217-245.

[31] Celli, National Identity in Global Cinema, 9.

[32] Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, Encyclopedia, 10.

[33] For a helpful list of fine ‘new cinema’ examples arising out of the Indian subcontinent, see Roy Armes, Third World Film Making and the West, 121-127.

[34] Amy Villarejo, Film Studies, 78.

[35] “Saudi Arabia: Events of 2016,” Human Rights Watch:

[36] World Report 2011: Saudi Arabia. Human Rights Watch:

[37] Romina Halabi, “Contract Enslavement of Female Migrant Domestic Workers,” 45.

[38] J.C., “Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia: Beheading the Golden Goose.” The Economist (Jul. 3, 2011): short report chronicles the swift execution by decapitation of an Indonesian maid, Ruyati Binti Sapubi for fatally stabbing her employer after suffering extensive abuse in her site of employment.  The President of Indonesia, Yudhoyuno speaks against this injustice that is one too many in a time period where six Indonesians die daily during their work as migrant laborers abroad.

[39] Mowbray, “Maids, Slaves, and Prisoners,” 1.

[1] Christopher Pinney’s coinage that ‘help explicate how it is that reflexive interventions in cultures themselves produce culture’, pp. 29.

[40] Online reviewer quotes director Kamal on the day of the film’s release when he speaks on behalf of diasporic Malayalees (marunadan as in other land).

[41] Michael Chanan, “The Changing Geography of Third Cinema,” 388.

[42] Anthony Guneratne sees the presence of Third Cinema in the ongoing struggles for liberation on many continents where cinematic themes of social justice challenge Hegelian notions of the ‘philosophy of history’.  In her chapter on Hindi cinema, Wimal Dissanayake, rescues the popular forms of commercial cinema through Nandy and others who see the value of watching from below.  The films record indigenous frames of references alongside national film cultures. (See Guneratne, Anthony et al, Rethinking Third Cinema.)

[43] Michelle Buckley, “Locating Neoliberalism in Dubai,” 268.


[45] Informed by the significant work launched by Rhacel Salazar Parreñas’s arguments in Servants of Globalization, in its first edition, published in 2001; it is a work so oft-cited that a second edition was revised and released in 2015.

[46] Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism without Borders, 245-246.

[47] Here, I reference the work of Swapna Gopinath and Sony Raj who write, “The subaltern status of a woman makes her mute. It cultivates attitudes of servitude and docility that resist political changes of any kind” (69).

[48] As Fatima is beaten by the man and woman who are her sponsors, they berate her in Arabic which appears in Malayalam subtitles, and I offer some of my own translations here: If people know, I will lose my face.  You have committed a sin against Allah as a Muslim.  If you die of our beatings, think of it as Allah’s blessings.  We have a good reputation in our family; if you ruin it, I will kill you.

[49] See Spivak’s article, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

[50] Dawit Woldu, Faces of Oppression, 59.

[51] Woldu, 56-57.

[52] See Trinh T. Minh-ha, “Not You/Like You: Post-Colonial Women and the Interlocking Questions of Identity and Difference.”

[53] See Shahnaz Khan, “Muslim Women: Negotiations in the Third Space.”


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