Sardines never taste the same again to those who watch the play Matthi. Every crunch and bite is now packed with questions of identity and habit. The people who enjoy eating this smelly fish, sold fresh from the waters of Kerala, are united by many other passions and peculiarities of the region. Matthi, which explores the ties that bind individuals into communities, won the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi award last year. The Best Actor runner-up went to the play’s unconventional actor, a lanky village mason with a disarming grin.
Renji Kankol was cast as fish-seller Rafeeq because director Jino Joseph kept remembering his face, mannerisms and gestures while writing the play. “When the director told me about the role, I found that the age and character of Rafeeq was the same as mine,” says Kankol, 27. Joseph would find out later that Kankol, who dropped out of school after class X, used to carry matthi baskets on his head to distribute to shops in his village.
“I earned Rs 60 a day. My body was full of the smell. Others will not like this smell but we love it,” says Kankol, who won Best Actor at the prestigious Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) in 2015. Matthi was also presented at Bharat Rang Mahotsav (BRM), National School of Drama’s (NSD) annual festival, earlier this week.
The play is a snapshot of rural life in which villagers have simple concerns and small jobs. Every rite of passage, from childhood pranks to teenage crushes, from acting in a local play to participating in a political meeting, is flavoured by fish. Tasty, healthy and cheap, matthi is the food of the masses. It is cooked by a girl Rafeeq falls in love with, and by his sister Kunjami for public gatherings. “The period between the ’60s and ’90s marked a big cultural transition in Kerala.
Youngsters and entire families began to migrate out of villages for studies or work, and their place was taken by labourers from Bengal and North India,” says Joseph. The stink of fish from the stage is replaced by the dust of cement mixers. Rafeeq finds that the big fish have swallowed up the small matthi.
Kankol has spent all his life in the Left bastion of Koothuparamba, a town that was once a hub of art and cultural activities and political revolutions but is now better known for a 1994 incident of police brutality, the Koothuparamba Firing. The son of a mechanic, he would participate in folk plays and grew up making props and doing odd jobs around the stage. The role of Rafeeq came a month after his father died and Kankol was struggling to earn a livelihood for his mother and his sister.
“One day, you will be known by the name of Matthi Rafeeq,” Joseph promised the mason. “He is not an actor and that is the positive thing. His sorrow becomes the sorrow of the audience, his pleasure becomes their pleasure,” says Joseph.
“Rafeeq is not a leader or a boss, but he has his own politics. He never sells big fish. He always stands on the side of the marginalised people. He gives up only when he realises that the local sardines are being exported and their place was being taken up by imported fish kept in cold storage,” says Kankol, and adds that he is “pro-communist”. The actor says he was enthusiastic about his first lead role but did not know how to perform. The cast attended a camp in tents they put up and cut out the outside world for 45 days to develop the play. “All the people came together, had their food together, cooked together, ate together and slept together. This togetherness made the play. We started the day by cooking matthi and slowly the play began to take shape,” says Kankol.
In his small house, Kankol has made a wooden shelf to display the awards, appreciations and mementoes coming his way from cultural organisations and events such as International Theatre Festival of Kerala. Matthi is reportedly causing a social revolution in Kerala by bringing back the culture of local clubs where budding artistes can express themselves through theatre. This is important in the context of the nature of the district – a major industry in Kannur is bomb-making and no day goes by without reports of a fatal explosion. He adds, “We cannot say Matthi has made big revolutions and all the social and political problems are solved. Matthi is a celebration of nostalgia, it makes people realise what we miss today. The play is a small reminder of that.”
He still works as a mason, making relief works on cement. “We cannot compare our passion with money. Theatre gives pleasure, it helps us to forget our troubles and reinforces our faith,” he says. Among theatre-goers, however, he is famous. The morning after Matthi was staged at BRM, a campus theatre group pointed out Kankol as he wandered around NSD and called out, “Nice play, Matthi Rafeeq.”