In the multicolour world of cinema, the heroine, oddly, is still painted the same colour. Every female role more or less resembles the rest and exist only to be put down by the heroes. With discussions raging over the misogynistic portrayal of women in Malayalam cinema, filmmakers argue that they only depict, but not endorse. When does this depiction of misogyny cross the line into becoming endorsement? And can our heroines ever break the glass ceiling?
Misogyny in cinema is an insidious thing. While we wait with dread for the big moustachioed guy to hit us on the head with it, it slips out of the mouth of a sweet old lady. While we expect it to colour the actions of the authoritarian old man used to having his way all his life, it could be the surprising calling card of the young working woman who shudders at the word ‘feminist.’
When does the depiction of gender inequality in film become endorsement? When the actions or words of a character propagate gender inequality and this remains unchallenged by the other characters or the narrative, the behaviour/views of this character are in turn endorsed by the film. In the film Chocolates, Shyam (Prithviraj) slaps his love interest Ann (Roma). His friend Ranjith (Jayasurya) tells him he shouldn’t have. So yes his act of violence towards a woman is questioned by another character. Shyam’s response, however, is an alarmingly cool “Yeah I shouldn’t have, but it happened. I’ll give her one less (slap) after marriage.” This, coming from the hero of the film is tantamount to telling the audience that domestic violence is the norm in marriages. The response to this in someone who has experienced domestic abuse will be markedly different from that in someone who hasn’t (however empathetic).
Now imagine this same line being mouthed by the villain. It would undoubtedly have been accompanied by a sneer and moustache twirling. The inherent evil in the line is obscured by the likability of the hero here. It is a throwaway line meant to diffuse the tension of the previous moment. This makes it tougher to judge Shyam, making it easier for us to, if not applaud it, at least ‘let it slide.’ While this line in this context is hard enough to stomach it becomes more so when we see it as part of a larger narrative. When a certain kind of character across films expresses the same viewpoints then the character turns into a type. Shyam is but another version of Induchoodan (Mohanlal) in Narasimham who invites Anuradha (Aishwarya) to bear his kids and his drunken kicks.
Love of the stalker variety
When Unnikrishnan (Mohanlal) blatantly abuses his power and uses state machinery to stalk Gatha (Girija) in Vandanam, we see it as endearing. In one of his most charming performances, Mohanlal brings to life an Unnikrishnan who bumbles his way into Gatha’s and our hearts by er… stalking her a little. Buried deep in a hilarious rom-com it is easy to miss that this is the most terrifying scenario for a single woman working in the city. When the shy and innocent Rasool follows Anna home from work, his intense eyes never straying from her, we are primed to see this as high romance. As a working woman who uses public transport to commute to and from work everyday before taking a labyrinth of dimly lit streets to get home, would you find this romantic or threatening?
‘Just a woman’ In King, Joseph Alex (Mammootty), verbally abuses IAS officer Anura Mukherjee (Vani Vishwanath) in the workplace. Anura’s character is a parody of the self-serving and insensitive public servant. She is also a strange blend of Malayalam cinema’s two favourite constructs—the lady of leisure and the career woman. Her priorities as a new IAS officer in training seem to be kitty parties and make up. Once again the hero puts the woman in her place, this time by normalising verbal abuse at work. She swings her arm to slap him and he blocks it with “It’s not that I don’t know how to make sure you never try to strike a man again. But you are just a woman.” He famously derides her for not having the “sense, sensitivity, or sensibility” for the job and Anura’s character has been carefully designed to cause the audience to nod their heads in agreement.
Needless to say, female ambition is something to be wary of in Malayalam cinema. In fact, if a woman wants to work it is seen as an insult to her husband, “the provider.” In Drishyam, one of the highest grossers in Malayalam cinema, Rani (Meena) suggests that she start working to supplement George Kutty’s (Mohanlal) income. He responds to this with alarm and pulls out the example of actor Samyuktha Varma who has given up her career after her marriage to actor Biju Menon. Rani responds to this with “Biju Menon earns in crores.” The underlying message is that as long as the woman does not need to work or rather as long as her husband provides her with the option of not working she should be content to not work. In fact, so pervasive is the need to keep the woman barefoot and in the kitchen that entire films have been dedicated to this.
Crisis of selfhood Raakuyilin Raagasadasil is the story of a singer, Vishwanathan (Mammootty), and his wife Janani (Suhasini). The hero repeatedly reminds his wife that her place is in the house waiting for her husband as he comes home tired after performing at concerts. “Should a wife throw away everything she has trained for once she is married?” she asks him, to which his reply is “I am not talking about artists and dancers I am talking about what my wife should do and what she should not.” Decades of double standards rolled into one epic response. Spirit and skill are to be admired in a woman, just not in one’s wife. Helpfully, the film also gives us a golden rulebook for what makes a perfect wife in the form of a song.
Because Janani refuses to give up her art Vishwanathan unilaterally decides to exit the relationship and leaves with (kidnaps) their son. After eight years, just as Janani is poised to have the title of Natyashree conferred upon her he returns to the scene. “I have been fuelling my vengeance with alcohol,” he says before elaborating on how the imagined sound of her anklets had given him sleepless nights for eight years and how his entire existence for all that time had revolved around thoughts of keeping her from winning the title. Any guesses on how this ends? That’s right, Janani falls at Vishwanathan’s feet and the saffron clad “wronged man” in his benevolence grants her his forgiveness in lieu of the title.
The scene in which Vishwanathan forces Janani to take off her anklets finds an eerie echo in Devasuram, filmed almost ten years later. Bhanumati (Revathy) angrily takes off her anklets before Mangalassery Neelakantan (Mohanlal) and swears to never put them on again in protest of his having insulted her art by forcing her to perform in front of his drunken friends. We don’t see another performance from this talented, highly trained dancer again. Yet another case of girl, interrupted.
Misogyny dressed as empowerment Sometimes the buildup is so effective and the let down so subtle that we miss the inbuilt double standard. Arakkal Ayesha, the spunky heroine the historical drama Urumi, is introduced to us as a fearless, fierce warrior princess. Having ruthlessly hacked nine Portuguese men (among others) to death, much is made in the film about how skilled she is at wielding weapons. From stealing the eponymous Urumi from Kelu Nayyanar (Prithviraj) to protect what is left of her family to joining him and his friend Thanseer (Prabhudeva) as they force the Chirakkal army to retreat, she is clearly established as a force to reckon with. Once she decides on Kelu as her mate, breaking with convention, it is she who seduces him rather than the other way round. By the time the final battle against the Portuguese rolls around, expectations are high. When she goes to Kelu with her strategies for the battle though, his instructions for her are to take the womenfolk and children to safety instead of joining him on the battlefield. “The woman must retreat as always?” she asks the question for the audience. “If I know that you are waiting for me it will be reason enough for me to come back,” Kelu tells her, looking deep into her eyes. Ayesha painfully hits the glass ceiling! Aaaaargh so close!!!
Sometimes gender bias plays peek-a-boo with us from within perfectly good scripts. Panchagani is widely considered to feature one of the strongest female characters in Malayalam cinema. The film revolves around Indira, the revolutionary who goes to jail for the murder of a feudal lord who impregnates a dalit worker before killing her by setting the dogs on her. Indira’s dying mother, who she comes out of jail on parole to see is another interesting female character, a freedom fighter who had picketed liquor shops with her nine month old at her hip. Though Indira is shown constantly challenging oppressive social structures she seems to be able to find intellectual equals for this quest only among men. Every time her younger sister asks her anything about politics or ideology, she replies with a condescending “you wouldn’t understand.” Her brother-in-law reveals to his wife that his offer to marry Indira had been met with “Mine is a different path. Marry Savithri, keep her safe.”
While the film clearly fights objectification and looks at the gendered nature of caste violence it does not quite question gender hierarchies. While the men around her ply her with books ranging from Camus to interviews of Fidel Castro, the women play house. In one instance Indira pulls out Elizabeth Fisher’s Creation of a Woman from Prabhakaran (Devan), her future brother-in-law and friend’s bookshelf. “I read one like this,” she says, “It was a bore.” She goes on to condemn the women’s liberation movement, specifically the usage of the slogan “burn the bra.” She overrides Prabhakaran’s weak defence of “it should be seen as a symbol and in context,” with a lecture on the perception of poverty. The film seems to want to underline the fact that Indira does not identify as a feminist. Her quest for equality, it hastens to assure us, stems from a larger understanding of global issues and is not rooted in anything as ‘trivial’ as gender inequality.
In Pathram, Devika (Manju Warrior) is built up as a talented and fiery journalist. When she first meets Nandan (Suresh Gopi) he compliments her on her coverage of the issues at a women’s jail. “Except for some snide remarks about men,” he hastens to add, “That will change once you really get to know men.” Things further devolve when her father Shekharan (Murali) offers Nandan the position of editor-in-chief of his newspaper Jagratha, a role he had presumably been grooming his daughter to take over from him for. “You don’t mind do you?” he asks her laughing. “A teensy weensy little bit,” she twinkles up at him cutely. See, she doesn’t mind giving up on her dreams now that the man of her dreams is here, the film seems to be telling us.
The gender gap in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Medicine) fields worldwide continues to widen. One of the reasons identified for this by the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media is that we don’t see enough women in STEM fields in popular culture. Malayalam cinema, with a history of vilifying or ignoring workingwomen, serves up very few exceptions. Professional practice and domestic bliss are seen as mutually exclusive. Elsie (Seema) in Kaanamarayathu is a successful doctor in her thirties who has a well-rounded personality and a definite arc in the film. In true Mills and Boon style, however, it is the eighteen-year-old orphan Shirly, who is “rewarded” with the thirty-six-year-old hero, Elsie’s ex flame, Roy while Elsie is condemned to (blessed with?) a life of spinsterhood.
The Bechdel test is a simple test to measure gender bias in any work of fiction. If there are at least two female characters (with names) in the film who talk to each other about anything other than men, the film passes the test. A quick run through of our favourite Malayalam films will reveal how few of them actually pass this basic test. Remember, Amma and Chechi are not names. Imagine if we were to further refine the test to include the clause that what these women speak about should be something unrelated to domestic problems and must take the plot forward in some way. Is that unrealistically tough? Yes, a world in which women find something other than men and homes to talk to each other about does sound unrealistic in the extreme!
Time to break free A ray of sunshine would be Rani Padmini. A film whose very name does half the job. A road film featuring two women in their late twenties, the film, except for a few detours, does manage to stick to course. Oru Muthassi Gadha, a film about Leelamma (Rajini Chandy), a woman in her sixties ticking things off her bucket list, is unique. It revolves around two women Leelamma and Susamma (Bhagyalakshmi) taking agency of their lives and redefining themselves. They step away from their roles as mothers and grandmothers to ask themselves what they want to do as women and decide to change the narrative.
Providing the female characters with greater screen time and performance potential is a substantial move in itself. Is it, however, enough of a step towards eliminating gender inequality? Manichithrathazhu, undoubtedly a modern classic, gave Shobhana immense scope to explore her abilities as both a dancer and actor and even won her a national award. Nagavally/Ganga has also undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the psyche of the Malayalee. A clear-eyed look at the film, however, reveals less appealing facets. It is the story of an educated woman who suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder. Her alternate identity is that of the feisty dancer Nagavally who seeks to challenge and overthrow the systems of feudalism and oppression that keep her from a life of freedom and choice. Once Dr Sunny has cured her in the spectacular climax, the film ends on a happily ever after note. “What is your name?” He asks Ganga as she sits by her loving husband. “Ganga,” she replies. “Tell me your full name,” he insists. “Ganga Nakulan,” she says and all is well with the world again. Her identity as Nakulan’s wife has been restored and the “mad woman in the attic” has been laid to rest. Of the two characters Nagavally and Ganga, Nagavally is the one with clear motivations and a character arc. We know nothing of Ganga’s dreams and ambitions except that she wants to lead a ‘normal’ life as Nakulan’s wife. That it is Ganga who emerges victor in this battle is telling in itself.
In Adaminte Variyellu (Adam’s rib) Avarachan Muthalaly’s (Bharat Gopi) impregnates Ammini (Soorya), domestic help in house. She is taken to a care home for women without her consent. Ammini who does not speak till then, takes in her surroundings and decides to reject the future being thrust on her. “Come let us escape!” she cries to the other inmates before running out. The others join her and in an unexpectedly splendid meta ending, the women run past the crew (director K.G. George playing a cameo as himself) and out of the frame. This is what we wish for every female character stuck in an unsatisfactory, stifling narrative – that they would break boundaries and step out of storylines that seek to box and oppress.
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