[Trigger warning: discussion on depiction of sexual assault and graphic violence]
The depiction of sexual violence and assault in Malayalam cinema has a long and disturbing history, with the voyeuristic male gaze controlling the visual and the misogynist patriarch controlling the narrative. The survivors and victims have not had a choice but to be boxed in by these narratives. Here, we look at the ways in which sexual violence has been made to appear before us on our screens. The pictures they draw and the options they leave us with are hardly assuring of a change for the better.
The ‘dishonoured’ 70s and 80s
In the 1978 film Kanthavalayam a rich spoilt business tycoon (Jayan) takes a fancy to his beautiful receptionist (Seema). He stalks her everywhere—in the lift, at the hotel foyer, on the road, and eventually forces himself on her. Then, he throws some notes at her. Apart from the morbid picturization, what is more revolting are the events that unfold later. The rape isn’t reported, instead she is forced to sleep with him again and again. Every time, he throws money at her. And disgustingly, she falls in love with him, blushingly reminiscing the intimacy they shared. It’s one of the earliest instances of romanticising rape in Malayalam cinema.
In the late 70s and 80s, rape was a staple in every mainstream Malayalam film—it was part of the deal, like how they now include item dance numbers in Bollywood. The plots will be around heroes turning vigilantes against the rapists. Rape was about power play, about shame, humiliation, chastity and family dishonour. In fact, the 70s and 80s had actors who were typecast in the role of rapists; Janardhanan, TG Ravi and Ummer, to name a few.
In Aa Rathri (1983), the wife is gang-raped, the offenders reach court only for the trial to end with the survivor being humiliated by the lawyer. She commits suicide. That was one of the most frightening depictions of rape in cinema and maybe it was also the reflection of the times we lived in. The survivor is always judged—either in court or by society and never allowed to get over the trauma. She has to choose between a life with the trauma or ending life itself. In the same film, they show another instance of molestation—but casually. A man is in the middle of making love to his girlfriend and suddenly his friend walks in. He apologises and leaves. The boyfriend tells her the only way to shut his mouth is to sleep with him. And she does. But that scene is more a matter of laughs intended to show their shady character.
The great directors
Director Joshiy, for the longest time, never made a movie without a molestation scene. And some of his films will go down in history for having the most grotesque scenes of rape. Even I V Sasi, for that matter, added it like a motif; a vulgar one. His Varthamanakalam (1990) is one of the most offensive and sexist films of all times, where the central female character is sexually assaulted at every point in her life. Even to the extent of being molested at her husband’s graveyard.
Another aspect was the picturization; here, the makers seem to have taken references from each other’s films. The pattern never varied—violence, terrifying BGM, helpless, wailing women, clothes torn and thrown and men who sniggered obnoxiously. The aftermath scenes also remained the scene—rapist zips his pants, buttons shirt, leers and leaves while the sufferer weeps with downcast eyes, amidst a mangled mess of clothes. Says cinematographer Ravi K Chandran, “There won’t be any details in the script, just a word or two— ‘Rape scene’, ‘Violent scene’ or something along those lines. The briefing usually occurs on the sets. We follow the directors’ instructions to the T.”
In PG Vishwambaran’s Ee Shabdam Innathe Shabdam (1985), which was also remade in Hindi, the heroine (Shobana) is gang-raped and killed in front of her husband, while the sister jumps from the terrace to save herself. When the law lets off the rapists, the husband (Mammootty) sets out to kill each of them. “It also reinforces another sickening patriarchal typecast—the men donning the role of protectors. Heroism is linked to safeguarding women’s honour. The stamp of the weaker sex just got stronger,” says Nandini, media planner. In Joshiy’s Iniyum Kadha Thudarum (1985), the format is repeated—wife gets raped, commits suicide and husband kills the perpetrators.
“What disturbs me is the voyeurism in them. Rape as such is a violent act and it's difficult to show it without making us uncomfortable. But the way it is portrayed is repulsive. Why do they need to show bare legs and cleavage to get the point across? They make it worse. And why should the survivor always be made to feel shame?” says Neelima Parvathi, journalist.
Often rape is construed as a manly attribute in cinema. In Maniyampilla Athava Maniyampillai (1981), the male lead who finds himself at the receiving end of a woman’s jibes decides to demonstrate his masculinity by raping her. There is a revolting instance when the woman gets roused during the middle of it, only to get slapped by him — “I can do more but I don’t want to,” he spits at her. All this because of a provoking piece of ‘advice’ given by Balachandra Menon’s character — “A woman fears a real man.”
Rape as a plot point most often functions to give a dull male character a reason to act (Puthiya Niyamam, Ee Shabdam Innathe Shabdam, New Delhi), to right a wrong, while serving as the female character's sole backstory. “It’s also interesting to note that in cinema, very few rapes are reported to the police,” says scriptwriter Deedi Damodaran.
In Kariyilakkattu Pole (1986), Hari Krishnan (Mammootty) rapes her when she tries to shield her close friend from getting trapped by him. It’s an unsettling scene, not just for the act alone but for the revolting words he spits at her — “I don’t feel anything for you. I have as much feeling for you as I have for a log of wood. But when a woman slaps me for the first time and walks away from my house, I won’t be able to look in her eyes ever again. Nor can I look at any woman like a man.” Is he provoked because she stands between him and his desire for another woman or is it just a blunt show of machismo? Or is it that she didn’t cater to his chauvinistic ideal of the genteel and delicate woman? Either way, can there be a more shameful instance of misogyny? Another bewildering aspect is the total apathy to the alarming issue in the film. The film at no point lets us ponder over the abject brutality Shilpa’s mother is subjected to. Ironically, it was the same Padmarajan who made the progressive Namukku Parkaan Munthiri Thoppukal—a rare instance where the survivor is not judged and given the freedom to live the life she wants.
More often rape is depicted in 80s films as "a crime of property" against the husband or father whose wife or daughter or sister is raped. It's not the women who go gunning for their rapists—it's their fathers, husbands or boyfriends or brothers. Or they die and resurface as ghosts in white saris and frenzied black hair in the dead of the night to kill the rapists—nine out of ten horror films thrived on that plotline (Veendum Lisa, Akasha Ganga). An exception would be Panchagni, where it was a woman who seeks revenge for another woman.
The Male Gaze: the voyeur’s delight
“Rape is always shown in the context of violence and power play in the backdrop of deafening BGM in cinema. In the next scene, it’s the end of the world for her. She has the choice to either live in misery or die. Or a benevolent man will sacrifice his family’s honour to wed her. Even after marriage, the society continues to hound her,” says Beena KA, writer.
It’s clear that filmmakers who mostly constitute men lack the sensitivity to handle such scenes. “I have always felt that most men view such scenes unemotionally. I remember watching Bandit Queen in a Mangalore theatre where the crowd that constituted only men started counting when the disturbing gang-rape scene was going on. It was appalling. For them, it’s just a “bit scene,” says Kiran Prakash, Journalist.
In the late 90s, director Vinayan was a habitual offender—his films always had disturbing scenes of rape, (Kattu Chembakam, Dada Sahib, Akasha Ganga, Vasanthiyum Lakshmiyum Pinne Njanum) clearly added to titillate than to move the story forward.
As distressing as the violence portrayed is, the abject callousness that some lend to their portrayal of rape is deeply disturbing. In the Dileep starrer Mr Marumakan, there is a scene where the hero foils the plan of molesting his sister by getting her to switch places with the villain's sister. And once the heinous act is done, our hero jumps with joy, slyly showing her to the cops. It’s Dileep again who looks desirously at the heroine in slumber and mumbles— “I feel like raping her” in Meesha Madhavan. An intoxicated Raghunandan (Mohanlal) in Spirit tells his ex-wife that “if he weren’t drunk he would have raped her.” “Ranjith still hasn’t understood the gravity of the sexism he projects. I wouldn’t say that an Aaram Thampuran was the lone anti-woman film, even Adoor was never empathetic to women. After acting in Swayamvaram, Sharada said in an interview that he has no understanding of women. An educated woman whose husband passed away has more options than prostitution to fend for herself but the film ends with this alarming point. In Kanmadam, the strong Bhanu (Manju Warrier) is made defenseless by a kiss. That’s how they restore the hero’s machismo on screen,” observes Deedi.
And they are so casually written into the screenplay that the audience fail to understand the danger lurking in it. Ironically, rape or the threat of rape appears in most of the so-called comedies and action movies. “It's the male gaze that is problematic more than extreme violence,” says Charmy Harikrishnan, journalist.
“I am more disturbed by the issues that are passed through as normal, legitimate—for example, I find what Madhavan Kutty (Mammootty) did more violent than the rape committed by MG Soman in Hitler. Instead of filing a complaint, he chooses to marry her off to the rapist. If one was to point out the extra-textural element, he is a hero, played by Mammootty, so when such a hero does it, it’s like manufacturing consent. Shouldn’t he be the last person the brother should pick to marry off his sister? Such benevolent fathers and brothers are perilous, they are trying to endorse a disturbing kind of gender politics. At least the rest we can distance as rape,” says Deedi Damodaran who adds that “it is the same problematic attitude that prompts an association like AMMA to prohibit the female actors from travelling at night.”
New cinema: The slim hope for change?
But in the ‘new age’ Malayalam cinema, depicting rape in a salacious way appears to have fallen out of fashion, possibly due to political correctness. Having said that in the two-year-old PuthiyaNiyamam, the build up to a gang-rape sequence that stretched to 15 minutes was distressing. “When you shoot a hospital scene, we know what it will be like, and we have already seen the doctors and patients. But this was a different kettle of fish altogether. And the only reference in front of me was the films we have seen before. I checked out quite a few old Hindi films on YouTube and decided that they were too dramatic. Then I watched a few English films, particularly Irreversible. But that would be too scandalous for our sensibilities. And I had to shoot with a star like Nayanthara—her only demand was to not make it vulgar,” recalls Roby Raj, the cinematographer of PuthiyaNiyamam.
It's doubtful that any major film-maker nowadays would get away with demonstrating such dodgy sexual politics as they did in the 80s. But Neelima thinks even the most feted film of this year, Angamaly Diaries had a very nasty line slandering a woman’s character (“She will agree for Rs 2000”) or the supposedly comic scene where they call her “a piece.”
Often the male directors’ desire for lurid “realism” has led to horrid results. Like Renjith’s Palerimanikyam: Oru Pathirakolapathakathinte Katha, which has multiple rape scenes. Nothing is more unsettling than this scene - After Manickam is raped and left for dead, Ahmed Haji instructs his two henchmen to dump her body. Enroute, they realise that she is still alive and they rape her again. “The audience is more a spectator than an empathiser while watching such scenes which is totally unacceptable,” maintains Asha.
In 22 FK, where the female character is raped twice by her boyfriend’s boss, the scenes weren’t graphic but the violence was disturbing. “I wouldn’t say it was voyeuristic but it made everyone cringe. It is also wrong to presume that violence against the perpetrator is the solution to end or avenge violence against the wronged,” maintains Cithara Paul, journalist. In 22 FK, the survivor seeks her own vengeance.
"I think even the evolution of cinema (old gen and new gen) seems only restricted to men. Morality at any generation, from what i see, is always liable only to women in cinema," sums up Deedi.
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