For someone who has never dared to portray women beyond their stereotypical imagery, it is ironical that Kamal has decided to translate the life and times of one Kerala’s most liberal woman writers, Kamala Surayya, on screen. If his recent controversial statement against Vidya Balan, his claustrophobic notions of sexuality and that stagey trailer of Aami are anything to go by, we would say the verdict is already out on this biopic. Here, we take a moment to look back at the many female characters produced by Kamal only to find that they all go back to one and the same: a stereotype.
In the climactic scene in Azhakiya Ravanan (1996), Shankar Das aka Kutty Shankaran stands before his childhood playmate and wife, Anuradha. “It’s my foolish, impulsive decisions that propelled you to make such a mistake (have consensual sex with her lover). Nothing has happened to you. You are still in my mind in all your pristine purity,” declares an emotionally distraught Kutty Shankaran. The very next moment, she tears up, falls at his feet and accepts his love. Two stereotypes inherent to any Kamal film are being reiterated here: a) by accepting a ‘tainted woman’, the benevolent hero shall attain greatness and b) chastity will remain the primary and secondary qualification for any heroine. What is forgotten here is that Anuradha was a mere pawn in the hands of Das; not only is she tricked into marrying him, eventually she is also made to apologise for daring to challenge his decision. So, it seems convenient to vilify her lover and glorify the manipulative hero.
AyalKadha Ezhuthukayanu (1998) has a bizarre heroine who loses her mind when she believes that her virginity had been taken away by her scrawny school mate. Later, when her marriage is fixed with Sagar, she is convinced that she must break it up, so as not to betray her prospective groom. Vidyasagar’s transformation into the pulp fiction writer, Sagar Kottapuram, is another form of male conditioning where he becomes a wasted writer because his marriage was called off by the woman! Because society has labelled this form of rejection as a challenge to the man’s masculinity. Kamal thoroughly plays into every stereotype and eventually they stage a weird drama where he convinces her that she was indeed a pure virgin when he married her. This movie also propagates the notion that women’s experiences of sexual assault are figments of their imagination, and makes the heroine say it in so many words. But hey, long live chastity, right?
A more violent representation of his obsession with chaste women can be seen in ChambakkulamThachan (1992), where the leading man (Murali) hacks his wife (Monisha) when he believes that she cheated on him with another man (Nedumudi Venu). The other man is of course left free. The argument that this is done to reflect our society’s ills falls flat when years later, in the film, he reconciles with his daughter and she is shown to be empathising with his side of the story. His wife is not there to tell her side of the story - do you get the problem?
The lakshman rekha of domesticity
Kamal perceives that a woman’s destination is at home, within the guardianship of her husband, father and son. He would not push her to step out of the confines of her domesticity. But the few instances when he has tried to give her a more radical garb, he has made sure she eventually cowers to patriarchy. This was the pattern in his films—women had no say in any big decisions, least of all their choice of life partner.
The rich, spoiled Kunjulakshmi (PeruvannapuratheVisheshangal; 1989) succumbs to the hero’s charms. But in the end, she doesn’t have a say in her own marriage. The same goes for this supposed love story in KrishnagudiyilOruPranayakalathu (1997); Meenakshi (Manju Warrier) remained a puppet, whose strings are pulled by the men in her life—father, fiancé and the man she finally falls in love with. The happy ending is a benevolent gift from her fiancé. Urvashi in Thoovalsparsham (1990) is a weak, forever-wailing single mother who can’t seem to pick the pieces of her life. Vishnulokam’s (1991) Savithrikutty is another weakling, scarred by societal conditioning, finally gaining freedom through a man.
The rare, strong independent women invariably end up looking up to a man for guidance. EePuzhayumKadannu’s (1996) Anjali starts off as a promising woman taking care of her grandmother and two sisters, but finds her life on stable ground only when Gopi enters her life. The sisters are sad and victimised depictions of disability and heartbreak. With a fat dowry, the second one is happily married and the elder one finds heaven at a home where she takes care of a lot of elderly persons.
EnnodishtamKoodamo’s (1992; one of those mishaps from Raghunath Paleri) leading lady (Madhoo) has lot of spunk and monkeys around with the hero who is her driver (Mukesh). He typically makes it for love and is shattered when she says, “it was all done in fun.” Here the century old misrepresentation is enforced—if a female talks freely to a man, she is interested in him, and predictably ends up “falling in love with him.”
Hitting out within the system
Most of these women try to wage their battles standing inside the system—we see that clearly in Gaddamma (2011) and Perumazhakkalam (2004), where also the benevolent man comes to her rescue. The traditional domesticated women are a trope—even her choice of profession is in sync with that imagery. Teacher, government employee, typist, salesgirl, artist, domestic worker and homemaker. One of his most interesting female protagonists remain Kakkothi in Kakkothikkavile Appooppan Thaadikal (1988)—the smart gypsy girl who is witty, positive and lovable. But even Kakkothi is more a symbol of childhood nostalgia than a fully formed, layered human being.
When being domesticated and staying within the system are more valued to the filmmaker, representations of intricacies in relationships are also sewn in with safety pins. Those relationships that are sexual in nature are rolled back to their virgin format, carefully so as not to upset the applecart. In Meghamalhar (2001) Nandita and Rajeevan are married to other people but eventually fall in love. After travelling together quite a bit (the sexual intimacy is only hinted), they mutually agree to part ways. “I felt the connect they shared went way beyond the physical and did not want the audience to be distracted by that aspect of their relationship. I discussed it with Kamal and we agreed to only hint at their sexual involvement in the climax,” says Bina Paul, editor of the film.
Ending (up) with the men
The so-called spunky, bold women have followed a defined path in most, if not all Kamal movies: one where their destiny/happiness/unhappiness is always irrevocably linked to a ‘complete’ man; recall Meera Jasmine, Navya Nair in Gramophone (2003),Meera and Bhavana in Swapnakoodu (2003), the leading lady in Nammal (2002), Annie in MazhayethumMunpe (1995), Madhoo in EnnodishtamKoodamo (1992), Shalini in Niram (1999), Urvashi in Vishnulokam (1991). That was the ideal closure and he has, as you can see, an unbroken record.
Undoubtedly, it would be great to see Kamala Surayya’s story unfold on screen. But much of the truth in representation would depend on who controls the narrative. The trailer of Aami is almost 2 minutes; it has just over 20 seconds of the main character’s voice, ie the woman’s voice and over a 100 shots of the many men. Let’s hope that’s not what we have to deal with in the full film?
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