Women in Malayalam Cinema
This is absolutely not an academic literature essay. This is an honest attempt to look at recent Malayalam Cinema as a medium to discuss how women are portrayed. Please do not expect definitions, expansions or a glossary. Also, Spoilers!
The story of women in Malayalam Cinema did not start off very strong. From the biopic of J.C Daniel, Celluloid, he was faced with the challenge of casting an actress to act opposite him in his first film Vigathakumaran. When he had found a willing actress in P.K Rosy, there happened protests, over a Dalit being cast as a Nair woman. I would love to end this paragraph with We have come a long way after this debacle, but all is not well even after decades of this incident.
From here, we progressed to a time when movies were more accepted as an entertainment medium and more women were allowed to act. This lead into one of the golden ages of Malayalam cinema where we told stories no one else would dare to attempt. But this was also the age another kind of Malayalam cinema gained popularity: The Soft Porn. Malayalam industry and actresses were so prominent in the industry that some of these movies are still well known across India. Even our mainstream cinema took in themes of sexual desire way before the rest of India caught up, reference Avalude Raavukal, Ina or Rathinirvedam. While each of these movies tackled different themes and were brilliant movies altogether, in the age of theatres and small television videos, what spread across the states was Malayalam soft porn industry.
Going further from here, it is difficult to rate the change as progressive or regressive. Mass adoption was happening to television and it entered each and every home. Theatres became well spread across the state and suddenly everyone had access to cinema. The themes of the cinema quietly evolved for everyone(?) to participate and enjoy. From filmmakers who challenged the society’s fabric and asked difficult questions, we transitioned into the age of superheroes and fairy tales. Women characters, keeping in tabs with the number of women in the industry started to dwindle and existing ones were devoid of any real character development. This isn’t to say this era was completely devoid of strong women characters. Movies like Niram, Kanmadam, and Pathram produced very memorable women characters who are still iconic and referenced in popular media. But other than these few movies, we failed to provide proper characters arcs for any of the female leads.
Women turned into an instrument of desire in many of these movies. When I say instrument of desire, it goes both ways. In movies where the hero is brat carrying a toxic masculine attitude, it required some instrument to make the hero likeable. Woman (sometimes even women) are shown to be wooing the hero, thus rising the desirability (if so many of opposite sex wants him, he must be likeable logic) of the hero in question. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing per se, but these women very commonly became merely tools and weren’t given any character development to justify their inclusion except for this fancy trope. Even when the case was the reverse, it happened to be pretty much criminal stalking and the only reason those women would fall in love with the hero would be Stockholm Syndrome. Apparently, this has taught a whole generation that No from a woman actually means Chase Me.
I’m not forgetting the presence of so-called item songs or treating women as property with upbeat music containing sexual innuendo that no one even says in real life. But I don’t expect anyone to be gender equal there and show a man instead. Rather than being applauded for gender equality, the movie makers are going to be trashed by reviewers for being unrealistic.
We have now evolved into a new era of storytelling, one that is termed as Metro Cinema. Stories that are targeted to an audience that watch movies in multiplexes in the middle of a shopping experience, an audience that will buy your DVDs, Blu-Rays and analyse every scene from their home theatres.
Shobana plays the main lead of the movie here. Her character, Dr. Rohini Pranab is a successful cardiologist runs a destitute shelter for girls. While Dhyan Srinivasan as Naveen ably attends to her, he has his story to tell. When some children from Rohini’s child home goes missing, she risks it all to find them. She is bold,independent, fierce and reminds us of some of Shobanas’ earlier characters. She is a warrior, well-written character and does whatever it takes for her love of children. Thira is a textbook thriller and instead of the characters, it is much of the plot and camera that drives the audience.
While the movie talks about the story of four brothers, this movie has more or so plenty of women who drive the plot forward. Babymol played by Anna Ben could be characterized as the heroine of the movie. She is frank and has her own views on love and relationships. Breaking the Thepp stereotype of Malayalam cinema, she drives the relationship forward, stays through thick and thin even when the hero himself is doubtful. She inspires the hero to find a job and get over his commitment issues. But we have to talk about another character here, Simi played by Grace Antony. She starts off the movie as a patriarchal wife afraid and under the shadow of her husband. But at a point where she sees a hint of abuse in her family, she reacts and catapults the climax. She breaks that stereotype of patriarchy and goes on to defend herself and her family.
Om Shanti Oshana
A coming of age story that defined the age of woman-centric movies. The central character played by Nazriya Nazim is jovial, vibrant and careless, thus a typical character necessary for coming of age stories. The camera glides through her life, growing her character through her love interest. But make no mistake, it is not her love interest that is a focus here, it is her life and Nazriya drives it home with charisma.
Vijay Sooparum Pournamiyum
A movie that gives both leads equal importance, giving both of them aspirations and character arcs. Isn’t that the dream?
A movie from director Jis Joy coming fresh after another cinema Sunday Holiday that holds up with the same characteristics we described. The female lead Aiswarya Lekshmi is coming from a couple of films where she plays a role as important as the male counterpart (Maayanadhi and Varathan). The male lead Asif Ali has also added a couple of these movies to his list (Sunday Holiday, Anuraga Karikin Vellam). Together they produce a feel-good movie that plays with audience expectations. After Pournami and Vijay get stuck in a room together, they decide to go into business with each other realizing what they were looking for is each other. But Vijay looks after the kitchen and purchase and Pournami becomes the face of the company dealing with marketing and sales with her MBA degree and entrepreneurial dreams. Both characters have different character traits and their own flaws to overcome.
Why is this important?
Why is it so important that women are portrayed well in cinema? Cinema is just a medium for entertainment. Right?
Yes and No. There may or may not be repercussions of cinema in real life, the jury is still out on that. But at the very virtue of people who:
- Bought bullets and went to rides after watching Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi
- Mobile stores after Salala Mobiles.
- People who wore caps after Mayaanadhi
we can safely assume that cinema does inspire some trends to be followed in real life. But farther than that, cinema surely acts as a reflection of what the society thinks and acts.
For every social phenomenon, we see this happening. First, it is played for jokes, it becomes the subject and then it appears normal in cinema and no one bats an eye. You can see in Bollywood with cinemas like Padman, Toilet: Ek Prem Kadha or Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. When the characters of Kumbalangi Nights, discuss the heroine and hero being of different religion through a single dialogue, this is what I wish for to come true: Something the society has grown to accept as a reality rather than a plot point. Similarly, the right portrayal of women in cinema, with bold, likeable characters can go a long way.
In this decade, we have told stories about women that were unimaginable in the last. But even in the era of metro storytelling, we have stories that need to be told, ones that haven’t been as effective enough. Here’s a small bucket list:
- Female Friendships
Mollywood has had its fair share of friendships: Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi, Malarvaadi Arts Club, Premam to name a few. While these are all guy friendship movies and am not complaining, all good movies on their own, we could do a little better with female friendships. It is not untouchable, neither is the story unapproachable as proved by Shalini Ente Koottukari back in 1980. The supporting women friends in today’s movies turn out to be created for plot exposition, someone who can explain the plot rather than a fledged out character on its own. We have tried with Bangalore Days, Queen or Anandam, but we can do much better on this front. Here is looking forward to Adaar Love Story to deliver (Now that I have watched the movie, Never Mind. I should not have expected so much.).
- Coming of Age
Mollywood produced a brilliant woman-centric movie Om Shanti Oshana but has been pretty much quiet since. Here is looking forward to June 👧 to deliver.
- Mass Masala Movies
For the mass movies that make the audience cheer at each step, for the hero that never quits, we need a movie with a woman in lead. Whether it is Vani Viswanath police characters or Manju Warrier in Pathram, we have forgotten to up the ante on this one.
I understand that cinema is a large male-dominated crew trying to hypothesise how a female character should behave, converse and behave. I’m not recommending women that are bold, fierce or flawless. In fact, it should be fairly obvious that they cannot be flawless. (maybe it is not since franchises like Star Wars has got it wrong) Cinema needs to have characters that are well written, ones with backstories, flaws through which they grow and face challenges that they can overcome. It doesn’t have to be any different when it comes to women characters.
PS: I have deliberately stayed away from ghost characters.