OPINION | Where popular Malayalam cinema falters is where Kerala society falters

A look at women characters (or lack of them) in recent Malayalam films


The Malayalam film industry is basking in the glow of consecutive successes this year. Industry pundits, in a self congratulatory mood, have highlighted how the success of one film paves the way for the next venture. Amidst this self-congratulation, I want to reflect on a small yet powerful criticism that many film critics, actors and viewers, have leveled against the big-ticket releases this year. Barring Premalu, all other major releases in the Malayalam industry, from Manjummel Boys to Aavesham to The Goat Life, egregiously have very few women characters, very few women voices, very few women’s stories deemed worthy of being told.

From a world-building point of view, I have always wondered how these men landed on earth, without the reproductive agency of women (or lack thereof) and men, for that matter. Yes, our movie makers have mostly covered this through the sacrosanct ‘mother’ roles. This also extends to the ‘sister’ role and the ‘grandma’ role—because you know, you need the wombs to make the sons that will eventually populate the films, yeah?

While I thoroughly enjoyed the big ticket releases of this year, I was left with a gnawing feeling. I pushed through the discomfort and I accepted them for they were indeed well-made, compelling and somewhat honest in the story they wanted to bring to the surface. But, the gnawing persists.

How would Manjummel Boys have unfolded if it had been about a group of girls going to Guna cave? Granted that it was based on a real incident from 2007, what would that look like? Susan Thomas (@afsarnama) writes on instagram “If a bunch of girls were to go, can the men b(be) obviated so clinically? The permissions apart, fr (for) a girls trip to go bad, there has to be a man thrown in 🤪 - the rescue officers, the fire service all will b(be) men. And so I went to sleep knowing well that a boys moviw (movie) cn (can) b (be) made without girls but the vice versa can't be done on the same script. Thoughts?”

So here are my ruminations on how these movies look at women and what these movies could have looked like if they had done justice to the women in it.

The Goat Life: Is Najeeb’s wife, Sainu's story, a survivor drama?

I wonder what The Goat Life would have looked like if we also saw what was happening back home in Kerala while Najeeb was going through hell in the desert? How did Sainu raise their child as a single mother? What tensions came to the surface? How did she survive? As a medium, cinema has the flexibility to move out of Benyamin's Aadujeevitham on which the movie is based, and see how a woman's life is lived and impacted when her husband is facing vulnerable conditions in a forsaken desert. Why is that not a story worth telling?

Aavesham’s ‘strong mother’ is a comic-tragic trope

Similarly, I couldn't help but be befuddled by the comic lack of women characters in Aavesham. I am reminded of Fahadh Faasil's perplexed look when Anupama Chopra asked him about this. He said, “The presence of the mother is very strong in Aavesham, you don’t see it but you feel it”. Yes, the biology has been covered, the bare minimum.

To my mind, Ranga’s mum’s presence only had one effect: it created the comedic scenes of Ranga directing his enforcers while they were beating up their adversaries. Ultimately, he disregarded his mum’s directive. So, whether the mum existed or not, Ranga would have done what it takes to preserve his life. Without the mum, it would have been less hilarious.

The other mother, Bibi’s mum, despite her caricature-ish portrayal stirs something seemingly deep in Ranga which is crucial to how the movie pans out but it is only cursorily engaged. Exploring his emotional scars would have been a great relief to the masculine trope of loyalty and would have enabled viewers to get a handle on how demands of masculinity could cause suffering in men and boys.

I am not saying we should have women in every frame, but doesn’t it pique your interest to know how the story would have turned out if it were set in a women’s college, if women had to contend with a goonda? Or if Amban was a woman? Or if Ranga had a family? Or if Ranga were a woman or identifies as a woman? Or if Ranga had more than brotherly love towards Bibi? Or closer to the story we saw on screen, if Ranga’s and Bibi’s mothers were real people with real needs, rather than shadows lurking in the dark?

An honest look at mother’s rage in Manjummel Boys

In Manjummel Boys I didn’t think the scenes with Subhash's mum’s anger towards the end was necessary for the plot, yet it resonated with me. Her rage is distinctly different from the rage that emanates from the ‘can’t care less’ attitude of the police officers who violently assault the innocent boys who came to receive help.

The mother’s rage is a rage coming from raising boys in a society that lets them run amok and when they run into trouble, they will pull down all the women in their lives. Subash’s mum has to bear the burden of nursing her son back to health, no questions asked. The redemptory arc for Kuttettan was unnecessary and not a convincing look at the internal world of Subash’s mother. Society demands that she falls at the feet of the savior of her son, but a mother may still find it difficult to fully forgive the friend who endangered her son in the first place. I would like to hear that story told.

We need to demand more from our artists

It is a no-brainer that these movies paint a man’s world and it is a somewhat true reflection of Malayalee society, even though we have a development model named after us. A development model built on remittances, which leaves out the stories of women who raise families single-handedly or not, while their better halves are living out a survival drama elsewhere. To recognize that as a survival story; that is where I would like Malayalam cinema to go. To give an equal canvas to depict lives and tales of Malayalee women. Strong, hairy, warts and all. Not the minuscule, not just the mother, not just the prostitute, not just the bearer of wombs, something more, something vital, something that gives justice to the person and the voice occupying the role and yet, not having to be defined by that role, not just mere caricatures, but real flesh and blood.

Like your aunt who can be incisive yet humorous, who could be a guardian and enforcer of patriarchal norms when it suits her, but is also intelligent to game it to get what she needs which she can’t otherwise receive by simply being what the system demands her to be. Or that friend, who recently got married and her new status makes her a target of judgment from her not-yet married/unmarried friends who may feel that she is living under her husband’s thumb; her new family who are waiting for her to make a mistake to tear her down to build her up in their mold; and her own family, who are cheering her on the sidelines for settling into domesticity; but by no measure does she see herself as a damsel in distress and she takes full ownership of her personhood. Or that friend, cousin, acquaintance who refuses to marry, bears witness to the judgment of the world and is by no means a victim but a force to be reckoned with. Or someone in between, stuck, lost, struggling to find her place in this world, with or without the trappings of marriage, professional success, or relationships? What would it take to build a world around these characters?

Why are women’s tales, troubles and travails, not considered worthy of popular Malayalam cinema is the question I am posing. Because women are expected to go on, get on with life, no questions asked, no matter what.

Perhaps, people do not want to know the messy details of how a single mother survives in a society that is heteropatriarchal?

Perhaps, people don’t want to know goondas who have strong women influences in their lives, do not want to know the impact of hypermasculine aggression on them, do not want them to be mature adults eking out a living in crime, while also raising a family?

Perhaps, they would rather see a mother’s rage being subdued at the altar of heroic worship than witness its full and cataclysmic impact?

Perhaps, the business of making movies does not want to get into the messy details of life but just wants to play out a formulaic narrative that is sure to recoup their investment and then, some more. In all these scenarios, women, in all their diversity, are left behind.

So I live with the gnawing and demand more of our writers, our artists. Make space for women in cinema. Make space for them to live in art as they live in real life. No glory needed, no caricatures, just real characters.

About the author:

Maria Mathew works on population and development issues, with a special focus on gender equality, at the United Nations. The author can be reached at mmathew2030@gmail.com.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK.


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