Anna Ben's Kappela, which recently released on Netflix, has generated quite a lot of discussion on social media. Is it a cautionary moral story for women who seek out romance without their family's knowledge? Or is it a story about second chances and an empowering film about a woman who makes a mistake but isn't castigated for her "sin"?
Even as the film's politics is being debated, it's interesting to note that the actor who has carried it on her shoulders is only three films old. 21-year-old Anna Ben, with her curly hair and bright, open smile is an actor to watch out for.
Anna made her debut in Kumbalangi Nights in 2019. The critically acclaimed film, directed by debut director Madhu C Narayanan, had several stars in the cast, including Fahadh Faasil and Soubin Shahir. However, Anna's role as Baby Mol did not fly below the radar. She played sister-in-law to Shammy (Fahadh), a toxic, patriarchal man who wishes to control the women in his household.
Baby Mol has a mind of her own. She has a crush on the aimless, somewhat bashful Bobby (Shane Nigam), and does not mince words. She's also the first person to stand up to Shammy in the film, even as others try to please him. With her charm and arresting screen presence, Anna left a mark.
Her second film was with another debut director, Mathukutty Xavier. Not only was Anna the solo lead of Helen, the film was a survival thriller. Women leads often appear in rape-revenge or horror films. However, it's rare for a film to have a woman lead in this genre — and without sexual violence being the main theme. As the chirpy, sensible Helen who deeply cares about her father, Anna yet again proved her mettle.
The film is about a young woman who works in a restaurant and gets accidentally trapped in the freezer room. Nothing much happens with the room other than Helen befriending a rat and trying various methods to keep herself warm. But the reason the audience cares about what happens to Helen lies in the strength of Anna's performance.
In Anna's third film Kappela, by debut director Muhammed Musthafa, she plays a young woman who has failed her Plus 2 exams, and does not have big ambitions in life. She dreams of seeing the sea, falls in love with a stranger over the phone, survives a misadventure and resumes her life.
The politics of the film apart, this was yet another narrative mostly centered on Anna's character. What's interesting is that Anna's roles are not what you'd call 'inspiring'. She doesn't do anything revolutionary or serve as a role model for anyone. She's not even in a profession that's considered to be male dominated — like a woman cop. And yet, she manages to draw us in and stay with her.
While in other film industries, women actors have had to wait for years to establish themselves and then get films where they're the solo lead or at least have substantial roles to play, it's an encouraging sign to see such films being made in the Malayalam industry.
Of course, women-led cinema isn't new in Malayalam — actors like Seema, Geetha, Shobana, Urvashi, Manju Warrier and more recently Parvathy — have all done such films. What's appreciable though is that newer women stars like Anna, who have only a handful of films to their credit, are also pushing the boundaries.
29-year-old Rajisha Vijayan and 23-year-old Nimisha Sajayan are two other relatively new women stars from the Malayalam industry who have an impressive filmography — not lengthy, but of quality.
Rajisha had a stint in television before she came to cinema. Her debut film was Anuraga Karikkin Vellam, which also starred veteran actor Biju Menon, Asha Sharath, and Asif Ali. The film revolves around a father-son relationship, but Rajisha as the naive, head-over-heels in love Eli (Elizabeth) endeared herself to the audience. She walked away with the Kerala State Film Award for Best Actress.
After the disappointing Georgettan's Pooram and middling Oru Cinemakkaran, Rajisha floored the audience again with Ahamed Khabeer's June. A coming-of-age story told from a girl's point of view, Rajisha played different ages in the film, from a schoolgirl with braces to a working woman. The film takes us through June's growing up years — crushes, heartbreak and dreams — and it became a hit at the box-office, completing a 100-day run.
Then came Finals, where she played Alice, a cyclist training for the Olympics. However, before she can chase her dream, she meets with an accident and ends up bedridden. Although the second half of the film shifts focus from Alice to her boyfriend Manuel (Niranj), Finals was marketed as a Rajisha Vijayan film. The actor was able to play a sportsperson convincingly, proving that she can do versatile roles.
Next came Stand Up, directed by Vidhu Vincent. Although the film was criticised for the writing, Rajisha's performance as Diya, a sexual assault survivor, was appreciated. The film, which is on sisterhood and redefining the discourse around sexual violence, was anchored by Rajisha's raw performance.
Stand Up also had Nimisha Sajayan in the cast. Nimisha's debut film was Dileesh Pothan's Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. She was barely 20 when she did the film, and Nimisha's mature portrayal of Sreeja, a young woman whose gold chain is swallowed by a thief (Fahadh), took the audience by surprise. Acting with seasoned performers like Suraj Venjaramoodu and Fahadh, Nimisha held her own. As the conflicted Sreeja, who on the one hand is keen to have her chain returned but on the other grows increasingly uncomfortable with the investigation, the actor was a revelation.
In B Ajithkumar's Eeda, a contemporary take on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Nimisha played Aishwarya, who comes from a communist family and is in love with Anand (Shane Nigam), who comes from a right wing family. Both Nimisha and Shane, with their earnest performances as young, star-crossed lovers, gave us a rare romance that went beyond duets and lovelorn dialogues.
The actor also shone in Oru Kuprasidha Payyan, playing a lawyer who has to defend the accused (Tovino) in a tough case. Although the film received mixed reviews, Nimisha's performance as Hanna won her praise. She also won Best Actress at the Kerala Film Awards.
In Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's disturbing Chola, Nimisha played Janaki, a schoolgirl who goes on a trip that turns into a nightmare. Like Kappela, the politics of the film was debated, but Nimisha's searing performance as the terrified, submissive Janaki was unanimously applauded. Just as she was convincing as the grown Sreeja in Thondimuthalum, Nimisha lived the role of schoolgirl Janaki in Chola.
The films discussed may or may not have been exemplary. They may or may not have had women as the solo leads. However, what's common to all of them is that they had substantial roles for female characters in narratives that put them at the centre. One hopes that the trend continues, and that these newer women stars go on to push the boundaries more. They certainly have the fire within them to light up the way ahead for women-led films.