In films, divorce is seldom seen as a valid option and women, especially, are required to stick through a marriage however toxic it might be.

Arrogant wife please adjust How Malayalam cinema has portrayed divorce
Delve Gender and Sexuality Wednesday, August 21, 2019 - 14:48

Sindhu tries to avoid speaking to anyone at her new coaching class. A question or two later, they may find out that she is divorced and she hates to think of what’d follow. Jinu, another divorcee, hides her status, fretting over what would happen if people knew. Sindhu and Jinu* both live in Kerala, where divorce, like most other parts of the country, is frowned upon. 

Divorce is not easy – not just because of the hurt it may cause, but also because of the many judgments and unsolicited advice that would follow. Not surprisingly, popular culture also reflects the social discomfort with the legal procedure. Malayalam movies have mostly been unkind to women characters who choose divorce. Even men, in the rare scripts where they are shown to leave an unhappy marriage, are looked at unsympathetically.

Movies woven entirely around divorce are few, but when divorced characters are presented, they mostly come off as arrogant or self-centred. Otherwise, they should have endured too much abuse to justify their choice. A divorce citing an unhappy marriage will just not do; there has to be something deeper, something as bad as a beating from an alcoholic husband or an extramarital affair - and even then, filmmakers like to have the woman, characterised to be as patient as Mother Earth, bearing it all with tears and a sad background score.

“I realise that we don’t have many narratives around divorce. A few notable ones will be Kaniha in Spirit--after getting a divorce from Mohanlal citing alcoholism, she remarries, and interestingly, they still share a warm and friendly bond. Similarly, Mohanlal also maintains a friendship with Kaniha's new husband,” notes film critic and founder of Fullpicture.in, Neelima Menon.


Spirit

Spirit is an exception, points out an advocate based in Thiruvananthapuram. “In a conservative society, a commercial medium may not venture outside what sells. Divorce rates have increased and we also have some high profile ones (in recent times). It may be becoming normalised, but the time has not yet come when it is seen as an adult decision after which both parties can walk away."

Where children become the reason

As in real life, cinema too depicts children as a compelling reason for saving a marriage, however toxic it may be. 

The 2008 movie Innathe Chinthavishayam, directed by Sathyan Anthikad, is about three women who are separated from their husbands, and the hero – Mohanlal – trying to reunite them.

Innathe Chinthavishayam has a hero who takes it upon himself to mend the strained relationship between three married couples. While the reasons listed out by the married women are rather valid, he insists that divorce can never be an option, as it affects children and it would be selfish to simply think about oneself. In the end, he succeeds in bringing them back together,” says Neelima.

Children are often brought up as a reason in movies to justify the prolonging of unhappy marriages. Neelima mentions the 1990 Kamal movie Pookkalam Varavayi, in which Murali and Geetha are shown as a divorced couple, taking alternate custody of their little girl, played by Shamili. 


Pookkalam Varavayi

“It typically talks about how divorce results in unhappy children. Their child runs away (and it's a hugely problematic narrative here) from the household to stay with a family who apparently showers her with love, and eventually, the parents and their decision to divorce are blamed for it,” she says. 

In the more recent Veruthe Oru Bharya (2008) – the title means “A wife for the sake of it” – Gopika is shown as a homemaker who toils all day to run the home and gets no thanks from her husband (Jayaram). There too, when it comes to a point that she cannot stand his indifference and chooses to leave him, their teenage daughter is brought up as a reason to blame the woman. 

“When the wife, tired of being taken for granted in an abusive marriage, decides to opt for divorce, we have a counsellor who blames the mother's neglect for her daughter's decision to elope with a boy. The consensus being a woman should stay in a marriage, however abusive and unhappy it might be, for the sake of the children. The wife's trauma is never addressed,” Neelima says.

Films have rarely explored the effects that witnessing a bad marriage on a daily basis can have on children, choosing to focus on divorce as the villain instead. 

Husband, the victim

Reality is a lot different from how divorce is depicted in films, says Advocate Kokila. 

“It is in the year 2000 that family courts began functioning in Kerala. Before that, divorce cases were handled in the district courts. There were also very few cases back then. Today, in 2019, there are about 3000 to 4000 divorce cases handled in one family court. And there are three family courts in Thiruvananthapuram alone. The number of divorce cases being filed has really increased,” she notes.

Kokila adds that in films, however, it is the woman who is solely blamed for the failed marriage.

“The wife who is arrogant and can’t respect her husband, becomes the reason for divorce and the man is shown as the victim,” she says.

A perfect example of Kokila’s observation comes in the 1991 movie Chanchatam, directed by Thulasidas, where even infidelity cannot be considered reason enough for a wife to leave a man who has broken her trust.

In the film, Urvashi plays a wife who walks out of her marriage when her husband – Jayaram – sleeps with another woman.  But years later, he appears as her boss in the office where she works. Neelima points out how Urvashi is shown as a grumpy woman, who hasn’t gotten over the betrayal while Jayaram plays the calm character, attractive to other women in the office. The film ends up siding with him and making his ex-wife apologise for the choices she made, Neelima notes.

Urvashi has also played the suffering wife in Sthreedhanam (1993), abused aplenty by her mother-in-law, who even attempts to kill her for dowry. Even there, divorce is not a choice for the woman.


Sthreedhanam

And then again in the 1985 film Avidithepole Ivideyum, Mammootty’s character has a problem with his city-bred wife getting a job. It ends with her leaving him, but it is her wish to go to work that is shown as a problem, not his objections to it.

In Kaliveedu (1996), Manju Warrier and Jayaram play a couple who break up after he tries to show her how a wife should behave. He gets a friend's wife to pose as their domestic worker, performing a homemaker's tasks with a smile on her face. At the end of the film, the two of them get back together.

‘Verum oru pennu’

If you notice the random divorced women characters in cinema, they are often written as egoistic persons. Vinaya Prasad in Pidakozhi Kookunna Nottaandu is a lawyer, who competes with her ex-husband, another lawyer. “Forget divorce or marriage, women, barring a few exceptions, often have the place of a kariveppala (something with no value) in Malayalam movies,” says actor-producer Prakash Bare. He pins it on the larger problem – what we see in the movies are reflective of what happens in the film industry.

“Except in acting, the presence of women in the making of a movie is very scarce. It is a patriarchal system – you remember how the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes – dealt with the case of a woman actor’s assault.  That kind of an environment affects the politics of a movie. This whole idea of ‘nee verum pennaanu’ (you are just a woman) that’s been purported in many movies, is also one that’s endorsed by the fan culture we have here. How we show this (misogyny) in the movies could be seen in how actor Parvathy was attacked on social media when she spoke about Mammootty’s film Kasaba. How can a ‘verum pennu’ speak about Mohanlal or Mammootty, the fans feel,” Prakash says.

It gets worse, he says, when the oppressed fight against oppression. Even other women question those who choose to file for divorce.

“I don’t think we can analyse this in isolation. A patriarchal perspective is what most movies present. In that context, I think divorced women in Malayalam movies will be portrayed as abnormal... and the subtle and unsubtle messaging in movies will be that it’s better that she goes back (to the family), making for a satisfactory ending,” says the advocate in Thiruvananthapuram.

Divorce never an option

The need to stick to status quo could be why even new movies, while exploring hitherto untouched themes, stick to safe endings. 

In Luca (2019), a murder mystery, there is a sidetrack involving the personal life of the investigating police officer. He’s getting a divorce from his wife whom he appears to have married halfheartedly. He keeps repeating to anyone who asks, that they are doing this on friendly terms, they have nothing against each other. We understand later that he’s unable to move on from a previously failed relationship. However, the film could not end on that note, with the husband and wife separating amicably. They reconcile with each other as he investigates the love story behind the crime, and she throws up some insight into the case. 


Policeman and wife in Luca

In another recent film Kakshi: Amminipilla, entirely themed around arranged marriage and divorce, a senior politician tells Asif Ali, who plays a lawyer dreaming to be an elected leader, that if he separates a married couple, then people will not be too keen to vote for him. Amminipilla, played by Ahmed Siddique, had come to Kerala for a holiday, during which his conventional family arranges a marriage for him and forces him into it. He sees the bride only on the day of his wedding. It is superficial reasons – such as the bride being overweight – that make him unhappy and file for a divorce. But Kanthi – the wife – might as well have looked like an angel and still made Amminipilla unhappy. You don’t just magically fall in love with a person because you married them. There’s no acknowledgement that when one marries a complete stranger, it might be difficult to form a relationship with them. 

“We didn’t want to give a negative treatment to divorce. That’s how it has mostly been shown in movies so far,” says Dinjith, the director of Kakshi: Amminipilla. “It began as a serious thought but then we decided to make it a fun movie. Malayalam movies have also often shown these stories from the man’s point of view. We wanted to show the woman’s POV and Kanthi takes a strong stand.”

The movie, however, ends up following the advice that the senior politician gives Asif Ali’s character – it somehow brings the couple back together. 

In older movies, this is taken to another level. In the 1986 Poomuka Padiyil Ninneyum Kaathu, you get a taste of couples suffering in an extremely unhappy marriage, and yet never considering divorce as an option even once. In the film, Mammootty plays a man, whose every moment is doubted by a possessive wife, Sreevidya. Their new neighbours go through something similar – only there, it is the husband that has a complex, and keeps suspecting his wife.

The exceptions

Ozhimuri (2012), directed by Madhupal, came as a welcome change in this context because of the non-conformist stance it took. The wife in the film – played by Mallika – sticks to her stand till the end; she wants a divorce from the husband she has for long suffered (Lal) and does not waver even when her son asks her to reconsider.

There are other examples, more subtle ones. The character Manju Warrier played in Ennum Eppozhum, where the husband is never shown but is only talked about as an abuser, who stoops to hurting his own child to win a battle with his ex-wife.

A happily divorced woman appeared in Ranjith Sankar's Ramante Edan Thottam (2017), recalls Neelima.

 
Ramante Edan Thottam

"Malini walks out of an emotionally abusive marriage, insists of divorce and tells her husband that their daughter can stay in two happy homes,” she says.

In the 2018 film Joseph, Joseph’s (Joju George) ex wife marries another man (Dileesh Pothan), but the relationship between the two men is cordial. You can also catch glimpses of a happy separation in Anjali Menon's Bangalore Days where Kuttan’s father (Vijaya Raghavan) runs away from years of a monotonous marriage and his wife, played by Kalpana, appears rejuvenated afterwards, rejoicing in the world she discovers outside of her home.

In the 2019 film Unda, Neelima observes, there is a wife who wants a divorce and doesn’t give in even when the husband (Shine Tom Chacko) apologises. Such women, in older movies, would be shown as arrogant, but here, there is no siding with the man.

If one were to widen the net, the critically acclaimed Kumbalangi Nights can also be included. There’s no divorce, but you see a mother who has found the path of spirituality, refusing to return home to her children even after they plead for her presence.

These films are still few and far between, but you can see writers and filmmakers becoming more sensitive to the idea of divorce or a separation, and respecting an individual’s choice without judging them to pieces. 

Perhaps this viral bit of internet wisdom, which prioritises justice in a marriage over its longevity, sums it up best:

Q: “Most marriages are not working nowadays. What is it that we are doing that our grandparents didn’t do?”

A: Daughters didn’t inherit the silence of their mothers. My generation is mastering the art of leaving, letting go.

 

 

Hopefully, filmmakers will catch up with the generation that is willing to break their silence and move on.

(* Names changed)

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