Between sexism and sexuality: How women's roles have evolved in Tamil, Malayalam films

From not depicting sex and sexuality at all, films went on to portray women as erotic objects. But that is now slowly changing.
Between sexism and sexuality: How women's roles have evolved in Tamil, Malayalam films
Between sexism and sexuality: How women's roles have evolved in Tamil, Malayalam films
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Madras in the 1950s and ‘60s was the thriving hub of south Indian cinema. The Tamil film industry was already huge and star studded while the smaller ones from the south, like Kannada and Malayalam and to some extent Telugu, were still struggling to make a few films a year.  But, they all had one thing in common. They were all still emerging from the thrall of stage plays where men played the parts of women and therefore women were treated as mere add-ons. 

The characters of women were never really explored or developed. All the filmmakers had a specific tested and tried template which they used. Over the years, however, the film industries evolved and each language had its own specific nuance and characteristic. This article takes a look at how Tamil and Malayalam filmmakers learnt to deal with sex, sexism and sexuality in their films.

 When music and dance sterilized sex and sexuality.

The 1950s and ‘60s was an era when going to the cinema was a family outing. Those were rather naïve times when music and dance sterilized sex and sexuality. When the hero and heroine fell in love, they ran around trees and pranced about in parks and beaches, singing love songs which they seemed to compose on the go. Everyone knew that when they were about to kiss, a flower would always come between them. First nights on a flower bedecked bed had little to do with sex. The hero would sidle up to the coy bride who was offering him a glass of milk and they would break into song and dance. Separated heroes and heroines lusting after each other would sing their woes to the moon. Even in the comedy track, song and dance took over the romantic scenes.

Whether it was Tamil or Malayalam, there was no nuance to those movies of the 1950s and ‘60s. Good and bad were clearly defined. Love was asexual and lovemaking was by implication.  Stalking a woman to win her over was a romantic pastime.  It could be Prem Nazir or Gemini Ganeshan or MGR. The result was always the same.  The heroine succumbed to his musical wooing!

Sometimes, the heroines were “bold” and they teased the shy heroes. Heroines like Bhanumathi even physically fought villains to defend their men. Sometimes, they were independent minded like Vyjayanthimala in Then Nilavu or Saroja Devi in Anbe Vaa but once they were won over, they were pushed into the normal template of the loving and obedient wife. Men could have two wives but that was not considered adultery. Women who were raped had to either marry the rapist or die.  A woman lusting after someone outside her marriage was unheard of. If she did, she was evil.

The patriarchal construct was firm in this male dominated field where a couple of women had been squeezed in only because men dressed as women did not work in cinema! The heroine was reconstructed into the kind of ideal woman the male creators of these films fantasised about. The wicked woman was pure evil and she had to die. The women comedians had a little more leeway. They were required to be boisterous rather than cute and coy. But they still remained asexual.

Unusual relationships

The 1965 Malayalam movie Chemeen shifted the template slightly. This tragic story of a Hindu-Muslim romance was set in a fishing village on the picturesque beaches of Kerala. The stunning cinematography and music, and the gripping climax effectively glossed over the patriarchy and the ultimate stereotyping of the heroine.

The life of Karuthamma’s (Sheela) husband Palani (Sathyan) was linked to her chastity. Though Karuthamma is married to Palani, her old romance with Pareekutty (Madhu), her Muslim neighbour who was her first love, is gossiped about and Palani is ostracised. The climax of Chemeen was very evocative with Karuthamma reuniting with Pareekutty even as Palani battles a shark. 

By the 1970s, the air-brushed romances gave way to slightly darker themes which spoke about sexuality, but in hushed tones. The Malayalam film Punarjanmam (reincarnation) dubbed as the “First erotic psychic thriller in the history of Indian cinema”, was supposed to be based on a real life story. It was about a man with an Oedipus complex who couldn’t have sex with his wife because every time he went to her, she appeared to be his mother. For the first time, sexual relationships between a husband and wife came out of the closet. It had a stellar cast with the hero and heroine of the day Prem Nazir and Jayabarathi and it showed, albeit crudely, the frustration of a woman whose husband appeared impotent. Forty year old KS Sethumadhavan who directed this film went on to make other movies with similar off-the-trodden-path themes.

In Tamil, K Balachander’s Apoorva Ragangal was the story of a young man falling in love with an older woman while her daughter falls in love with his father. The sexuality was still hidden but the theme was considered daring as it flouted all social norms. He also made Arangetram, the story of a young girl from an orthodox Brahmin family who becomes a sex worker to support her eight siblings.

The problem with all these films was that they were not able to deviate from the norm beyond a point. In Chemeen, all three in the love triangle drowned in the sea. Sethumdhavan’s heroine learnt how to seduce her husband and get pregnant so that her father could have the grandchild he always longed for. Balachander’s heroines either walked away from the men who loved them or went mad. They also spouted dialogues about the power of the thali (mangalsutra) and the protective veli (fence) provided by the husband, however evil he may be.

In Balachander’s hit film Iru Kodugal, the long-suffering hero (Gemini Ganesan) was caught between two wives (Sowcar Janaki and Jayanthi), who didn’t know about each other’s existence. This, of course, was socially acceptable because of his gender. God forbid if it had been about a woman with two husbands! And that film too ended predictably with the women sacrificing for each other. The women were the ones who always had to pay the price for any deviation from what was considered the social norm.

While discussing Balachander’s films, Baradwaj Rangan, film critic and editor, Film Companion (South) says that these filmmakers didn’t particularly set out to "give good messages." They only set out to tell stories. He observes that if many of Balachander’s heroines didn't get the happiness they deserved, maybe one could blame it on the times.

By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, other players entered the arena. IV Sashi’s Malayalam blockbuster Avaludey Raavukal (Her Nights) was a watershed movie. It spun off a number of films with similar themes which were generically dubbed “soft porn”. The stories usually centered on frustrated or violated women and included a number of “bedroom” scenes. These films were further photoshopped to increase the pornographic content, and dubbed and sold outside Kerala.

The story line of Avalude Raavukal was adult. It was about a teenaged girl Raji (Seema) who gets pushed into sex work after she and her brother are orphaned. However, it actually attracted family audiences in Kerala whereas outside the state, it was viewed as a pornographic movie.

The depiction of sex was prudish in Balachander’s Arangetram, where the sex worker (Prameela) with her customer in bed was shown as a blurred reflection in the fan rotating overhead. In contrast, in Avalude Raavukal, Seema, the heroine, was more direct. She stripped down to her bra and showed a bit of leg. 

But in keeping with the sensibilities of those times, even in these films, the pain and the violence was airbrushed. When Raji is gangraped, she is shifted to a hospital with her make up intact and appears quite untraumatized. Most importantly, Avalude Raavukal had a romanticized happy ending as the fearless and unapologetic young sex worker doesn’t die, but gets to marry the man she loves and leave her old life behind.

Many of the films, which were considered so bold and revolutionary in the 1970s and ‘80s, were still under the shadow of a patriarchal mindset. And, they almost invariably ended in tragedy for the woman. In the blockbuster movie Sindhu Bhairavi, a “mere” woman (Suhasini), dares to challenge a music vidwan (Shiva Kumar) over a raga. She starts off as a bold and independent minded woman who soon gets into a relationship with the vidwan, who is a married man. But when she has a baby by him, she hands it over to his wife who is childless and walks away into the horizon.

It was almost as if the boys’ club didn’t quite know what to do with the women characters they created once they crossed the line of control. After all, those were the days when except for the women actors themselves, the rest of the people involved with making a film were men. The directors, scriptwriters, lyricists, makeup artists, dance masters….

Baradwaj Rangan, commenting on Balachander’s work, says, “I think the way to approach those films with strong women characters is to think of them as ‘female-oriented’ rather than ‘feminist,’ because the concept of feminism did not exist in the ‘70s and ‘80s in the film industry.” 

Mani Ratnam came into the scene at a slightly later stage and his films portrayed a different type of woman and in a slightly more positive manner.  Yes, the patriarchal nuances were still there, but toned down. Thanks to his seductive storytelling and meticulous direction, he managed to give a rosy tint to the problematic parts - like in his big hit film Roja, we tend to forget that the playful and lovable heroine (Madhu) is married off to the equally likable hero (Aravind Swamy) without her consent.   

Kaatru Veliyidai, Mani Ratnam’s last film was critically acclaimed for its storytelling, music and cinematography. But it also drew flak for its portrayal of the heroine, a smart young doctor (Aditi Rao Hydari), who had an almost masochistic desire to stay in the thrall of a fighter pilot (Karthi) who alternately loves her to bits and treats her atrociously.

The 1980s and ‘90s also saw the emergence of new filmmakers who dealt with women oriented subjects. There was KG George in Malayalam who made films like Lekhayudai Maranam Oru Flashback and Adaminte Vaariyel.  They were gripping stories viewed from the woman’s perspective, but they too ended in tragedy.  Similarly Bharathiraja’s 16 Vaiyadhinile, which became a cult film, explored (albeit superficially) the longings of a 16-year-old village girl. Although the young girl played by Sridevi was presented as resilient and strong, the filmmaker failed in the last minute to give a positive ending to the film.

The glamour quotient

By the 1980s and 90s, glamour had become a big word in Tamil as well as Malayalam films. In Tamil, filmmakers like Shankar made films which were high on the glamour quotient. His films were high-budget with plenty of song, dance, vigilantism, foreign locales, glamorous and sexy heroines … you name it and it was there. And like all the other high budget films of the day, they were also laden with everyday sexism.

The commercial films of that era came loaded with sexist dialogue and vulgar lyrics which objectified women. The ultimate objectification came in the form of item numbers or club dance (as they are known in Tamil), performed by women in skimpy clothing while groups of men drooled over them. The dances had very little to do with the main plot and were add-ons dreamt up by male directors to draw in more audiences. It didn’t matter that most women in the audience couldn’t even relate to these dance numbers. Or that the women who did these item numbers got stereotyped and never got to play other roles.

Audiences forgot, for instance, that Silk Smitha who became famous for her item numbers and vamp roles starred in Bharathiraja’s early film Alaigal Oivathillai as a simple homemaker and compassionate sister-in-law who helps two young people in love.

The look of the heroines too changed. They were now required to wear short clothing, show wide expanses of midriff and bits of cleavage and behave in an appropriately sexy manner with the hero. These were called “glamour roles”.

There was an obsession with highlighting the body parts of the heroine in an inappropriately voyeuristic manner. A top selling erotic shot was that of a spinning top whirling on the photo-shopped, well-made-up navel of a heroine who squirmed and wriggled ecstatically as it supposedly tickled her.

Midriffs were definitely an obsession. Heroes caressed, stroked and pinched them during their music and dance routines. And yes music and dance routines still substituted sex – only, they had become more colourful, glamourized and eroticized than ever.  Heroines wore swimsuits and jumped into pools and pretended to swim as the camera dwelt lasciviously on their bosoms and buttocks. Comedy tracks, in particular, reeked with sexist dialogue and scenes. And the vulgarity in the comedy tracks in particular touched a nadir.

How did young women in the peak of their career deal with all this?

Khushbu was in her twenties then and at the top. She had started off as a child actor in Mumbai in 1970 when she was three, and now she was acting opposite every top hero in all the south Indian language films. If she was a village belle in one, she was a modern urban girl in another, a traditional homemaker in a third. Many of the films in which she acted had sexist themes and dialogues.  Did she find it awkward to deliver some scenes or dialogues?  Was she comfortable wearing those costumes which were often very brief or tight fitting or even outlandish in some dance sequences?

“Look,” Khushbhu says, “I am a professional actor. I do what is required of me to make my character come alive. If I have to wear a swimsuit I wear it. Not just because I love swimming…which by the way I do…but because obviously I can’t jump into a swimming pool wearing a nine yards sari. I never liked to wear low cut blouses because of my figure.  But sometimes, even with the best of precautions, the director or costume designer would insist the scene required it and the cameraperson would choose to shoot from a certain angle, and when you saw the final outcome you would think, "Oh No!", but, by then, there is nothing much you can do.”

In real life, Khushbhu has always been a feisty woman who has bravely stood up and fought for herself. She has singlehandedly built her own very successful career. When she was still in her teens, she broke all ties with her alcoholic father who had relocated her forcibly from Mumbai to Chennai, beat her mercilessly and looted her hard earned savings. In her twenties, she walked in and out of a relationship with a married man who was a top hero. She finally found a supportive partner from the same industry and created a happy family. Yet in the movies she never hesitated to play a docile or obedient woman when the script required it.

Revathi, who was a young woman then, was already one of the top women actors in both Malayalam and Tamil. Over the years, she essayed a variety of other roles and collected numerous awards both for her acting and directorial ventures. Recently, along with a group of other concerned women from the Malayalam film industry, she founded the WCC (Women in Cinema Collective) to address the problems of women in Malayalam cinema.

Although Revathi has always been a responsible and sensitive actor, she has also in her time delivered sexist dialogues in films and acted in scenes which were not particularly gender sensitive. While chatting about this, she says that in the 1980s and ‘90s, when she was at the peak of her career, those sensibilities were not in evidence. Her success as an actor meant she could choose to do certain things - like refuse to wear revealing clothes or deliver vulgar or offensive dialogue, but she could not go against the storyline.

“Why are we so obsessed with women’s bodies anyway?” she asks. “When we talk of sexism, we keep talking about the same things. What we need is gender sensitization of everyone involved with the film industry… not just scriptwriters or directors or lyricists or actors…. But everyone. Only then will we get change.”

Sexuality and everyday sexism

By 2018, sexuality in Tamil and Malayalam films was much more out in the open and in your face. But so was sexism and misogyny. On the one hand, there were the light romantic comedies about young people in live-in relationships and on the other hand there were movies with aggressive stalking scenes and misogynistic dialogue.

It is a mixed kind of time today. In Pa Ranjith’s latest Tamil offering Kaala, Rajinikanth, who has earlier mouthed misogynistic dialogues and treated women disrespectfully in many of his movies, plays the benign family man who lives in a slum and is surrounded by strong women. Younger actors like Prithviraj have taken pro-women stances both on and off screen. Dulquer Salman has got a similar clean image. Side by side, you also have veteran actor Mammootty who was called out for his misogynistic lines in Kasaba by actor Paravthi, who is also a founder member of the WCC. And then there are the younger actors like Dhanush and Simbu who have given obsessive stalking a romantic makeover.

File image of Women in Cinema Collective

Malayalam director Anjali Menon, who is another founder member of the WCC, brought a fresh young perspective to Malayalam cinema with her Ustad Hotel and Bangalore Days both starring Dulquer (and others). In her latest film Koode, the hero (Prithviraj) and heroine (Parvathi) whose characters have had problematic pasts slip into an easy sexual relationship with each other. Everything is in the implication - there are no overt sex scenes or romantic dialogues or song and dance numbers. It just happens organically.

Anjali says, “Sexist attitudes are so deep rooted that it’s difficult to isolate and identify them. Most of the time, people don’t even realise that their world view is sexist until it is pointed out to them. I can’t reform people overnight but I also can’t let their attitude affect my work.”

One thing is for sure. Women are no longer mere dolls or props. Their characters are more fleshed out. The perspective of filmmakers is slowly changing. There are more women involved in the technical aspects of filmmaking. They are directing films, writing lyrics and screenplays. But are there enough of them? And are they in places which matter? Are there enough camerawomen for instance? More importantly, has the male gaze become more muted or modified?

There is no doubt that sexism in films still exists in spite of the “progressive” themes and inclusion of non-normative relationships which are sometimes depicted.  But, have audiences as well as those working in the cinema industry actually become more sensitive to the nuances of sexism now?

“I don't know,” Baradwaj Rangan says.  “A film like the Tamil film Remo is a huge hit. People write opinion pieces about it, but to the masses, I don't think it matters.” But he concedes that there are many more filmmakers now who create better female characters in the mainstream context.

“Yes, it is slow,” Anjali Menon agrees. “Just when we are ready to sigh in relief, a film of the sexist kind comes along and goes on to become a huge hit! This indicates that deeper change has to come from filmmakers as well as the audience.”

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