Many films normalise workplace sexual harassment against a policewoman. While some films are breaking the mould, a lot more experimentation is needed.

Collage of actors Asha Shareth, Vani Vishwanath, Kalpana in police roles
Flix Mollywood Wednesday, December 30, 2020 - 17:27

Between being demonised as arrogant and malicious and being subservient to male authority, Malayalam cinema has offered precious little by way of interesting female cop characters. One could even say that a female cop in Malayalam cinema is mostly just a shrew waiting to be tamed. Here, we trace some of the most important female cop characters that have made it to the silver screen. We cautiously note that the tide may be changing for the better.

In Praja (2001), directed by Joshiy, written by Renji Panicker, the female lead, ASP Maya Mary Kurien IPS, enters the screen with bravado. Her subordinates strictly adhere to her orders, she seems to be that quintessential no-nonsense angry young policewoman, till the hero comes into the picture. When she stops a taxi at the checkpost and orders the driver (Cochin Haneefa) to show the papers, her aides are already warning her, gloating over the passenger’s sheer might. But the lady does not listen, signaling the hero to step out. “And who the damn are you?” to which the hero replies – “Mera naam Zakir…Zakir Ali Hussain.” She removes her glasses and looks at him with awe. What follows is a typical Renji Panicker exchange of bombast, with the lady cop delivering a needless backgrounder about his potent heroism. Zakir Bhai (Mohanlal) does his bit of cocky melodrama, spouts a nauseating speech, and pins her to a car, zips her pants, and promises her that he has no intention of molesting her. Not only does the film normalise sexual harassment, but it also ridicules women (reinforcing the gender as weak) and the police force collectively. It does not help that Maya Mary eventually becomes putty in his hands.

“It’s incredible that considering we have such capable female police officers, none have raised any protest against such crude objectifications,” observes Maneesh Narayanan, film critic.

Watch video from 'Praja'

A similar deplorable scene is shown in Kasaba (incidentally directed by Renji Panicker’s son Nithin Renji Panicker), where a female cop sets out to entice CI Rajan Zachariah, who is already considered a seasoned womaniser. She coolly unbuttons her shirt and tries to flirt with him, and he grabs her belt and mouths the most objectionable lines (it sounded like a rape threat) and casually walks away, to the beat of a rousing BGM.

A lot of things are wrong here:

1) Once again it normalises sexual harassment, this time at workplace;

2) Her playful flirting is pompously taken as consent for sex by the man, and;

3) The role played by a veteran actor of Mammootty’s stature, and the way it is staged with a celebratory BGM, only results in glorifying the scene.

“Kasaba reflects the attitude of our society. Why are we raising our voice against a film after being silent about what is happening against women in our society? It’s the freedom of a filmmaker to create a character who is good or bad according to the plot,” Nithin Renji Panicker had said in an online interview.

Watch video of the scene from 'Kasaba'

In Chathurangam, Attiprackal Jimmy Jacob (Mohanlal) and SP Nayana Pillai (Nagma) are pitted against each other. When Nayana resorts to devious means to get back at Jimmy, he hits back by using the oldest trick in the book: defame the female cop, cast aspersions on her morality that makes its way to the newspapers.

When it comes to representing female cops on screen, Malayalam cinema has always fallen back on stereotypes. It has struggled to breach the caricaturish tough, rude, angry young cop act, and has almost never addressed some of the key hurdles they face at work, like sexual harassment and gender discrimination. “In the last 25-30 years, the female characters are either used as a honey trap to lure criminals and dons, or they are just playing second fiddle to a more capable male cop,” says Maneesh.

Invariably, in a film whose protagonist is a male cop, she is always required to play second fiddle. And on the off chance that she is capable, she is required to acknowledge the superiority of her male counterpart in a narrative manipulated to favour the man.

Vani Viswanath has borne the brunt of this testosterone obsession. In the Shaji Kailas directed The Truth, her IPS Nambiar starts off promisingly – she is an unapologetic publicity fiend, arrogant, unscrupulous and makes her disdain very evident for the new investigator who has been chosen over her for the investigation. But then the hero (Mammootty) must smother her arrogance by giving lessons on her appalling behavior, and pull her down from her metaphorical high horse. Eventually she is a much tamer version, cheerfully helping him with the case. "Vijayashanti's Police outings in Telugu and Tamil inspired me to recreate something like that in Malayalam. In fact I had written the character keeping Vani Vishwanath in mind," admits SN Swamy, scriptwriter of The Truth.

Watch video from the film 'The Truth'

Though Vani Viswanath and Indraja play phony cops in Vinayan’s Independence, they are still snubbed and talked down to when they raid a local businessman’s (who is unaware of their identity) home. Not only are they verbally abused and manhandled, but are even given molestation threats.

In K Madhu’s Janathipathyam, Vani almost reprises her role in The Truth, though this time it is far viler. Her City Commissioner Maya Pillai is a ruthlessly ambitious, deceitful woman who uses her power to dismiss one of the most talented and honest cops in her cadre.

Even in Ustad, Vani Vishwanath seems to be at the receiving end, tagged with all the unpleasant attributes given to a female cop and is made to feel grateful towards Mohanlal’s don for funding her education. Shobhana’s IPS officer in Superman again caters to the clichéd characterisation seen in all the movies mentioned above. In B Unnikrishnan’s Grandmaster and Villain, the female police officers are typically dumbed down. If in Grandmaster, she is egoistic, dishonest, and jealous of Mohanlal’s skills, Villain’s North Indian lady cop’s intelligence is dismissed by her superior Mathew Manjooran (Mohanlal). There is a scene where she excitedly informs him about an enlightening expose and the senior is typically patronizing – “I knew all this. Of course, you are an intuitive officer, but since you are inexperienced you took time to figure this out.”

ASP Supriya Raghavan in Ranjith’s Spirit is, in plain words, a character who is simply there to draw out the hero’s alpha male exhibitionism. Though she gets a feisty introduction scene where she aggressively pursues a young molester and puts him in jail, her role is bizarrely called out for being insensitive, and though she is given a scene to get even with him, eventually it is all pushed under the carpet of alcoholism. “In fact, I remember an incident when Sreerekha IPS dealt with a molester in a similar fashion while she was taking a morning walk but, in the film, she is almost made to feel apologetic for doing it. It’s appalling,” offers Maneesh.

However, there have been some comic reliefs and stand-out performances that have worked well too. Ishtam’s Kalpana, who can be very nasty to roadside Romeos, is one that quickly comes to mind. Kochi City Police Commissioner Sreebala in Rajesh Pillai’s Vettah, who is assigned to investigate the murder of a film actress, rises above stereotypes and is a good representation, though a haphazard narrative failed to make that noticeable.

Watch video of Kalpana in 'Ishtam'

Similarly, Asha Shareth in Drishyam is perhaps one of the most celebrated female cops in Malayalam cinema – she is fiery, sharp, and manipulative. The cop and mother in her keep intersecting, and it does not look out of place as it is something any parent would have done in her shoes. Besides, her role as a capable officer is sharply underlined throughout the narrative. "I would easily keep her right on top of all the female characters I have seen in Malayalam cinema. The character was so well written and the actor got the body language and voice modulation accurately," observes SN Swamy.

Watch video: Asha Shareth in 'Drishyam'

Anushree’s cop in Oppam, despite not being caricaturish, remains unmemorable. DCP Catherine (Unnimaya Prasad) in Ancham Pathira on the other hand is a calm, thinking-on-your-feet cop, who does not get fazed in this niftily paced narrative around a serial killer. In Forensic, though Mamta Mohandas’s Ritika Xavier IPS is made in charge of nabbing a serial killer, it is the hero Samuel John (Tovino Thomas) a Medico-Legal Advisor, who provides the first breakthrough and eventually cracks the case.

Another interesting depiction is in Ayyappanum Koshiyum, which has a female constable who is tricked by Koshy into serving him liquor, an act which is secretly filmed by him, leading to her suspension. Constable Jessie is a recruit and hails from the tribal community, but her journey is ruthlessly cut short by the cocky planter. There is a terrific scene where she comes down heavily on him for the treachery. It is also an incredibly significant depiction as Malayalam cinema has rarely represented marginal communities in the police force, and that too women.

But the final word would be that Malayalam cinema, for all its diverse, strong, female characters, has rarely experimented with the possibilities of exploring the various dimensions to a female police officer’s character. Like a Megan Turner in Blue Steel or Lorna Cole in Lethal Weapon 3, or even something like Rani Mukerji’s characters in Mardaani 1 and 2.

Watch video from 'Ayyappanum Koshiyum'

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