Despite Malayalam cinema evolving technically, grammatically and thematically, Siddique has stubbornly stuck to his formulaic narrative and characters.

Flix Mollywood Saturday, January 25, 2020 - 17:37

That Siddique brought in the emotional and melodramatic coating to the script in his collaboration with Lal became obvious when he came out with his independent directorial debut Hitler (1996) headlined by Mammootty.

The film, as the title suggests, revolves around an autocratic elder brother who rules over his five sisters in the guise of love and protection. With a claustrophobic layering of patriarchy and sexism, the narrative thrives on high-strung drama and laugh-out-loud comic scenes. Though his successful partnership with Lal resulted in cult comic classics that had problematic misogynistic subtext (Godfather, Vietnam Colony), they were all about the middle-class and their recurring issues placed under the socio-political view finder.

These films were seamlessly written and enacted, and therefore it was easier to overlook these issues as minor irritants. But, right from his first debut directorial, Siddique has shown a tendency to glorify a certain type of hero and position the women within the confines of traditional roles -- the lover, rejected lover, adoring fangirl, mother, sister or girlfriend -- and they are all calculated to be subservient to the men in the story.

And despite Malayalam cinema evolving technically, grammatically and thematically, Siddique has stubbornly stuck to his formulaic narrative and characters. We take a long look at his filmography.

Hitler (1996): Though Siddique-Lal are only credited for the story and screenplay of Mannar Mathai Speaking, the film is an indicator of their writing getting stagnant. A sequel to the comedy classic Ramji Rao Speaking, this film had none of the crispness of the original, that overhauled situational comedy in Malayalam cinema.

Though the writing was good, a crassness had crept into the screenplay, especially in how they handled the scenes around Vani Vishwanath. She played Meera, who is hired by Mukesh to act as his wife and as the leading heroine of their theatre. During their proxy first night at the house, he tries to take advantage of the situation and the scenes seem straight out of a B-grade film.

But in Hitler, which was a bizarre, regressive tale about a patriarchal brother who lives to uphold his sisters’ chastity and get them married, the problems were aplenty. There is of course, the much-discussed scene in the film—where the eldest of his five sisters is forced into marrying a much older man, simply because she didn’t vocally resist his advances, and she is in turn blamed for being brought up in a way that makes her incapable of standing up for herself.

To begin with, the staging itself is absurd—who would leave the door ajar while undressing, especially at her professor’s home? The writing is so twisted that Siddique ends up normalising rape, patriarchy and misogyny in the bargain. According to him, desire is an emotion that a woman, unlike a man, should possess only after marriage (and even then, we are inclined to think Siddique believes it should be tuned according to the man’s demands). In his own perverse way, he is hinting that chastity is the single-most precious gift she should "save" for her future husband. And she participated in sex only because she has been conditioned to obey men all her life which amounts to rape. The sister is a mere puppet who follows the instructions of her “lovable” brother and agrees to his highhanded request of marrying the elderly professor.

The women in the film are all programmed around men in one way or the other. If the sisters move according to the brother’s commands, the girlfriend’s sketch is even more deplorable. She is also one of Siddique’s favourite woman stereotype—the one who is madly in love with him and follows him like a lost puppy everywhere. She has to be literally thrown at him to be accepted by him. And all this while, the brother is eulogised as the “perfect loving brother” by most of the characters in the film. That he has taken control of their lives, ambitions and desires are of course brushed under the carpet of protectiveness and unconditional love.

Hitler was remade in Telugu headlining Chiranjeevi and was a box-office hit like its original. No surprises there.

Friends (1999): When it came to his second film, he again fell back to the theme of extended families, vile patriarchs, victimised problematic heroes and the familiar sexist undertones. That he has very little idea about consent is fairly obvious when the heroine is manipulated into marrying a man against her wishes. Once again! The archaic chastity tag is one he forcefully puts on the women. One thing constant in Siddique films is the rigidity in romance, it’s difficult to spot one romantic track that is truly organic in any of his films. They emerge either out of duty, obligation or circumstances.

When the hero’s sister falls in love with his best friend, the brother is overjoyed as he feels that since the friend saved her life as a child, it’s her “duty” to fall in love with him. Here, even the friendship between the three lead characters, which is the core of the film, is also warped. It’s so toxic that they interfere rudely in each other’s life, the best friend verbally abuses his friend’s wife and he justifies the friend’s behaviour.

That the friendship is bound together by the virtue of Aravindan’s (Jayaram) guilt of having been the accidental cause of Chandu’s younger brother’s death makes it a farce in the first place. When Aravindan turns paralytic by the trauma of Chandu’s separation, the wife continues to be the victim of this charade but that’s never discussed. 

Chronic Bachelor (2003): Mammootty’s Sathya Prathapan is another dreary version of Hitler’s Madhavan Kutty, the self-anointed halo-bearing sacrificial big brother in stiff suits. And the story is the same old cock-and-bull one around macho woman-hating heroes, grateful women, tiresome elders, unimaginative villains and tacky comedians. Another constant in a Siddique film has to be the whole childhood-teen-adult narrative, and till his latest film, it continues, with an uncanny ability to pick terrible child actors who ham it up.

Sathya Prathapan is the universal caretaker—he secretly funds his stepsister’s (Bhavana) education and she is eternally grateful. He is also a guardian to another spoilt brat (Mukesh!). There is his childhood sweetheart who despises him for supporting his family when her father betrays them. She nurses a lifelong grudge for the hero, simply because she could never have him.

Meanwhile her sister (Rambha) is keen on making amends and considers it her duty to bring back sunshine in the hero’s life and gate-crashes into his home and heart. The climax where they beg him to accept her is too cringey for words.

Bodyguard (2010): It remains a mystery where Siddique finds his convoluted plots. This one, for instance, is about a young man (Dileep) who is so taken in by the heroism of a former liquor tycoon that he enrolls himself as the bodyguard of their college-going daughter (Nayanthara). But that’s just an outline and the narrative soon side-tracks to a telephonic romance between the hero and the daughter.

In the end, the heroine’s best friend hijacking the hero turns out to be that superlative twist, thereby reinstating the role of women in his narrative—pining after the hero. Siddique by this time had exhausted his quota of comedy and there are quite a few offensive jokes in this one. Anyway, all that’s important seems to be that the heroine who has been living a dreary existence finally finds meaning when she reunites with the widowed hero and his child!

Bodyguard was remade in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil and Kannada and they were all blockbuster hits!

Bhaskar The Rascal (2015): Two teenagers try to play matchmaker to their parents only to have the narrative drift into a complicated backstory in Mumbai. Again, love is fixed between the crude and unschooled Bhaskar and the sophisticated baker Hima who can’t stand him. While the jokes are terrible, the hero turning protector to the independent-but-hapless heroine becomes the crux.

And then came King Liar, which was scripted by Siddique, followed by an awfully stale Fukri about mistaken identities, starring Jayasurya and Ladies and Gentlemen, starring Mohanlal and his starstruck heroines, with Meera Jasmine scaring the wits out of you with her heavily whitewashed face.

The latest exercise in tolerance is Mohanlal’s Big Brother which seems like a companion piece to Ladies & Gentleman and Chronic Bachelor. Siddique, like his contemporaries (Kamal, Joshiy, Sibi Malayil, Sathyan Anthikad), is also caught in the same rut, demonstrating an incapacity to keep up with the changing grammar and milieu of Malayalam cinema.

There are only two ways to get out of this mess. You can either willingly embrace change, accept your follies and evolve with the time or simply take a break from cinema. “Big Brother is very updated and stylish with great humour and action scenes. Mohanlal fans are delighted,” says the director in a recent online interview. Clearly, Siddique doesn’t seem to be interested in either of the options.