We are still at a stage where even a woman suggesting foreplay to her husband is considered something radical in Malayalam cinema.

Suraj Venjaramoodu and Nimisha Sajayan lying on the bed in The Great Indian Kitchen
Flix Mollywood Wednesday, January 20, 2021 - 14:19

In the middle of a heated argument between a married couple in the recently released short film, Freedom at Midnight, when the wife asks the husband whether he is aware of her “favourite sex position,” it suddenly seemed like a ray of hope. Did that mean our cinema had finally come out of its self-imposed exile around addressing women’s sexual agency/ female desire in their narratives? Are we finally tackling the elephant in the room?

But, that ostensible show of liberation turned out to be a delusion as the narrative soon drifts into a usual plot line around a wife who finds out her husband’s extramarital affair and therefore has such a dramatic confrontation. But disappointingly, it turns out that the whole confrontation was imagined by her and we don't really know if she brings it up with him. So much for liberation!

That aside, let's look at how Malayalam cinema has fared in this department. Let’s just say it’s not a very hopeful scene. Dhwani, the female protagonist in the Anoop Menon scripted, VK Prakash directed Trivandrum Lodge, is a happy divorcee, who intends to celebrate her newfound freedom exploring forbidden carnal pleasures. “I want to fornicate with abandon. I want to make love, mate, have one-night stands and casual sex—indulge in raw, meaty encounters,” she tells her amused friend. When an inmate of the lodge where she stays makes a direct pass at her, she smirks— “You don’t entice me in any way” and makes a playful pass at an old boarder, who claims to have bedded 999 women. Dhwani is equally amused when a man comments on her derrière— “I wish my husband had your guts,” she tells him.

Considering women’s sexual desire is hardly discussed in Malayalam cinema, or the rare ones are viewed from a moral lens, this is an interesting example. But the flipside to this otherwise interesting depiction is the stereotypical censured reaction of the men in the narrative towards her. You can almost read what is running in their mind, including Ravishankar who judges her for lusting after him. “I know I can easily pull you into my bed. But then, I am a one-woman man,” he informs her. In the same derisive tone, he wonders whether she has “ever loved anyone truly.” One gets the feeling that many a time he simply infuses a pretentious sense of sexual liberation in his women. For instance, the woman doctor in Beautiful, who thinks it is perfectly fine to talk about her long-distance affair and holds baffling theories about marriage.

Also read: Caricature, second fiddle, comic relief: How Malayalam cinema depicts female cops

On paper, at least, there is a sense of bravura in the promiscuous woman (Ravishankar’s mom) he created for Trivandrum Lodge. However, it is equally outrageous to digest the offhandedness with which the son, Ravishankar, accepts it— “What all you called her? But you needed her money. I am proud of being her son. She is just a female Casanova. Why cannot she sell her body to make money when I can sell my thoughts to do the same,” he tells his dad with a smile.

Kanyaka, from Beautiful (by the same writer-director), who is a domestic worker, is shown to shrug away an offer for sex from her employer with a “wasn’t in the mood” rejoinder. Bearing in mind how as a society the boundaries around sexual consent are still blurred, acknowledging female sexuality might take a long time, though we have had few films (Parched, Masaan, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Piku, Pink, Margarita With a Straw) that talked about it without filters. But they are few and far in number compared to world cinema and Hollywood.

In It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep plays a divorcee in her 50s who enters into a sexual relationship with her ex-husband (despite being self-critical of the situation) and eventually finds love with another man. Back home, we had Usha Parmar, the 50-year-old widow who explores sexual desire only to get shamed by family and society in Lipstick Under My Burkha. Interestingly, the entry of OTT platforms seems to have opened more opportunities for filmmakers to dabble with such themes—be it the web series Four More Shots Please! which was about four single women who are best friends and are unapologetic about their desires and dreams and Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare featuring a homemaker who couldn’t express herself in the marital bed, and rediscovers her desires with another young man. Or an anthology like Lust Stories that explores various stories of female desires, fulfilled and unfulfilled.

How KG George aced it

In Irakal, which can be considered as KG George’s seminal work, he creates a woman who owns and uses her sexuality, Anniyamma (Sreevidya). Not only is she a subversion of the stereotypical mother and wife, but she is also noticeably clear about being sexually dissatisfied in her marriage. That is why she ignores her husband (Nedumudi Venu) and child and keeps visiting her home to sleep with the man Friday. But characteristic of KG George’s female characters, the film at no point judges her. In a narrative filled with nefarious characters, Aniyamma becomes one of them.

Similarly, Annie who is in her late 40s and a victim of an abusive marriage is in a relationship with a younger man in Adaminte Variyellu. It is interesting how it dispels the myth that women of a certain age cannot desire or be desired. In Mattoral, it is an unsatisfactory sex life among many other aspects in her unhappy marriage which makes the female protagonist walk out and live with a mechanic and she remains unapologetic about it.

Another interesting instance has to be Shyama Prasad’s Ore Kadal, which has a married woman desiring a middle-aged Economics professor. When he evokes all the forbidden desires in her which were missing in her marriage, she succumbs though it leads her to a moral dilemma, affecting her mental health. But eventually they unite, not allowing the prying eyes of the society to judge and sneer.

In VK Prakash’s Rockstar written by Rajashree Balaram, the heroine has a one-night stand with the hero and when he expects her to be coy and clingy about it the next morning, she coolly shows him the door. “I don’t regret it. It was beautiful but that’s it,” she shrugs.

In the Aashiq Abu directed Mayaanadhi, written by Dileesh Nair and Syam Pushkaran, it is the woman who initiates sex, to celebrate a successful acting audition. When he takes it as a cue to settle down, she reminds him that “Sex isn’t a promise.” The sexual agency of a woman, smashing the cinematic obsession with a heroine’s chastity, gets broadly underlined here.

There are hints of a more intimate relationship between elderly lovers Dr Sarayu and Dr Satheesh in Sreebala K Menon’s Love 24/7, again reinstating that a woman’s sexual desire has no age limit.

When female desire was mocked and battered

The '70s and early '80s films preferred to vilify female desire. It was either considered wanton or promiscuous or treated like an ailment. In Lakshmana Rekha directed by IV Sasi, when her newly married husband becomes bedridden, the heroine gets headaches and dreams of serpents writhing on her. A shrink diagnoses this as sexual deprivation, and the brother-in-law fixes it by forcing himself on her. Not only does the film devalue a woman’s sexual desire, she is not even given the agency to decide her sexual partner and ends up becoming a victim of rape. That perhaps the brother-in-law did this under the pretext of keeping it within the family makes it even more deplorable.

In yet another IV Sasi film, Manasa Vaacha Karmana, the newly married husband’s guilt about his ex-girlfriend’s suicide makes it difficult for him to be intimate with his wife. The wife ends up having an affair with her sister’s husband. And the film ends tragically with the partners taking their own lives. It emphasises several things wrong with our society’s attitude towards women—a) the wife will be too mortified to reveal this to her family fearing their reactions and, in all probability, will be advised to stay with the husband to safeguard the family honour; b) the society will brand her immoral if she walks out of the marriage citing her husband’s impotence. Even her justification about the affair to her sister is in how she did not step out of the family to fulfill her needs.

In the Balachandra Menon film Chiriyo Chiri, when a woman who is already a modern liberated stereotype in clothes, tries to express her desire for intimacy with the hero, she gets slapped in return, along with a patronising speech on preserving his chastity for his future bride. But then this should not be much of a surprise in Balachandra Menon’s films as they are always encased in misogyny. Women, according to him, can only prioritise their dreams, desires and needs as per a man’s bidding.

Surprisingly, if you look at the filmography of our leading female actors like Urvashi, Shobana or Manju Warrier, despite the stream of fascinating characters in their arsenal, they have not really grappled with the theme of female desire. Neither have some of our most feted directors really ventured into that space. We are still at a stage where even a woman suggesting foreplay to her husband (in Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen) is considered something radical in Malayalam cinema. Or maybe we can at least take heart in the fact that there is a discourse around it.

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with Silverscreen.in. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and thenewsminute.com. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

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