Malayalam film Queen, directed by debut director Dijo Jose Antony, released on January 12 in Kerala and went on to set the box office on fire. The film, which is about the lone woman in a batch of Mechanical Engineering college students, earned good word of mouth in Kerala and released outside the state on February 2.
You can see why. The last sequence of Queen is similar to that of the 2016 Bollywood film Pink, which has a lawyer powerfully tear down the usual victim blaming arguments that are made in rape cases. The audience I watched it with couldn't stop clapping as Salim Kumar thundered, "So which time of the day can we say is a bad time for women to be out?"
I couldn't quite buy into Salim Kumar's performance, given that in real life, he'd said the survivor in the Malayalam actor sexual assault case should be subjected to a lie detector test. But well, it is an unfair expectation that actors only do roles that reflect who they are in real life. Queen's problems, however, are far worse.
The first half of Dijo's film is typical of all the half-baked campus films we've seen over the years - with unfunny ragging sequences, caricatured lecturers and students, and unconvincing gang wars. Nevertheless, the idea of a young woman breaking into a traditional male bastion is a promising premise, so despite the slapstick antics of the boys in the class, I kept waiting for the film to get better. But I lost all hope once the much-anticipated lone woman finally enters - Chinnu, played by Saniya Iyappan.
Chinnu's character is the case of an extreme manic pixie - she bounces around the corridors, innocently pulls the cheeks of her ogling classmates, screams loudly in the middle of the night for no good reason, sets caged birds free...you get the idea. But it doesn't stop there. Chinnu is ALSO an orphan. She's ALSO a cancer patient. She ALSO gets gang-raped.
Though the last sequence is supposed to make us believe that rape is not a victim's fault, the exhausting narrative that builds to this declaration is obsessed with painting Chinnu as a "blameless" innocent. The boys in her life, her classmates, keep saying that "she wouldn't have even harmed an ant", as if they need that reason to justify their anger about what has happened to their classmate.
One of the arguments used by the defence in the court is that Chinnu had had an abortion some months ago and that this goes to prove she was of "immoral" character. But then, it is revealed that Chinnu's cervix and uterus had been removed because of her cancer and the medical report is thus fake. It is, of course, asinine that none of the people in Chinnu's life knew what cancer the woman they all loved so much had until that revelation.
But even if we forgive this, it is troubling that the director chose this way out to battle the 'immorality' argument. This is where the film departs from Pink substantially. While Pink had its share of flaws, the film was unapologetic about its women characters and what they do - they wear what they like, they do what they like, even drinking with strangers. The film dared to show women as adults, not women-children running around genially as if touched by the sun.
Another "evidence" mounted by the defence to show Chinnu's "immorality" is that she was once found hugging a group of boys at night, in the middle of the road. Needless to say, the counter to this is that it was "harmless" hugging among classmates. Nothing romantic or sexual about it. The film doesn't dare to ask "So what?" at any point, choosing instead to constantly reiterate that Chinnu didn't deserve this. As if any other woman, who has killed a couple of ants in her lifetime, does.
Predictably, Chinnu's male friends go into revenge mode and hunt down the perpetrators - all brawn and muscle. And the film ends with the "message" that men should stop thinking of women as an opportunity but as their responsibility. This, for me, was the final nail in the coffin.
It is because men believe they are the guardians of women's lives in a patriarchal society that gender-based violence occurs. It is because they believe they have the right to decide what she should wear, where she should go, and what she should do, that they feel they are right to "punish" her when she doesn't toe the line. It is because they think women are objects in need of "protection" that they exert so much control over them.
Women are not men's responsibility; men's responsibility is not harassing their fellow classmates, not moral policing women who have sexual feelings, not ogling shamelessly (all of which the film affectionately normalises as "fun"). Men's responsibility, in other words, is simply to keep it in their pants.
The only plot point in Queen which had potential was that of a rape survivor (Leona Lishoy) coming forward to serve as witness. But unfortunately, the film limits her role and gives the "rescue ops" entirely to the men.
If Queen has managed to resonate with the audience despite being a badly made film, it is entirely because of Salim Kumar's blistering lines and how much in need we are of hearing such sentiments expressed in a mass medium. This is what saddens me the most about the film - we don't see such sentiments expressed often enough and Queen squanders a golden opportunity by clumsily stitching it to every patriarchal idea about rape that women confront in everyday life.