Looking back at Malayalam writer-director AK Lohithadas and his women characters

Lohithadas wrote some of Malayalam cinema's finest scripts, but his treatment of women characters fell short.
Manju Warrier in Kanmadham
Manju Warrier in Kanmadham
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With a long and glorious career spanning two decades, including six State Awards and a National Award, Lohithadas is one of the doyens of realistic dramas in Malayalam cinema.

In this piece, however, we focus on his treatment of the female subject. 

Does realism in cinema sufficiently cover the biases of the human mind? Does his treatment of women in his cinema hold a candle to the likes of KG George? Does the rich tapestry of the characters make up for the stereotyping? Read on to find out.

Taming of the shrew

Bhanu (Manju Warrier) in Kanmadam (1998) is in her 20s, her eyes glaring out of a face caked in sweat and dust, and with a scowl. Dressed in a skirt, half sari, and a coarse bandana, Bhanu seems to be in a tearing hurry all the time, constantly snarling at those who cross her path uninvited and carrying the weight of a family of four with her. 

When her brother who was the lone breadwinner of the family goes missing, she decides to take charge of the family and works in the stone quarry to make ends meet. 

There is a sister who has a child out of wedlock, another studying in school and a grandmother. When a stranger (Mohanlal) enters the family, offering to bail them out of their misery, though Bhanu resists with all her might, she eventually succumbs, weakening before his forced kiss. “Behind that anger is a woman who is aching to be loved by a man,” he tells her. Therefore, Bhanu’s steely bravado was a farce that melted when a man embraced her (against her will). Her barren existence only bears fruit when a man pledges to save her. 

A decade ago, AK Lohitadas had carved another version of Bhanu through Rajamma (Seema) in Mahayanam (directed by Joshiy) in a somewhat similar milieu. Left in the lurch by a boatman, she runs a tea stall, lives alone and is constantly struggling to defend herself from the village men, with an iron axe and a volley of abuses. 

But when a morose stranger (Mammootty) enters the village and gets verbally abused by Rajamma, he takes it upon himself to show her “the power of a man” and brutally assaults her with a kiss. Rajamma, like Bhanu goes weak in the knees and finds herself falling in love with him. It is a classic taming of the shrew narrative. 

Though their milieus are different, Sharada (Shanthi Krishna) in Chakoram (1994), directed by MA Venu, scripted by Lohitadas, is a middle-aged spinster, a foul-mouthed, bad tempered woman who is bitter about not getting married, as she was busy taking care of her siblings and has a similar character sketch. Her life starts to look up when a retired army man (Murali) usurps her property. It typically begins with a slanging match and ends up with her falling in love with him. We are left unconvinced as to what drew her towards this haughty, eccentric man or vice versa, apart from a shared destiny of solitude. In the end he dies, and she decides to live in his memory as a widow.

A woman, from the writer-director's point of view, is unhappy, inadequate, and frustrated without a man anchoring her life. The family she resides in, without a man leading it, cannot be called one. Be it in Bhanu’s or Rajamma’s case, what is being normalised is an act of sexual assault, she is coerced into silence, which is taken for consent. Rajamma suddenly grows shy in his presence, dreaming of a life with him, while Bhanu mellows down.  

In Bharathan’s Padheyam (1993, written by Lohitadas), the hero (Mammootty) molests his friend’s fiancée who is there for a night of shelter and benevolently offers to marry her. After apologising to her, he wonders why she didn’t slap him to which she says “his touch made her forget everything. I became a mere woman and I blame myself for that.” Though he suggests forgetting this lapse and moving on, she is consumed by the guilt of "cheating" her fiancé and agrees to the marriage.

The intriguing women who are but trapped in misery

Priyamvadha (Meera Jasmine) in Kasthooriman (2003) gets an interesting build-up—a smart and capable college student who is employed as a domestic worker to finance her education, she even helps the hero financially during a crisis. However, she gets jailed for killing her brother-in-law but is finally reunited with the hero. 

The loud and intimidating brothel owner, Devumma in Soothradharan (2001), who is struggling to keep the business afloat, is another interesting character. In the dark and dingy old house, which contains sex workers of various age groups, the old woman tenderly takes care of a teenager like her own daughter and successfully protects her from the predators. But when their trade goes for a toss, she is forced to sell her to a wealthy old man but eventually kills him and saves her. Devumma’s misery remains unaltered. 

Sarojini (Sree Lakshmy) in Bhoothakannadi (1997) is a widow but between Vidhyadharan (Mammootty) and her, it is Sarojini who is unabashed about her love. To her teenage daughter, she is more a friend and loves taking care of herself. Lohithadas sketches her with understated sensuality—the fluidity in her body when she breaks into the pulluvan pattu, the deep, kajal-smudged eyes, the flawless dusky skin tone, the thick curly tresses, and a kind of abandon in her walk. It is perhaps his most unapologetic heroine.

The chaste, tradition-bound wives

In the Sibi Malayil directed Thaniyavarthanam (1987), when the world and the family has turned away from her husband (Mammootty) who has been branded insane for being born into a family with a history of mental illness, the wife (Saritha) remains a helpless onlooker. Not only does she not believe in his sanity, she allows the patriarchs to decide for her. 

Anitha (Shobana) in Sibi Malayil’s Vicharana (1988) is torn between her manipulative father and her righteous husband (Mammootty), but she eventually betrays him leading to their separation, though their love remains unscathed. 

In Ezhuthappurangal (1987), again directed by Sibi Malayil, with whom Lohitadas had the maximum partnerships, tells the story of three women. One of them is Seetha (Parvathy), a college lecturer married to an emotionally abusive partner who makes fun of her poor financial background. When she gets gang-raped by his friends, not only does the society and husband ostracise her, but in what can be termed as an unbelievably dreadful closure, she is seen at the railway station as a beggar carrying her child.  Undoubtedly, had the film released today, it would have been widely condemned for its regressive female representation, and for being weighed down by the warped mindset of a society which refuses to give a rape survivor a life of dignity but allows the men to go scot free.  

Joshiy’s Kuttettan (1990) perhaps has the weakest imagery of a wife in Seetha (Saritha), who is unaware of her husband’s womanising and lives a largely unassuming existence, besides the guilt of not having children. She is so illogically angelic that she forgives him when he admits to a love child and happily accepts the girl as her own. That Vishnu (Mammootty) persists with his philandering was of course him living up to his alpha male image and therefore easily forgiven for that nudge-wink climax.

Valsalyam’s Malathi (Geetha) apart from being a traditional, model wife also has to bear the brunt of her husband’s (Mammootty) temper, and gets slapped for speaking her mind. Valsalyam (directed by Cochin Haneefa) is another instance filled with hackneyed female characters, who will never ever pass the Bechdel test. The smiling emotional mother, the voiceless younger sister, the greedy married sister, the snooty new bride who has a mind of her own and is accused of splitting the family. And of course, she (Ilavarasi) is typically tamed with a tight slap by her husband (Siddique) and gets disciplined.

Kamaladalam’s Suma (Parvathy), wife of Nandagopan (Mohanlal) is needy, possessive, loving and sets herself ablaze when he admonishes her. The film upholds a set of characters who are in unhealthy relationships—If Suma takes her own life as she couldn’t accept even a minor form of rejection from the husband, the husband turns alcoholic, refusing to move on after her death. There is also his shishya (Monisha) who is attracted to her guru who is emotionally unavailable for her.

Seldom do you see a wife who is self-possessed or financially independent in his scripts, and even if they are, it will be a profession (teacher) that does not get in the way of family harmony.

Ramani (Lakshmy), wife of Kalloor Ramanathan (Nedumudi Venu) in Bharatham (directed by Sibi Malayil) is a traditional homemaker who can only admonish him for his self-destructive drinking habit, while Devi (Urvashi), the fiancée of Gopi (Mohanlal), is kind and practical. Typically, women are stationed to anchor the vulnerable men in their lives. But Arayannangalude Veedu’s Seetha (Lakshmy Gopalaswamy), though stands within the precinct of a traditional wife, is a more vocal partner and steps in to slap her brother-in-law who tries to manhandle her, despite the husband’s (Mammootty) presence. 

In the same film, there are various female characters, who fall into a stereotypical celluloid mould of mothers, sisters and lovers—a mother who is grieving for being unfair to her son, the brother’s wife who has an extra-marital affair, the sister who puts up with her philandering husband, the dominating sister who bullies her husband but is, again, slapped by the husband to discipline her; an ex-lover who is still waiting for the hero but eventually gets reunited with a man who was madly in love with her, at the behest of her former lover. In short, happy conventional spaces where women are tamed, disciplined, taught to forgive, and forget and of course go back to a man to finish that happy family picture. 

In Valayam (directed by Sibi Malayil) and Adhaaram (directed by George Kithu), there are women who are widows, but life does not give them a second chance. Sibi Malayil directed Malayogam, has women who get victimised for the societal obsession with the dowry system. A woman who is forcefully married and killed for dowry, another who is miserable about not getting married because they cannot afford dowry and another who decides to find her own happiness by marrying a man beneath her family’s social status.

Mothers are generally slotted between angry, verbally abusive and sacrificing smiling angels. You see them in Divakaran’s mother with whom he shares a tempestuous relationship in Sallapam or the foul-mouthed Susheela in Joker. Or the other variant—the epitome of tolerance and unconditional love (Thaniyavarthanam, Veendum Chila Veetukaryangal, Arayannangalude Veedu, Kireedom).

In a way, AK Lohithadas’s filmography has a sad irony in it. True, he drafted some of the finest scripts in Malayalam cinema. Kireedam is still considered as the finest even today. But it is also true that in the quest to unravel the male mind, its intricacies, vulnerabilities, struggles and victimisations, he conveniently overlooked the possibilities of the female mind and its complexities and desires, opting instead to box them in banal and degenerating images. That is precisely where KG George triumphed, and AK Lohithadas faltered.    

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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