Malayalam cinema’s promising shift from celebrating toxic love to questioning it

Once upon a time, toxic love was extensively romanticised on screen. But today, with such narratives under scrutiny, there have been attempts to address the intricacies of toxic relationships.
Uyare, starring Parvathy, Asif Ali
Uyare, starring Parvathy, Asif Ali
Written by:

During an interaction for an interview, scriptwriter Sanjay (one half of the Sanjay-Bobby duo) spoke about how liberating it is to no longer see heroes slapping heroines in Malayalam cinema. There was a time when one ‘tight slap’ was mandatory in most films (especially family dramas) to ‘tame’ the heroine so that she would go back to complete the patriarchal happy family picture. But with the political correctness lens firmly fastened on films by social media, writers and filmmakers are thinking twice before sitting complacently on their conditioned belief systems. 

Once upon a time, love was extensively romanticised and lopsided on screen. There were many instances of toxic love being normalised, as well as celebrated, without question. But today, with such narratives under scrutiny, there have been both organic and coerced attempts to address the intricacies and complications of toxic relationships. We take a look at how the representation of romantic love has changed in Malayalam cinema, with a few recent examples.

Baby Mol, in Madhu C Narayanan's Kumbalangi Nights (2019) written by Shyam Pushkaran, likes to tell it as it is. Be it defying her overbearing brother-in-law or proactively pursuing the boy she fancies; she isn’t one to abide by the rules of society when it comes to her choices. And that’s why you know that Baby Mol (Anna Ben) won’t bypass her boyfriend’s toxic behaviour at any cost. When Bobby (Shane Nigam) asks for a kiss inside a theatre that coincidentally was screening Arjun Reddy, Baby Mol evades, and when her incensed boyfriend storms out of the theatre, she chooses to ignore him. Though he is still smarting from the rejection, Baby Mol, in her own ingenious way, wins him back but not without making him feel infantile.

In Ishq (2019), directed by Anuraj Manohar and written by Ratheesh Ravi, when Vasudha (Ann Sheetal) and Sachi (Shane Nigam) are caught inside a car by a stranger (Shine Tom Chacko), he not only mentally harasses the couple, but also tries to take advantage of Vasudha, by locking himself in the car with her. When Sachi drops her home after the ordeal, instead of comforting her, he seems to be only worried about her chastity. “What did he do to you?” is his only pressing question. When Sachi decides to pay him back in the same coin, it ends up as a terrifying display of toxic masculinity. Since Vasudha is portrayed as a besotted lover who is desperate to get married, and comes across as someone without any agency, her subsequent rejection, though immensely progressive, doesn’t validate her arc. The writing comes across as laboured and therefore, takes the sheen off her moment of empowerment. Nonetheless, she walks out of the relationship.

Nithya (Bhavana) is desperate for a divorce in Adhil Asharaff's Ntikkakkoru Premandayirunnu (2023), but the only impediment standing her way is her manipulative, toxic, spouse. She talks about being suffocated in the marriage and how he has always emotionally abused and gaslighted her under the pretext of love. She not only recognises the abuse but also walks out of it and remains resolute about getting a divorce, though he plays the victim card in many ways.

A gentle rejection is what turns the otherwise smitten college professor (Vineeth Viswam) hostile against his student Sharanya (Anaswara Rajan) in Super Sharanya (2022) directed and written by Girish AD. He takes her rebuff badly and misuses his power to get back at her. An unapologetic Sharanya decides to subtly call him out.

In Mahesh Narayanan’s Ariyippu (2022), Hareesh (Kunchacko Boban) and Reshmi’s (Divya Prabha) smooth-sailing marriage hits a rough patch when a sexually explicit video allegedly featuring Reshmi gets leaked. That’s when you are privy to the entitled toxicity of Hareesh, whose frail ego is punctured when the man who leaked the video verbally abuses Reshmi. Back home that night, Hareesh seeks to repair his pride by forcing her to go down on him. It doesn’t take much time for Hareesh’s sense of justice to get trampled by his own overpowering male ego and toxicity. But the closure hints that Reshmi perhaps opts to walk out of the marriage or take a break.

Pallavi (Parvathy Thiruvothu) sure has her reasons for putting up with her toxic boyfriend Govind (Asif Ali), who is manipulative and controlling in Uyare (2019) directed by Manu Asokan and written by Bobby-Sanjay. When she eventually finds the courage to break up with him, he throws acid at her. Even when her life and career come to a screeching halt, she chooses to fight back, refusing to cower down under his intimidation. On the flight, when he uses the same wily tactic to coerce her into withdrawing her case, Pallavi throws water at him. She risks getting fired from her job instead of apologising to Govind.

In Ashiq Abu’s Mayanadhi (2017) written by Shyam Pushkaran and Dileesh Nair, the relationship between Appu (Aishwarya Lakshmy) and Mathan (Tovino Thomas) is tumultuous. They have been dating since school and Mathan’s nefarious activities have always been a bone of contention between the two. He keeps letting her down. They fight, and stay away from each other for a long period of time, yet patch up when Mathan pleads for forgiveness. But there is a scene that suggests that despite everything, the conditioned sexism in Mathan resurfaces. To celebrate her victory of getting through a film audition, Appu initiates sexual intimacy, and Mathan immediately takes it as a cue to solve their issues and settle down. But when she declines, suggesting that “sex isn’t a promise”, Mathan promptly judges her morality, thereby revealing his toxic conditioning. Appu makes it clear that she doesn’t appreciate it, and asks him to leave. Having said that, since she is sketched as a pushover who allows her family and loved ones to manipulate her, her sudden show of sexual agency doesn’t quite land. Maybe it was still easier if she would have been gently evasive but such a dialogue sounds laboured from Appu. So though it somehow feels like a “playing to the gallery” scene, the intent makes us overlook that flaw.

Kevin (Fahadh Faasil) in CU Soon (2020), written and directed by Mahesh Narayanan, is a techie who practically lives in virtual reality, holding exhaustive meetings over con calls, furiously fighting with his colleague Sanjana over chats, and WhatsApp calls. He is successful, cocky, insolent, indulges in casual flings, and is an insomniac. During a group con call, he abuses Sanjana and blocks her when she reminds him of all the times he needed her help. But he has no qualms about unblocking her again and offering a casual apology when he needs her help again, thereby revealing his toxic masculinity. Despite Kevin helping out his cousin to find his virtual girlfriend and rescuing her from a human trafficking racket, the narrative doesn’t withhold from showing Kevin’s grey side.

June (2019) directed and co-written by Ahammed Khabeer, along with Jeevan Baby Mathew and Libin Varghese, chronicles the coming-of-age of June, a young girl. In school, circumstances aren’t favourable for June (Rajisha Vijayan) and Noel (Sarjano Khalid) to fall in love. But when June shifts to Mumbai for a job and goes in search of Noel and ends up dating him, the love story doesn’t land satisfactorily. It is when Noel makes it clear that after marriage she would have to fit into his patriarchal family that June puts her foot down and breaks up with him.  

Malini (Anu Sithara), in Renjith Sankar’s Ramante Eden Thottam (2017) puts up with her philandering, emotionally abusive spouse Elvis (Joju George) for a long time until she meets a compassionate widower (Kunchako Boban) who inadvertently gives her the courage to step out of the marriage. Though her spouse tries to emotionally manipulate her by selling the convenient argument of preserving their marriage for the sake of their child, in the end, Malini chooses herself.

In Khalid Rahman’s rom-com Anuraga Karikkinvellam (2016) written by Naveen Bhaskar, when Abhi (Asif Ali) gets bored with Eli (Rajisha Vijayan) and breaks up with her, she frets, fumes, and mops around, but finds love again. But this time, it is a man who truly respects and values her. Abhi being the toxic man-child he is, suddenly realises that he wants her back. He pleads and kisses her on her wedding day with the hope that she will come back to him. Eli not only slaps him for kissing her against her will but also makes a graceful exit from his life. 

In Basil Joseph's sports drama Godha (2017), written by Rakesh Mantodi, Anjaneya Das (Tovino Thomas) is a typically entitled male who misconstrues a woman’s friendly behaviour as love. So when the Punjabi girl he befriends at the university takes a train to Kerala to avoid her marriage, Das decides for both of them that they are in a relationship. When she responds to his friend’s flirtatiousness, Das is upset, and lets her know that “good girls don’t do that, and he doesn’t like it.”  That’s when Aditi (Wamiqa Gabbi) lets him know that she neither appreciates his bullying nor entitlement. She also disapproves of his moral judgments against girls. And as a last resort when he blurts out that he loves her, she angrily slams the door at him, much to his anguish. Hands down the best scene in the film. 

Stalking, which was considered a crucial wooing tool for on-screen romance, is also being reconsidered now. One can see less drama and more realistic conversations between lovers now.  More importantly, the depiction of love is becoming freer of its rose-tinted glasses. The focus (an ongoing process) is on healthy relationships, inclusivity, and power balance. That’s what has happened when we started embracing narratives of flawed humans over one-dimensional heroes. 

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 She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to and She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute