Malayalam cinema’s Ranjith created many bold heroines but how empowered were they?
By Aradhya Kurup
Ranjith Balakrishnan is a well-known film director, screenwriter, producer and actor from the Malayalam film industry. Although Ranjith’s female characters could be considered progressive, it’s not as if they are free of patriarchal trappings.
Take for instance, “Oru Maymasa Pulariyil” (1987), Ranjith’s debut story which was directed by V.R. Gopinath.
The heroine Shari in “Oru Maymasa Pulariyil” is a radical woman and, at times, you hate her guts. She is one of a kind—she buys liquor for her dad, rides a pillion, wears only jeans and shirts, picks up fights with boys and speaks her mind.
And yet such a “progressively” sketched heroine decides to end her life in a moment of despair because her lover rejects her! This is typical of Ranjith’s celluloid heroines. They come, they speak their mind, they light up the screens and then they fizzle out just as quickly. They don’t conquer. They leave that to the male of the species.
The bravehearts and the weaklings
Following that seemingly nonconformist entry, Ranjith continued to script films. However, the heroines who emerged from his pen never quite stepped out of the ordinary.
Bhanumati (Revathi) in “Devasuram” (1993) is the proverbial lioness—obstinate, strong-willed and ambitious. She is impervious to the clout of the arrogant, feudal, rich brat Neelakandan (Mohanlal). When humiliated, she doesn’t flinch; rather she is determined to make him pay for his misdeeds.
But alas, Ranjith brings her to his feet, in the guise of ardent love— “I don’t want anything. I don’t want a career, all I want is a chance to serve you, my lord,” she implores him. It’s mortifying to see Neelakandan cut her down to size.
The same year, Ranjith came up with the complicated tale of a woman who is torn between her departed lover and his twin brother—“Mayamayooram” (1993). There are constant references in the film about a woman’s identity being inexplicably linked to that of a man. Suddenly this ambitious, talented, urban woman (Revathi) is condensed to a desperate, love-starved selfish female.
Take the poorly made “Rock N’ Roll” (2007), which is about a self-absorbed male lead (Mohanlal) who considers “his disturbance to be a blessing." Ranjith sketches two women here—one is unattached, sports a bob cut, and makes a living as a dance instructor. There are subtle hints to suggest that she is promiscuous. While the “heroine” is the mild-mannered, delicate playback singer Daya (Lakshmi Rai) who ultimately is made to believe that her “greatest blessing” would be to marry this man!
The heroine (Manju Warrier) in “Krishnagudiyil Oru Pranayakalathu” (1997) becomes an object of tussle between two men—she clearly doesn’t have a mind of her own.
In “Aaram Thampuran” (1997), the feisty Unnimaya (Manju Warrier), who initially gives us hope with her spirited verbal pow-wows with the hero, is soon left in the lurch. As she eavesdrops on Jagannathan’s (Mohanlal) conversation with his “modern girlfriend” where he declares his love for Unnimaya, her eyes light up with joy and gratitude. And then he adds that worn-out patronising dialogue—“It is not just love, I want to give her a life.”
He repeats this trope with Manju Warrier in “Summer in Bethlehem” (1998) where the tomboyish and bold Abhirami is faced with the proposition of marrying a man against her wishes as it is her lover’s last desire. In the very next scene, bafflingly, she seems to have come to terms with it.
In “Valyettan”(2000), the hero Madhavankutty (Mammootty) marries a woman to “save her from a life of solitude”. He is the valiant knight, yet he seems to be more worried about saving his face in front of his five brothers than his future wife’s trauma.
Ranjith’s fixation with the alpha male hero reached alarming heights in “Narasimham” (2000) and “Ravanaprabhu” (2001). The former has a pro-active heroine (Aishwarya) but the hero (Mohanlal) agrees to marry her as long as she cuddle up, bears his children and is ready to live under his shadow! And in his directorial venture, “Ravanaprabhu”, the heroine Janaki’s (Vasundhara Das) magnanimous fiancé passes her over to her “childhood hero” Karthikeyan (Mohanlal).
Strong, but not enough
To be fair, “Mizhi Randilum” (2003) is a woman-centric film—with two diametrically opposite, but equally strong women at the helm. One is the self-sacrificing Bhadra (Kavya Madhavan), a nurse, with a family of senior citizens to feed and the other is the smarter Bhama, her twin sister, studying for medicine. And whom does the hero Krishnakumar (Dileep) want to wed? He reasons with his wheelchair-bound sister, “I want to marry Bhadra as she will look after you unselfishly.” Meaning: The career-minded Bhama wouldn’t. And pray tell me, does anybody bother about the women’s choices?
“Chandrolsavam” (2005) is about a man’s (Mohanlal) eternal pining for his childhood sweetheart (Meena). Yet another Ranjith staple of a heroic alpha male turning the woman’s dreary life around.
Cheeru (Shweta Menon) from “Paleri Manikyam: Oru Pathirakolapathakathinte Katha” (2007) is one of his most captivating heroines—sensuous, licentious and unapologetic. The film was based on a story written by T.P Rajeevan. Married to a man who is unable to fulfil her needs, Cheeru gets into an open relationship with the village landlord. Yet, she is powerless to stop him from making amorous advances towards her daughter-in-law.
In “Njaan” (2014), set in a somewhat similar milieu, you have the male lead (Dulquer Salmaan) and his powerless women—a poor maid who is forced to have an abortion, a tribal woman whom he romances for a brief period, and his blind wife.
A few good women
Padma (Khushbu) from “Kaiyoppu” (2007), Padmashree (Priyamani) in “Pranchiyettan and the Saint” (2010) and Meera (Kaniha) in “Spirit” (2012) are among the few female characters in Ranjith’s films who are somewhat independent and sensible.
This writer who gave a new lease of life to Malayalam cinema when it was ailing, needs to introspect about the changing grammar of the art. May be, the change can start with a dynamic, modern, updated, progressive woman protagonist. Better scripts, better male leads and women who have more to do than pander to an alpha man’s ego. Or is that too much to wish for?
(This article first appeared in Fullpicture.in. You can read the original article here. The News Minute has syndicated the content.)