The relationship between popular culture portrayal of social issues and its impact on the society we live in has always been a complex one. But no matter how hard we try, it is impossible to ignore the existence of such a relationship for convenient arguments such as "it's only a film, why take it so seriously!" In this short review, we look at the portrayal of dowry and related domestic violence and its less than desirable representation, rather its status-quo-ist representation in Malayalam cinema through time.
In Sathyan Anthikad’s Bhagyadevatha (2009), the hero (Jayaram) decides to get married when he is informed about the prospect of a hefty dowry, ripe enough to help him buy his dreamboat and a potential alliance for his sister. Though he initially balks at the idea of “demanding dowry,” he is assured by a friend (Nedumudi Venu) that “dowry in any period is only dowry.” They finally decide that “wondering how much you can give your child will be a more diplomatic way to put forth their dowry demand.” But when the promised money isn’t delivered on the wedding day, the “hero” not only denies her (Kaniha) conjugal rights but also forcibly drags her out of his house one night and drops her at her parents' house when the stipulated deadline gets over. But when she wins a Rs 2-crore lottery, he shamelessly tries to win her back, asserting his status as her husband and professing fake love.
The problem with the film isn’t so much about the representation, but the stand it takes towards the end. The hero is a blatantly greedy, insensitive man, who not only marries to stabilise his sinking financial condition, but he also finds nothing amiss in wrecking a young woman’s dreams and hopes in the bargain. And ironically, he hopes to "marry off" his sister with that dowry money. Eventually, his sister’s marriage is also fixed on the guarantee of a weighty settlement. But what makes it deplorable is how the sweet, submissive wife forgives and forgets and kindly pays off his sister’s dowry and willingly goes back to the “hero.” The woman who has been wronged, who is a victim of dowry harassment not only forgives the hero but also endorses dowry by consenting to pay off his sister’s dowry money. Her character sketch is faithfully regressive—a smiling angel who after being told that their marriage stands “annulled till the dowry money comes home” takes it upon herself to sprinkle love, compassion and service in his family consisting of grandmother, mom, and sisters. That’s how you normalise dowry, misogyny and patriarchy which are all surreptitiously linked to each other in the great Indian marriage market!
Malayogam (1990), directed by Sibi Malayil, written by Lohithadas, as the title suggests, highlights the nitty-gritties of the marriage market, and how two resourceful young men start a matchmaking business to bail them out of unemployment. Set in the '90s, expectedly dowry is a pre-requisite tool in the narrative. Several young women are languishing at home, awaiting marriage, with dowry playing villain. Rameshan’s (Jayaram) elder sister (Kalpana) has been sent home citing unpaid dowry (though it’s played out like a little scheme between the husband and wife), while his unmarried younger sisters are waiting in line. His lover (Parvathy) is married against her will to a rich educated guy, only to be burnt alive over dowry harassment. At home, when his mother picks at his dwindling hotel business, Rameshan's father taunts her about the poor dowry her father gave him.
Rameshan’s friend Jose’s (Mukesh) elder sister is still unmarried, in the wedding market her family’s financial state isn’t enough to send her off with a fat settlement. Her face is perpetually downcast, and her days are spent shuttling between churches. When Rameshan’s sister elopes with the toddy tapper (Murali), though her parents are outraged over his caste, Rameshan is relieved at the prospect of a dowry-free wedding. In the end, when Jose’s sister’s wedding is called off citing dowry issues, Rameshan comes forward to “marry her to save her from humiliation and spinsterhood.” Ironically, Jose had also agreed to a marriage as long as the dowry was handed over, which he believed was important to marry his sister off.
In several Sathyan Anthikad films (Sanmanasullavarkku Samadhanam, TP Balagopalan MA, Veendum Chila Veetukaryangal), married sisters are often portrayed as greedy who keep grumbling about not getting paid enough dowry and are considered selfish for having demanded a rightful share in the property. Meanwhile, unmarried sisters are just burdened props for unemployed or debt-ridden heroes to add to their woes.
In Sathyan Anthikad’s Ponmuttayidunna Tharaavu (1988), the climax gets unravelled when the heroine’s (Urvashi) husband tries to sell her gold chain against her will and declares that he feels cheated by his in-laws when it turns out to be counterfeit. That’s enough reason for him to send her home. Sthreedhanam (1993) directed by Anil-Babu, as the name suggests, revolves around dowry. Vidya’s (Urvashi) family is headlined by a father (who is the breadwinner) and mother, an elder sister who has been abandoned by her husband over dowry, two sisters and a brother. In fact, dowry is pervasive in this narrative. When Vidya gets rejected by her lover over dowry, she ends up marrying into a family where the mother-in-law measures her son’s wives according to the riches they bought home. Vidya is constantly harassed and humiliated in the name of dowry even as her husband (Jagadish) remains a mute spectator. But finally, when the mother-in-law is taught a lesson for her misdeeds, typically its Vidya who overrules her husband's protests to bring her back home. Having said that, the ill effect of dowry is let off in the film over mother-in-law v/s daughter in law squabbles.
The recently released Paapam Cheyyathavar Kallariyatte, directed by Shambu Purushothaman, begins with a dowry transaction. For the boy’s family who gives the impression of belonging to an affluent family, this deal is their lifeline, which will bail them out of their mounting debts. So during the engagement, when they realise that the bride has some mental health issues, they are prepared to overlook it when the father offers them more dowry.
But in the irreverent comedy Punjabi House (1998), directed by Rafi Mecartin, when they demand more dowry to marry the heroine (Mohini) with speech impairment, her brother (Lal) puts his foot down despite protests from his relatives who thinks dowry is a given. In Padmarajan’s Aparan (1988), the hero’s lover (Shobana) doesn’t think twice before suggesting to him that his sister (Parvathy) is his burden and once, she is married off with dowry, they can marry. In Sathyan Anthikad’s Sandesham (1991), when Thilakan’s daughter and husband keeps pestering him for more money, he tells the husband in no uncertain terms that he is under no obligation to help him and that it’s not the girl's family’s duty to provide for him.
In the same director’s Innanthe Chinthavishayam (2008), the narrative revolves around three women who have been separated from their husbands for seemingly valid reasons. These are women who have been at the receiving end of infidelity, emotional abuse, and stifling patriarchy. And yet the film takes a firm stand against divorce and leaves it to the hero (Mohanlal) to “mend” their broken marriages as he hails from a broken home as a child. The underlying patriarchal message cannot be missed—a woman is not capable of being happy without a man by her side.
Watch: Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act
Sudha (Vinitha Koshy) is fleeing for her life, sliding across mountains, rivulets, and thorny bushes. She reaches a narrow road, only to stop dead in her tracks as she stares with horror at her husband. He quickly picks a wooden stick and starts beating her. She tries to run away only to see a wild boar blocking the way. But Sudha would rather face the beast than the cold, ruthless man behind her. This passage from debutant Rahul Riji Nair’s Ottamuri Velicham which tells a powerful tale of a young, orphaned woman trapped in a horrific marriage, stirringly and starkly depicts the reality of marital rape and domestic violence. It’s conceivably the most obvious reference in Malayalam cinema when it comes to depicting domestic violence and marital rape. The film shows how deeply entrenched patriarchy is in that family. It’s evident that Chandran’s misogyny and abusive nature is inherited from his father, as is apparent when his mother says her son is scarred from watching his father beating her. Chandran has only seen women being treated as objects to be beaten and used for a man’s need.
Kettyolanante Malakha (2019 film directed by debutant Nissam Basheer) has a leading man (Asif Ali) who enters matrimony with the intention of getting a companion for his mother. Despite growing up surrounded by women (three sisters), he is awkward around his new wife. When he forces himself on his wife thinking that it’s the right way to assert his dominance over her, the result of a wrong advice from a friend, she is hospitalised and the whole family gets to know about it. While the film doesn’t glorify marital rape, perhaps the narrative was also a bit forgiving on the hero for his actions. In the end, he is shown to have learnt the meaning of consent and the enormity of the crime he did in ignorance, and they reunite happily.
When the young bride in Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen enters her marital home, she is dismayed to discover that the women are expected to spend days and nights in the kitchen and take care of the household. When her mother-in-law leaves to take care of her pregnant daughter, all the responsibilities fall on her. After the grueling domestic work, nights are even more traumatic as the husband takes his conjugal rights for granted and her consent is never asked (even her request for foreplay is mocked by him). She is not allowed to take up a job as well. In the end, she walks out of the marriage. The film is a powerful commentary that throws light on the century-old conditioning that resides in Indian households. It talks about male entitlement, patriarchy, sexism, marital rape, emotional abuse, financial abuse in marriages, and the stigma around menstruation. Two decades ago, KG George had portrayed a similar picture in Aadaminte Variyellu which tells the story of three women trapped in various forms of abusive relationships.
Emotional abuse in marriages, which amounts to gaslighting, indifference, disrespect and rejection has rarely been addressed in Malayalam cinema. Ranjith Sankar’s Ramante Edenthottam (2017) is among the few exceptions. Malini (Anu Sithara) is ignored, disrespected, and mocked by her husband (Joju George) who indulges in fleeting affairs. But when she gets into an emotional affair with a widower (Kunchacko Boban), and the husband threatens divorce, she opts to walk out of the marriage. In a '90s film, she would have been forced to fall at his feet to be accepted back into the marriage or they would have gotten back for the sake of their child.
Similarly, Rajasenan’s Njangal Santhushtaranu (1999), has a husband (Jayaram) who mocks the wife (Abhirami) for her inability to cook, publicly humiliates her for her poor Malayalam language skills, slaps her in front of a crowd and judges her for her aversion to his mother and sisters. But the narrative typically sides with the husband and chooses to end on a “happy note” by making a “good woman” out of her. In the same director’s Adyathe Kanmani (1995), not only is the heroine bullied for dowry by the mother-in-law, but she is also harassed for not having a boy child. Since it’s all coated in humour, the gravity of the crime is diluted.
Jayaram as the husband in Sibi Malayil’s Kaliveedu (1996) is a chauvinist control freak who expects his wife (Manju Warrier) to be at his beck and call all the time. When she suggests a domestic worker to cook and take care of the house, not only is he outraged by the suggestion, he also asks a friend’s wife to step in as the cook and domestic worker so that his young wife will finally take lessons from her to be “his kind of wife”! When she walks out, he tries to replace her with a live-in-partner for a brief period only to realise that the new partner (Vani Viswanath) is no doormat either.
Then there is financial abuse, where the husband tries to control the financial independence and freedom of the wife. Perhaps most of the Balachandra Menon films attested to this abuse, as his female characters are meant to be subservient to men, who in turn will be patronising and protecting. Most dominating women in his narratives will be pulled up for their audacity and hen-pecked husbands will eventually “correct their cowardice.” In Vivahithare Ithile (1986) though the woman is reluctant to have children, she agrees as that’s the only way to salvage their marriage.
Not only is cinema the most accessible form of art, it has also proven to have a profound influence on the public psyche. Especially when it comes to shaping perceptions on love (stalking was considered one of the legit wooing techniques in cinema thereby normalising it) and marriage. So when you regularise social vices like domestic abuse, marital rape, and dowry harassment on screen, it gives alarmingly wrong signals to the audience. That’s not to say, they shouldn’t be shown. Include them in your stories but proceed with prudence and sensitivity. You never know how much of what you are casually portraying is being absorbed and taken to heart by the public.
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.