The comedy scene is dominated by men but these women actors have given us belly aches over the years!

Miss LOL The women of Malayalam cinema who make us laugh out loud
Flix Mollywood Monday, October 30, 2017 - 13:33
Written by  Anindita Menon

Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling… We are now in what is considered the golden age for women in comedy. Films like Trainwreck and Bridesmaids that are written and shouldered by women from conception to execution are ushering in a new era.

A time when women are telling uncomfortable truths - without making it look pretty - and are getting big belly laughs for it.

Indian cinema hasn’t really explored the funny side of women—they are as rare as multidimensional women characters. So, it’s natural that the female actors who have dabbled with comedy can be counted on one’s fingers. Sridevi’s iconic Charlie Chaplin spin off in Mr. India continues to be one of the best comic outings in Indian cinema. In fact, she has successfully infringed on this very male domain in Bollywood.

The baton was later passed to Juhi Chawla. Otherwise women doing comedy often ended up as victims of body shaming and crude sexism (Guddi Maruti, for the longest time, remained one of the most pathetic comic figures in Bollywood).

Down south there were iconic female characters who made/make comedy seem so effortless—Manorama, Kovai Sarala, Kalpana, Sukumari, Meena, KPAC Lalitha, Philomena, Urvashi to name a few.

We look closer home at some of these female actors who carved a niche for themselves in this primarily male space. Are there enough women in Malayalam cinema making us sit up and go ha-ha? Why is comedy still a male stronghold in our cinema? Is it a reflection of the prejudiced male mindset—about women lacking a sense of humour, or is it easier to watch a man make a fool of himself?

Or is it that we aren’t ready to listen to a woman tell uncomfortable truths or laugh at herself? Or is it just that there are so few women writers in Malayalam cinema?

Malayalam cinema's funny women

In black and white films of the '50s and '60s, there was almost always a separate comic track and though the ratio of male to female actors doing comedy was skewed, some, like Sukumari held their own. The song ‘Viralonnillenkilum veeranallenkilum’ from Veluthampi Dalawa continues to be a comedy classic even today. 

One of the main sources of inspiration for comedy in movies today is that old Malayalam favourite, mimicry. Mimicry has traditionally been an all-male domain with men doing all the ideating, writing and even performing. Female characters in these sketches and scenarios are often incidental or sidelined. Bafflingly, in a slew of Jayaram movies in the 2000s, the hero cross-dressing and pretending to be a woman is meant to generate hilarity.

It is the reaction of the ‘straight man’ to the actions of the eccentric that renders a scene comical.

In Malayalam films the women are often the ones reacting to the comic excesses of male comedians. One notable exception is perhaps Revathy in Kilukkam where she plays an unhinged heiress. Some of the funniest scenes in the film are the frustrated responses of Nischal (Jagathy Sreekumar) to her “porichakozhinte manam” or “Jyothiyum vannilla oru kunthavum vannilla.”

These kinds of films, that allow the heroine or other female actors to be unabashedly funny, are few and far between. The sets of older Priyadarshan movies were famously ‘improv’ friendly with actors like Jagadeesh, Mukesh, Maniyanpilla and a host of others free styling through skeletally etched out scenes.

Looking back at those films today, one is struck by the dearth of women in those iconic scenes. They are present, of course, but more as spectators than contributors.

Sukumari is one of the few supporting actors in a Priyadarshan film to generate laughs. Be it as the flamboyant Dick Ammayi in Boeing Boeing or the blinded-by-bright-city-lights Revathi in Poochakkoru Mookkuthi.

Remember Kalpana as UDC Kumari in Dr Pasupati? She steps out of a bus onto a dusty road in her canary yellow sari and matching umbrella giving the men in the village goosebumps. As the object of affection of not only ‘Society Balan’ but his father too, she continues to hold her own in a film chock full of comedy heavyweights.

Her enthusiastic “njaan chettanodum chechiyodum nammude kaaryam parayaan pokuvaa” in Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal can still give us the giggles. Most recently her unexpected about turn in Bangalore Days when she metamorphoses from the abandoned country bumpkin to a happy city woman ready to jet set moved us to applause.

KPAC Lalitha is one of the most versatile actors in the industry today and comedy definitely is her strong suit. Having started her career as a theatre artist, her sense of comic timing is spot on. Scenes in which she interacts with other comedy actors who started in theater like Nedumudi Venu and Thilakan are truly a joy to watch.

Her performance in films like Manichithrathazhu, Innale, Godfather etc have secured her a place in the hall of fame for the funnies.

Speaking of Godfather, Philomena’s ‘Thali aane Panineeru’ will make you chuckle even today. Her wry tone and default expression of superiority and disgust was template for a unique brand of humour.

One leading lady who beat a lot of her heroes at being funny was Urvashi. Her performance in films like Kakkathollayiram, Thalayanamanthram and Mazhavilkavadi redefined the role of the heroine and made it okay for the female protagonist to deliver the punchlines and not just set up the scene for the hero.

Bindu Panicker also turned out to be a revelation when she plunged into comedy. The half-wit Indumathi who breaks into hilariously ungrammatical English in Sreekrishnapurathe Nakshathrathilakkam remains an iconic comic outing by a female actor. That she could stand head and shoulders with Jagathy Sreekumar who is a master in comic timing speaks a lot about how effective her Indumathi was on screen.

The new generation

Among the newer lot of actors, Srinda Arhaan did show a rare spark of brilliance in 1983. She was ridiculously natural as this adorably dumb Susheela, who depresses her cricket-crazy husband on the night of their marriage when she mistakes Sachin Tendulkar for a football player.

But post that, except for an occasional cameo in Rani Padmini (check out that scene where she admits to feeling miserable when she hears good things happening to her friends), Srinda has found herself doing the same old goofy, modern, dominating variants in countless films.

Anusree cracked the wits out of us in a single scene in Diamond Necklace—where she asks her husband in all her innocence when her father gifts a rundown Maruti car and some paltry sum— "Santhoshayille Arunetta?” which later was a troll favourite.

Om Shanthi Oshana also rested on a female lead, Nazriya Nazim, who laughed at herself. Her character, Pooja, is the opposite of that most dreaded of cinematic constructs, the gratingly uni-dimensional, syrupy sweet ‘bubbly’ girl.

As a teenager, Pooja is angsty, grouchy, pensive, and–sometimes if the mood strikes–sunny, a.k.a. your average teenager. Her mother’s steady stream of advice is ever familiar to most Malayali girls–sit properly, do not whistle, do not slide down bannisters and so on. Thankfully, for all of us, she ignores her. And it’s done with lot of playful humour.

Manju Warrier is another actress who is a natural at comedy—sample her hilarious pow-wow with Mohanlal in front of a temple in Aaram Thampuran or the superbly comical exchanges with her on-screen son in the recent C/o Saira Banu.

Adventures of Omanakuttan had a heroine who is pragmatic and has a wry sense of humour. A role Bhavana does with ease.

It’s really Dileesh Pothan who brought those funny women effortlessly back on screen with Maheshinte Prathikaram.

Women who were organically and aesthetically humorous—the mother who casually informs the heartbroken daughter to hug her and get on with her life. The girl who twinkles at her would-be lover and says “chettan supera” and later proposes to him. The wife who tells her husband to get his act together and not be an “odivil Unnikrishnan.” Superbly real women who took their lives with a pinch of humour salt.

Let the tribe grow, we say.

This article was originally published on The News Minute has syndicated the content. You can read the original article here.

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