Malayalam cinema is consistently breaking boundaries, engaging audiences across India with its solid content and performances, while simultaneously offering up some of the most fascinating women of our times, and their riveting stories. From young brides, women who are fighting for their choices to mothers who are rarely seen on celluloid, we take stock of some of the most intriguing female characters who visited Malayalam cinema in the last five years. Here are our picks.
The woman in The Great Indian Kitchen
It is a bleak irony that one of the most realistic female characters on celluloid in the past 10 years had to be created by a man. And it is also appropriate that she is nameless â€” a representation of several million married women who are routinely thrown into a world of domestic drudgery by entitled men. The story of The Great Indian Kitchen is one that has been routinely occurring in most Indian households since the evolution of mankind. But then, it is also a story that has been so normalised over the centuries that no one thought there was a story in there, until director Jeo Baby took it upon himself to tell her story.
So, you have a new bride who shyly enters her husbandâ€™s home, with romantic dreams and hopes of a good life, only for them to be blown into smithereens by her husband and his family. As days turn into nights, weeks into months, she realises that her role is as replaceable as the domestic help in the family. She is stuck in the loop of household chores. From cooking fresh meals, washing dishes, cleaning kitchens, and doing every possible domestic work, the woman in The Great Indian Kitchen, played by Nimisha Sajayan, is a startling, painful reflection of the reality of most Indian households. Meanwhile, the men take the women for granted, expecting them to be at their beck and call for sex and, worse, depriving them an opportunity to be financially independent. Though the ending might come across as too convenient, as very few women are privileged to flee away from such marriages, The Great Indian Kitchen will always be part of Malayalam cinema history, for showing the mirror to men and forcing them to self-reflect. Even if it is just for a day.
Shirley in Aarkkariyam
What strikes you most about Shirley in Aarkkariyam, directed by Sanu Varghese, is her pragmatism, and how efficiently and congenially she and her partner have learned to occupy a space of impartiality in their marriage. Though it is nearly impossible for marriages to reach that stage of equality, this couple have attained the improbability. Maybe, this is also because it is a second marriage for both of them, and they have wisely learned and unlearned from their previous mistakes.
Shirley is wise, empathetic, self-aware, independent, and adaptable. Be it sitting at the dusty backyard of her ancestral house in Kerala while slicing jackfruits, calmly striking a real estate deal, or figuring out ways to bring her daughter back from the hostel, Shirley (a beautifully subtle performance from Parvathy) is a quietly empowering sight.
Maria in Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam
Maria in Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam, a Don Palathara directorial, is an antithesis of how women are usually portrayed on screen â€” sacrificial, unconditionally loving, giving, maternal and most importantly unambitious. She is anxious about an impending pregnancy, and through a heated argument with her live-in partner, she dismantles the imageries one is used to while watching women on screen. No, she isnâ€™t ready for motherhood, and despite reassurances from her partner who is an aspiring actor, she knows the onus will be on her to take up the responsibility of parenting. And she fights tooth and nail with him to reinstate her point of view. Again, this too is a stereotype disruption, because women arenâ€™t expected to be assertive and opinionated.
Maria, played by Rima Kallingal, wants a career and wants it on her own terms. That includes the decision to be a mother. If she comes across as borderline abusive, maybe it has more to do with our own conditioned images of one-dimensional, soft-spoken, smiling, coy celluloid women. Maria could just be one of us.
Neena in Varane Avashyamund
It is rare to see Malayalam cinema celebrating women in their 40s and 50s. And it is an even bigger rarity to see a happy, confident, alluring single mother in her 50s on screen. That way, Shobhanaâ€™s Neena is nothing less than a revelation and she gets a superstar introductory song, waxing lyrical about her beauty.
One of the most charming scenes in Varane Avashyamund, directed by debutant Anoop Sathyan, is Neenaâ€™s brother briefing her adult daughter about her motherâ€™s love affairs. It is done without a hint of censor and a lot of humour, instantly dismantling the moral pedestal reserved for mothers on celluloid. Though her daughter still grapples with societal conditioning, Neena remains a liberating figure, bravely reaching out for love again, despite a history of an abusive marriage. Neenaâ€™s joie de vivre is irresistible. Fifties never looked this exciting on celluloid before.
The daughters in Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam
It requires a lot of ingenuity, determination and fortitude to stand within a patriarchal system and still have your way. That too, when your opposition stands in the form of a simmering patriarch who is still licking his wounds after his eldest daughter picked a groom against his wishes. His only chance of retribution is to marry off his youngest daughter to a groom and family of his choice. But then the youngest one has already made up her mind, come hell or high water, to lead a life according to the choices she made. What follows is a duel between patriarchy and women, with the latter coming out triumphant. The charm of Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam, directed by Senna Hegde, lies in how subtly these negotiations are made by the two daughters, played by Anagha Narayanan and Unnimaya Nalappadam.
Asha in Bhoothakaalam
If Neena of Varane Avashyamund is sunshine, Asha in Bhoothakaalam, a single mother in her 50s, is dark and brooding. She wears drab cotton saris, never smiles, and is taking pills for clinical depression. Her profile clashes disastrously with her profession of a kindergarten teacher.
But Asha is also a toxic mother, a subversion of the hackneyed sacrificial mothers we are so used to witnessing on screen. She keeps thwarting her adult sonâ€™s ambitions, emotionally blackmails him for wanting to be independent, is controlling, critical and has no boundaries, leaving the son feeling miserable. Revathiâ€™s subtlety as Asha, in this film directed by Rahul Sadasivan, brings into life an anomaly in Malayalam cinema â€” a middle-aged mother who isnâ€™t one-dimensional.
Baby Mol and Simmy in Kumbalangi Nights
Simmy and Baby Mol of Kumbalangi Nights, directed by Madhu C Narayanan, are two sisters who are diagonally opposite to each other. If the elder one (Simmy played by Grace Antony) calmly negotiates with patriarchy daily, prudently handling her newly married husbandâ€™s manipulation, the younger one (Anna Benâ€™s Baby Mol) refuses to toe that line and prefers to tell it as it is. When Simmy awkwardly tries to cover up her husbandâ€™s insensitivity, the younger one lets her know that the bluff won't work with her. But when the same husband crosses the boundary with Baby Mol, Simmy lets down her guard and stands up for her sister. Baby Mol has no qualms about approaching a guy who interests her, and puts him in his place when he behaves inappropriately.
The contrast between the sisters is so beautifully drawn out that despite the narrative falling back on the stereotype of women eventually helping men find their way, you are prepared to overlook it.
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.