Malayalm actor Parvathy, who is known for her uncompromising stance when it comes to role selection, has walked away with the prestigious Silver Peacock for Best Actor (Female) for Take Off at the IFFI. She is the first Malayalam woman actor to win the title.
The Mahesh Narayan film, which marked his debut and also won the Special Jury Award at the IFFI, is based on the true story of the ordeal of Indian nurses in Iraq in the year 2014. The film opened to rave reviews, not in the least for the powerful performance of its hero, a gritty nurse named Sameera, played by Parvathy.
Take Off in many ways is a landmark for Malayalam cinema, which typically makes small budget films in comparison to Bollywood and its neighbouring states.
Even though the film was big in its ambition, covering as it does a tense situation in which as many as 19 (the number in real life was 46) nurses are held hostage by the ISIS, the narrative revolves around Sameera and her story. It does not rush into impressing the audience with the theatrics of war but at every turn reminds us that this is a human story.
Parvathy is the heart and soul of the film, delivering a power-packed performance. The script allows us to meet Sameera, the person, before she's thrown into terrifying circumstances. We see her as an independent, irritable young woman battling debt and social prejudice. Mother to an 8-year-old boy who lives abroad with her divorced husband, Sameera struggles to get on with life.
As the film progresses, Sameera uses Shaheed (Kunchacko Boban), a male nurse's romantic interest in her, to go to Iraq. She's unapologetic about this and the script doesn't castigate her for it.
Every now and then, when a woman character makes such a moral transgression, the script hurries to have her express guilt at her actions. However, Take Off remains firmly Sameera's story, to the extent of designating the male actors to supporting roles, including Fahadh Faasil.
The reason for her fall-out with her ex-husband comes to us in a handful of scenes which would have painted the woman as "ahangaari" in earlier films - but in Take Off, Sameera's refusal to be domesticated only builds her up for the audience. Perhaps the only point when the film falls back to conventional representations is when Shaheed convinces Sameera not to abort her pregnancy, equating it with murder. This, despite her complicated personal life.
Typically, films that are labelled "women-centric" revolve around seldom depicted themes. These tend to ask questions about women's freedom within the institutions of family, marriage, and society at large. While these films are indeed important, Take Off differs from them significantly by placing these questions within a much larger frame, forcing us to think about them not as "women's issues" but as society's. The film breaks open the narrow boundaries set for "women-centric" cinema by giving us a hero who doesn't imitate her male counterparts (like Akshay Kumar of Airlift) but is undeniably the central protagonist.
In an interview given to Anna MM Vetticad for Firstpost, Parvathy spoke about how she put on weight for the role and drank 3 litres of water to look sufficiently pregnant without prosthetics for a shot where she had to reveal her stomach on camera. Let's remind ourselves that the actor is 29 and at the peak of her career - playing mom, let along pregnant mom, to an 8-year-old boy is not something heroines in India would do gladly. Given the short shelf-life of the average heroine, projecting an image that one can fit into "older" roles can end up being professional suicide. However, Parvathy seems least bothered by such limitations that govern the film industry.
The actor has, many a time, spoken about the gender pay gap in the industry and how producers are reluctant to pay a fair amount to the woman lead because the perception is that she has no "market". This is the case even though the Malayalam film industry has several talented women actors who have time and again proved their ability to carry off substantial films.
Parvathy is among the most outspoken members of the Women in Cinema Collective which is looking to create a more equal cinema industry. Her win at the IFFI for a film like Take Off, set across borders and in a realistic thriller genre, sends out a strong message to the film industry and the audience that the time to make films about women heroes (and pay them well for it) has indeed come. Congratulations, Parvathy.