The first Malayalam film to be certified 'A', Avalude Ravukal directed by the late IV Sasi came out in 1978. The film is often considered to be one of his best works, despite the numerous blockbusters he delivered with superstars like Mammootty and Mohanlal. The hero, in Avalude Ravukal, was not a male star but Seema, a first-timer who'd go on to do many more powerful films and also marry IV Sasi.
The opening sequence of Avalude Ravukal shows a young woman, dressed like a dancer, surrounding by men who are flogging her. Then we see her in bed with a man, her naked back facing the camera.
This is the story of Raji (Seema), a sex worker, and the men in her life - a college student (Babu, played by Ravikumar), a school teacher (Chandran, played by Soman), and Babu's wayward friend (Jayan, played by Sukumaran). While this premise in itself was enough to shock audiences of the '70s, what's commendable about the film is how well it holds up even decades later, with our current understanding of gender and sexual politics.
Raji does get a sympathetic story to justify why she became a sex worker. Her parents die when Raji and her younger brother are children. Left with no alternative, she takes to the streets to beg and in her own words, she doesn't know when it was that she became "cheetha" (spoilt). The film has Raji and other characters repeatedly use the patriarchal term but interestingly, despite this, Raji does not cower in shame.
At one point, when Chandran (Soman), her brother's school teacher, accuses the boy of stealing his watch, Raji declares before everyone that she can earn more money than he can in a single night and that there's no need for her brother to do such a thing. The fact that she is a sex worker is not a secret and while we do see shots of her looking pensive and thinking about her life, she does not play the victim.
In fact, Raji does not deny herself the right to fall in love with a man. She pursues a college student, Babu (Ravikumar), who is a "goody-goody" guy. On a rainy night, Raji knocks on his door and asks him for shelter because she's soaked. What follows is a titillating sequence where she takes a bath and then asks Babu for his shirt because she has nothing else to wear. It's quite clear from Raji's expressions and behaviour that she is looking to seduce him.
But when Babu, who'd resolved not to cohabit with sex workers, is tempted to make an advance, Raji says that she doesn't want to "spoil" him and that there would be no difference between him and the other men she's slept with if they were to have sex.
This may sound like unexpected prudery but it can also be read as Raji's fantasy - she chooses for herself a "good" man and enjoys the feeling of control she exercises over him. Something she is denied in her work relationship with customers.
Raji's agency comes to the fore once again later in the film when Chandran, who ends up being responsible for her brother's death, makes an emotional speech about how he harboured the desire to marry her at one point. He says that he has thought about it but wouldn't be able to do so because he can't get over the fact that she's a sex worker.
Remember how in Mani Ratnam's Nayagan, Velu (Kamal Haasan) takes Neela (Saranya), a sex worker, to the temple and marries her without even asking her if she wished to do so? Neela is grateful to Velu and bursts into tears because she sees him as a saviour. Raji, however, displays neither gratitude nor disappointment at Chandran's words.
She simply says that even if he were to accept her, she would never marry him because she will invariably think about the fact that he was responsible for her brother's death. If he cannot get over her past, neither can she. Raji sees herself as Chandran's equal and asserts her right to reject him.
It's important to note that by this time, Raji's stance towards Chandran has softened because he takes care of her after she's gangraped by a group of men. The plot could have had her try and persuade Chandran to marry her, after all. But IV Sasi doesn't take that obvious route. Even though she's willing to have sex with him now (she denies it earlier when Chandran approaches her as a customer), she doesn't wish to marry him.
And it's not only Raji who has agency in the film. Minor women characters like Babu's mother (Kaviyoor Ponnamma) and Radha (Usharani), Babu's prospective bride, also have a voice. When her husband (Bahadoor) tells her that Babu cannot enter the house with Raji, the woman he has decided to marry, Babu's mother challenges his authority. She also questions his misplaced sense of honour and is ready to walk out with the couple if it comes to that.
Radha, too, has her self-respect intact. When she sees Raji in Babu's room, she decides not to marry Babu, even though the latter pleads with her (truthfully) that he has not slept with Raji. "I want to spend my life smiling, not crying," she says, before walking out.
All the characters in the film inhabit grey areas. If Jayan (Sukumaran), Babu's wayward friend, only sees Raji as a sex object, he's the one to get her out of jail when she's arrested by cops. If Babu seems like an upright man, he's the one to inform the police about her whereabouts. If Maria (Meenakumari) and Damu (Kuthiravattom Pappu) are Raji's closest allies, their first concern when she's gangraped is that she won't be able to work for a while after the incident.
And what of Raji? Even though a woman who sells her body for money, she's interested in developing her intellect and is shown to be discussing books with the men in her life.
The film turns the mirror towards society and exposes its inherent hypocrisy. So, even as the men lust after Raji in private, they are immediately on the defensive when a third party sees them with her. Babu's father, who admits that he used to visit sex workers before he got married, is the one who opposes his son's decision to marry Raji.
It's true that Raji ultimately chooses to enter the institution of marriage but she does so with the flawed man she'd fallen in love with. It's not an act of charity or escape, but a choice.
It's interesting to see how IV Sasi uses Raji's sexuality at various points in the film. The camera portrays her as a seductress only when she wishes to be one. In one scene, Raji takes off her blouse and is only wearing a bra. Chandran has come to her as a customer, in an effort to make things between them smoother after her brother's death. This could have turned into an opportunity where she's mercilessly objectified but there's an important difference - it's Raji who is in control of the narrative. After displaying her body to Chandran, Raji lashes out against him and tells him that he can never hope to touch her. She dresses up again and walks out of the room.
IV Sasi went on to make many more films which had strong women protagonists but Avalude Ravukal will remain his greatest legacy for the fiery and unusual Raji with her appetite to take on the world.