Stereotyping women: 'Nee-na' is not the tale of two women

Stereotyping women: 'Nee-na' is not the tale of two women
Stereotyping women: 'Nee-na' is not the tale of two women
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It is raining praises for "Nee-na", director Lal Jose’s latest release that has the Malayalam film industry taken by surprise.

In less than two weeks of its release, the film has received adulation for its bold script and refreshing theme. A Times of India review stated that it is “a film that does not follow formulas”. Malayalam film industry has now accepted the film which is being appreciated for the novelty of its script and the portrayal of Neena, a "non-conventional heroine".

I watched the movie , and I don’t agree.

"Nee-na" is a film with female leads, and it is not a first for a Malayali audience.

The film is woven around Neena, played by Deepthi Sathi, who is an alcoholic and falls in love with her married boss Vinay (Vijay Babu). Nalini, Vinay’s wife and played by Ann Augustine, adorns the role of a supportive wife, even when Vinay takes the initiative to take Neena to a rehab centre. The film attempts to show the intricacies of the relationship between the three, with Neena’s alcoholism being the central focus.

"Nee-na" is not the tale of two women, as the title claims to be. The film solely belongs to Neena, around whom other characters gracefully play their part. Nalini becomes merely an instrument to show how different Neena is to the stereotypical image of a "normal woman", in this case Nalini, a middle-aged wife and a mother, always clad in saree and worrying about gaining bodyweight and over-eating.

The stark contrast between Neena and Nalini, the two female protagonists is established at the very beginning of the film. From their dressing to the way the two women carry themselves, they are as different as chalk and cheese.

Neena is an alcoholic, she smokes and lives life on her own terms. She has a Venus symbol tattoo on her neck, a sign that screams of her independenc. She is everything that does not confirm to a typical female figure. She has short-hair, rides a bike, hangs around with male friends, does not have the "family switch", and in short, as the director wants us to believe, an "independent woman".

Neena’s character is like a neatly tailored dress, with every element that falls under the "non-conventional" tag stitched together. In the attempt to portray a non-conventional woman, what the filmmaker has ended up doing is to conform to the very stereotypical image of a "non-girly girl". For Neena to be a non-stereotypical woman, does she necessarily have to have the characteristics of a man? Does she have to be an alocoholic? Does she have to fall in love with a married man? Isn’t that stereotyping too? Isn't that formulaic and conventional?

Whether it be Nalini or a patient at the rehab centre Neena goes to later in the film, the references to Neena’s non-conventional identity are aplenty. However, there seems to be a major disconnect in how Neena’s character has been framed. The idea of freedom and individuality has been equated to alcoholism and anti-social behaviour.  

As if her tattoo and general behaviour does not speak for who she is, there are more signs thrown at the audience to make the point. For instance, Neena’s mobile ringtone “Daddy mujhse bola, tu galti hein meri”, a scene where she says to Nalini that she does not get along with "females", another where her male friend keeps referring to Neena as "he" and her "confession" of how menstruation came as a knock on her head, reminding her that she is a woman. 

The problem with the movie is the stereotypes it creates, that an independent woman, or a different woman is someone who is more manly, or had "bad" social habits.

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