Misogyny in cinema is an insidious thing. While we wait with dread for the authoritarian old man to hit us with it, it could be the young employed woman who shudders at the word ‘feminist.’
When does the depiction of gender inequality in film become endorsement? When the actions or words of a character propagate gender inequality and this remains unchallenged by the other characters or the narrative, the behaviour/views of this character, are in turn endorsed by the film.
In the film Chocolate, Shyam (Prithviraj) slaps his love interest Ann (Roma). His friend Ranjith (Jayasurya) tells him he shouldn’t have. Shyam’s response, however, is an alarmingly cool “Yeah I shouldn’t have, but it happened. I’ll give her one less (slap) after marriage.” This, coming from the hero of the film is tantamount to telling the audience that domestic violence is the norm in marriages.
The inherent evil in the line is obscured by the likability of the hero. It is a throwaway line meant to diffuse the tension of the previous moment. This makes it tougher to judge Shyam, making us applaud or at least ‘let it slide.’
Love of the stalker variety
When Unnikrishnan (Mohanlal) blatantly abuses his power and uses state machinery to stalk Gatha (Girija) in Vandanam, we see it as endearing. In one of his most charming performances, Mohanlal brings to life an Unnikrishnan who bumbles his way into Gatha’s and our hearts by er… stalking her a little. Buried deep in a hilarious rom-com it is easy to miss that this is the most terrifying scenario for a single woman working in the city.
When the shy and innocent Rasool follows Anna home from work in Annayaum Rasoolum, his intense eyes never straying from her, we are primed to see this as high romance. As a working woman who uses public transport to commute to and from work every day before taking a labyrinth of dimly lit streets to get home, would you find this romantic or threatening?
Women and work
In King, Joseph Alex (Mammootty), verbally abuses IAS officer Anura Mukherjee (Vani Vishwanath) in the workplace. Anura’s character is a parody of the self-serving and insensitive public servant. Her character is carefully designed to make the audience agree with the humiliation she suffers.
She swings her arm to slap him and he blocks it with, “It’s not that I don’t know how to make sure you never try to strike a man again. But you are just a woman.”
In Drishyam, Rani (Meena) suggests that she start working to supplement George Kutty’s (Mohanlal) income. He responds to this with alarm and gives the example of actor Samyuktha Varma who has stopped acting after her marriage to actor Biju Menon. Rani responds to this with “Biju Menon earns in crores.” The underlying message is that as long as the husband provides her with enough, a woman needn’t work.
Raakuyilin Raagasadasil is the story of a singer, Vishwanathan (Mammootty), and his dancer wife Janani (Suhasini). The hero repeatedly reminds his wife that her place is in the house, waiting for her husband as he comes home tired after performing at concerts.
“Should a wife throw away everything she has trained for once she is married?” she asks him, to which his reply is “I am not talking about artists and dancers, I am talking about what my wife should do and what she should not.” Helpfully, the film also gives us a golden rulebook for what makes a perfect wife in the form of a song.
Because Janani refuses to give up her art, Vishwanathan unilaterally decides to exit the relationship and leaves with (kidnaps) their son. After eight years, just as Janani is poised to have the title of Natyashree conferred upon her, he returns to the scene.
“I have been fuelling my vengeance with alcohol,” he says, before elaborating on how the imagined sound of her anklets had given him sleepless nights for eight years, and how his entire existence for all that time had revolved around thoughts of keeping her from winning the title. And this ends with Janani falling at Vishwanathan’s feet and him benevolently forgiving her for her “mistakes”!
In Pathram, Devika (Manju Warrier) is built up as a talented and fiery journalist. However, when her father offers the position of editor-in-chief of his newspaper to the hero instead of his daughter, Devika doesn’t mind giving up on her dreams much. Why should she when she’d met the man of her dreams!
Malayalam cinema has a history of vilifying or ignoring working women. Professional practice and domestic bliss are seen as mutually exclusive. Elsie (Seema) in Kaanamarayathu is a successful doctor in her thirties who has a well-rounded personality and a definite arc in the film. However, it is the eighteen-year-old orphan Shirly, who is “rewarded” with the thirty-six-year-old hero, Elsie’s ex flame while Elsie is condemned to (blessed with?) a life of spinsterhood.
Sometimes the build-up is so effective and the let down so subtle that we miss the inbuilt double standard. Arakkal Ayesha (Genelia), the spunky heroine of the historical drama Urumi, is introduced to us as a fearless, fierce warrior princess, who even seduces, Kelu (Prithviraj), the man of her choice.
But when she goes to Kelu with her strategies for the battle, his instructions for her are to take the womenfolk and children to safety instead of joining him on the battlefield. “The woman must retreat as always?” she asks the question for the audience. “If I know that you are waiting for me, it will be reason enough for me to come back,” Kelu replies, looking deep into her eyes. Ayesha painfully hits the glass ceiling!
Panchagni is widely considered to have one of the strongest female characters in Malayalam cinema. The film revolves around Indira (Geetha), a Naxal revolutionary who goes to jail for the murder of a feudal lord who’d raped and brutally killed a dalit worker.
Though Indira is shown constantly challenging oppressive social structures, she finds intellectual equals for this quest only among men.
Every time her younger sister asks her anything about politics or ideology, she replies with a condescending “you wouldn’t understand.” Her brother-in-law reveals to his wife that his offer to marry Indira had been met with “Mine is a different path. Marry Savithri, keep her safe.”
While the film clearly fights objectification and looks at the gendered nature of caste violence it does not quite question gender hierarchies. The men around her ply Indira with books ranging from Camus to interviews of Fidel Castro, the women play house.
Indira also condemns the women’s liberation movement, specifically the usage of the slogan “burn the bra.” She overrides Prabhakaran’s weak defence of “it should be seen as a symbol and in context,” with a lecture on the perception of poverty.
The film underlines the fact that Indira does not identify as a feminist. Her quest for equality, it hastens to assure us, stems from a larger understanding of global issues and is not rooted in anything as ‘trivial’ as gender inequality.
Time to break free
Newer films like Rani Padmini, a road film featuring two women in their late twenties, and Oru Muthassi Gadha, revolving around two elderly women taking agency of their lives, are refreshing.
However, greater screen time to female characters doesn’t necessarily eliminating gender bias.
Manichithrathazhu gave Shobhana immense scope to explore her abilities as both a dancer and actor and even won her a national award. However, how does the narrative go?
The film tells the story of an educated woman who suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder. Her alternate identity is that of the feisty dancer Nagavally who seeks to challenge and overthrow the systems of feudalism and oppression that keep her from a life of freedom and choice.
Once Dr Sunny (Mohanlal) has cured her in the spectacular climax, the film ends on a happily ever after note. “What is your name?” he asks Ganga as she sits by her loving husband. “Ganga,” she replies. “Tell me your full name,” he insists. “Ganga Nakulan,” she says.
Her identity as Nakulan’s wife has been restored and the “mad woman in the attic” has been laid to rest. Of the two characters - Nagavally and Ganga - Nagavally is the one with clear motivations and a character arc. We know nothing of Ganga’s dreams and ambitions except that she wants to lead a ‘normal’ life as Nakulan’s wife. That it is Ganga who emerges victor in this battle is telling in itself.
In Adaminte Variyellu (Adam’s rib) Avarachan Muthalaly’s (Bharat Gopi) impregnates Ammini (Soorya), the domestic help. She is taken to a care home for women without her consent. Ammini, who does not speak till then, takes in her surroundings and decides to reject the future being thrust on her.
“Come, let’s escape!” she cries to the other inmates before running out. The others join her and in an unexpectedly splendid meta ending, the women run past the crew (director K.G. George playing a cameo as himself) and out of the frame.
This is what we wish for every female character stuck in an unsatisfactory, stifling narrative – to break boundaries and step out of storylines that seek to box and oppress.
This article was first published in Fullpicture.in. The News Minute has syndicated the content. You can read the original article here.