The women of 'Manichitrathazhu': How the Malayalam classic tames the 'shrew'

A gendered understanding of this iconic Malayalam movie.
The women of 'Manichitrathazhu': How the Malayalam classic tames the 'shrew'
The women of 'Manichitrathazhu': How the Malayalam classic tames the 'shrew'
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By Prahalad Gopakumar

The idea of the feminine supernatural – the female ghost, the floating Yakshi, cackling away in a white sari, or the blood-thirsty Raktharakshassu – has been an integral part of horror movies since its inception and Malayalam cinema is no exception. Some consider the ghost a complete fantasy (as most of us like to believe), while others choose to see it as a constructed, imaginary projection of reality by the director/writer.

The latter idea leads to a different perception of the female ghost in Manichitrathazhu.

For most Malayalis, Manichitrathazhu is a part of their cultural lives and the film’s repeat value is exceptional. At the same time, cinema reflects its contemporaneous socio-political conditions. The film was made in ’90s Kerala, when the country was just opening up economically and new cultural influences were just beginning to interact with traditional society. Societal gender bias was challenged rarely. With most filmmakers, viewers and the heads of the families being male, cinema was largely a chauvinistic enterprise. Most directors or writers did not challenge the existing idea of gender roles, either because they thought it might backfire or because it never occurred to them. The strong reply was always that they were portraying reality. So let’s analyse these ‘realities’.

Who is Ganga?

Born in a small village (Evoor) in Kerala, she later went on to live and study in Calcutta. She is in her late 20s, well-educated and capable of taking her own decisions. The tall, urbane Ganga has defiantly open hair and dresses fashionably in salwar-kameez churidars and stylish sarees, unlike the other women in the film. The film keeps hinting at the fact that Ganga is going to be a troublemaker from the moment she arrives.

One of the characters in the film assumes her to be a ghost as soon as she steps out of a Maruti car, her silhouette bathed in the red glow of its light. In another scene, a character sees her eyes through an ornate wooden lattice and is terrified. Her husband is warned by the head of the family that girls from other families (Ganga is the outsider) will not be treated kindly in Madampally by the ghost (and even, perhaps, the family?). Later in the film, she is possessed by the ghost of a dancer called Nagavalli.

The fact that the writer chose the female dancer’s ghost to haunt Ganga, and not any of the other three women in the family, calls for an examination of the subliminal motives. Is the accusation of being possessed a representation of the Malayali masculine psyche’s unwillingness to accept the educated, modern woman with an opinion? By the end of the film, Ganga is ‘cured’ (has learnt her lesson) and decides to return to Calcutta as she feels that’s the best place for her and her husband. Does the film imply that Kerala is not a place for ‘women like her’? Could it also be a cinematic version of the lack of acceptance for the daughter-in-law in the husband’s family?

Who is Sreedevi? 

She is the cousin of Ganga’s husband (Nakulan), who would have married Nakulan if not for problems in her horoscope. She marries someone else, has a troubled marriage and leaves her husband’s house to live with her parents.

As the film proceeds, the filmmaker leads us to believe that Sreedevi is the possessed one. The men in the family accuse her of being the cause of the trouble and soon the entire family, including her parents, are convinced. Her anger, smile and words sound conveniently evil thereafter. In a later scene, the family watches on powerlessly as she is ‘manhandled’ by the so-called doctor, whose only authority in the family is that of being Nakulan’s friend.

Through Sreedevi, the filmmaker hammers home the stereotype that the divorced or lonely woman is always trouble. Without the male presence in her life, she is portrayed as being insecure and incomplete. She is mistreated by an outsider and her aggressor gets away with it. Can she be ‘used’ in any way to solve other issues in the family? Towards the end of the film, the psychiatrist (who is wild and slightly unconventional) makes a marriage proposal to Sreedevi mentioning that it’s not easy to live with psychiatrists. Is he suggesting that it takes a ‘special’ person to marry a girl with a poor horoscope?

Who is Nagavalli?

The prolific dancer who was killed by the Karanavar (head of the family) for falling in love with a male dancer and not him. Nagavalli, according to the film, has two objectives behind possessing Ganga: to get back her beloved and to take revenge on her murderer. The filmmaker never imagines that Nagavalli could have other interests in life (or death) besides the two men. Supposedly a great dancer, we see Nagavalli dancing in the film only to seduce her lover. Another specific decision by the filmmaker is to make Ganga’s husband, Nakulan, the Karanavar who murdered Nagavalli. Ganga, once possessed, sees her husband as the villain.

How would it be if we reloaded Manichitrathazhu from a new perspective? Here’s our fresh take on the secret story the lies behind the locked Manichitrathazhu

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction and not meant to hurt the film, filmmaker, or its fans in any way.

Ganga and Nakulan are returning to the Nakulan’s hometown. They have a disturbed marriage. The power equation in their relationship is dominated by a modern, educated and independent Ganga. They reach the village to take possession of Nakulan’s ancestral property. At his hometown, Nakulan’s uncle is unwilling to give him (his sister’s son) the share of property. As soon as Nakulan asks for the keys, the uncle cooks up a story of a female ghost that haunts the house (since ghosts are mostly female). Ganga persuades her husband and insists on living in the property that is legally theirs. The uncle realises that Ganga is the powerful and intelligent partner in the relationship. His plans being shattered by a woman, his ego is hurt. To resolve the problems brought on by the ghost story, Nakulan puts the blame on the uncle’s daughter – a widow. Nakulan insists that she is possessed. Her widowhood makes it easy for the rest of the men to buy the accusation.

Nakulan then calls an “alpha-male” friend into the family to settle all his issues. Nakulan explains to the alpha male that his failing marriage has to be solved. The alpha male understands that Ganga is a strong female character and she needs to be taught a lesson. He decides that Ganga being modern, educated and an independent woman is not welcomed by the husband’s family. ‘She is the one possessed,’ he declares! 

Since Ganga was a problem figure for the uncle, he too agrees. Soon, the entire family believes that Ganga is possessed. The men group up, plan to ‘fix’ Ganga and bring her back into the family’s values and culture. The uncle and Nakulan team up though they have different aims. They execute their plan together.

Ganga has now learnt her lesson and decides to leave for Calcutta with her husband. The uncle gets control of the property. Nakulan gets a tamed Ganga. The alpha male decides that the widow has to be his partner. All the men are happy and the film ends.

Does this story not fit into the patriarchal context of Kerala? 

This article was first published on The NewsMinute has syndicated the content. You can read the original article here.

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