22 Female Kottayam to Aattam: The evolution of sexual violence in Malayalam cinema

In the last decade, as Malayalam cinema evolved further, there has been a visible shift in representations, subverting narratives and breaking several popular stereotypes on celluloid.
From left: Rima Kallingal in 22FK, Anaswara Rajan in Neru, and Zarin Shihab in Aattam
From left: Rima Kallingal in 22FK, Anaswara Rajan in Neru, and Zarin Shihab in Aattam
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TW: Mentions of sexual violence

Spoiler alert: Major spoilers ahead for recent Malayalam films including Aattam, Neru, Kannur Squad, and Iratta.

In the 70s and 80s, when films by IV Sasi, PG Viswambharan, Joshiy, and others were reigning over the commercial spaces of Malayalam cinema, even films that were pitched as family dramas often portrayed sexual violence through a voyeuristic lens, heavily dictated by a male gaze. Many of them were rape-revenge stories featuring horrifyingly lengthy and graphic scenes of sexual violence, and it would consistently be the men who would avenge the survivor for their assault. “The very words “Rape” and “Revenge” evoke associations between serious physical acts of violence with equally weighty moral and emotional responses. Regardless of how problematic the ideology or intent of a film, a rape-revenge movie tends to make it explicit that rape (or the threat of rape) has triggered the revenge act,” film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicolas writes in her book Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study.

In an earlier interview, cinematographer Ravi K Chandran told this writer that while picturising scenes of sexual violence, they don’t get many instructions. Often, only the word ‘rape’ is written on paper. This explains the lack of nuance or sensitivity that Indian cinema frequently displays while filming such scenes. 

One can visualise how uneasy the female actors might have been made to feel, and it did seem like the makers frequently took references from each other’s films. The pattern never varied — violence, terrifying background music, a helplessly wailing woman, clothes torn and thrown, and men who snigger obnoxiously. The aftermath scenes also remained the same — the rapist zips up his pants, buttons his shirt, leers, and departs, while the sufferer weeps with downcast eyes amidst a mangled mess of clothes. For most women in older cinema, killing or dying was their only weapon against rape. “Earlier, there used to be two kinds of rape-revenge films. The first was soft porn, while the second depicted the gender dynamics between man and woman. There was a class-caste dimension to it. Now it is just mindless violence,” says film academician CS Venkiteswaran.

But in the last decade, as Malayalam cinema evolved further, there has been a visible shift in representations, subverting narratives and breaking several popular stereotypes on celluloid. Strong female characters are still far and few in between, but more thought seems to be going into the shaping of women characters. But have women yet managed to truly reclaim their agencies in narratives that headlined sexual assault survivors?

During the time of its release, Aashiq Abu’s 22 Female Kottayam (2012) was hailed as an iconic mainstream feminist film. But it also falls into the much-libeled rape-revenge genre. An inspired remake of Sriram Raghavan’s Hindi film Ek Hasina Thi (2004), it follows a simple rape-revenge pattern — gruesome acts of sexual violence followed by bloody vengeance, that include castration and death.

In 22FK, Tessa (Rima Kallingal) was the stereotypical vigilante who sought violent revenge for her trauma. And nearly a decade later, one realises that the film hasn’t aged well, and what was on display was mostly exploitative schlock. Writers Syam Pushkaran and Abhilash K Kumar’s decision to turn the core of the original and bring in rape as a revenge tool was done keeping an eye on the popular genre narrative. 

In the Hindi neo-noir thriller, which was also loosely based on Sidney Sheldon’s fiction If Tomorrow Comes, the protagonist lands in jail after she is framed by her boyfriend for a crime she didn’t commit. The rest of the film methodically documents how she coldly wreaks retaliation on her perpetrator, ruthlessly killing the ones who stand in her way. 

But 22FK instead focuses on a violent depiction of rape. Tessa’s agency and autonomy in the film lie in her decision to live with her boyfriend, and in the fact that she finds the power to avenge herself. But even to reach her plan of action, she has to use herself as an exploitative tool. The disturbing narrative that a woman can gain strength or that her fight is worthy of compassion only after she goes through violent and graphic sexual abuse (here Tessa is raped twice) is reinstated here. 

On the contrary, in Ek Hasina Thi, Sarika (Urmila Matondkar)’s evolution from a naïve girlfriend to a vindictive woman doesn’t arise from a space of sexual violation. It is similar to how he unleashed the dark side of his male protagonist Raghav (Varun Dhawan) in Badlapur (2015), when he is blinded by vengeance against those who annihilated his family.

Amal Neerad’s Varathan (2018), set in the backdrop of a hill station in Kerala, pivoted around a couple who relocated from Dubai. From the minute they step into the new town, the woman feels cornered by the lascivious stares of the collective male population. The townies indulge in moral policing and sexual fetishism. When her previous classmates snoop on her, one has this vicarious feeling of being violated. The dread of sexual violence permeates in the frames and it’s unnerving to watch. It’s almost as if the woman and the audience recognise the danger lurking. And when the inevitable occurs, the director chooses to be evasive, yet the impact leaves you feeling shaky. Equally interesting is how she gathers herself after the incident, never collapsing, yet distressed but determined to have her fight.

In the recently celebrated Aattam (2023), directed by debutant Anand Ekarshi, the narrative begins to unravel when the lone female member (Zarin Shihab) of a theatre troupe is molested at a party. When Anjali confides in her lover, who is also one of the lead actors in the troupe, she would rather end the matter there — perhaps because she realised that the outcome might not be in her favour. Here it is the lover who uses her story to manipulate it in his favour to oust his rival from the group. He even emotionally blackmails her to comply, in the guise of serving justice.

When a traumatised Anjali is court-martialled by her male colleagues, she witnesses their masks falling off one by one. The 12 men become a microcosm of a large population of men, resorting to blatant victim blaming. Most of the conjectures used to silence sexual assault survivors, even during the #MeToo movement, are thrown at her. Here, the woman finally chooses to walk away and instead use the theatre to voice her dissent. It is a stunning social critique of patriarchy and misogyny, cleaving open gender biases.

In Jeethu Joseph’s Neru (2023), when the young blind sculptor Saira (Anaswara Rajan) is cross-examined in court after she files a case of rape, she has been tutored by her lawyer but it goes without saying that her courage comes from the heart. If anything is empowering about the film, it is how they don’t reduce the survivor into a wallowing, suicidal figure. At no point does she give the impression of having her self-worth wilted, nor does she project herself as a victim alone. On the contrary, it is Saira’s determination that even induces the reluctant lawyer (Mohanlal) to take up her case. In retrospect, this is the filmmaker’s hour of retribution after making a film that had a central character covering up a murder to protect his daughter’s chastity. Having said that, the film could have definitely avoided the sexual assault scenes (and it is shown twice), seemingly filmed with the sole intention of catering to the male gaze.

CS Venkiteswaran says the filmmakers are also under pressure. “After a film like Animal, what will you do with violence in cinema? You have broken all thresholds, crossed all limits. This is putting pressure on commercial filmmakers, and now they will try to emulate it and then take it a step further. They would want to do different variations of it. There should be a real social uproar against such violence,” he says.

In Roby Varghese Raj’s Kannur Squad (2023), the makers seem to be convinced that a brutal homicide alone wasn’t enough to add the emotional heft to the narrative. A large reason for squad leader George Martin (Mammootty) to fast-track the operation was the discovery that the young daughter of the deceased was sexually assaulted by the criminals. In what one can describe as a needlessly long-drawn-out sequence featuring the brutal crime, though her assault is a suggestion shot, the impact is gruesome. “Because Mammootty is there, you have to push the paternal image. He is the patriarchal figure who helps everyone,” CS points out.

In Iratta (2023), the narrative opens with the death of a police officer. Soon his twin (Joju George) takes up the investigation, leading to the unravelling of their battered past. If the deceased had led a debauched life previously, his twin is going through marital strife. Soon it is revealed that it was the guilt that he once raped his niece that leads him to take his own life. 

While one recognises the complexity and dark side of relationships and the ensuing devastation, it is disturbing that this rape committed by the cop goes unreported. And it is only when her connection to the dead cop is revealed that the incident is given any consequence in the narrative. We never get to hear the survivor’s story in the film, rather the narrative is centred to empathise with the now-reformed rapist. But perhaps one can take heart from the fact that she survived the ordeal and also managed to achieve success in life.

Journalist Sinndhuja Ramprasad says it’s pertinent to look at the movies made by women filmmakers and how sexual assault is handled there. “I don’t think I remember any movie by a woman filmmaker showing sexual assault in the way films made by male directors have. If at all sexual violence is present in the film, there will be allusions to it, but no rape porn. Because for women, it’s intensely personal and they are not distanced from the experience enough to make a scene out of it,” she says. 

Indeed, if there is anything that an otherwise middling narrative like Vidhu Vincent’s Stand Up (2019) gets right, it is the sensitivity with which the film addresses the aftermath of sexual assault. It speaks about the hurtful silence of the survivor’s own family as they even agree to an alliance with the rapist to save face, as well as the humiliation she faces at the hospital and the police station. Even when she is traumatised and bleeding physically and emotionally, no one in her family offers her comfort or shows her empathy, except for her grandmother. Rajisha Vijayan has very few dialogues, but we can feel her devastation, hurt, and humiliation. Stand Up isn't an easy film to watch, but it's an important film.

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with Silverscreen.in. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and thenewsminute.com. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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