Malayali women’s Cannes glory is phenomenal, but does it negate the gender bias back home?

‘Malayalam cinema’s women are at Cannes’ is a double-edged statement that at once celebrates Kani Kusruti, Divya Prabha, and Payal Kapadia's team’s historic achievement while also using it to negate the gender problem in our films.
Kani Kusruti, Divya Prabha
Kani Kusruti, Divya Prabha
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A week before director Payal Kapadia’s monumental Grand Prix win at the Cannes International Film Festival, an article published in The Hindu stirred discourse about the gender problem in Malayalam cinema. Where are the women in Malayalam cinema?’, written by journalist SR Praveen, contended that despite consecutive box-office successes, most recent Malayalam films like Manjummel Boys, Varshangalkku Sesham, and Aavesham, among many others, have a negligible presence of women. Writer-director Anjali Menon re-shared the piece, reiterating the questions it posed. A week later, once the pictures of lead actors Kani and Divya Praba (both Malayalis) along with Payal and other crew members of All We Imagine As Light began surfacing from Cannes, many were quick to retort, “The women are at Cannes."

This statement is a double-edged sword that at once celebrates Kani, Divya, Payal and their team’s historic achievement while also using it to negate the gender problem in our films. It also shamelessly appropriates credit for these women’s long-drawn success without taking stock of their back-breaking battles to simply survive in the business until international recognition renders them ‘worthy’ for those back home. Sure, Malayalam cinema’s women are at Cannes, writing history like never before, but does that mean the gender question in the film industry is not valid anymore?

“It depends on what each film demands, this is not about gender. If the movie does not need an actress, why should they have one?” reads a comment under a news piece about Anjali Menon re-sharing Praveen’s article. This is the most common comeback that many have used to troll not just Anjali but the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), and practically anyone who tries to interrogate cinema’s poor representation of women. Feminists, especially those countable few from the film industry who are vocal, have also been ridiculed and pitted against one another by citing how Kani, Divya, and others “worked hard instead of complaining” and got to Cannes.

This poses two questions before us: Is it the lack of hard work that bars more women from getting opportunities and recognition for their work? And, is there a problem with films not having women in them?

Payal herself is the answer to the first question. She is still facing a criminal trial for protesting against the appointment of actor-turned-BJP-politician Gajendra Chauhan as the chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) while she was a student there. In a jarring post on social media platform X, FTII, which had earlier cut short Payal’s student grant, hailed her Cannes win as a “moment of pride”. It is the very same hypocrisy that comes through when mainstream film actors, production houses, and social media trolls point to the women at Cannes as an answer to the gender crisis in our film industries. 

Recently, Kiran Rao’s film Laapataa Ladies surpassed Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s hypermasculine, violent, Animal on Netflix in terms of viewership, just into its second month of OTT release. Despite this, it is quite obvious that streaming giants and production houses will, in all probability, continue to invest more money on Ranbir Kapoor or Sandeep Vanga, as opposed to Kiran. Similarly, Kani Kusruti is a Kerala State Award-winning actor who also won Best Actress at the Moscow International Film Festival for her performance in the Malayalam film Biriyaani (2013). Divya Prabha broke into main characters after doing many smaller roles and was nominated for Best Actress at the Locarno International Film Festival for her performance in Mahesh Narayanan’s Ariyippu (2022). Despite all these achievements and a shining Grand Prix win, it is highly doubtful if these actors will be given the kind of pay or opportunities that their male co-actors in Malayalam get. We should, in fact, wait and watch if Payal’s winning film itself is going to find enough theatres or streaming partners once she returns to India after Cannes.

The O Womaniya 2023 gender disparity in entertainment report compiled by Ormax Media and Film Companion, and supported by Amazon Prime Video India, shows a very negligible change in gender inclusivity in films. Not just on-screen but off-screen as well in positions of decision-making, the presence of women is abysmal, albeit minutely better than before. It also underlined how women are portrayed in bad taste in most films, with only under 12% passing the Bechdel Test. The Justice Hema Committee report – compiled after the 2017 actor assault case in Kerala – which looked at systemic gender problems in cinema remains unpublished to date despite being submitted to the state government almost four years ago. The Kerala State Film Development Corporation does fund films by women, but despite their cinematic merit, they are unable to find the kind of release centres or audiences as their male counterparts.

When an entire economic ecosystem is rigged against women, they are pushed to fight, comply, or simply vanish. For non-mainstream filmmakers like Payal, and actors like Kani and Divya among others, the climb is much steeper. A few women persist despite the odds and even attain phenomenal recognition on global platforms on their own accord, but normalising their Herculean efforts is unfair because they are made to pay for systemic deficits with individual perseverance.

To say that some women “complain about gender” while others “work and get to Cannes” is just another exit route for powerful men in the film industry to evade the responsibility of being inclusive. This also pits women against one another to break their sense of sisterhood and collective resistance because it is the “complaining” and “questioning” that has finally opened up confrontations about gender in show business, benefitting all women who work in it.

Coming to the invisibilisation of women in recent Malayalam films, the rhetoric that women are not needed in films that do not tell their stories is steeped in the male gaze and meant to put the onus back on women to tell their stories. While Manjummel Boys is based on a real incident, films like Aavesham, Bramayugam, Romancham, Varshangalkku Sesham, and many others reduce women to cosmetic stereotypes. The problem is not about films having more male protagonists but about how their worlds are indifferent towards the contributions of women in shaping them. The commercial success of such films further encourages more ‘boys club’ cinema that undermines the relevance of women in moulding all our lives and journeys.

Women who question this are cyber harassed and asked to do the impossible work of rising up to a position powerful enough to tell their own stories in this stubbornly patriarchal business. And if they manage to get there, they are either picked apart for everything they do or used as pawns to negate the systemic gender bias in the film industry.

The success of Kani, Divya, Payal and their team belongs to them and all other women whose voices and ambitions are not considered valuable by the country until external recognition (preferably Western) renders them worthy. Their journey is not for the male mainstream film industry or anti-feminist social media trolls to appropriate.

Malayalam cinema’s women are at Cannes not because of our support but despite the lack of it – an extra, tedious mile they shouldn’t have had to tread.

Read: Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing sheds light on students’ struggle against BJP

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