'Me Too' on screen: Malayalam films which glorify workplace sexual harassment

From 'Ente Upasana' to 'Masterpiece', several Malayalam films have romanticised rape, stalking, and inappropriate behaviour at the workplace.
'Me Too' on screen: Malayalam films which glorify workplace sexual harassment
'Me Too' on screen: Malayalam films which glorify workplace sexual harassment
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The #MeToo movement that began on social media is raging on, calling out a lot of men in power from various professions and organisations. While art often reflects life and vice versa, it’s important to note how some of these terrifying accounts also spoke about how women are generally perceived in cinema and media.

When women tweeted about being assaulted while they were in an inebriated state, a large population of men typically chose to slut-shame them, blame them for wearing the wrong clothes or for being out after dark. This is also how cinema typically draws the lines between the good and the bad woman. A "good" woman in cinema never drinks, smokes, or goes out unescorted after dark and she only wears “decent” clothes.

In Pink, a man was given the task of explaining consent to other men in a courtroom. In this piece, we try to note down some of the various instances in Malayalam cinema where harassment at workplace was glorified by the hero.

In the 1980 Bharathan film Ente Upasana starring Mammootty and Suhasini, when the former (who is her friend’s brother and also rapes her) is appointed as her boss, not only does he pull his rank on her but also mentally harasses her by holding personal conversations with her. This triggers some office gossip and makes life miserable for her, as it reopens that nightmarish chapter in her life. 

Though it is a clear case of continuous sexual harassment at the workplace, the film rarely addresses this or the rape, instead it strains to give a romantic tinge to the proceedings. Similarly, in Kanthavalayam, when Seema’s character (a receptionist at a hotel) is raped by her boss (Jayan) at the hotel, she never files a complaint against him but is instead shown as falling in love with him, thereby glorifying rape and sexual harassment (he stalks her, stares at her inappropriately) at the workplace.

When Unnikrishnan (Mohanlal) blatantly abuses his power and uses the state machinery to stalk Gatha (Girija) in Vandanam, it is shown as endearing. Unnikrishnan not only stalks her but also harasses her at her advertising firm. 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.

In the Lohithadas scripted Joshiy film Kuttettan, again the hero’s (Mammootty) philandering habits are somehow brushed under the carpet. In office when he singles out Urvashi and calls her to his cabin for no apparent reason, what seems to be an apparent case of sexual harassment is laughed off. Her colleagues’ smirk and the lady herself decides to ignore it rather than really addressing it.

In Vinayan’s Sipayi Lahala, Mukesh plays a peon, who agrees to the demands of his womanising boss to “allow” his wife to sleep with him for a promotion. Though Mukesh does hire a drama artist to play his wife to fool his boss, the exploitation invariably happens, and it’s masterminded by the hero. A relevant issue that gets a dumbed down narrative.

The biggest offenders in this matter have been Renji Panicker and Shaji Kailas, who have practically built their careers, derailing, belittling and demeaning their female characters on screen. When District Collector Joseph Alex gives a patronising commentary on work ethics to his subordinate and calls her a “glorified stenographer” apart from verbally abusing her, it’s all staged to generate applause and sadly it did. 

In Praja, also written by Renji Panicker, Mohanlal’s Bhai talks down to a lady cop in the lewdest manner, manhandles her, and even mockingly suggests that she forgot to zip her pants. Similar scenes are repeated a decade later in the writer’s son’s Kasaba, where Mammootty’s CI Rajan Zachariah casually threatens to molest a female colleague by pulling her pants.

All this bare display of sexual harassment at work is put forward by none other than the hero of the film and consequently, the industry manages to get away with it. In Pathram, a film set in the background of newspaper industry, though it doesn’t technically amount to harassment at work, the altercation between editor Nandan (Suresh Gopi) and journalist Devika Sekhar (Manju Warrier) is still offensive and patronising. He pulls her hands, shouts at her and slyly talks about her anti-male observations in the article, finishing it off by saying that it will all change if the “right” man comes.

Every bit really fits into the sexual harassment category, and it happens in a public space--the offender is the hero and the scene is invariably glorified. In the disturbing film Run Baby Run, the hero (Mohanlal) takes out his personal grudge on the heroine when they are required to do a story together by constantly abusing and degrading her. In the recent Masterpiece, the lady teacher (Poonam Bajwa) is presented as a sexual object, with her see-through sarees and blouses with plunging necklines and her only mission seems to be to ogle the newly appointed male professor (Mammootty).

Similarly, in Mammootty’s White, he plays an inebriated man stalking a woman who seems to resemble his wife and makes life difficult for her at her workplace. Dulquer Salmaan’s lady boss in Kali employs subtle flirtatious methods to catch his attention—from gifting him perfume to calling him to her cabin to talk for no reason. But it’s mostly shown to underline the hero’s desirability quotient than address the harassment on display.

As is clear, the list in never-ending, incomplete and tiring. The same plots, the same men and the same women, replaying the same harrowing narrative of stalking, molestation and assault, gift-wrapped in the garb of heroism, romance and protection. If the recent events that have unravelled in the Malayalam film industry, and the reactions of ‘superstars’ is anything close to a yardstick, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that our stars come up short in treating women as equal with due respect in their workplace.

This article was originally published on Fullpicture.in. The News Minute has syndicated the content. You can read the original article here.

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