Ullozhukku reignites debate on representation of women in Malayalam cinema

When a number of Malayalam films that were celebrated in the past few months had little or what seemed like a token presence of women, questions were asked about where the women were.
Urvashi and Parvathy Thiruvothu in Ullozhukku
Urvashi and Parvathy Thiruvothu in UllozhukkuYouTube screengrab

Ullozhukku, the new Malayalam film causing not just a few waves with its in-depth portrayal of two women in extraordinary circumstances, has reignited the conversation about strong female performances and underrepresentation of women in Malayalam cinema. Writer-director Christo Tomy cast Urvashi as the mother-in-law to a woman in a great dilemma, played by Parvathy Thiruvothu. The film, with its unusual treatment of a much-stereotyped relationship, appeared like a reply to the debate about the reduced presence or significance of women in a slew of well-made films in recent months. 

Not that Malayalam cinema had ever stepped too far from sculpting unforgettable women characters, in every possible shade. But one after the other, when a number of films that were celebrated in the past few months had little or what seemed like a token presence of women, questions were asked about where the women were. At least two of these films – Manjummel Boys and Aadujeevitham – were based on real life stories. The others, including the likes of Aavesham, Guruvayoor Ambalanadayil, and Varshangalkku Shesham, were defended by fans as films whose “scripts did not demand it”. 

While the rest of the world has had its say, the question is how do the women in the industry see it. Actor Nikhila Vimal played one of the women leads in Guruvayoor Ambalanadayil, which faced criticism for its underdeveloped female characters. Though Nikhila’s character gets little agency in the film, her presence triggers a major plot point that affects the shifting dynamics of the relationship between would-be brothers-in-law (Prithviraj and Basil Joseph).

But speaking to TNM, Nikhila argued against the narrow definition of a ‘strong woman’, pointing out that women can be strong without fitting into a stereotypical mould. “A woman can be strong without necessarily being a bold or argumentative person; the problem arises when we assume that these kinds of women are the only ones who are strong,” she said.

“It is simple for us to pass judgements from the outside, but there are a lot of other things that go on behind the scenes while a movie is being made,” she added in support of the filmmakers' vision, explaining that the representation of women depends on the narrative context. She cited examples like Aavesham and Manjummel Boys, where the absence of female characters is justified by the story. 

Kani Kusruti, who won a State Award for her performance in Biriyani, and more recently became part of a film that won the Grand Prix at Cannes, has a different take. In a recent interview, Kani addressed the underrepresentation of women in Malayalam cinema and noted that while Aavesham was entertaining, it could have been better with a strong female character. She added that not all stories require female characters and we cannot be adamant that they must be forced into the screenplay, but it is also important to see diverse representation in at least some of the numerous Malayalam films released each year. 

Urvashi and Parvathy Thiruvothu in Ullozhukku
Malayali women’s Cannes glory is phenomenal, but does it negate the gender bias back home?

Interestingly it was a film that Kani played a lead in, All We Imagine as Light, that was brought up as the answer to ‘where are the women in Malayalam cinema’ by some. Although it is not a Malayalam film, the lead characters are of Malayali nurses in Mumbai, played by Kani and Divya Prabha. The film, directed by Payal Kapadia, won the Grand Prix at Cannes, leading some to say ‘the women are at Cannes’. 

However Kani, who made a statement by dedicating her State Award to PK Rosy, the first heroine of Malayalam cinema who was chased away for being a Dalit, also spoke out about the uneven representation of gender diversities, especially when it comes to minority groups like the transgender community. 

The persistent gender bias 

For Deedi Damodaran, screenwriter and one of the founding members of Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), the underrepresentation of women in Malayalam cinema should not be seen as a surprise. “The reason it is being debated so much right now is what surprises me because women have always been either misrepresented or underrepresented in Malayalam movies,” she told TNM. 

“How can we expect a film industry like Malayalam to represent women in a way that is both justified and respectful when they do not recognise the importance of a grievance cell in the event that a woman has a complaint?” Deedi questioned, emphasising on the legal requirement for an Internal Committee in every field of employment, which Malayalam cinema allegedly lacks.

She also speculated that the recent exclusion of women may stem from their increased vocal objections, leading to a mistaken belief that the presence of fewer women will prevent grievances. “Malayalam film industry is not gender-sensitive, is totally patriarchal, with males serving as its capital,” she said.

Renowned film critic Vishal Menon of Film Companion, however, told TNM that it's possible it may have been a coincidence that all of these films [lacking female presence] were released back-to-back in the same year. “I don't really agree with the claims that Malayalam cinema is a "boys club",” he said.

Using Bramayugam as an example, Vishal noted that Rahul Sadasivan's previous film Bhoothakaalam, which dealt with the three characters of a grandmother, a mother, and a son, was a great film with a completely different theme. He also spoke of Anjali Menon’s Wonder Women, which was a film about a group of pregnant women coming together for a workshop. 

Interestingly the whole debate had begun when Anjali shared a story that appeared in The Hindu about the missing women of Malayalam cinema, appreciating that the media were taking note. Parvathy Thiruvothu made a similar comment when the question was raised to her during a promotional event of Ullozhukku. She said that amid the positive changes in the industry, it was the consumers and journalists who were posing these questions. But like Nikhila, Parvathy too agrees that forced inclusion of women characters was not the solution. 

One solution, Nikhila said, was for more female writers and directors to create stories that authentically represent women. “We have writers and filmmakers like Anjali Menon who can produce strong films that fairly portray women. I think more female writers and filmmakers should step forward and make movies to portray women as they truly are,” Nikhila stated.

Urvashi and Parvathy Thiruvothu in Ullozhukku
Malayalam cinema’s history of slotting women into the good-bad binary

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute