Malayalam cinema has changed, but it has not been fair to senior women actors

Revathy’s ‘Bhoothakalam’ and Rohini’s ‘Kolaambi’ are only two of the latest examples to prove how little used many senior women actors are.
Rohini in Kolaambi
Rohini in Kolaambi
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It needn’t have been so, but seeing the large picture of Revathy in the poster of Bhoothakaalam was strangely alluring. Not because it was dark and looming, but that it was there, as big as the other actor in the poster – Shane Nigam, young and male and budding. Revathy is in her 50s, an actor who was very active at the turn of the 90s when she was young and budding. For so many years now, she moved away from the centre of a film to behind the curtains and the inside rooms where as a mother character, she often parted words of wisdom or shed tears for an erring son or daughter and then disappeared. It’s what several women actors who played heroines in the 90s did in later years, while their male counterparts continued to be protagonists, seldom acting their age.

Occasionally, but far less frequently than desirable, there comes a Bhoothakalam, patting awake a sleepy audience, it would seem, to remind them of the forgotten women actors and their talents on the screen. In the movie, Revathy mostly shut herself in a room and sobbed loudly when she wasn’t raising her shrill voice against Shane. Yet when the time came, she stepped out of that room and held Shane’s hands, her face growing pale as mother and son faced their fears. At several places in the film, you pause to wonder about Revathy, how she is doing it so well and why you weren’t seeing more of her. Why is Malayalam cinema, despite the many lovely changes in the past decade, not writing more beautiful – longer – characters for women of a certain age?

Malayalam cinema was disgracefully men-centric through the male superstar era of the 1990s-2000s, says Anna MM Vetticad, journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. “Even today, Mohanlal and Mammootty films largely sideline and trivialise women. Sadly, the post-2010 new New Wave, despite being forward-thinking in many areas, tells very few women-centred stories. While young women struggle for opportunities as a consequence, senior women – always an afterthought in a society steeped in gender-driven ageism – are even more marginalised in these films.”

Along with Revathy, such talented actors as Urvashi, Shobana, Rohini and many others who have proved themselves multiple times, either disappeared for long years or else played roles with little to do.

Revathy and Shane in Bhoothakaalam

“We are always hungry for good characters, more screen space and a more meaningful part in the story. Screen space also doesn’t matter to me if it is a vital character important for the story,” says Rohini, an actor who played many youthful characters and filled screen spaces in the movies of the 80s and 90s. Among the Christmas releases last December was one of her films, Kolaambi. TK Rajeev Kumar’s unusually themed film on an old couple and their strange life among music and coffee brought to Rohini the character of Sundarammal. She spoke with a Tamil afflicted Malayalam, sent adorable gestures of love towards the male lead, Renji Panicker, and had maternal offerings for the younger heroine, Nithya Menen.

“In Kolaambi it was really nice because we are two of the main characters in the story. We knew it’d be a niche kind of film, but then Malayalam has always done something like this. It has not always followed the ‘trade’ line,” Rohini says.

She mentions Minnaminunginum Nurunguvettam in passing, an 80s counterpart to Kolaambi. Nedumudi Venu and Saradha played the old couple in it and Parvathy became the young daughter-like figure shaking their routine life. That brings up another movie, made at the turn of the century by none other than MT Vasudevan Nair, Oru Cheru Punchiri Pole. Oduvil Unnikrishnan and Nirmala Sreenivasan walked through a village, worked in the farm and inside a house, making beautiful conversations and letting you peek at an adorable old marriage.

Writers and filmmakers do drop some such surprise every few years. Four years ago, out of nowhere it would seem, two women in their 70s made their debut in film acting and won a lot of love and laurels. Savithri Sreedharan and Sarasa Balussery became two new favourites as soon as Sudani from Nigeria was released. There are younger actors – Soubin Shahir and Samuel Robinson – leading the story, but the older women, easily, calmly, involuntarily stole the show. Before the year ended, both the women became two of the leads in a movie about four elderly women who go on an adventure, and in pure comic fashion, beat the villain. That was Rahul Riji Nair’s Dakini, another warm surprise.

“The writers now want to say something more than a love story. They have got much more freedom. Earlier they had to also worry about what the audience should find exciting. But now, perhaps with the advent of OTT, there is a lot of change and that is nice,” Rohini says. She has been sprinting between movie locations of various South Indian languages – there are exciting roles in Telugu and a couple of films in Tamil where she plays a protagonist.

Rohini still occasionally gets offered mother roles with nothing much to do than forming the ambience for the hero, but she politely says no to them. She understands the need for these characters, but says she’d like to be excited to do a character. She mentions movies like Guppy – where she played an unwell mother to a teenage child – and Action Hero Biju – where she plays a struggling mother who ends up stealing.

A similar opinion is expressed by Nadiya Moidu, who swept a whole generation of movie lovers off their feet in the 80s when Nokkatha Doorathu Kannumnattu released. At the time there was even a Nadiya Moidu hairstyle that young women wore, hair tied into a knot on top of the head. She came back to acting after a gap and picked up roles she found exciting, but there are very limited choices for a woman of her age, she told TNM in a recent interview.

“I have been playing similar kind of roles, but with different writers and directors. For a woman of my age – a middle-aged woman – we have very limited choices and within that I try to do the best I can. With the right team, which excites me and brings me to the set,” she said.

Watch: Nadiya’s interview with TNM

It is very gender-specific, what Nadiya reveals. Men of the same age, even if they don’t become protagonists, get to play many interesting characters that support the story. Anna draws out parallels. “Nedumudi Venu routinely got story-defining roles till his death at 73, whereas his contemporary, Kaviyoor Ponnamma, rarely plays anything but the lead’s mother or grandmother. Malayalam cinema’s aversion to senior women actors is so great that #Home, a film as progressive as to revolve around an elderly man’s mental health, cast a 40-something Manju Pillai as the sexagenarian Indrans’ wife, and male stars in their 60s/70s have 20-something women playing their sisters. Meanwhile, in Bro Daddy, Meena, while just in her 40s, is stuck playing 39-year-old Prithviraj’s mother, and at his age, Kaniha plays his future mother-in-law. The discrimination is blatant and unapologetic.” 

Nadiya puts forth another point in favour of casting senior women actors. “Middle-aged women like me are at the best time of our lives, past the responsibilities of the early days of marriage. Children are independent, the husband would have found his hobbies,” she says.

It is worth pondering if that’s what kept women away from movies all the time. What about, for instance, the women who stayed in the industry but found the roles dwindling as the age went up?

Filmmaker Ranjith Sankar says that it was something that Revathy told him that led to the making of his film Molly Aunty Rocks a few years ago, in which a middle-aged woman plays the main character. “I had approached her for another film to ask if she will play Prithviraj’s mother. She asked me then if there are only these mother roles and other stereotypes for a woman who has crossed the age of 50. She asked if there is no scope for another character and that’s when I thought about it. I already had Molly Aunty in mind when she asked this,” Ranjith says.

Revathy had in fact played Prithviraj’s mother in his very first film Nandanam, when she was in her 30s. And then again in Anandabhadram, a horror film in 2005. She played quite a few mother characters in those years until Father’s Day came in 2012, and she once again had a major role to play, as an abused woman going through trauma.

Prithviraj and Revathy in Nandanam / Courtesy - YouTube/API

Rahul Sadasivan, the director of Bhoothakalam, told TNM that Revathy was not keen to do a horror film but agreed to join as soon as she heard the script. As Asha, Revathy played the part of a woman with mental health issues, dealing with anxiety at home and struggling to keep a straight face at work. When you ask Rahul about writing a full length character for a middle-aged woman, he does not make a big deal about it. The character was needed for the script and he needed an actor who would perform it well. Revathy was an easy choice.

Anna says, “The limited number of substantial roles – for senior women in particular and women in general – even in the supposedly liberal, new-generation Malayalam cinema reflects the long-running paradox of Malayali society, where extreme broadmindedness and extreme patriarchy co-exist in a manner that has few parallels in the rest of India.”

Theatre managers sometimes make it very obvious how they don’t expect films with women protagonists to run so well. This reporter was once discouraged from booking a ticket for Rani Padmini and told, “But it only has women in it”. The film was led by Manju Warrier and Rima Kallingal, two major women actors.

Society is used to seeing men grow popular in their 30s and doing better roles while women find their peak in their 20s, Shanthi Krishna once told TNM. The actor, who did many memorable characters in the 80s and 90s, returned to Malayalam cinema as the protagonist in Njandukalude Naattil Oridavela. She had accepted it because the role was fantastic and she would not have come back “just for any Amma role”, she said then.

Shobana too, when she did a movie in the last 10 years, appeared on screen as a notable character. In Thira, released in 2013, she played a serious no-nonsense woman, fighting a war against sex racketeers abducting young girls. In 2020, she became one of the lead characters in a fun movie, Varane Avashyamundu. While she played mother to a grown-up daughter (Kalyani Priyadarshan), hers was the more rebellious character, going against the norms, while the younger woman stuck to conventions like glue.

Watch: Varane Avashyamundu and roles for older women

Urvashi, another veteran known for her versatility, also had a role in the film, as a smart, modern woman who is more forward-thinking than her son. Years ago, Urvashi had a lovely comeback in the mid-2000s with Achunte Amma, playing Meera Jasmine’s mother, but having an equally prominent role and winning the audience over with her easy humour and natural acting. She, however, fell back to smaller roles in later years, occasionally springing a Mummy & Me or Ente Ummante Peru or Putham Pudhu Kaalai.

“If you look at middle-aged characters in movies, it is narrowed down for women. A middle-aged male actor can take up many other roles, neighbour or policeman or a bad guy or a friend; someone who is interesting. For a middle-aged woman actor, it is basically only mother. Maybe sister. That is all, we don’t get to play these bad characters as much. Lalu Alex, for example, plays a villain in one movie and then a really lovely character like the one he got in Bro Daddy,” Rohini says.

It is not that we don’t have writers who are more sensitive to women characters. There is no guarantee that better roles will be written if there are more women writers. Rohini points out, “Wasn’t it a Jeo Baby who wrote and directed The Great Indian Kitchen?” she asks.

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