Malayalam cinema’s history of slotting women into the good-bad binary

Not unlike in real life, mothers in cinema had to either don the cape of an angel or prepare themselves to be demonised, while the wives, daughters, and sisters had to live within the confines of one-dimensional images.
Malayalam cinema’s history of slotting women into the good-bad binary
Malayalam cinema’s history of slotting women into the good-bad binary
Written by:

For the longest time, Malayalam cinema has put mothers on a pedestal. One of the most iconic scenes in Malayalam celluloid continues to be the climactic shot in Sibi Malayil’s Thaniyavarthanam (1987), featuring a traumatised mother (Kaviyoor Ponnamma) feeding rice laced with poison to her adult son (Mammootty) with a mental illness. These images are juxtaposed with those of a much younger mother feeding her baby, essentially manipulating the audience, and leaving anyone with an iota of compassion struggling to hold back their tears. 

Not unlike in real life, mothers in cinema simply had no way out — either they don the cape of an angel or prepare themselves to be demonised. Not surprisingly, the wives, daughters, and sisters also had to live within the confines of these one-dimensional images. The rules were, after all, written and directed by men who only saw women and the world through their patriarchal lens. So the heroine consistently ended up conforming to such stereotypes, especially from the 1980s through the early 2000s, remaining quintessentially dutiful, sacrificial, opinionless, ever-smiling, submissive, unambitious, and domesticated.

Take one of the most iconic female performances in Malayalam cinema — Fazil’s Manichithrathazhu (1993), which had Shobana slipping into the duality of the docile, urban-bred Ganga and the fiery, vengeful Tamil-speaking Nagavally. As a character study, Ganga is ordinary — the dreamy, smiling, dutiful wife of Nakulan (Suresh Gopy) who spends her days buried inside books and rummaging through the dusty old rooms in the mansion. Ganga is lonely in the marriage, with the husband too preoccupied to give her his time. 

Sign up to get film reviews in your inbox

* indicates required

Then you have Nagavally, her alter ego, who is a woman scorned. She knows her mind and has no qualms about going after what she wants. In the film, however, she is the ‘mad woman in the attic’ who needs to be tamed. So the men in the narrative make sure Nagavally is trapped inside the room, sealed by the ornate lock, while the docile and gentle Ganga is released into the world. In the end, Ganga is declared cured only when she calls herself by her ‘full’ name — “Ganga Nakulan.”

In Sathyan Anthikad’s Thalayana Manthram (1990), all Kanchana (Urvashi) ever wanted was a home of her own, an escape from the daily drudgery that she shared with her mother-in-law. Here was a woman who was disparaged for wanting a better life. She is branded greedy for desiring good clothes, lifestyle, and ornaments. In the end, not only is her wimpy husband turned into a victim, but she is made to feel apologetic for choosing herself.

Similarly, Shailaja (Urvashi) in VR Gopalakrishnan’s Bharya (1994), who hails from a financially sound family than her spouse (Jagadish), is harshly judged for her failure to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings. Having to live in a family filled with women who are assigned the roles of caregivers, and are not encouraged to live for themselves, Shailaja doesn’t bother to fit in. That she isn’t the stereotypical dutiful, giving, and compassionate daughter-in-law makes it important that she eventually succumbs to the might of patriarchy and gets chastened in the end.

Shobha (Ilavarasi) in Cochin Haneefa’s Vatsalyam (1993), a glorified endorsement of the patriarchal family system, is also not a far cry from Shailaja. They hail from similar backgrounds and end up being demonised for not trying to align with patriarchy. She is intentionally portrayed in an unflattering light for speaking her mind or refusing to be domesticated. In the film, women appear as binaries — they are either the sacrificial, sobbing, compromising, and unambitious ‘good women’, or the assertive, non-domesticated, avaricious ‘bad women’. And like always, here too, the woman is slapped into submission by the man and taught a lesson for having a mind of her own.

In Sibi Malayil’s Kaliveedu (1996), when the woman (Manju Warrier) fails to rise up to the man’s (Jayaram) requirement to be a glorified housekeeper instead of an equal partner, they decide to separate. But the young woman is portrayed as spoiled, irrational, and selfish, while the man gets away with his obnoxious misogyny. Not only does he get into a live-in relationship with a friend, but he also ends up going back to his former wife after he ‘realises’ that she was the lesser of the two evils.

If the heroines in Sathyan Anthikad's films act solely as a catalyst to facilitate the coming-of-age arc of the hero, the sisters in his films are woefully one-dimensional. They are portrayed as wicked and greedy for asking for their rightful share of property. With no identity apart from being someone’s wife or sister, they are always made to cower in front of their brothers for money. And the heroes, for all their righteousness, always agree to the outrageous dowry demands.

Sulochana in Priyadarshan’s Midhunam (1993) and Asha in Bharathan’s Kattathe Kilikkoodu (1983) are nastily put down for addressing their needs. Sulochana (Urvashi) is kept in the dark about her husband (Mohanlal)’s struggles to start a biscuit factory. He also infantilises her needs and snidely mocks her domestic skills. Asha (Revathy)’s feelings are also always invalidated by Unni Krishnan (also Mohanlal), and she is forced to do something out of character to seek his attention. The narrative chooses to look at these women purely from a man’s point of view. And in Kattathe Kilikkoodu, the young and assertive Asha is unfairly pitted against a paragon of virtue, Sharada (Sreevidya). The reality, however, is that Sharada doesn’t have the agency to walk out on her philandering husband (Bharath Gopy).

You can witness a subversion of Asha in the Khalid Rahman-directed Anuraga Karikkin Vellam’s Eli (Rajisha Vijayan). She is portrayed as an exasperating nag who is dumped by her boyfriend (Asif Ali). But unlike the Bharathan film, Eli eventually gets united with a man who respects and admires her for what she is. And of course, she refuses to concede when the ex tries to win her back.

Ambitious married women are hardly ever allowed to chase their dreams without guilt in Malayalam cinema. In Sathyan Anthikad’s Kochu Kochu Santhoshangal (2000), when Asha Lakshmi (Lakshmi Gopalaswamy) gets a chance to reclaim her dancing career after marriage, the narrative opts to sympathise with the husband (Jayaram)’s struggles of taking care of their infant. As her popularity starts growing, she is depicted as an unreliable mother and wife. Throw in a vindictive father-in-law, and you have enough on your plate to slander the woman’s nurturing skills. The film once again reinstates the stereotypes around motherhood, and by the end, the guilt-ridden woman is forced to abort her flourishing career and live in misery until she reunites with her husband and child.

Similarly, the ambitious Nalini (Unni Mary) in IV Sasi’s Aalkkoottathil Thaniye (1984) is judged and berated by her husband (Mammootty) for aiming for career growth and conferring him the primary role of a parent.

In Sukrutham (1994), while on his deathbed, Ravi Sankar (Mammootty) encourages his wife Malini (Gauthami) to be in a relationship with a man who always coveted her. For reasons best known to her, she agrees. But Ravi, after his miraculous recovery, expects her to come back to him. By then, Malini has already moved on. Even though she is only being true to herself, her confession is staged in such a way that she comes across as a heartless and opportunistic woman to a poor, victimised Ravi.

The feisty Nayanthara (Priya Raman) in Shaji Kailas’s Aaram Thampuran (1997) initially comes across as a true-blue feminist icon. As per Ranjith’s script, she is fiercely independent, fun, and proposes to the man (Mohanlal) she likes and just as gracefully accepts his rejection. But we know the alpha male hero can only pursue a woman who makes him feel powerful. He is looking forward to being a guardian to this chit of a girl (Manju Warrier), who after her initial bravura, prostrates in front of the multi-talented hero. Nayanthara would easily make him feel inadequate. That’s why the narrative is sort of dismissive of this headstrong woman. She is clearly her own woman.

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 She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to and 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.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute