'Randu Penkuttikal' to 'Moothon': How Malayalam cinema has depicted LGBTQI+ communities

Though Malayalam cinema has won many laurels for producing movies of a progressive nature, the depiction of LGBTQI+ communities has been either too wrong or else absent.
'Randu Penkuttikal' to 'Moothon': How Malayalam cinema has depicted LGBTQI+ communities
'Randu Penkuttikal' to 'Moothon': How Malayalam cinema has depicted LGBTQI+ communities
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The moon shines on one side of his face that night. You don’t notice the light as much as the slow smile forming on Amir’s face. He has just spotted Akbar, swimming in the dark, towards the shore, towards him. Akbar, the man of the dweep, looks at the newly-home Mumbai Malayali and speaks with an uncharacteristic softness. A few meetings in the dark like that, by or in the waters of the island, and you watch the unexplained, unapologetic beauty of two young people falling in love, and just reveling in it.

It’s beautiful, their love, said the audience that watched it on the big screen. Amir and Akbar’s romance was a small part of Moothon, a movie made by Geetu Mohandas, an actor who quietly and admirably migrated into direction. Moothon first went overseas to the land Geetu grew up in – Canada for the Toronto International Film Festival – before it released in India. Posts on Facebook, one after another, hailed it for the sensitive portrayal of a same sex relationship, a rarity in Malayalam cinema.

Though Malayalam cinema has won many laurels for producing movies of a progressive nature, the depiction of LGBTQI+ communities has been either too wrong or else absent. Looking at the last 40 years, one can pick out a handful of films that portrayed these identities and relationships – the first few subtle films that were open to interpretation, the next few that got it really wrong, and finally, the more recent ones that have had better portrayals.

Moothon, setting a standard

One big reason Moothon was so appreciated in Kerala was that it came after years of poor and often insensitive portrayals of same sex love. The relationship is only one part of the film, but it is the foundation on which the lead character Akbar, played by Nivin Pauly, is built. And Amir, a deaf character with speech impairment, played by Roshan Mathew, was even more loved by the audience.

Roshan (right) with Geetu (top) and Nivin

“At the end of the day, we are telling a love story and playing the character of a lover. After a point, the technicalities stop mattering, as to what is the gender or sexual orientation of this character you are playing. What you are trying to communicate is the truth or honesty in that relationship, the love that they have for each other. It is not like Nivin or I had to do anything different from what we would have done if we were enacting a love story with a woman. There is no need to give it a different shade or colour than a regular love story,” says Roshan.

The day after Moothon released in theatres, Muhammed Unais, a queer rights activist living in Kollam (and uses they/them/their pronouns) got a call from Jijo Kuriakose, the founder of Queerala, a welfare organisation for the LGBTQI+ community in Kerala.

“Jijo was over-the-top excited when he called me and asked me to rush to the theatre and watch Moothon,” recalls Unais.

Jijo went on to write long posts, one after the other, analysing every little aspect of that short but wonderfully portrayed same sex relationship in Moothon. “I could write thousands of words on it,” he says.

The Facebook analyses he posted came under the topics of ‘Homosexuality and self-harm’, ‘Depicting the serenity of same sex romance’, ‘Mirror gazing, who am I and 11/11’.

“One reason why movies like Moothon are made now is because of the visibility of the community in Kerala. Mainstream filmmakers researching the topics of sexual and gender minorities, contact people in the community, discuss with them before writing their films. That is a good sign,” Jijo says.

Njan Marykutty did what Chandupottu didn’t

Ranjith Sankar, who made a film about a trans woman played by actor Jayasurya, met with members of the trans communities to understand their lives and problems. Njan Marykutty was an emotional watch for many in the trans communities of Kerala, who have often been ridiculed in movies of the past.

“Yes, it is a good movie, but I have a small difference in opinion. For one, the film didn’t have any real life trans people acting in it. And it also seems to give a message that for trans people to win in life, they need to be in a position of power, like a Collector or an IPS officer,” says Unais, who had, during the Kasaba row, written about how films like Chandupottu had caused them pain.

The 2005 movie, directed by Lal Jose, has a man displaying exaggerated effeminate characteristics because he was raised “like a girl” by his grandmother. Unais had revealed in a Facebook post how the film’s title was used by others to mock them when they were in school and how much it had hurt.

“Not just me, it was used to harass many effeminate men. I know many who went through the same experience,” Unais says.

Actor Parvathy, known for her outspokenness, had, at the time, apologised to Unais on behalf of the film industry. However, director Lal Jose has been dismissive of the criticism, stating in a recent interview that the character Radhakrishnan (Dileep) was a man (meaning, cis heterosexual male) and that there’s no “confusion” about his gender or sexuality.

“The whole point of Chandupottu was that Radhakrishnan has to ‘prove’ his masculinity. Earlier films have mostly used queer characters as caricatures, to be ridiculed. That has changed now for the good and films like Moothon give hope,” says Janaki Sreedharan, a Calicut University professor who writes on gender and cinema.

Male characters dressing in a feminine fashion has often been used as a source of humour, she adds.  

“We have seen it in movies like Ayal Kadha Ezhuthukayanu in which Mohanlal wearing a nightie is used for humour. Or else the movie in which Jagathy Sreekumar is all dolled up and Cochin Hanifa wears the chattayum mundum (Kilukkam Kilukilukkam). There’d be couched remarks on someone’s sexuality. An effeminate man is seen as a weakling and masculinity is associated with aggressiveness,” she says.

Subtle references in earlier films

Padmarajan’s 1986 movie Deshadanakili Karayarilla is often discussed for exploring a same sex relationship. Janaki and Unais mention it, too. But then, the movie was not explicit. It can be read either as a very intimate friendship or romance – it’s about two runaway schoolgirls (Karthika and Shari) who become extremely close with each other. One girl has cropped hair and behaves in a dominating way while the other dresses in a conventionally feminine manner. One is infatuated with an older man, the other is possessive but doesn’t stop her friend.

Another film that came nearly a decade before Deshadanakili is perhaps the first (but problematic) exploration of same sex love in Malayalam cinema.

Mohan’s Randu Penkuttikal (1978) is a partial adaptation of the novel of the same name, written by VT Nandakumar. In the novel, however, the relationship is more explicit. In the movie, it’s a case of one woman (Anupama Mohan) merely being too possessive of the other woman (Shoba), and being hateful towards men after a bad experience in her childhood.

Photo courtesy: m3db.com

The film was wrong in its depiction in multiple ways – it gives assault as a reason for someone turning towards same sex love, and it also has the possessive woman ‘mend her ways’ when she finally agrees to marry a man – her assaulter!

Bolder depictions

A less noticed film in 2004 daringly told the story of two young women in a village in Kerala, falling freely and unapologetically in love with each other. Shruthy Menon and Suhasini V Nair played the lesbian couple –  Delilah and Kiran –  in Ligy J Pullappally’s movie Sancharram (The Journey). In an interview to After Ellen in 2005, Ligy spoke about the comparison that’s been made between her film and Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire that starred Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das.

“I think that, most importantly, what makes it distinct from Fire is that the girls make the choice based on love, just love and not the failure of heterosexual relationships. And I really wanted to make that film, because Fire had existed out there since 1996, and I didn’t want that to be the only thing representing lesbians in India. So that’s the primary difference,” she said.

Unais says that though Ligy’s film received great reviews, it had only a limited audience after it was screened at the International Film Festival of India in 2004. In the After Ellen interview, Ligy says that there was one public screening in Kerala after the IFFI one, and that it had not gone down well with the audience.

Shruthy who played Delilah in the film, says that at the time she chose to do Sancharram, she had not thought about the subject or what difference it could make to people's lives.

"I just wanted to do movies and this was my first venture. I was very young at the time. It is later that I realised I was part of something much bigger than I thought. After the movie was screened, there were a lot of mails and messages to us, saying, 'you have no idea what difference you have made to our lives’. Someone wrote that they wanted to kill themselves but didn't because they watched this movie. It gave hope, it gave a new perspective. It is then that I realised I did the right thing, I chose a good film,” she says.

She considers it luck that her first film was Sancharram and that she could work with Ligy. "She was so poetic in her explanation of the character that I fell in love with the way Ligy Ma’am was. Her way of dealing with the subject was to gently let people know that this is what you are putting others through. In the sense of social pressure and norms and how we are supposed to marry, look, study etc. What kind of pressures you are putting on someone who experiences true love at a tender age. The film tells the world 'look at what you are doing' and she wanted to put it in the gentlest manner,” Shruthy adds.

15 years later (in which time Section 377, which was used to criminalise the LGBTQI+ community, has been scrapped), conservative attitudes have changed a lot, but there’s still a long way to go. Despite winning a lot of love for the portrayal of Amir and Akbar’s love story, there was a section of the audience that booed and laughed at the exchanges between the two men in Moothon. This, after Kerala has been increasingly turning sensitive to the LGBTQI+ community by creating job opportunities, bringing out the transgender policy in 2015, opening shelters for the ostracised and so on.

Long way to go

“There has to be a lot more awareness,” says VC Abhilash, who made the critically acclaimed film Aalorukkam in 2018. The film is about an old man’s confusions on learning that the “son” who ran away from home many years ago is a trans woman, living with a family.

Indrans, Abhilash and Srikanth

“Before making Aalorukkam, I have not seen a film where a trans person’s life and family are seriously depicted. The films that have come before are commercial entertainers like Chandupottu. It is important that people understand the community,” he says.

Indrans, who played the old man in the film, won the State Award for Best Actor (male) that year. Srikanth, a Mumbai Malayali who played the trans woman, too was appreciated.

Though Aalorukkam portrayed a trans woman’s character without the usual exaggerations that come in movies, it was Njan Marykutty, which came later, that became a big hit. The trans community in Kerala embraced the movie after the release, but before it came out, they were apprehensive.

Unais said in an earlier interview to TNM that they sent a long message to the film’s director Ranjith Sankar about their fears because trans characters in movies were usually reduced to objects of mockery. However, Ranjith and Jayasurya mostly managed to do justice to the misrepresented trans community.

Anjali Ameer, a trans woman actor from Kerala, also won appreciation last year for her portrayal in the Tamil film Peranbu where she starred opposite Mammootty as his wife.

Anjali Ameer with Mammootty in Peranbu

“It is only recently that even the term ‘trans’ has been used in movies. Before that, other terms were used to refer to the community,” says Sheethal Shyam, a trans rights activist. “It is later that the the NALSA judgement (SC verdict identifying transgender people to be third gender, giving them fundamental rights and right to self-identification of gender) and the Kerala transgender policy came, and slowly the society, including popular culture, became more inclusive.”

But there is still much to be done, Sheethal feels.

“In Njan Marykutty, you see the story of a privileged person, who had education and is financially well off. It also shows Marykutty as a self-made woman. But in reality, you need a lot of support from outside, you can’t fight these battles alone,” she says.

Small but noticeable change in Malayalam cinema

In Malayalam cinema, the change is coming very late, but there have been several international films that’ve been sensitive to the community much earlier. Sheethal says film festivals like the IFFK in Kerala have brought some awareness to the people watching such films. She mentions the late Bengali director Rituparno Ghosh, who was queer, and whose movies were lauded for their portrayal of gender and sexual minorities.

“In recent Tamil movies too, you can see a good change. In Aruvi, the main character’s friend was a trans woman. In Super Deluxe, Vijay Sethupathy played a trans woman. In Malayalam, it’s taking time, but you can see the change,” she says.

However, in movies as recent as Action Hero Biju (2016) and Poomaram (2018), there were insensitive portrayals of trans people, used again for humour, Sheethal notes.

Among the films that got it right, she mentions Udalazham that released in December 2019, and told the story of a tribal trans woman, played by Mani. “Then there was the movie that I acted in – Aabhasaam. There were no issues there but then my story is not mentioned as such. There’d be limitations when people from outside the community make the film, but the change is surely welcome,” Sheethal acknowledges.

Sheethal Shyam

The way movies are being made now, filmmakers and scriptwriters will be more conscious of the depictions of the community, Unais says.

“Before Moothon, there was a film called Life Partner (2014), which portrayed a same sex relationship, but it seemed to have been made by a homophobic director,” he says.

Life Partner was about two men – one gay and another bisexual – with the former convincing the latter to marry a woman and abandon her after she gives him a child, in order for the same sex couple to adopt the baby. The film even won a State Award for second best film and one of the actors, Sudev Nair, won Best Actor.

Bringing the subject to mainstream cinema

The film that Unais thinks paved the way for Moothon is Rosshan Andrrews’s 2013 film Mumbai Police in which Prithviraj played a gay police officer.

Prithviraj in Mumbai Police

“It is a landmark movie because it was mainstream and a leading actor was bold enough to play a masculine gay character. No one has experimented with that before. Prithviraj should receive a lot of appreciation for choosing to do it,” Unais adds.

That said, Mumbai Police was also criticised for how the gay character was portrayed and how other characters react when the revelation is made. Even so, it made an impactful difference by showing that it was perfectly fine for a male star to play a gay man.

Before Mumbai Police, Shyamaprasad’s 2009 movie Rithu that introduced a bunch of actors (Rima Kallingal, Vinay Forrt, Asif Ali, Nishan) had one of the lead characters play a gay role. But this was a small part of the offbeat film.

Unais says that the best way to convey an idea, to increase the social acceptance of gender and sexual minorities, is through popular culture.

“Activists have spoken and written about it so much. But when it is a popular media like cinema and a popular actor like Prithviraj playing the character, it gets discussed a lot,” he points out.

And people from the industry, too, are beginning to recognise the change that they can bring.

Geetu Mohandas took the stage during the queer pride in Kochi recently, and spoke about the friend for whom she made Moothon. He was gay and took his own life – there was nothing she could do about it then, Geetu said. In the After Ellen interview, Ligy, too, mentions a real life character in Kerala who inspired her film.

Same sex love stories are not conjured out of thin air. They’re all around us, and they’ve always been all around us. Many of us have conveniently turned a blind eye until someone in our friend or family circle comes out – and the typical reaction is to hide it, suppress it, kill it or worse “correct” it. For those still laughing or simply echoing the laughter of friends when they watch a beautiful relationship being portrayed on a large screen, look around. It’s just life and love, nothing too hard to understand.

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