Rathinirvedam to Christy: The evolution of teenage-centric themes in Malayalam cinema

Of late, Malayalam cinema has had a lot of nuanced narratives headlining teens, and they have mostly been well-received. We track the evolution of teen and young adult representation on screen over the years.
Collage of three teen characters
Collage of three teen characters
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Malayalam cinema hasn’t really explored the conflicts that come with teenage as it should have. Instead, we have mostly been rallying around the various dimensions of adulthood—alpha, domesticated, violent, powerful, flawed men and often domesticated yet occasionally empowered, distinctive women. Sporadically we have had stories about teen sexual awakenings (Rathinirvedham), rebellion (Deshadanakili Karayarilla), infatuation (Nakashatangal, Daisy), and, teen pregnancy (Notebook). 

Of late, Malayalam cinema has had a lot of nuanced narratives headlining teens, and they have mostly been well-received. These films have also introduced us to a whole new range of fine talents. We track the evolution of teen and young adult representation in Malayalam cinema over the years.

Ammini (Selma), in the MT Vasudevan Nair scripted Hariharan directed Aranyakam (1988), is a social embarrassment to her family. The gawky, precarious, outspoken teenager who writes long letters to Basheer, Madhavi Kutty, and Indira Gandhi but never posts them, who whistles and is chastised for her lack of manners, is also unsurprisingly ignored by her family in the film. She is either looked on with sympathy for being a motherless child or tolerated. 

Ammini’s long hikes to the forest hint at a lonely childhood and she seems to have found solace in the meadows and streams. Ammini’s irreverence and wit are always punished by the elders in the family. Her conversation with herself reads like a personal diary—be it her critical eye on her appearance or the awareness that “people seem to not see her even when she stands right before them”. Ammini could be any 80s teenager. But then it is also true that she is able to see how her family is exploiting the system and that she is as much a beneficiary of it. However, her anger in that casteist, feudal, patriarchal family is quickly muffled.

On paper, Janakikutty (Jomol) in Hariharan’s Ennu Swantham Janakikutty (1998), shares a lot of similarities with Ammini (written by the same writer). They are both lonely, neglected, keep thinking aloud, and have hyperactive imaginations. She loves climbing trees, hopscotching, and generally amuses herself. She finds an ally in a gossipy old aunt of her mother’s and soon starts reexamining the world based on her slanted ramblings about caste, class, and morality. It is when she discovers her crush in the arms of someone else and rushes out heartbroken that she first sights Kunjathol (Chanchal). 

Seeing Kunjathol in a white Mundum Neriyathum and luminous blue eyes, Janakikutty is at first frightened, but captivated by her tryst with one of the most feared of entities—the Yakshi. Soon, Kunjathol becomes her alter ego and fights her battles. You can witness how Janaki’s relationship with the fantastical makes her blurt out some uncomfortable truths that earn the wrath of her relatives. But though she gets friendly with her crush in the end, Janakikutty is shown to embrace domesticity, thereby ending her exchanges with Kunjathol. In the end, she sobers, much like Ammini. And we wish it didn’t end that way.

Padmarajan creates two polar opposites in Nimmi and Sali in Deshadanakili Karayarilla (1986), even hinting at a romantic angle in Sali’s obsession with Nimmi. A product of neglected childhood, Sali showcases her rebellion in school. She deliberately sets out to break rules and gets more incensed when she is punished. Perhaps this is her way of getting attention or getting back at her parents for being ignored. Nimmi would rather quietly follow Sali, as she has learned to internalise her loneliness and pain.

Pappu in Bharathan’s Rathinirvedam (1982) and Bhama in Padmarajan’s Njan Gandharvan (1991) are both in the throes of a fervent sexual awakening. If Rathinirvedam explores the raw, wanton sexual curiosity of a teen, Njan Gandharvan chooses to lend a fantastical spin to a young adult girl’s sexual desire.

But Pooja (Nazriya) in Jude Anthany Joseph’s Ohm Shanthi Oshana (2014) is a post-modern, but irreverent version of Ammini. She is testy, pensive, and if her mood suits her, extremely sunny. Pooja willfully ignores her mother’s warnings to follow the patriarchal notions of what constitutes a good girl. When she falls in love with Giri, she goes all out—from seeing him everywhere to using her gentle wiles to make him notice her, Pooja proactively stalks him. And when Giri rejects her, she moves on but is hopeful that fate will eventually help her reunite with him. And it does!

The titular June (Rajisha Vijayan), in Ahammed Khabeer’s June (2019), isn’t too different from Pooja when it comes to going after what she wants. The little nuances added to her character are also spot-on. Look out for the scene in which she hikes her school skirt, dabs some lipstick, and rolls down her socks only to be scolded and put back in order by her mom. After falling madly in love with her schoolmate and then deciding to break up with him fearing family ire, June doesn’t quite let it go. She takes up a job in Mumbai and tracks him down and restarts the affair, though it doesn’t end satisfactorily.

Meanwhile, Sharanya (Anaswara Rajan) in Super Sharanya (2022), a young adult who is just about transitioning from a teenager, hails from a small town, is shy, and finds it difficult to say no to people. Though on the cusp of adulthood, she is wary of the boys in the locality and therefore finds excuses not to venture out. Be it to her lineup of admirers in college, including the toxic Ajith Menon who shamelessly tries to stake his claim on her, Sharanya is too scared to speak her mind. But the same Sharanya seems more assertive of her lover. Having said that, as she gains confidence, she does call out the professor for manipulating her internal marks after she rejects his proposal. Her friend Sona (Mamitha Baiju) is similar to Pooja—more assertive perhaps. She has no qualms about telling the owner of a restaurant that the biryani is terrible. Sona is honest, assertive, and level-headed.

But Athira (Anaswara Rajan) in Udhaharanam Sujatha (2017) is none of the above. As her mother, a domestic worker, slaves all day to make ends meet, Athira chooses to ignore it. Though she knows how much her mother wants her to do well in academics, Athira never makes any effort in her studies. She thinks that as the daughter of a domestic worker, it would be foolish to have any aspirations. She is also the typical teen with her tantrums, crushes, and stubbornness.

The MT Vasudevan Nair written KS Sethumadhavan film Venal Kinavukal (1991) featured a bunch of teens going through several teen issues. From crushes, confusions, sexual awakenings, heartbreaks, realizations, and parental conflicts, everything is depicted with a touch of grimness. 

There are a bunch of quirky, relatable teens in Gireesh AD’s Thanneer Mathan Dinangal (2019), placed in the backdrop of a high school in a small town in Kerala. There is Jason (Mathew Thomas), who is infatuated with Keerthi (Anaswara Rajan), but she doesn’t reciprocate. His friend Melvin (Naslen) is a mix of Jughead and Reggie from Archies, who claims to have a rich dad and therefore offers to buy food for his friends. Keerthi is that impressionable teen who falls madly in love later. Jason is confused but also earnest and tries to hit it off with a girl being on the rebound. Meanwhile, she lets him know very clearly that she is not interested in him. The banter, teasing, teacher-student dynamics, and parent-teen conflicts, all are underlined nicely in the narrative.

While Roy (Mathew Thomas) in Christy (directed by Alvin Henry) is free-spirited and immature, he falls readily in love with a much older woman. How Roy carries forward his infatuation has all the trappings of a teenager—not only is his love rather sudden, but he also starts assuming ownership of her.   

Jomon (Mathew Thomas) is a spoilt, irrational teen in Arun D Das’s Jo and Jo. In a household where the brother-sister dynamics are rather skewed, he also shows signs that he might evolve into a toxic, entitled adult. You can witness it in the way he reacts when he thinks his sister has a lover.

In sharp contrast, Franky (Mathew Thomas) in Kumbalangi Nights (directed by Madhu C Narayanan) is extremely sorted and mature beyond his age. During every vacation from school, when his classmates are elated about coming home, Franky is tense, wondering how to negotiate between his dysfunctional stepbrothers. And it is only when Franky comes home that the dilapidated building turns into one. 

From cooking, and cleaning to yearning for a life as one happy family, it is Franky who takes his elder brother to a therapist. He is ecstatic to have his brother’s female friends at home, even if for a brief stay, and he is already building castles in the air. Franky is that teen you feel might just grow up into a sensitive adult.

We require more narratives that will explore humanity through the wide-eyed innocence of adolescence. Considering today’s teens have a lot more challenges and magnitudes to deal with on a daily basis than ever before, it would be an experiment worth watching.

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 Silverscreen.in. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and thenewsminute.com. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

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