In Malayalam cinema, the mothers are reclaiming their distinct identities

By 2024, Malayalam cinema seems to be steering clear of the banal depictions of motherhood that were once considered the norm, with efforts being made to view mothers beyond the contrived lens of domesticity and sacrifice.
From left: Kaviyoor Ponnamma in Thaniyavarthanam, KPAC Lalitha in Madampi, Revathi in Bhoothakalam, and Bindu Panicker in Rorschach
From left: Kaviyoor Ponnamma in Thaniyavarthanam, KPAC Lalitha in Madampi, Revathi in Bhoothakalam, and Bindu Panicker in Rorschach
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It is the moment of truth for Vijaya, played by Sharada, in A Vincent’s 1968 Malayalam film Thulabharam. With a sudden delirious energy, she wipes her tears, blends poison into the rice, and quietly feeds it to her three children. “Forgive me, forgive me… I won’t allow Ramu’s children to grow up as beggars,” she repeats to herself.

For the longest time, this tragic climax of Thulabharam was considered the most-feted “mother” trope in Malayalam cinema. Since then, Malayalam cinema has put this mother on a pedestal, often overlooking the inferences that come with such a trope. Two decades later, the scene was faithfully replicated in Sibi Malayil’s Thaniyavarthanam (1987), which featured a mother feeding poisoned food to her son — whom the world has perceived to be mentally ill — just so she can relieve him of his misery. The scene is further manipulated by juxtaposing images of a younger mother feeding her baby, leaving the already distressed audience tormented.

It is not surprising that in a society that still considers mothers as deities, the role of a celluloid mother has always been woefully stereotyped. Mothers on screen were mostly relegated to caregivers, besides being unambitious, sacrificial, overworked, and family-oriented. Very little effort has often gone into their character sketches. 

In sharp contrast, the fathers are let off by a wide margin. Neither are they put on a pedestal, nor are they harshly judged for failing in their duties as a parent.

Mothers — the saintly and the snooty

If the ‘sacrificial mom’ was a trope that remained a constant in Malayalam cinema, certain actors were also perennially trapped in mother roles. 

The smiling saint wrapped in mundum neriyathum (traditional Kerala wear) was an image perfected by Kaviyoor Ponnamma. During the 80s and 90s, when families remained the cornerstone of every narrative, she was an indispensable emblem of maternity. A majority of Ponnamma’s six-decade-old career was marked by mother roles, which unfailingly paid obeisance to the ‘sacrificing mom’ trope. Be it in Kireedam (1989), Vandanam (1989), His Highness Abdullah (1990), Sandesham (1991), Gandharvam (1993), Kalippattam (1993), Vatsalyam (1993), Thenmavin Kombathu (1994), or several other such films, the mothers she played may have had different names but they were all similarly one-dimensional.

The uniformity was such that one can easily pick out those rare times when she did something unusual. Case in point is the elderly aunt she played in Harikumar’s Sukrutham (1994), where despite the garb of cloying maternity, she doesn’t bother to hide her selfishness or greed. 

It took Ponnamma another three decades to break the shackles of her image, with Aashiq Abu’s short Rani in the 2021 anthology AanumPennum. The film featured a bedridden Ponnamma, who shows a perverse enthusiasm in listening to her husband’s voyeuristic account of a young couple’s sexual encounter.

The 80s and 90s were also the time when mothers were slotted in binaries. Either she has a saintly disposition — negotiating between her children and spouse or relegated to flipping dosas on a tawa — or she is a schemer out to wreak havoc in her family. The father will be a mute spectator, the children will be largely ignored, and she will be greedy, biased, snooty, and non-domesticated. Meena in Sasneham (1990) and Sthreedhanam (1993), Sukumari in Thalayanamanthram (1990) and Amma Ammayiyamma (1998), KPAC Lalitha in Malootty (1990) and Aadyathe Kanmani (1995) all fall in that category.

Notably, the same AK Lohitadas who fortified the sacrificial mother trope also crafted a different set of mothers — the foul-mouthed, angry ones who never displayed love but always had your back (Sallapam – 1996, and Joker – 2000).

But amidst this humdrum, let’s not forget the radical mother representations of KG George. Not even the newer generation of writers/filmmakers have yet displayed the auteur’s perception in aligning and empathising with women. Be it Annie Amma (Srividya) in Irakal (1985) who ignores her child and husband to satiate her sexual needs, or Susheela (Seema) who elopes with a mechanic to flee from the emptiness of her marriage and motherhood in Mattoral (1998), it’s cleansing to watch mothers being depicted without the condemnatory lens.

Mothers — human and flawed

Veteran actor KPAC Lalitha has also played her fair share of conventional mothers, but she has simultaneously dabbled with an assortment of flawed maternal characters. If Lalitha’s Marypennu in VeendumChila Veettukaryangal (1999) was a helpless onlooker to the complex volatile bond between her husband and son, Eliyamma in Kottayam Kunjachan (1990) was feisty, bullied her husband, and guarded her daughters like a lioness. Similarly, if her Kunju Maria (Manassinakkare – 2003) was brimming with unconditional love, Marykutty (Apoorvam Chilar – 1991) was a god-fearing but greedy woman who vainly tried to cover her classism.

Since she was an actor who didn’t have to greatly rely on writers to bring magic to her characters, even the simplest sketches on paper got an entertaining spin in her hands.

A close second to Lalitha is Philomena, who turned every mother trope on its head. In Siddique-Lal’s cult classic Godfather (1991), Philomena’s Anappara Achamma is as powerful as her adversary, the formidable Anjooran (NN Pillai). Her muscular sons cower under her gaze, and despite her old age, Achamma remains infallible, carrying the flame of vengeance raging inside her.

Though not as effective, she made a similar turn as a towering matriarch in Kamal's Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal (1989). Like Lalitha, while dabbling with evil, Philomena brought an originality and wittiness to the characters that could not simply be written on paper. The temperamental grandmother in Kouthuka Varthakal (1990) and the underhand mother-in-law in Sasneham are other cases in point.

Mothers — unapologetic and raw

Perhaps it is safe to say that the mothers on celluloid have evolved with the arrival of a newer generation of writers and filmmakers. Though one can’t accurately zero in on who gave the first blows to the glass ceiling, the change has been ongoing and redemptive. When the glory of alpha male larger-than-life heroes started fading, newer and radical narratives were growing, giving space for men and women to flourish beyond the stereotypes. Mothers too gained redemption in the bargain. The binaries (good mothers and bad mothers) were being replaced by realistic, flawed women who had a life beyond their “exclusive identity” as mothers.

In Anjali Menon’s Bangalore Days (2014), Kuttan’s mother (Kalpana) is rational and plain-speaking. One of the most liberating moments in the film has to be her reaction when she realises that her husband has unceremoniously left her. What you witness in consequence is not the done-to-death imagery of a grief-stricken woman, but that of a rejuvenated soul who is raring to go. She recalibrates the situation in her favour and effortlessly trips into a life she has always yearned for, unapologetically.

The mother in Madhu C Narayanan’s Kumbalangi Nights (2019), played by Lali PM, is a subversion of the stereotypical sacrificial mothers who are glorified on screen. She appears briefly but that is enough to make a liberating statement. When she reaches a breaking point after taking care of her children for years, she decides to reclaim her sanity and finds refuge in a religious retreat centre. In the only scene featuring the mother, we have her sons pleading with her to return home so they would look ‘respectable’ in front of her son’s bride’s family. She gently refuses, obliquely making it clear that her trauma (depleted mother syndrome) remains unresolved. In another beautiful moment of  subversion in the film, it is her stepson who comes to her defence when her son chooses to judge her.

In Nissam Basheer’s Rorschach (2022), one can witness some of the biggest celluloid mother tropes being overthrown through Seetha, played by Bindu Panicker. This 60-something mother of two adult sons would easily pass off as a conventional film mother. She is shown to overlook her husband’s affair, is fiercely protective of her sons, and never aspires to a life beyond her domesticity. But what sets her apart is the discovery that beneath this tranquil motherliness is a woman who isn’t afraid to be self-seeking and grab all that she wants under the guise of protecting her sons.

From left: Kaviyoor Ponnamma in Thaniyavarthanam, KPAC Lalitha in Madampi, Revathi in Bhoothakalam, and Bindu Panicker in Rorschach
An actor for all seasons: Tracing the filmography of the irrepressible Bindu Panicker

Even in the recent commercial potboiler Turbo (2024), despite the presence of a quintessential macho hero (Mammootty), the mother once again played by Bindu Panicker is no maternal stereotype. On the contrary, she is a feisty single mom who has wrapped him around her tiny finger. She is more updated than her son, loves Marvel movies, has a special fondness for Tony Stark, and makes Instagram reels with children.

That is not to say that the film mothers of the last decade were devoid of formulaic tropes. In Drishyam (2013) for instance, the mother played by Meena is a glaring stereotype — a stay at home mother who has no identity or interest beyond her home, besides subscribing to regressive parenting. In the same film, we have another mother, IG Geetha Prabhakar (Asha Sharath), who misuses her power to get even with those who harmed her son. She is also an obsessive mother, blind to her son’s faults.

Then you have an ordinary homemaker and mother in Khalid Rahman’s Anuraga Karikkin Vellam (2016), also played by Asha Sharath, who despite her relatively conventional sketch endears us with her relatability. Ditto for the Umma in Kadina Kadoramee Andakadaham (2023), a mother who only knows to love and worry for her family. Here too it is the actor, Sreeja Ravi, and the staging that touches a chord. Pepe’s mother in Lijo Jose Pellisery's Angamaly Diaries (2017) is a residue of patriarchy and doesn’t flinch when offering larger food portions to her son over her daughter.

Rahul Sadasivan’s Bhoothakalam (2022) introduced an incongruity in Malayalam cinema — a toxic mother who has been manipulating her son to forgo his ambitions to stay with her. She invalidates her son’s feelings, is constantly critical, ignores boundaries, seeks control, and is in denial about it. We have had mothers who had to deal with temperamental, selfish children in How Old Are You? (2014) and Udhaharanam Sujatha (2017). Though Nirupama eventually rediscovers her worth in How Old Are You?, despite being disregarded and talked down to by her husband and daughter, one felt she deserved a better closure than her decision to forgive their toxicity. But Sujatha, a single mother who works as domestic help and also does odd jobs to fund her daughter’s education, can be deemed as the face of several such women in our neighbourhood.

Equally rare is a female lead like Neena, a 50-something single mother in Anoop Sathyan's Varane Avashyamundu (2020). She is a disruptor of stereotypes in many ways — she is charismatic, gets a superstar intro song for herself, has a passion for dancing, and is ready to give love another chance despite having experienced an abusive marriage.

It was also welcoming to see films that have women opting to be childless and the narrative normalising these decisions. In Jude Anthany’s Sara’s (2021), Sara (Anna Ben) is an aspiring filmmaker who marries a man who shares her interest in being child-free. Though the world does conspire against her to make her change her decision, Sara eventually gets her way in the film.

The core conflict in Don Palathara’s Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (2020) revolves around a young woman’s anxiety about an impending pregnancy and the possible repercussions it can have on her career and relationship. Maria (Rima Kallingal) is a film journalist and when her live-in-partner tries to play down her concerns, she doesn’t mince words about how heavily it can weigh down on her career.

In 2024, although the situation is far from perfect, we have at least steered clear of the many banal depictions that were considered the norm once upon a time. Efforts are being made to view motherhood beyond the contrived lens of domesticity and sacrifice. Though directors such as KG George had shown the way early on, it took a few more decades for celluloid mothers to reclaim their identities. 

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.

From left: Kaviyoor Ponnamma in Thaniyavarthanam, KPAC Lalitha in Madampi, Revathi in Bhoothakalam, and Bindu Panicker in Rorschach
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