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Stronger, bolder, louder: The new female leads in Malayalam films

Rihan Najib | Updated on June 28, 2019 Published on June 28, 2019

Taking the lead : Nimisha Sajayan is among the crop of actors essaying remarkably strong, memorable female characters

Recent releases in Malayalam cinema depart from pigeonholing women in domestic roles. Female characters explore their fates on their own terms. So why do such characters make women film-makers in Kerala uneasy?

 

It is a tense scene. Sreeja is at a police station. Her husband, standing nearby, looks worried. The police officers resent having to record a new case. A crowd looks on. Sreeja points to a man and says, “He stole my thaali-mala (nuptial chain).”

How could she be so sure, the officer-in-charge counters: “You said you had been dozing at the time”. Sreeja’s features harden into a mask. “I know it,” she says firmly.

This sets in motion events that form the central tension of the film Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017), which won the National Award for best feature film in Malayalam. Sreeja, played by 19-year-old newcomer Nimisha Sajayan, was impressive with her display of grim, unflinching certitude amid a group of floundering, wavering men.

Fighting spirit : Nimisha Sajayan (left) with Suraj Venjaramoodu in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum

 

In Sajayan’s 2018 film Eeda, a Romeo and Juliet romance about two warring political families in strife-torn Kannur, she asks the boy she is interested in — from the rival political family — if he really likes her. He kisses her forehead tenderly in response.

“Do you have an Aadhaar card?” she asks him. “Is the rent agreement in your name?” He looks puzzled. She tells him that her mother is arranging her wedding to another man. “We should get married before that,” he replies. Pulling out a file, she says, “Good. I’ve brought along the papers for a court wedding.”

Aishwarya Lekshmi, playing the character of Aparna in Mayaanadhi (2017), pursues her dream of acting, even if it means separating from her lover. She regards their sexual intimacy with fondness, but won’t allow it to be the glue that binds her to her old life. “Sex is not a promise,” she tells him, flying in the face of decades of films revolving around the sole question of a woman’s chastity.

Covering new ground

Sajayan and Lekshmi’s characters join a growing assemblage of films that have come to mark an unfolding moment in Kerala’s film-making history. Commercial films such as 22 Female Kottayam and Trivandrum Lodge (both 2012), Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016), Kumbalangi Nights and Uyare (2019), to mention just a few, have come to characterise the ‘New Generation’ movement. These films are noted for their exceptional storytelling, character development, hyper-local narratives, as well as remarkably strong, memorable female characters, the likes of whom Malayali audiences haven’t seen in a long time.

“Female leads were earlier just dolled up and made to dance around trees, but now we are seeing strong female characters. They are gritty and determined,” says Sajayan tells BLink (See box).

For generations weaned on Netflix and other streaming services, as well as new Bollywood films, such a conceptual switch in the characterisation of female leads may seem delayed. After Parched, a 2015 Hindi film in which four women talk about sex and desire, and Lipstick Under My Burkha, a 2016 movie about women, revolt and desire, no one seems to be in a rush to go back to an older, regressive era, the misogyny of Kabir Singh (2019) notwithstanding. However, for Malayalam film-goers used to seeing only submissive wives and suffering mothers on screen, this signals a wider churn in the industry that produces such films as well as the society the films seek to represent.

To understand Kerala and its many contradictions, there are two reliable barometers — politics and films, both fierce passions of the average Malayali. If popular cinema is at all a peek into a public conscience, such films and their depiction of women offer a curious reading of contemporary Kerala society — its anxieties and aspirations, what it professes to be and what it can’t hide.

Shift in sensibilities

A loosely defined label, often eschewed even by some of the film-makers who fall within its ambit, the New Generation movement that started around 2010 pointed to a shift in sensibilities. Breaking with the previously unchallenged reign of superstars such as Mohanlal and Mammootty, these films focused on socially relevant themes, essayed in a style evocative of the ’80s, itself known for a parallel wave of cinema that was celebrated for its critical and commercial successes. The films — in tone and location — shifted to urban settings, speaking in the slang particular to the region, and portrayed characters as naturally as possible, breaking with a longstanding tradition of airbrushing. Grand, melodramatic narratives of land, loss and love splintered to show multiple, smaller stories of ordinary people grappling with ordinary life. As the movement gathered steam, female leads were observed to be undergoing subtle yet significant shifts in representation.

“Women in Malayalam cinema until now were presented through a bipolar construction — either they were saintly caregivers or they were hypersexual, uncontrolled women out to seduce the hero,” says director-screenwriter Sanju Surendran, noted for his award-winning film Aedan.

The new female leads are passionate about their work and pursue it defiantly. They freely utter obscenities, present a sexual awareness about their bodies and do what they must to protect it, but not at the cost of pleasure. Both sardonic and sensitive, they frequently question the capacity and skills of their male counterparts.

Actors such as Parvathy Thiruvoth, Rima Kallingal, Remya Nambeesan and an even younger generation comprising Sajayan, Lekshmi and Aparna Balamurali, among others, are collectively defining the aesthetic and politics of the new female lead in Malayalam film.

Both in body language and vocabulary, the female characters are bolder, louder and unambiguous. Moreover, in a marked departure from conventionally glamorous objects of desire, they are portrayed as ordinary everywomen, whose concerns extend beyond the home, hearth and the hero. The unapologetic warts-and-all realism on display brings the characters closer to the audience, mirroring the mundane and profound agonies of living in Kerala as a woman.

History repeats itself

It’s not completely a new turn. Neelima Menon, a film critic and editor of the online film portal Full Picture, says, “If you chart the history of Malayalam cinema, you’ll find that between the ’70s and early ’80s, there were striking female characters.” Films were written with strong actors in mind, she adds.

Fifty years earlier, it was another story. The very first female actor in Malayalam film history was PK Rosy, a Dalit grass-cutter. Her story sets the tone for female leads thereafter. JC Daniel — known as the father of Malayalam cinema — couldn’t find women to act in his feature film Vigathakumaran (1930), since it was considered beneath upper-caste women to be seen in such a space. Rosy portrayed a Nair woman, angering sections of men who resented a Dalit woman in the role of a higher caste. They set fire to her hut, hounding her till she disappeared into obscurity.

Trendsetter: Sobha (right), seen here in ‘Ulkadal’, was an inspiration for generations of women   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

But the script changed in the decades that followed. Menon points to the filmography of director and screenwriter KG George, remembered for such path-breaking films as Ulkadal (1979), Adaminte Vaariyellu (1984) and Irakal (1986). “He created powerful female characters who were flawed, complex and layered. They made irrational decisions and dealt poorly with crises, but, more importantly, George never passed judgement on the characters or ‘redeemed’ them with a neat, comfortable plotline.”

Role model: Screenwriter and director KG George’s films feature strong female leads   -  THULASI KAKKAT

In the ’70s, when the overhaul of feudal Kerala society was beginning to settle into an uncertain balance, actors such as Sheela, Sharada, Srividya and Shoba presented an evolving middle-class, upper-caste femininity. They depicted educated working women who were critical observers of their worlds. Shoba won the 1979 National Award for Pasi and, soon after, committed suicide. She was just 17. Her realistic acting and girl-next-door charm endeared her to generations of women, influencing the way they dressed, spoke and behaved.

The ’80s promised change. A new generation of actors came into prominence — among them Parvathy, Shobhana, Revathy and Karthika. Padmarajan, Lenin Rajendran and Bharathan — directors often spoken of together for ushering in the New Wave era, fused ‘art films’ (or the parallel cinema of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and G Aravindan) with popular appeal. Prizing narrative over star power, they set the tone for what has come to characterise New Generation films today. But while movies such as Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal (1986) and Thoovanathumbikal (1987) challenged sexual mores, they continued with the tradition of depicting upper class and upper caste women.

“These were characters who were written to give the man a mission. Wives had to be protected, sisters had to be married off, mothers had to be take care of — and outwardly bold women had to be ‘taught a lesson’,” says Menon.

By the ’90s and continuing into much of the new millennium, the decline in Malayalam films was stark, marked by films that eulogised an authoritarian hyper-masculine figure, invariably essayed by actors such as Mohanlal and Mammootty. The 2000 films Narasimham and Valliettan were top-grossers, and evocative of feudal nostalgia and caste hegemony. In response, female characters receded into the background, visible only as a prop to the hero’s pre-eminence on screen. Few women actors — barring perhaps Manju Warrier — were able to break through such a mould. Warrier’s role as the revenge-seeking Bhadra in Kannezhuti Pottum Thottu (1999) is a shining example of what audiences would receive if female characters were written differently.

Issue at hand

Author and director Sreebala K Menon points out the essential problem underlying the representation of women in the industry. “Markets and industries put out products with specific audiences in mind. The market has thus far been dominated by an audience that would hoot and cheer any time a female character was insulted or anything misogynistic was shown on screen,” she says. “There’s no cause to think that this audience has changed all that much,” she adds.The old audience may not have changed, but — as she points out — Kerala theatres have seen a new film-going audience comprising vocal and financially independent women who object vehemently on online platforms to regressive politics on screen. Producers have responded to this market in different ways.

The Love 24x7 director, however, believes the portrayal of women has only undergone “subtle” shifts. “We’re still stuck with women who are, in one way or the other, domesticated,” she holds.

“If you strip down most films in the recent past, their female characters who are outwardly feminist have confirmed every kind of patriarchal value,” adds screenwriter Deedi Damodaran.

Take the case of Kumbalangi Nights (2019), lauded for its strong female presence. “No matter how intriguing the women characters are in the film, in the final analysis, it’s a film about how the disordered lives of four brothers are set straight by the arrival of three women in their home,” says Damodaran. “It doesn’t set women free of the domestic, rather it reinforces that equation. Practical-minded, independent women are turned into dependent wives.”And there is, she holds, good reason for that. “They’re all designed, conceived of and written by men,” Damodaran points out.

Kumbalangi Nights was written by Syam Pushkaran, a screenwriter who entered the fray as a writer at the beginning of the New Generation movement, penning screenplays for 22 Female Kottayam (2012), Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016) and Mayaanadhi (2017), critically acclaimed for their depiction of women. Among other screenwriters is the Bobby and Sanjay duo, whose women-centric films include Manju Warrier’s comeback movie How Old Are You? (2014) and Uyare (2019). With the exception of a few women writers such as Anjali Menon (who wrote Bangalore Days and Koode), women fashioning female characters in Malayalam cinema has been notably rare.

But the new market segment identified by producers — of independent, vocal, film-going women — has been watching the developments with an eagle eye, deconstructing with clinical precision the films they watch to their followers on social media. Some, like 27-year-old Arya Prakash, retrospectively critique Malayalam cinema, calling out its patriarchal biases.

“Over the past few years, there have been very active discussions on social media about the representation of women. Movie reviews are less forgiving of misogyny and these film-makers must contend with that,” says Prakash, an English Studies graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, who runs the blog Silma Reviews and co-founded the popular Instagram account Pop Cult Tribe (with over one lakh followers). “Even if I don’t think these films signal a radical shift in mindset, what can’t be questioned is that women have a voice and they will not back down.”

Another unfolding crisis

Meena T Pillai, director of cultural studies in the University of Kerala and the author of The Missing Look: Women in Malayalam Cinema, sees this shift in the representation of women alongside the unravelling of traditional masculinity in Kerala’s culture. The rise of strong women characters in cinema coincides with the decline of the conventional male superstar, in whose place there are male leads willing to be part of an ensemble cast.

“Some of these films, consciously or unconsciously, are actually dealing with an acute crisis of masculinity. For example, in the films of actor Dileep, we see a man who knows his masculinity is precarious. In films such as Inspector Garud and My Boss, he plays a character who is not so sure about the power structures he inhabits as a man, and he has to reiterate the fact that he is powerful enough. Of late, many films have brought out how vulnerable, how fragile, how crisis-ridden masculinity is,” Pillai says. “Recent films have also shown strong women who refuse to be browbeaten. This also contributes to the crisis.”

Pillai recalls Sajayan’s resolutely unsmiling, tense face throughout Thondimuthalum. “If it was femininity that was cherished in Malayalam cinema so far, the pointed statement that these new films make is that femininity is actually what unmakes women, what makes them lose their ground,” she says.

These films and their women characters cannot be mentioned without a reference to the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) — a watershed turn in Kerala’s film history. The collective was formed in 2017 after a woman actor was kidnapped and sexually assaulted. Subsequent investigations indicated that the attack was allegedly instigated by Dileep, considered to be a superstar with immense clout in the industry.

Watershed moment: The founding of the Women in Cinema Collective signalled a significant shift   -  S GOPAKUMAR

 

The inept handling of the case triggered demands for changes in the industry and the incorporation of the Vishaka guidelines and other measures to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace.

“The WCC actually awakened the film industry to the politics of gender. I think that the experiments that men are trying to make today with films also have something to do with the kind of resonances the WCC have been able to create,” Pillai says. “A feminist impulse to Malayalam cinema is trying to right the wrongs of history, trying to bring a sense of justice to the portrayal of women.”

Producers such as Anto Joseph have come forward to back women-centric films, and there are now more women producers in the industry. They include actors such as Rima Kallingal (who produced Virus), Nazriya Nazim (who produced Kumbalangi Nights) and the trio of Shenuga, Sherga and Shegna (who produced this year’s Uyare). Directors such as Ashiq Abu are instating Internal Complaints Cells in their film sets, sending out a clear signal in favour of accountability in workplaces.

Such changes, as a film-maker who wishes not to be named says, have to be seen in the light of women’s untiring efforts. He says, “The industry didn’t change because it is a benevolent one. Women fought for their labour rights, earned their money and independence, and were relentlessly vocal enough to force the industry to change. That’s the story of what is happening here.”

A star is born

  • Nimisha Sajayan was all of 19 when she responded to director Dileesh Pothan’s casting call on Facebook for his film Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. A second-year student of mass communication at the time, Sajayan was based in Mumbai, where she was born and raised. Since then, she has gone on to establish herself as a tour de force on screen.
  • Earlier this year, Sajayan won the State Film Award for her work in Oru Kuprasidha Payyan and Chola. It’s easy to forget she’s only four films old in the industry. She’s currently shooting for Rajeev Ravi’s Thuramugham, starring alongside Nivin Pauly, Indrajith and Purnima Indrajith.
  • Since that fateful casting call, much has changed for her, and she’s upbeat about it. “I am doing what I love the most, so I’m happy,” she says. She had to move along with her family to Kochi to focus on her career, but it didn’t faze her. “If you make your passion your profession, it’ll never feel like a job.”
  • Even as a child, she loved acting. She counts among her inspirations actors such as Fahadh Faasil, Manju Warrier and Urvashi. “I’ve always admired Manju chechi and Urvashi chechi for the sheer range of characters they portrayed,” she says.
  • Sajayan herself has been able to portray a diverse array of characters, each noted for her naturalistic depiction of women grappling with circumstances. “In most of my films, I have been cast as women who are older, dealing with issues I have no idea about personally since I have never had those experiences. That was the challenge for me,” she says. But her co-stars and other colleagues set her at ease by allowing her the time and space to improvise and develop the characters as she saw fit. “I’m glad I have been part of socially relevant films, and have essayed roles that young women in Kerala can relate to.”
  • Her roles would be out of place in an earlier era. She agrees. “Female leads were earlier just dolled up and made to dance around trees, but now we are seeing strong female characters. They are gritty and determined,” she says. For her, if the woman’s role was to be removed from the movie, the ensuing film wouldn’t have much of a leg to stand on. “The audience itself has changed. They focus on content and substance. Women have demanded to see female characters who explore their fates on their own terms. I’m very lucky to have been in the industry when this change is happening.”
  • Off screen, she is working with two female directors — Soumya Sadanandan and Vidhu Vincent — on upcoming movies.
  • Her dream role? “I want to play a psychopath or a serial killer. Something like the characters in Gone Girl and Raman Raghav. Hopefully soon,” she says with a laugh.

  

Notable performances

Published on June 28, 2019
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