The history of Malayalam cinema begins with a ghastly act of misogyny, that too against its first heroine. PK Rosy, who played the role of the heroine in Vigathakumaran (1928), the first Malayalam silent movie directed by JC Daniel, was a Dalit woman from Thiruvananthapuram. Immediately after the initial screenings of the film, Rosy was hounded out of the city by moral goons for daring to act in a film, that too with a kissing scene to boot! The upper caste males couldn’t take such audacity and Rosy was chased away from her hometown. According to historians, she escaped with a lorry driver and lived in Nagercoil for the rest of her life, never to come back to the city or to cinema. When one looks back at the last nine decades of Malayalam cinema since Vigathakumaran, this incident seems to assume originary significance, for it encapsulates the life-world of and gender life in Malayalam cinema, both as an industry and as visual narratives.
Malayalam cinema, like every other film industry, was never an arena where women were treated with the dignity and respect, or equal pay and status. The whole moral brunt of cinema being branded as “low, vulgar” art was borne solely by women. If at all they had a relatively significant presence in the narratives of the post-Independence era, it radically shrunk in the next decades, with them inexorably ending up as “item” girls, or gullible and adulating fans of the male hero. They were always objects of male desire and lust, bodies to be used and abused, to be fought for and won as trophies. The despairing recurrence of suicides of actresses during the last decades, like that of Vijayashree, Shobha, Rani Padmini, Silk Smitha etc itself tells the relentless story of humiliation and oppression, of inexpressible energy turning into violence directed inwards. The recent incident of a major actress being molested by stalkers from within the industry takes this tragic saga to yet another level. This is an instance of overt abuse and violence, the perpetrators did not take too much effort to hide their identities, which means they were obviously emboldened by previous experience of “guaranteed silence” following such acts. This dastardly act hints at a very organised crime network within a thoroughly unorganised film industry network, that is mired in unending crises — generated by umpteen unions and organisations endlessly fighting each other and, shamelessly succumbing to the hyper-inflated superstar egos and their narrow interests.
It is interesting to see the changing contours of female roles in the industry and the narratives the dream factory churned out. It was in the 1950s that Malayalam cinema was coming into its own as an industry and art form. In the decades that followed, one saw full-bodied, mature women such as Miss Kumari, Padmini, Sheela, Sarada and KR Vijaya as heroines who played against actors of matching age like Thikurissi, Sathyan, Prem Nazir and Madhu. The stories they played out were about the crumbling feudal system, an agrarian economy in shambles, all set against splintering joint families. The velocities of urbanisation gathering momentum, accompanied by the rise of socialist-communist ideologies, were beacons of hope and liberation that placed women along with men in their rebellion against the status quo and dreams of a brave new world, free of caste and class divisions. The space and status occupied by these women were no less than that of their male counterparts, rubbing shoulders in their agony and struggles.
But the film narratives of the 1970s and ’80s told a different story — the Gulf migration brought in new synergies of a money order economy and at the political front it was an age of disillusionment against Nehruvian ideals and of protest. It inaugurated the so-called era of angry young men in Indian cinema. This period also witnessed the emergence of new wave cinema across the country which introduced an array of down-to-earth heroes and heroines, who looked and acted young, and had a rustic charm to them. But at the centre of most of these narratives was the young male desperado, who came from urban centre or small cities, and was educated, unemployed and raring to challenge the system. As the family was the epicentre of its world, mother figures remained central to many of these narratives (Mere pas Maa hai was the final revenge and also the enviable trophy). These young male heroes fought and rebelled against their patriarchal fathers and often sought refuge in their mothers or lovers. In Malayalam cinema, young faces like Sobha, Shubha, Seema, Jalaja etc entered the scene, and they were romantic like the heroines of the earlier decades, but more vulnerable and dependent. One could seldom expect a defiant, self-reliant woman — like the one in Kallichellamma (1969; director P Bhaskaran), or an alluring femme fatale — as in Yakshi (1968; director KS Sethumadhavan) or a Kalika (1980; director Balachandra Menon) from among them.
Looking back, KG George’s Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback (Lekha’s Death, A Flashback, 1983) remains one of those rare films that dared to take a heart-wrenching and introspective look at the predicament of female artists in the Indian film industry. It is the story of a girl and her ambitious family from a remote Kerala village migrating to the tinsel town of Madras, in pursuit of her dream of becoming a star. The film presents their humiliating journey through a male-dominated film world, full of predators and stalkers for whom women are mere bodies to be used and abused to appease their lust or weave their dreams. Though Lekha eventually manages to rise above the rest to achieve star status, the moment she dares to be herself and attempts to pursue her own desires and dreams, her world crumbles, pushing her to self-annihilation. Though many people from the film fraternity criticised the film for laying bare its ugly, misogynistic side, no lessons were learned from it, nor has there been any significant change in the representation or status of women as is evident from the films of the next decades.
Another interesting indicator of man-woman power dynamics within the narratives and the film industry, could be the changing age ratio between the hero and the heroine through the decades — especially between 1970s and the first decade of the 21st century, when a crop of new male heroes entered the scene. During those decades, two superstars of Malayalam cinema went on playing the hero ad nauseum with only their female counterparts changing. If they started with heroines who were just below their age, the heroines’ age remained the same during the next decades while the male stars pretended and played youngsters. Forced to treat the superstars as the fixed centre, the scriptwriters and directors had to mould narratives to accommodate the age difference. This pairing of aging stars with new adolescent girls also marked the male-female relationship within the narratives: if the women who paired with them earlier were equals in one sense or another, now they were just adulating fans, or add-ons to glamorise the hero’s superhuman exploits.
The post-liberalisation era of the 1990s saw these female figures becoming more and more marginal to the lives and struggles of the heroes; women were victims to be protected, avenged or saved, or lovers who magnified and glorified the existential agonies or idealist adventures of the hero. Even mother roles which used to have a predominant presence, began to disappear from the scene, turning the screen into an exclusive male empire. A senior actress in Malayalam cinema, who played mother roles for decades, recently observed, “These new-gen heroes, don’t they have mothers, grandmas and sisters?”
One among the self-proclaimed new gen films that took the issue of female desire and agency in all its poignant seriousness, was 22 Female Kottayam (2012; director Ashiq Abu). The heroine who is a nurse, is cheated on by her boyfriend, and she bobbitts him in the end to get even. In a way, this film was a desperate cry from within the misogynistic fortress that Malayalam cinema has been and is. This is most paradoxical in a state like Kerala which boasts of the highest female literacy rate and gender ratio, and where women occupy predominant space in all walks of life.
If the reactions of the film industry to the recent incident were an indicator, there is no reason for hope. They were ambivalent, if not ambiguous; starting with early personal responses conveying a sense of shock, they soon “matured” into collective responses that were more anxious about protecting the privacy and status of male stars, than agonising over the dignity and rights of the actress in question. The misogynistic narratives of cinema effortlessly transformed into the narrative misogyny of these reactions. Unless this incident triggers the industry into serious soul-searching, it will end up as yet another episode in the series of scandals that seem to keep Kerala’s media and public sphere alive and kicking.
CS Venkiteswaran is a filmmaker and a National Award-winning critic.