What does it take to be a woman working in Malayalam cinema?

The male stars lay down the terms and outspoken female colleagues are still considered to be rebels without a cause.

Written by Pooja Pillai | Updated: July 30, 2018 9:51:37 pm
Malayalam cinema, Mammootty Machismo: In Nithin Renji Panicker’s Kasaba (2017), the police officer played by Mammootty refuses to salute a senior woman officer.

In the month before Anjali Menon’s Koode released, excitement about the film reached fever pitch. This was to be the filmmaker’s first directorial project since Bangalore Days (2014), one of the biggest blockbusters in the history of Malayalam cinema, and the industry and fans were eager to see what she would deliver next. This kind of anticipation is unusual for a female director in Malayalam cinema, which usually reserves its adulation for its male superstars.

Illustration: C R Sasikumar

Menon had debuted as a director in 2012, with Manjadikuru, which won numerous awards, including at the Kerala State Awards. But it was with Bangalore Days that the industry sat up and took proper notice. “The biggest change that came after that film was that people were more willing to trust my decisions. Now, even if I say something completely crazy, people say ‘She’s saying this for a reason, let’s listen’,” says Menon. She laughs as she says this, but the implication of her words doesn’t escape the filmmaker. “The reality is that when your film makes money, that’s when the industry responds,” she says.

A lot has happened between the release of Menon’s last film and the new one, which hit cinema screens on July 14, although much of the change has come about only in the last one year. Since the abduction and sexual assault of a Malayalam film actor in February last year and the subsequent formation of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), there has been a growing demand to fix an environment that is inhospitable — perhaps, even hostile — to women film professionals. One of the reasons that the WCC was formed was to break through the “boys’ club” of the film industry, to ensure that women’s concerns are taken seriously.

Anjali Menon, Koode, Bangalore Days The second sex: The success of Bangalore Days (2014) changed how the industry reacted to her, says director Anjali Menon.

Actor Padmapriya Janakiraman, one of the founding members of the WCC, says, “A big change has been that what was once considered a ‘non-issue’ or a ‘women’s issue’ is now being seen as something that affects all stakeholders. Why should we just be thinking of getting more women directors, for instance? Women should be in every position possible. Why can’t we have women drivers?” she says.

It’s a tough question to ask of an industry that is, even now, making movies which are either hostile to women or which simply ignore their existence. For decades now, Malayalam cinema has been lauded for the quality of film-making as well as progressive and socially relevant content, but there’s been as much chaff as wheat in its mainstream commercial productions. What is even more problematic is the fact that male superstars — actors such as Mammootty, Mohanlal and Dileep — with legions of fans, participate in and endorse these films. In Shaji Kailas’s Commissioner (1994), the policeman played by Suresh Gopi — who was once celebrated by cinemagoers in the state for his rapid-fire, angry monologues — tells a woman that she would have trouble remembering his face because she has “met” so many men and shames her for her past as a bar dancer. The scene is still lauded online for its “super dialogue”, as is the scene from The King (1995), also directed by Kailas, in which Mammootty’s character berates a junior IAS officer and calls her a “mere woman”. For a more recent example, watch the 2016 blockbuster Pulimurugan, directed by Vysakh, starring Mohanlal, in which the hero’s friend, Poongayi Sasi (Suraj Venjaramoodu), spies on women bathing. The movie not only passes off Sasi’s terrible behaviour as a joke, but marks Sasi as one of the “good” guys. In Nithin Renji Panicker’s Kasaba (2017), the police officer played by Mammootty refuses to salute a senior woman officer. When asked why, he grabs her by the belt and says he will make it up to her and that she “will walk wrong for a week”.

If that is the state of affairs on screen, off it, the message that only men with clout matter is sent out loud and clear. The Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA) decided to reinstate Dileep, accused in last year’s abduction and sexual assault case, and out on bail, as soon as its newly-elected president Mohanlal came to power, on the ground that it was the “unanimous” mandate of the members.

Haseena Suneer Haseena Suneer’s road thriller will release this year.

Being a woman in the film industry of the country’s “most progressive state” is not easy. “People (in the industry) are not used to having women around, except as actors or hairdressers, or, at the most, costume designers,” says Menon. She has already started doing her bit to change these circumstances. Among the things that Koode is being celebrated for is the fact that the film crew included a number of women. “We enforced a gender-neutral recruitment policy and it was made clear to the crew that no sexist behaviour would be tolerated. These women were there because they are all talented individuals,” says Menon.

This could, in fact, be the year that Kerala finally reckons with the way it has marginalised an entire section of its population in the filmmaking process and nothing hits home harder than the realisation that the release of five films by women filmmakers in a single year, as is happening in 2018, is a newsworthy development. Besides Menon, 2018 has so far seen the release of costume designer-turned filmmaker Roshni Dinaker’s directorial debut, My Story, featuring Prithviraj Sukumaran and Parvathy Thiruvoth. In the coming months, there will be two more directorial debuts by women — former actor and television anchor Soumya Sadanandan’s Mangalyam Thanthunanena and newcomer Haseena Suneer’s road thriller Prakashinde Metro, featuring Dinesh Prabhakaran. Also releasing this year is Geethu Mohandas’s highly-anticipated bilingual film Moothon, starring Nivin Pauly, Sobhita Dhulipala and Shashank Arora — the filmmaker’s first project since 2014’s National Award-winning Liar’s Dice.

One could, however, say that even by global standards, five films by women filmmakers in a single year is a remarkable number. In film industries across the world, opportunities and recognition for women come in a thin trickle, project by small-budget project and accolade by rare accolade. It wasn’t too long ago — in 2009 , in fact — that Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for best direction. So far, she remains the only one to have won the honour out of a total of five women directors who have been nominated for it. Significantly, according to a report commissioned by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in January this year, out of 1,100 popular films made in Hollywood over the last 11 years, only four per cent were directed by women. The record at the Cannes Film Festival, one of the most prestigious events in world cinema, is no better. In 2017, Sofia Coppola made history by becoming only the second woman to win the Best Director award. Before her, Soviet actor and film director Yuliya Solntseva won it in 1961.

Art director Janaki Lakshminarayan.

No proper study has been done across Indian cinema but one can imagine that the numbers wouldn’t be any better. In the Hindi film industry, which is considered to offer the most opportunities to women out of all the film industries in the country, only two out of 61 films released so far this year have been directed by women — Raazi, by Meghna Gulzar, and, Dil Juunglee, by Aleya Sen. If opportunities are rare, recognition is even rarer; Aparna Sen remains the only woman filmmaker in the country to have won the National Award for Best Director, once in 1981 for 36, Chowringhee Lane, and, for Mr and Mrs Iyer in 2002. In 2018, Rima Das’s Village Rockstars won the National Award for Best Feature Film, making her the second woman to get the honour after Sumitra Bhave, who co-directed last year’s winner Kaasav with Sunil Sukthankar.

This is what actor Rima Kallingal, one of the founding members of WCC, refers to when she says that it’s unfair to talk about the “dark, sexist underbelly” of the Malayalam film industry like it’s the only one where such a thing exists. “This is the one industry where women are speaking up because we know that we have a culture and a community in this state that will back us up. In fact, eight months before the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke out in Hollywood, women here had raised their voice against what was happening in the industry,” she says.

The trouble is, says Kallingal, that the misogyny in Kerala’s film industry is subtle and doesn’t only manifest itself in physical and sexual violence. “When we talk of sexism, we are talking about something that is ingrained in our daily lives,” she says. Janakiraman points out that the facilities are always better for male stars than for female stars across film industries in India. “Even if an A-List actress is paired with a B-List actor, he is the one who gets better treatment,” she says.

One reason why hardly any women are to be found working on Malayalam film sets, for instance, is because it’s considered inconvenient and expensive for the production. “I have heard production controllers discuss whether a female assistant director (AD) should be hired because then that would mean spending more money out of the budget to book a separate room for her on a shoot,” says Kallingal. In fact, Thiruvoth, in a recent article with Janakiraman for iemalayalam.com, had written about her struggle to get toilets for women on film sets. “I raised the issue in the general body (of the AMMA) for the need for toilets on film sets for men and women of all age groups. The secretary said a majority vote was required for the same. With no participation from any member of the executive committee, I had to personally go around taking signatures from about 100-150 members. A majority consensus was reached, but the leadership thereafter did not work proactively to see the proposal being implemented. As of date, the status of the proposal is in limbo,” she wrote.

Padmapriya Janakiraman, Saif Ali Khan A still from Chef (2017), featuring Padmapriya Janakiraman and Saif Ali Khan.

Gautham Pisharody, one of the ADs on Koode, recalls the culture shock he felt when, in 2012, he moved to Kerala from Mumbai, where he had worked on ad films and television shows. “In Mumbai, it was usual to have lots of women working on the sets and we would often hang out together after work,” he says. When he began working on his first Malayalam film, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Amen (2013), he realised that there were hardly any women in the crew. “I have heard people say things like, ‘After marriage, women should stay at home.’ These are highly respected people with a lot of clout in the industry,” he says.

Things are tougher for women who speak their minds, says art director Jayashree Lakshminarayan, whose work in the 2015 film Charlie fetched her instant recognition and a Kerala State Film award. “When I was working on Jacobinte Swargarajyam (2016), where many were used to old-school power hierarchies, it didn’t go down well whenever I asserted myself. Nobody said anything to my face, but everyone would get uncomfortable. It doesn’t help that I’m not Malayali and couldn’t really network, but after the award, I stopped getting even queries. Assertive women are never encouraged here,” she says.

Janakiraman had a similar experience when she began work. “Two Malayali directors blacklisted me just because I asked for a script before signing their projects. But this is true of most of south India. Even in Tamil cinema, many filmmakers don’t approach me because they believe I’m difficult to work with,” she says. The “female star”, she says, is “a mirage” because to most filmmakers the female lead is always dispensable. “Any conversation about a new production always begins with the male lead. They don’t feel it necessary to tell the female actors more than two or three lines about the film,” she says. She contrasts this with her experience in Bengali and Hindi cinema where, she says, the filmmakers sought her opinion about the script and her character. Director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, who cast her in the Bengali film Aparajita Tumi (2012), flew to Kerala to go over the script with her; when she worked in the Hindi film Chef (2017), director Raja Krishna Menon insisted on an extensive workshop.

If the female lead, the most visible woman in a film, is so marginalised, how much harder is it to be the woman in charge of a film? Menon says she was fortunate to find support right from the start, thanks to early recognition and fruitful collaborations with people like Anwar Rasheed, who co-produced Bangalore Days and directed Ustad Hotel (2012), which Menon had written. National Award-winning director Ranjith Balakrishnan, who produced Kerala Cafe (2009), in which Menon directed a segment, has also been a pillar of support. Still, she says, her leadership, which is unlike the “commander-in-chief” style that most Malayalam film professionals are used to, did raise eyebrows. “I was told to ‘adapt’, but I refuse to yell at people to get my view across,” she says.

This is the point that Lakshminarayan also makes when she says that she is no less equipped than her male colleagues in the industry. “All a man needs to get work here is a good showreel. I have a good showreel and awards.” The challenge then is to break into the boys’ club, but that, she says is difficult. “At the end of a day’s shoot, when the men get together to unwind and network, it doesn’t go down well if a woman joins in. There’s a strong ‘good girl-bad girl’ dichotomy that still exists in people’s minds,” she says.

However, Janakiraman says the onus of change should be on all the industry stakeholders, including the government, who can chip in with subsidies for women-oriented films. “What is needed is for women and men to become more comfortable working with each other. After all, how much more does it cost to have a gender-neutral contract or to have a creche on the set or to set up a grievance cell? The WCC is a catalyst for change, but the ideal scenario would be, if 10 years down the line, it ceases to exist because there’s no need for it anymore.”

For all the latest Eye News, download Indian Express App

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement