Among the many language cinemas in India, only two — Bengali and Malayalam — have attracted popular and critical attention both at the national and international levels. Not surprisingly, the two have many aspects in common, the most striking of them being the role the literature of those languages played in cinema. Indeed it has been an outstanding feature of Malayalam cinema of the early decades of the 20th century that even an average film had many artistic features and meanings at many levels, not always catering to the demands of the ‘box office gods,' as the Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and even Hindi have done and continue to do to this day.
Malayalam cinema had the unique advantage of the leading lights of Malayalam literature, such as M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Thoppil Bhasi, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, Ponkunnam Varkey, Uroob, Kesavdev, S.K. Pottekad, Parapurathu, and S.L. Puram, involving themselves actively in the cinema medium. Many of their works were made into movie classics — for example, Chemmeen, Neengal Enne Communist Aakki, Neela Kuyil, Kutti Edathi, and Oru Penninte Katha. This is a telling reason why Malayalam cinema acquired a special status in the country's celluloid world.
An interesting aspect of its appeal is that it extended beyond the Indian audience. To cite this reviewer's own experience, when some movies in south Indian languages were screened in Chennai some years ago as part of a workshop on “certain aspects of the Indian cinema”, the Malayalam films came in for special appreciation and commendation from American students, boys as well as girls.
Traditionally, the Malayalam society was predominantly matriarchal. But the situation has changed significantly over the past decades, thanks to the spread of women's education, the campaign for women's empowerment, the disintegration of the tharawad system, and several other factors. Generally, women in India were — and still are, although in a lesser degree — regarded as subservient to men. This attitude was also reflected in Malayalam cinema to some extent.
Women in Malayalam cinema is an excellent collection of articles, put together by Meena T. Pillai, a noted academician, who has also provided a scholarly introduction.
A galaxy of well-known film critics and scholars take a close and hard look at the way women have been treated and projected in Malayalam cinema right from the ‘silent' era. And the contributors include P.K. Nair, former Director of the National Film Archive of India, C. S. Venkiteswaran, V.C. Harris, Janaky Sreedharan, K. Gopinath, Bindu Menon, Jenny Rowena, T. Muraleedharan, Deedi Damodaran (screen playwright), and Ratheesh Radhakrishnan.
Well-designed with an attractive cover carrying the image of the icon of Malayalam cinema, Sheela, the book has much to commend itself to the movie buffs and students alike.