On the occasion of International Women’s Day, we take a look at the evolution of the heroine in Malayalam cinema and the difference between real and reel women.

Malayalam cinema has played a leading role in imagining the Malayali as no other art form could possibly have. It offered a new language for the Malayali to represent himself/herself in, one which seemed more secular and democratic than the languages of all previous discourses in the cultural sphere. But several decades since its inception, the language of Malayalam cinema has remained largely male dominated, displaying a curious apathy and a lack of sensitivity to the issues faced by real women.

The tragic fate of P.K. Rosy, Malayalam cinema’s first heroine, hounded both by caste and patriarchal forces, is an example. Her social ostracism illustrates that moral and sexual policing, both off screen and on it, have deeper roots in Kerala than what we would like to believe in. Her ‘unpardonable crime’ was not only that a Dalit woman acted as an upper caste woman, but also that a woman could dare to inscribe herself so indelibly in so public a space as the movie screen. It does reveal the gender biases and definitions of the ideal feminine prevalent in Kerala society at that time, and which has been a crucial marker of our cinema from then on.

In the fifties, Malayalam cinema, while projecting progressive ideals, humanitarian values and socialist causes, nevertheless revolved around the theme of defining the emerging unit of the nuclear family and charting the roles of men and women within nascent social spaces and institutions. Even when dealing with social issues, films such as Jeevithanauka (1951), Navalokam (1951), Neelakuyil (1954), Snehaseema (1954) and Padathapainkili (1957), when it came to the woman question, all focussed on the theme of marriage and a woman’s role in the private sphere even as colossal changes were happening in the public domain.

The much-acclaimed Neelakuyil by P. Bhaskaran and Ramu Kariat definitely makes a bold case against casteism. However, the grave injustice meted out to Neeli, the Dalit woman in the story, is only brought in to emphasise caste as the underlying determinant factor of an exploitative society. Thus the apparent mystique that Malayalam cinema has always sought to create around notions of conjugal love and family has, in varying degrees, effectively erased or rendered invisible the numerous strategies of oppression that patriarchy inflicts upon the woman irrespective of her class or caste.

It is generally believed that in the sixties, Malayalam cinema had very strong women characters. While it is only in comparison to a later period of more compromised filmy heroines that this would hold true, it is nevertheless to be admitted that to a certain extent the social reform movements had been successful in mobilising women to enter the public sphere. But cinema took upon itself the task of grooming these women to rise to social imperatives while at the same time preserving their feminine ‘ideal’ within the private domain.

The cinema of this time is thus seen to invest its heroines with both a public and a private ideal. In movies such as Bharya (1962), Aadyakiranangal (1964), Sthanarthy Saramma (1966), Iruttinte Aathamavu (1967), Aswamedham (1967), Thulabharam (1968), and Adhyapika (1968), the heroines of yore such as Sarada, Sheela, Ambika, Padmini and Ragini played strong women who were also citizens inhabiting a public space. However, they were bound by the conventions and codes of traditional femininity. Moreover, it is their tears and sacrifices, trials and martyrdom that earn them respectability and legitimise their presence in the public sphere.

The seventies ushered in the period of a great creativity in Malayalam cinema. Adoor Gopalakrishnan and G. Aravindan and a host of other dynamic directors and artistes gave a new language and aesthetics to Malayalam cinema by making some of the greatest movies ever. The brilliant last sequence of Adoor’s Swayamvaram signified the ambivalent fate of Malayali women, a large section of who had set out from the safer moorings of a pre-modern matrilineal past only to arrive at the ambiguities and paradoxes posed by Kerala modernity.

Adoor, Aravindan and T.V. Chandran along with a few advocates of middle cinema such as K.G. George and Padmarajan did make brave attempts at a nuanced reading of the constructions of both masculinity and femininity in the Kerala society of the time. However, the much celebrated film society movement was hardly able to address the female spectator and women remained largely on the fringes of the film viewing experience.

The high modernist artistic sensibilities of the New Wave in Malayalam unwittingly paved the way for a split between art and commercial movies, the borders of which had remained rather subtle and tenuous till then.

This split, in the long run, proved detrimental to women. A market-oriented cinema started blatantly flaunting itself as made to the measure of ‘popular’ desire where ‘male’ could, of course, substitute ‘popular’. The films of this period continued the project of the eroticised family, popularising the notion that only within the confines of a home can she find true happiness.

By the eighties and nineties women had become ‘pure’ commodity in Malayalam cinema, which, by now, was increasingly capitalistic, patriarchal and neo-conservative. The backlash against the liberal humanist, idealistic values of an earlier era proved to be a bane as far as the women of Kerala were concerned. The attempt to create a pan-Malayali identity revolved around the images of an increasing ‘machoistic’ and ‘tradition-bound’ modern hero (Devasuram, Commissioner, Spadikam, The King, Aaraam Thampuran, Narasimham, Ravanprabhu) and an increasingly ‘feminised’ and ‘conforming’ heroine.

As more and more women in Kerala became educated and started stepping out into the public domain as technocrats, bureaucrats and career women, cinema started echoing a male paranoia of being dominated by the woman. So the more women became aware of their rights, the more they claimed independence and autonomy in real lives, the more subjugated they became on screen representations. Misogyny also seems to have become a common platform for male bonding amongst audiences.

The recent crop of ‘New Generation’ movies, however banal, superficial and trite they might appear, nevertheless reflects the anxieties of a generation who are the children, both male and female, of liberalisation, of the satellite television boom and globalisation. Thus, the fact that for a change, at least, ‘real’ women have begun to be represented in many of these movies in a new idiom, will hopefully help break the mould of the ideal feminine on screen in Malayalam.

That women too can mouth obscenities, that they can drink, flirt and have sexual desires and talk about them in public, that when cheated on they too can literally and symbolically maim and castrate ‘villains’, and rip the mask off the sexually repressed Malayali male’s tall tales of 999 sexual conquests (as 22 Female Kottayam, Salt and Pepper, Chappa Kurissu, Trivandrum Lodge and other movies of the genre have illustrated) can, without endorsing any of these, nevertheless claim a step forward in the politics of representation. Yet how far they can diffuse the patriarchal gaze or subvert it needs to be seen.

(Meena T. Pillai is an academic, cineaste and writer. She is the author of Women in Malayalam Cinema)