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Updated: May 5, 2010 16:48 IST

Reel reality

Bhawani Cheerath
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Meena T Pillai with the book ' Women in Malayalam Cinema'
The Hindu Meena T Pillai with the book ' Women in Malayalam Cinema'

Dr. Meena T. Pillai, editor of the book Women in Malayalam Cinema, talks about the reality behind the representation of women in Mollywood

Women in Malayalam Cinema is a very direct, uncomplicated title for a book, but the subtitle 'Naturalising Gender Hierarchies' is an eye-opener.

Cinema is one space that successfully frames the woman in the manner society perceives her, through the very obvious or the subliminal and the subtle. The book according to Meena T. Pillai, editor of the volume, is just the early steps into taking a serious look at the gendering of spaces in products of popular culture.


“One thing that has always bothered me was that Malayalam cinema receives acclaim at home and abroad for its representations of social realities concerning caste, class and so on. But, when it comes to gender, we rely on ‘stereotypes.' On the surface we are politically correct, but that is not the reality. I really felt there was need to speak about it. Hence, this book,” says Dr. Meena, a film scholar who is reader and director at the Centre for Comparative Literature at the Institute of English. “In a world where ‘femininity' is forced upon women, the least they can do is to be vigilant in their representations of themselves and how they read and decode such representations by others. There is the need to explain. There is always this constant societal pressure to ‘be' a woman or ‘become' a woman. These are ways in which the hierarchies are kept in place and repeated images on the screen only reinforce the stereotypes,” she adds.

The book according to her takes a look at the woman in Malayalam films from the evolution of her role in a film, women's bonding, reconfiguration of masculinities (where multiple heroes replace the macho superstar (as In Harihar Nagar), the question of rape on reel and the special status acquired by ‘soft porn' in the spectators' hierarchy of needs.

There is an all too much hurry to contain the woman who is finding her space, and this becomes all the more pronounced in popular culture, she explains. This aspect is underlined by V.C. Harris in the chapter ‘Engendering Popular Cinema,' where he explicitly states that “…women play not even second fiddle in these movies; what is important is to note that they are often shown their place as ‘mere women'” (examples being Bharatchandran IPS, The King, Commissioner).

Landmark films

Talking about the need to find that female presence, she says all credit is due to K.G. George for having given the voice and space in films like Adaminte Variyellu, or much later by T.V. Chandran for Alicinte Anveshanam. That both the films are discussed under various heads in this book speaks of the importance they hold in studying women in Malayalam cinema.

The patterns of female bonding that were revealed in Randu Pennkuttikal, Desaadanakilli Karayarilla and the more recent Sanchaaram are dealt with clarity by T. Muraleedharan in ‘Women's Friendship in Malayalam Cinema.' Woman's bonding at multiple levels is one of the ways to counter the entrenched patriarchal modes manifesting itself, says Dr. Meena

The ‘real-reel' dichotomy of rape as explained by Deedi Damodaran is yet another highlight in the book. When a rape is repeatedly shown on screen it totally ignores the dangers built into such portrayals, “the possibility of creating an audience, which is ‘de-sensitised' to violence.”

Misogynist dialogues that received resounding applauses from the spectators, the two voices controlling the narrative (the director and the hero), platitudes in favour of practiced masculinities, are all in a way reflective of the all too much hurry to control the woman who is finding her space. This according to Dr. Meena becomes more pronounced in popular culture.

“It is time we looked afresh at the women in films and the manner of positioning in a societal context and therefore this book is just the initial step into a field left unexplored,” concludes Dr. Meena.

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