Where are the women in Malayalam cinema?

This recent trend of women being invisibilised in Malayalam cinema is seen as a kind of reversal after a decade of several films having strong women characters; this happened with the shift from star-driven films of the early 2000s to more character-driven dramas in the 2010s

Updated - May 17, 2024 01:33 pm IST

Published - May 17, 2024 12:59 pm IST

Stills from ‘Varshangalkku Shesham,’ ‘Aavesham’ and ‘Manjummel Boys’; even as Malayalam cinema is arguably going through one of its best phases as far as box-office performance is concerned, some of the recent hits have faced criticism for either their complete absence of women or the lack of substantial characters for the few women who get some screen space

Stills from ‘Varshangalkku Shesham,’ ‘Aavesham’ and ‘Manjummel Boys’; even as Malayalam cinema is arguably going through one of its best phases as far as box-office performance is concerned, some of the recent hits have faced criticism for either their complete absence of women or the lack of substantial characters for the few women who get some screen space

Kerala has a sex ratio of 1,084 as per the last recorded Census of 2011, indicating a population of 1,084 females to every 1,000 males. However, looking at some of the more popular films in Malayalam today, one cannot be blamed for thinking there is a serious dearth in the female population in the State.

Even as Malayalam cinema is arguably going through one of its best phases ever as far as box-office performance is concerned, some of the recent hits have faced criticism for either their complete absence of women or the lack of substantial characters for the few women who get some screen space.

A worrying trend

Take the case of Aavesham, Jithu Madhavan’s roaring hit carried mostly by Fahadh Faasil’s uninhibited act, that has raked in over ₹150 crore at the box office. Parts of the film are set in a college campus, but not even a single girl from the campus gets a prominent presence or even a line of dialogue. The only women characters are stereotypes; that of the mother of one of the youngsters, who is present mostly as a voice asking “Are you happy?” to anyone who talks to her on the phone, and that of a sex worker. In the case of Malayalee From India, another recent release, Anaswara Rajan — one of the more promising young actors in the industry — occupies prominent space in the posters, but all that she gets in the film is a cameo role stretching barely 10 minutes. That too, a role without any consequence to the film’s narrative. The only other woman to get even a noticeable role is Manju Pillai, as the protagonist’s mother.

A still from ‘Malayalee From India’

A still from ‘Malayalee From India’

Kalyani Priyadarshan and Neeta Pillai get similarly inconsequential roles in Vineeth Sreenivasan’s Varshangalkku Shesham. In fact, they barely get a few more scenes than what is shown of them in the film’s trailer. The role of Bhavana in the recent Tovino Thomas-starrer Nadikar is no better. Manjummel Boys, the highest grosser in the history of Malayalam cinema, as well as Aadujeevitham have also faced criticism for not providing roles with any scope for performance for women, but these can be excused as films based on real stories.

Even though short, Manjummel Boys did paint a moving portrait of a woman suffering with her son who had got back home after surviving an ordeal, the true horror of which gets revealed to her only later. The only exception among the recent crop of box-office or OTT successes are Premalu, in which Mamitha Baijugets to play a confident and successful woman who is at the centre of the narrative; Aattam, one of the best films of the year in which Zarin Shihab gets a role of a lifetime; and Neru, in which Anaswara has a role equivalent to Mohanlal’s.

A still from ‘Premalu’

A still from ‘Premalu’

A sudden invisibilisation

This recent trend of women being invisibilised from Malayalam cinema is seen as a kind of reversal after a decade of several films having strong women characters. This happened with the shift from predominantly star-driven films of the early 2000s to more screenplay and character-driven dramas in the 2010s, with films ranging from Ozhimuri and 22 Female Kottayam to The Great Indian Kitchen, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum and Take Off.

A still from ‘Great Indian Kitchen’

A still from ‘Great Indian Kitchen’

Even in films where women were not the protagonists, they did have memorable roles, like in Maheshinte Prathikaramor Kammatipadam. While women characters in Malayalam cinema till 2010, with a few exceptions like the films of K. G. George, were seen through the eyes of patriarchy, and were expected to be submissive and chaste, the films that came in the 2010s broke these unwritten, but widely followed, norms. Seen in this context, the arrival of such a large number of mainstream films, one after the other, with not even a single woman character who would leave an impression, is bound to raise eyebrows. Although, it is clear that there is no evil machine working in the background to ensure such a scenario, the fact that so many filmmakers would think that women characters are dispensable points to a problem.

However, a celebratory atmosphere, when everyone is talking about the unprecedented box office success of film after film, is not really conducive for this debate, as evident in the reactions to a few social media posts from women raising this point. The majority of the comments under these posts were dismissive of such arguments questioning the absence of women characters, while some were downright abusive. Some actors like Nikhila Vimal have argued that it is better to have a few films with well-written women characters than women being included in films for the sake of representation. The demand certainly is not for virtuous women characters, but roles with positive, negative or grey shades that would atleast leave some kind of an impression.

Also Read | On the portrayal of women in Malayalam cinema

The role of institutions

It might be a coincidence that this invisibilisation of women from cinema is happening at the same time that the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) is away from the spotlight. The WCC, formed in 2017 in the aftermath of an actor’s complaint of sexual assault allegedly masterminded by actor Dileep, was in its initial days highly vocal about changing the status quo in the industry and taking on the powers that be, but has been relatively silent of late. The report by the Justice Hema Committee, formed after the actor assault to look at ways to improve women’s safety and security in Malayalam cinema, salary packages and service conditions, and to create a conducive working environment, has also been gathering dust, four years after it was submitted to the State government.

A still from ‘B 32 Muthal 44 Vare’

A still from ‘B 32 Muthal 44 Vare’

However, the Kerala State Film Development Corporation (KSFDC), under the government, has over the past four years been funding a project to promote women filmmakers. Most of the films under the project, including B 32 Muthal 44 Vare, Nisshidho, Nila and Divorce have garnered appreciation at film festivals. Despite such attempts, representation for women in mainstream cinema often depends on the whims and fancies of men, who form a majority of the writers and filmmakers in Malayalam cinema. We are in the middle of a season of scant representation, a state of affairs not very encouraging for the many women waiting to break into the industry, in front of and behind the camera.

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