The Bad and The Ugly

She wears a beaded choker and matching earrings. She dons saris when she's chairing a board meeting. When she feels like being nasty, she raises her right eyebrow and stares at you with her green eyes (through her contact lens, of course!). And when she's ready for revenge, she switches over to western ensembles. That's Sandra Nellikadan for you.

Welcome to the world of soaps, where meanie souls rule. For the uninitiated, these are the super-nasty queens of the telly.

The new crop of artistes who portray negative roles, including Chandra Lakshman (`Swantham'), Mallika Sukumaran (`Sthree Oru Santhwanam') and Beena Antony (`Indulekha'), are not like their predecessors who strode the Malayalam mini-screen a few years ago. The new actresses retain the girl-next-door or the aunt-next-door image, but are also open to playing sophisticated villains.

These `negative' characters do not indulge in `tried and tested' formulae to destroy the gentle, silently suffering likes of Shivani (in the serial, `Mangalyam', played by Rashmi Soman) and Mayamma (in the serial, `Sthree Janmam', played by Chippi). Instead, they burn the midnight oil, conjuring up ingenious ways to destroy a happy family.

Is it any wonder then that Chandra Lakshman, who plays Sandra Nellikadan in Asianet's daily soap, `Swantham', was mercilessly beaten up by a few middle-aged women on her way to the temple? It's unbelievable that the character, Sandra, has evoked so much negative response from the viewers.

"Most viewers hate me now, but a few have appreciated my performance," says 19-year-old Chandra who "is busy with a different role in `Kumkumam".

Sreedevi Panicker plays Rekha, the spoilt brat in M. Nazeer's `Mangalyam'.

Sreedevi is often "harassed" in the streets by middle-aged and old women. "They dislike the character I play."

Mallika Sukumaran has done about seven to eight `goody-goody' mother roles, including one in `Valayam' on Doordarshan, during the past three years.

"But I have never been appreciated for those roles."

Mallika then did a negative role - that of a bitchy mother-in-law, Mrinalini, in `Porutham', aired on Surya TV. The ratings shot up in no time and her home was flooded with letters.

Mallika knew she was taking a risk when she accepted the role of Sethulakshmi, yet another vicious mother-in-law, in `Sthree Oru Santhwanam', a serial produced by M. Ranjit. In fact, Mallika's reel-life daughter-in-law is her real-life bahu, Poornima Mohan.

Often, people channelise their hatred towards the artistes who play negative characters. "The inability of certain viewers to differentiate between the actor/actress and the role," explains Immanuel Thomas, reader, Department of Psychology, Kerala University, "is attributed to their personal experiences or their knowledge of people who had suffered similarly."

A case in point is that of Renuka, who was voted by TV viewers in Kerala as "the most hated woman on the small screen". "It scares me," says Renuka.

"As per the psychological principle of conditioning, negative emotions are reinforced in the minds of certain people. Positive characters become highly popular, and negative characters, though unpopular, become more talked about. An almost realistic portrayal of negative characters, coupled with the viewer's personal experience, increases the likelihood of the role being etched onto the viewer's mind," points out Immanuel Thomas.

"Too much goodness (in a serial) can be boring. An overdose of negativity too can be repulsive. Earlier, we had quite a few serials that had heroines who cried at the drop of a hat. Now, the serial-makers clearly delineate the negative and positive characters. The `goody-two-shoes' kind of heroines in the latest soaps are bold enough to raise their voice against the ill-treatment meted out to them in reel life, and this is a relief," says writer Rosemary.

Negative characters work well on TV for they rev up the Television Audience Metre (TAM) ratings. In fact, Shalu Menon's role as Sarika, a troublemaker, has given a boost to Surya TV's `Sthree Janmam'. At present, Sarika has turned over a new leaf and is no longer `Ms. Nasty'. Similarly, Rashmi Gopan's role as a shrewish sister-in-law in `Swapnam' has made the audience empathise more with Praveena's role of Janaki. "Negative characters are never written off from the small screen as quickly as the good ones are. Being bad is more challenging," says Mallika.

"Most women love to see other women cry and also want these submissive women to react strongly at some point of time. We do take the liberty to exaggerate a bit," says Sainal Abideen, producer. The more the number of negative characters the greater the viewership -- this seems to be the producers' magic mantra. The mindset of the people too has changed considerably. What was considered `evil' earlier has become `acceptable behaviour' now.

Mallika and Renuka head the galaxy of mean saasu-ma. "We're having a whale of a time being nasty on screen, because we get to mouth the punchiest of lines," they say.

For Malayali TV viewers, who have long endured `holier-than-thou' weepy women, these negative heroines are a welcome change.

Graphics: Manoj

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