By Kunjila Mascillamani
Remember when we heard about Malayalam actors Manju Warrier and Dileep separating in 2014? Malayalis seemed to be a sadistic lot then because the first question everyone asked was if Warrier was going to ‘return’ to films. [She did, eventually]. To one generation of Malayalis, Warrier’s getting married at an early stage of her career when she shone like a diamond had been a serious loss. But the idea that she might work after marriage had never come up. Now that the marriage was over, there was so much speculation as to what the reason for the break-up was. And ‘whose fault’ it was.
It was reported that after the separation, Dileep, her ex-husband, was placing obstacles in the path of her return to films. A big shot director who had announced a project with Warrier was later seen backing out. There was even talk that there was an unofficial ban placed by Dileep on actor Bhavana for having helped Manju Warrier during those trying times. When Warrier did make a comeback, the film, How Old Are You? (directed by Rosshan Andrrews) was celebrated across generations. It looked a little too much of a coincidence that the film was about a married woman trying to come out of the oppression of marriage and family by starting a terrace vegetable garden. Some people like me watched it because it represented the victory of a woman crossing the many sexist hurdles of the film industry. Warrier’s character’s enterprise later went on to inspire other women in Kerala (to start terrace gardens in a big way and presumably to examine the garden of their domestic lives). The film was a box office triumph.
This week I was reminded of all this when news broke about Malayali actor Amala Paul’s impending divorce. Paul, a 28-year-old actor, has a highly successful career in Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu. I remember her 2012 film Run Baby Run as the first film in which I did not drool over Mohanlal because I was too busy drooling over Paul. This week, when I first heard about Paul’s divorce, for a moment I felt sad, because I too had enjoyed looking at the pictures of her wedding in 2014. She had looked so happy then and certainly this must be a difficult moment for her. But very soon I felt happy. Does this sound ruthless?
The truth is that her separation cast light on the level of sexism that operates in the film industry. Actually, perhaps we should credit Paul’s father-in-law, AL Azhagappan, who is a producer and upcoming actor in the Tamil industry, for his high commitment to telling the truth.
Until Paul, no one would publicly say that they had a problem with female actors continuing with their careers after they got married. Every time male actors are asked why their talented wives had given up acting after they married they’d be quick to respond that it was not them, it was their wives’ decision. We had to believe it since the women themselves never contested it. Some of Malayalis’ favourite female leads like Parvathy and Samyuktha Varma married men from the same industry who maintained that the decision to give up acting was that of their wives.
This time, though the husband’s family has helpfully spoken up. They have spoken about how Ms Paul continued to act after her marriage (she went on a “signing spree”, they claim) and how that was not acceptable to them. This is delightful. Not because they find it a problem that the woman chose to work after wedlock, but because we now have an official version of what happens when female actors get married. After all Azhagappan, Paul’s father-in-law, is a producer and actor in the same industry of which she is a part. He was even the President of Tamil Nadu Producers’ Council back in 2004. Unabashedly, he has spelt it out for the world to hear. “She went ahead and signed more projects. She never bothered to consult with us or even Vijay [his son]. This created trouble between them. After a few fights, she told us that she won’t be doing any more films. However, she didn’t keep her word.”
Vijay, her husband, who is a successful director in the Tamil film industry, has made his stance clear too. Well, if you can call it a stance when a grown man has this to say about the state of his marriage: “I will go by my parents’ decision.”
So we now have the ‘choice’ that female actors are presented with if they get married. You don’t get to have everything. You are a woman, remember.
Amala Paul and others like her are being told that they have to choose between married life and a career. We hope they remember this isn’t the truth. And that they should — like Amala Paul — look suspiciously at all “either/or” truths.