By Sujatha Karun
Art imitating life? Life imitating art? Both ways, women have had it bad.
Let’s kick this off with a Bollywood reference. In last year’s hit film Pink, the lawyer played by Amitabh Bachchan asks the heroine this ostensibly shocking question in his famous baritone: “Are you a virgin?” Thereafter, the film goes on to support the position that a woman’s virginity or lack of it, does not in any way define her. This idea, which a Hindi film deals with as late as 2016, was one which certain Malayalam film directors explored successfully back in the 1980s.
As a Malayali woman of a certain age and an ardent film viewer, I look back on those films with admiration and pride. What other film industries took years to tackle—the jury is still out on if they have done so at all—the Malayalam film industry did three decades back. As always, it was ahead of the curve.
Virginity, in films, as sadly also in real life, is associated with a woman’s honour, and films, of course, express the dominant social thought du jour. A virgin is considered pure, pious and virtuous. Bereft of her virginity in circumstances apart from marriage, she is immediately thrust under a dubious light. The message is crystal clear: without that precious virginity, the woman is nothing. The virginity then, defines her. Everything else is of no consequence.
Little wonder then that rape was considered the ultimate horror. To lose one`s virginity was to lose oneself. A woman had no right to live if she was raped. Her ‘honour’ gone, she had no option but to kill herself or be killed. Which, of course, is why many Indian films of the 70s and 80s like Ee Sabdam Innathe Sabdam (This Voice is Today’s Voice), Ivide Thudagunnu (Starting from Here), like Aakhree Raasta (The Final Road) or Aaj Ki Aawaz (The Voice of Today) to name a few, reiterated this message constantly. In many of these films, a woman, usually the hero’s sister, is raped. The rape serves a double purpose: it gives the hero just cause for revenge, while conveniently keeping the heroine ‘pure.’ And yes, the raped woman usually kills herself.
Then, a few Malayalam directors broke that mould. Take the 1981 film Oppol (Elder Sister), directed by KS Sethumadhavan. Towards the climax, the hero, played by Balan K Nair, realises that the heroine, played by Menaka Suresh, is passing off her son from a previous premarital relationship as her younger brother. No doubt there is a bit of drama attached to this revelation, but it eventually leads to a quiet acceptance of the situation on the hero’s part. He neither condemns her nor casts her out. In the husband’s understanding of his wife’s situation, I see both a message and an example.
Five years later in 1986, Padmarajan, probably the first to break the mould in his depiction of a woman who is raped—and a heroine at that—made a film called Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal (Vineyards For Us to Dwell In). Towards the film’s climax, the heroine is raped by her stepfather no less. After this, she and her mother are shown weeping together. However, there is absolutely no talk of her wanting to end her life. Her mother instead advises her to treat it as a bad dream and get on with her life. And in the end, the hero played by Mohanlal, comes and takes the heroine, played by Shari, away, to live the very life her mother had talked about.
In one masterstroke, Padmarajan takes an axe to all the regressive ideas surrounding rape. What the movie seemed to say was truly revolutionary: Yes, there was life after rape for a woman. Yes, rape was horrifying, but it was not the end of the world. The loss of virginity did not mean that ‘all was lost’ for the woman. She was not defined by her virginity or lack thereof, it was just one aspect of being a woman.
Padmarajan was not the only Malayalam director who put forth what was then and frankly even now, a progressive idea. Before him, in the 1985 film Kaathodu Kaathoram (Whisper in the Ear), Bharathan took this particular peg—of virginity not being all that important—even further. In this film, the heroine (Saritha) chooses to run away from her abusive husband with her son, and starts living elsewhere with the hero. The hero? Our very own superstar Mammootty.
Namukku… and Kaathodu… were not small arthouse films; they had big stars as heroes. What’s more, both films went on to do very well at the box office. Note that both films had heroines who were not virgins and this was depicted as just another part of who they were, not as a calamity.
Malayalam cinema, from its early days, had women often playing well-defined roles. The heroines were never mere arm-candy or bimbettes with nothing much to do. That is the case even today. However, the roles hardly pushed any envelopes. They may have been part of films considered ‘bold’ or ‘different’ taking into context the time they were released, but closer analysis reveals that they were no game-changers.
In the classic film Chemmeen (The Prawn) released in 1965, a pre-marital affair which turns into an extra-marital one, is a critical part of the story. Karuthamma, the heroine, played by Sheela, is not cast in a bad light due to this affair. She is shown as a victim of circumstances. The outcome, however, is bleak for her, her lover and husband, played by Madhu and Sathyan respectively… all of them die.
Or, take the example of the 1969 award-winning film Adimakal (Slaves). Considered one of the foremost relevant ‘social’ films of its time, one of the main strands of the story had to do with the servant girl Ponnamma (Sharada). She is raped and becomes pregnant but the story does not have her killing herself. The hero (Prem Nazir) saves her ‘honour’ by claiming the unborn child as his own and offers to marry her, but Ponnamma gets to exercise her will to marry the hero and not the rapist, who is coerced into offering her marriage. Ultimately, though, it is the hero who is portrayed as saviour and protector. The implicit message being, a woman in such a condition needs both saviour and protector. In yet another famous film of the 60s Murappennu (Cousin/Intended bride), written by MT Vasudevan Nair, one of the main protagonists Kochammini (Jyothi Lakshmi), is abandoned by her lover. Later in the story, her marriage, which is on the verge of being fixed, falls through. She commits suicide.
There was a dichotomy at work here. Women of substance did not equal radical women. The triumvirate Sharada, Sheela and Jayabharathi, who ruled Malayalam cinema in the 60s and 70s, played substantial roles. Their onscreen characters were beset with many travails—they lived, loved and invariably suffered. Life very often gave them a raw deal. But, even though these characters struck an emotional chord with the audience, they were in no way radical.
The roles that heroines play in today’s films are similar in one aspect to those of the old Malayalam films: Here too, they are roles of substance, mostly. The women are don’t just stand by and look pretty. They don’t play second fiddle to the hero. These women, invariably portrayed as very young, lead modern, interesting and fairly independent lives. But here’s the rub: there is no radical departure from the norm. No stereotypes are being shattered, no new perspective is being offered in these new films.
The supposed exceptions do not really stand the test of close scrutiny. The 2012-hit film 22 Female Kottayam gave the heroine’s rape prominence. The fact that the heroine kills the rapist, surgically removes the hero’s penis, and then leaves to Canada to start a new life, might make it seem different. However, a closer reading of the film reveals the old trope of the raped woman as the avenging angel. The heroine’s travails after the rape and her dramatic revenge, simply makes the rape the fuel of the story. So though it may look like the heroine triumphs over both the rape and the rapist, the rape, in fact, defines her and her actions for much of the story.
The 2016 film Puthiya Niyamam (New Law) is cut from the same cloth. Here too, the heroine (Nayantara) is gang-raped and exacts revenge. The only different aspect here is that the heroine is married and it is her husband (Mammootty) who helps her take revenge anonymously. They also lead a happy life at the end. But in essence, both films are the same: Rape revenge dramas. These films are like a trompe-l’oeil, giving the impression of being path-breakers, which in reality are not.
There are of course some pleasant exceptions. Like the film Artist (2013), where the hero (Fahadh Faasil) and heroine (Anne Augustine) are in a live-in relationship. In the 2013-film Chaappa Kurishu (Heads or Tails), the video of the protagonists having sex goes viral. In portrayals such as this, the directors are acknowledging the present day reality, be it live-in relationships or pre-marital sex. And in their casual acceptance of the heroine’s lack of virginity there is a thread that binds them to the directors of yore.
The real heroes of those 70s films were not the actors but the directors; how progressive and innovative they were. Taking a loose loop back to Bollywood, Pink needed a big courtroom scene and a sagacious male to get across the point—that a woman’s virginity should not define her. Padmarajan, Bharathan, Sethumadhavan and their ilk were, thankfully, not as blatant. In their films, the heroes accepted their non-virginal heroines with a wonderful normalcy. No lectures, no drama. The women were not suicidal over their non-virginity; the heroines chose to be with the heroes in their films, they did not have to. The woman as a whole mattered, not just her virginity. Indeed an advanced idea, then and now.
French film actress Isabelle Huppert said that in her latest Oscar-nominated film Elle, she played a post-feminist heroine in the normal way that she goes about her life in the aftermath of rape. Padmarajan created a similar post-feminist heroine a long time ago.
But that era seems to have ended when Padmarajan and Bharathan passed away. Today’s Malayalam film directors may be making new kinds of cinema in terms of treatment and themes. Some examples being the 2013-film Amen which had a wonderful dash of magic realism or the 2013 Malayalam thriller Mumbai Police, which in a first, had a a gay protagonist. The depiction of women, though, is usually banal and safe—be it the charming heroine Shahana (Nithya Menen) in the 2012 film Ustad Hotel or the effervescent Pooja (Nazriya Nazim) in the 2014 film Ohm Shanthi Oshaana, or even the three women in 2014’s big hit, Bangalore Days.
Sadly, things have also turned quite regressive. The heroines in films like Anarkali (2015) and Vellimoonga (White Owl, 2014) are disturbingly young, with all that it implies, even as the heroes are way older than them. This age difference is seen even in the big hit of 2015, Premam (Love), where the hero finally marries the younger sister of his first love. Worse, in films like 2013’s Kamath and Kamath, there is a scene where the director makes it clear that though the heroine is a widow, her husband died before their marriage could be consummated. The old tropes seem to be back.
And yet, when the papers reported recently, with admiration, that the Malayalam film actress who had recently been at the centre of a kidnap and molestation drama, returned to work within a week of the ghastly incident, it was as if the spirit of those ideas lived on. Life has to and indeed must go on. And to hell with virginity.
Sujatha Karun worked in media and films before retiring to her couch to binge-watch European and Malayalam films.