In Bejoy Nambiar’s Solo, Dulquer Salman enters the screen in a full-sleeved t-shirt and long hair as Shekhar. Half an hour later, he re-enters the screen as bespectacled Trilok. After that, he makes an appearance as a fiery, gun-clenching Shiva and lastly, he does his motorcycle diaries bit in a Royal Enfield bullet and army jacket as Rudra. Every time Dulquer makes an entry, 10 Malayalis weep into their popcorn in gratitude. For his fan base, when Dulquer arrives it’s almost a cue for everyone else in the movie to go away.
Solo is Nambiar’s second anthology after David. It has four stories that, we are told, express the four aspects of the god Shiva – water, air, fire and earth. For each story, Dulquer plays a different character. As Shekhar, he embodies water – tranquil and deep. As Trilok, he embodies the wind – crafty and swift. As Shiva, he is rage and fire, and as Rudra, he is earth, strong and stubborn.
But the women in each Dulquer character’s life – from wife to girlfriend to friend to mothers – don’t embody any of these characteristics. In fact, they don’t embody any characteristic other than… being female and simply existing.
This is doubly annoying because almost every female character is pivotal to the four plot lines. In Shekhar’s world, Radhika (Sai Dhansika) is the love of his life, the mother of his child and the reason for his happiness. But everything about her is only an adjective to Shekhar. The entire story revolves around Shekhar fighting to stay together with Radhika and eventually, managing his life after her death. But we don’t see anything about her beyond the fact that she’s beautiful, blind and likes to dance.
It’s worse with Trilok’s wife Aisha (Arthi Venkatesh). Trilok’s entire story is one of plotting a crafty revenge to avenge her untimely death. But for a story that’s entirely dependent on the female lead, we glean only two things about her – that her name’s Aisha and that she likes tunics blowing in the wind.
Or take the Shiva plot. The female protagonist in Shiva’s story is not his partner, but his mother. Shiva goes in search of his father’s killer and is about to shoot him when he discovers that his mother (Asha Jayaram) is actually married to the killer. And yet we know nothing about his mother other than the fact she left him, his brother and his father when they were young. The woman responsible for the twist in the tale is a blip on the screen time. Get this – we don’t even learn her name properly. She is simply ammachi.
Another ammachi is the central figure in army boy Rudra’s story. Rudra’s girlfriend, Akshara (Neha Sharma) is shipped off to Australia to study by her dad. Soon after, Akshara goes radio silent on him. A fight with her new fiancé and a vat of alcohol later, he finds out that the reason she dumped him is because his dad (Nassar) had asked her to stay away from him. Why? His mother Vidya Ramachandran (Suhasini) tells him that daddy dearest had an affair with Akshara’s mum years ago and they *drumroll* suspect that Akshara might be his biological daughter. Say it isn’t so! So, young chetta and chechi can’t marry because their family is not in Game of Thrones. Akshara’s and Rudra’s mothers deliver the greatest plot twists in the film. Rudra’s mother’s name gets screen time but Akshara’s mother is mostly a face in the background. We don’t hear her utter a single word throughout the movie.
All the women in Solo are placeholders. Perhaps you think, arrey, they are minor characters in the anthology form so it’s okay. But the men, major or minor, don’t receive the same treatment. Aisha’s murderer is given a backstory, Akshara’s father has a backstory, Shiva’s cronies have character-defining traits like humour, generosity and power. But the women in the movie don’t get to board the character train.
We’ve seen a glimpse of this in two of Nambiar’s movies before. In his 2013 Tamil film David, Rohini Hattangadi plays a powerful politician called Malati Tai, whom the actor Jiiva has to assassinate. She is central to his character development and yet we see a bare minimum of character development for her. She’s stuck in the female politician trope. In Nambiar’s 2016 film Wazir, we see Aditi Rao Hydari similarly compressed in a stunted role even though her behavior after the loss of her child shapes Farhan Akhtar’s character throughout the film.
This is not to say that Nambiar doesn’t know how to sculpt meaningful female characters. Far from it, we saw him ace it with well-written characters like Tanya (Kirti Kulhari) in his debut film Shaitan (2011). Tanya displays an innocent sensitivity and naivete that conceals her self-righteous rage; a Betty waiting to explode at Veronica. Even Kalki Koechlin’s character Amy reflects complexity and a deeply vulnerable, troubled mind.
But in spite of his prowess in writing good female characters, Nambiar obviously decided to shoot Solo entirely from Dulquer’s good-looking shoulders.
Perhaps there was a time when other viewers and I wouldn’t notice this, but nowadays it just feels inexcusable. Why, this month’s Newton showed that a lot can be achieved with a well-written female character with tiny screen time. Anjali Patil’s character Malko stole every bit of our attention, even with the formidable screen presence of Rajkummar Rao and Pankaj Tripathi. Malko plays an assertive local who is as sharp as she is kind. Her come hither eyes shone with intelligence and cautious hope. Unlike, say, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Newton was making no claim to depict the lives of women. It had one woman in it who enhanced the plot, and her character was a nice tasty mouthful.
Whether it’s Vidya Balan in Begum Jaan, Sonakshi Sinha in Noor, Sridevi in MOM or Jyothika in Magalir Mattum, it has been proven that there’s both the need and a hungry audience waiting for female characters who are not ciphers. So the pressure to represent women in movies is mounting for most filmmakers. But representation without sincerity is somehow even more annoying than the movies that don’t even try, and only deploy heroines for dancing on yacht decks in the Mediterranean.
Even the promo video released by Nambiar titled ‘Women in Solo’, that offered a peek into the female leads, only emphasized this pressure to get with the feminism programme, when really lots of male filmmakers are probably wishing the programme would go away. In the video, the women are constantly wooed, lifted, abused or displayed as gorgeous-looking props to enhance Dulquer’s characters. The hope that the video would open a window to not one, but four well-developed female characters shattered within seconds. Movies that make claims for progressive writing and then just don’t deliver feel like inviting women to a discussion about sexism and sticking them with a mansplainer moderator.
Co-published with Firstpost