Why Are Kerala Women in Cinema Rebelling? Films Have Changed, Rot Within Remains

In Malayalam films, there are progressive changes in narratives. But the structures within are still patriarchal.

5 min read
Hindi Female

Even now, in the Malayalam film industry, which is believed to be going through a new phase of producing progressive films, there is no assurance of equal wages for equal work. That is, women do not get paid equal remuneration for their work, even if they are 'stars' when compared to their male counterparts.

While on-screen, the cinema has shown some nominal progressive tendencies, what remains rotten within is a discriminatory system – which got precipitated in the abduction and sexual assault of a woman actor in 2017. The change in Malayalam cinema has to come from within, and this change has to be organic.

But women are a bit more vocal now, and maybe changes will come in due course.

Let’s debate why organic change is important.


Change in Malayalam Cinema is Skin-Deep

Two films – The Great Indian Kitchen and Kumbalangi Nights – have been widely celebrated for many reasons, and I appreciated all those progressive traits. But, as a feminist, there are factors that don't escape my eye.

In some ways, these two films, while remaining progressive superficially, rehash the same old structures of patriarchy. How, you may ask. It’s because neither of the films portrays a deep-rooted change in perspective. The change they project is skin-deep and not organic.

In the Great Indian Kitchen, a woman is relegated to the kitchen and reduced to the household chores that she performs. The woman protagonist, played by Nimisha Sajayan, rebels and leaves her marital household.

In Malayalam films, there are progressive changes in narratives. But the structures within are still patriarchal.

Poster of The Great Indian Kitchen.

It is great that the film looked at the kitchen – a place that does not become the centre of the narrative in most mainstream films. But that does not make the film truly progressive.

Here are two instances where the film falls apart. In the initial part of the narrative, the woman protagonist asks her husband for foreplay. While that may be considered a rebellion against patriarchal norms, which do not want women to have sexual pleasures, did it not occur to the filmmakers that the woman herself could have initiated foreplay? Are there no women who initiate foreplay in their bedrooms?

In another instance, towards the end of the film, Nimisha Sajayan’s character leaves her marital home. Where does she go? To what seems to be her paternal home, where she is surrounded by her relatives.

If the film had stopped with the woman leaving her abusive marital home, I would have said, there is hope for Malayalam cinema.

Instead, by taking the central character back to her paternal home, from where she learns to live again, the film limits the scope of the character – a bold woman. How is this progressive?

Another acclaimed film, which dealt with caste and patriarchy through the lens of dark comedy, is Kumbalangi Nights. In the film, which was widely loved, the home where four young men live a bohemian life, gets order when three women walk into their lives.

In Malayalam films, there are progressive changes in narratives. But the structures within are still patriarchal.

Poster of Kumbalangi Nights. 

Yes, the film does discuss the abusive nature of families, where men, sometimes manically, try to call the shots. In the film, the character, Shammy, played by Fahad Fasil, is torn apart for his hypocrisy – being the man's man on the front and a manic psychopath beneath.

However, the film sees the arrival of women to the chaotic household the release point.

When the three elder brothers get their lovers – all women – to come into their home, the place becomes calm, orderly, and livable. Is this not the message that patriarchy essentially sends – that it is a woman's job to bring order, be it cleaning the mess in the kitchen or 'taming' wild men? How is this progressive?

In Malayalam cinema, both women’s perspectives and feminist narratives are yet to emerge. Why? Because the film industry has not changed intrinsically.


We are Not Even Close to Justice

In the industry, women do not have the bargaining power, because of which they do not argue for their case or even ask. And there is no place to go and complain if women are not paid equally. Long-drawn litigation is the only way forward in such cases.

Be it equal remuneration for work or contractual agreements on work, women are left in the blind. There is no transparency, and things are taken for granted.

While at the outset, some changes can be perceived in films, just look at the producers' guild.

In the Malayalam film industry, if someone wants to make a film, they need the endorsement of this body. Why should the producers' guild, which is not even a government body, be the authority to sanction film production? How can they decide who should produce what film?

Moreover, how many women producers are there in the industry? The capital is completely controlled by men. Hence, a marked change from within, through the work of women producers and filmmakers, is not yet possible. When OTT began, we had high hopes.

But then the number of films produced by independent filmmakers, especially women, has not gone up even with the arrival and popularity of OTT. Even on OTT, only the bigshots get the space.

There should, hence, be a culture of promoting independent filmmakers. They are the only ones who can really challenge the status quo.

The change should come from within. And the time is ripe for this change. One, we have a known woman actor who has lodged a complaint. She is not an invisible victim. She is a known survivor.

Then there are women, under the Women in Cinema Collective, who have come together to voice their concerns.

Had they kept quiet, they would have been rewarded by the system. But they chose to stand up and be loud about it.

Also, there are invisible women who have been raising their concerns and losing opportunities for protesting. The real change in Malayalam cinema will come from within this collective of women who are fighting for their rights, together.

(Deedi Damodaran is a Malayalam screenwriter who has scripted films including Nayika (2011) and Gulmohar (2008). This article was written based on Deedi Damodaran's detailed interview with The Quint's Nikhila Henry)

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