Regional Indian cinema may not have had garnered the attention that Bollywood has; but majority of the country’s best work in cinema has come from beyond Hindi-language film industry. In the last decade particularly, gender equality has been a widely-discussed topic on Southern films – across Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam.
The novel treatment of socio-political issues have erased the line between mainstream cinema and art-house/offbeat cinema, opening the stage for next generation intelligentsia. Although ‘masala’/brainless movies are still popular in the South, the past decade has seen a welcome change especially in Malayalam cinema.
MAKERS India takes a look at a few female characters in Malayalam cinema in the last few years, who inspire women to be independent and respect themselves.
Tessa, 22FK (2012)
In this critically-acclaimed blockbuster film, Tessa (Rima Kallingal) is a nurse who survives brutal rape, yet ends up in jail under false charges. Her resilience and revenge against those who betrayed her forms the rest of 22 Female Kottayam, directed by Aashiq Abu. Rima won the Kerala State Film Award for Best Actress for this role, who was not just a contradiction to the helpless ‘victim’ but as the heroine who is unapologetic and unforgiving in the face of injustice.
Divya and Sarah, Bangalore Days (2014)
Both the female protagonists in this blockbuster by Anjali Menon come from different worlds. Divya (Nazriya Nazim) moves from her village to Bangalore after an arranged marriage, although she has had little exposure before that. Although unhappy in her marriage, Divya builds her life with higher studies and also helping her husband face his demons. On the other hand, Sarah (Parvathy Thiruvoth) is a physically-disabled radio jockey who spreads positivity. Although bound to a wheelchair, Sarah seeks no sympathy, but embodies self-respect and dignity.
Nirupama Rajeev, How Old Are You? (2014)
This Roshan Andrews-directorial marked the return of Manju Warrier –Malayalam’s most-loved actress– after a 14-year sabbatical. As a middle class government employee who receives little respect from her husband and teenage daughter, Manju as Nirupama won audience heart easily. The film showed that domestic abuse need not always be physical, but mental and emotional too, and that women can always choose to take stand rather than be silent victims.
Despite the indifference and loneliness she faces at home, Nirupama stands up for herself, questioning the patriarchy inculcated in our daily lives and proving her own worth. The film was later remade into Tamil, as 36 Vayadhinile, starring Jyothika.
Vasuki, Puthiya Niyamam (2016)
Very rarely does a “super star’s” movie depict a strong female lead; and even more rarely does it revolve around the female character. But this thriller, which starred Malayalam’s biggest star Mammootty, focuses on the heroine – Vasuki – played by Nayantara. A Kathakali artist-turned housewife and mother to an eight-year-old, Vasuki’s peaceful domestic life is perturbed when she is sexually assaulted by three men. However, instead of committing suicide as she is initially tempted to, Vasuki gets her revenge and, in turn, finds herself again.
Rani and Padmini, Rani Padmini (2015)
This Aashiq Abu-directorial was a unique take on the everyday lives of Indian women from across classes. It delves into domesticity, feminism, and women’s financial independence, and peeks into the sisterhood between women that is often missing on cinema. With no male protagonist, the film is on the shoulders of the two female leads - Rani (Rima Kallingal) and Padmini (Manju Warrier). The narrative succeeds brings these two women - from entirely different backgrounds- together, and they support each other in their adventures.
Aparna, Mayanadi (2017)
Seldom is a heroine in mainstream cinema portrayed as one with flaws; but Aparna aka Appu is an unabashedly real character. She is an aspiring actress struggling to make ends meet; she is a confused lover who can’t let go of the man she knows is no good for her; and she is not even sure if she is loyal to her friends who support her. After spending a night with the man she loves, Appu has no qualms in telling him that sex is not a promise; she understands that life is too complicated to be defined under labels. In new comer Aishwarya Lekshmi’s hands, Appu is relatable to the point that even when you dislike her, you understand her. Aparna/Appu is also the symbol of modern young women who crave to follow their dreams but face a million roadblocks on their way.
June, June (2019)
Named after the central character, the movie revolves around the life of a young girl growing up in a village in Kerala. In this coming-of-age drama, our heroine (June, played by Rajisha Vijayan) tastes first love and first heartbreak, upsets her loving parents, finds a love she cannot accept, and finally agrees to an ‘arranged marriage,’ only to find love again! Although most characters which are paraded as girl-next-door tend to be naïve and traditional, June is a refreshing change – she wears her heart on her sleeve, takes risks, and never gives up her search for love.
Pallavi, Uyare (2019)
In Manu Ashokan’s directorial debut, Parvathy Thiruvoth is Pallavi Raveendran, a college student who dreams of becoming a pilot. But she is stuck in a toxic romantic relationship, and when she tried to end it, the jilted lover throws acid on her face, disfiguring her permanently. When she is declared physically unfit to be a pilot even after medical treatment, Pallavi goes to court, ringing in the message that love does not always make one blind. Her depression slowly gives way to her rising from the ashes, and as the end credits roll, Pallavi is flying again. Despite the stigma she will have to face forever, Pallavi is the confident young woman every girl wants to grow up to be.
We would love to see more such characters on screen. After all, its 2020 and it’s time we accept women as who they really are - flawed, imperfect human beings fighting for themselves and inspiring each other to do the same!