Before films like Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, Ee.Ma.Yau and Moothon, which delved into the depths of interpersonal relationships and ensured a fair portrayal of its complexities, Malayalam cinema was once well-known for dishing out some of the most celebrated family/domestic dramas.
Most millennials and members of Gen Z must have at least heard this once from the elders: “The movies of these days are really bad. The way they endorse bad habits such as drinking, smoking, use of drugs and premarital sex is disturbing. You have to watch the flicks of our time to understand what cinema should actually be like.”
True to an extent… If we take into consideration movies like Irakal (1985), Elippathayam (1981) and Deshadanakkili Karayarilla (1986), they were indeed game-changers and helped the Malayalam film industry make a name for itself on the international arena.
However, most of these movies that were part of the New Wave movement (early 1970s to mid 1980s) — a direct result of the rise of film societies in Kerala — failed to eke out a gain as the members of the same generation stayed away from watching these movies in theatres back then. Needless to say, a good number of them bombed at the box office.
Then which movies are they boasting about now?
Enter the Malayalam family dramas… Just by checking the box office numbers and reruns of these flicks on TV channels, one can easily understand that these are the ‘qualitative works’ our older generation is referring to. Though many have, in recent times, called out filmmakers and movies that reinforced the anti-Dalit narratives and also the way women were portrayed on screen, we, however, often overlook how some filmmakers fortified the ‘good women/bad women’ narrative through family dramas.
Even as the chorus urging all to “watch cinema as just cinema” is louder than ever, it is necessary to realise that the appreciation these movies still receive clearly denotes the deep-rooted patriarchy in our society and how we continue to remain mute spectators to the same.
Sadly, most of these movies are filled with good songs.
(Note: Without any doubt, there are hundreds of other Malayalam movies which are even more problematic, in a socio-political sense too. There are movies such as Chunkzz (2017) and Dhamaka (2020) that show women as just eye candies or mere ‘props’ solely existing to receive sexist remarks from men. However, here we are going to stick to the films of only a few family drama-makers and see how their female characters, though they appear not related to each other, lead similar lives with similar character arcs in different ‘cinematic universes’. So, is the multiverse theory actually true? Malayali male filmmakers experimented with the multiverse material decades before Marvel did? Maybe, maybe not.)
Balachandra Menon Cinematic Universe
An all-rounder who garnered fame not just by showcasing his skills in various realms of film production but also by introducing several fresh talents, including Shobana, Parvathy, Maniyanpilla Raju and Karthika, in the 80s, Balachandra Menon was arguably one of the most successful multi-talented filmmakers of his generation.
However, during his two-decade long filmmaking career (since his directorial debut in 1978), Menon time and time again banked on the patriarchal notions that create a ‘complete family’. As a result, most female characters in the Balachandra Menon Cinematic Universe (BMCU), though they hail from different socio-economic backgrounds, lead pretty much similar/parallel lives and end up becoming the stereotypical ‘ideal Malayali wives.’ Late lyricist S Rameshan Nair, in one of his songs, clearly describes the qualities of the archetype in his song Poomukha vathilkkal sneham vidarthunna poothinkal aakunnu bharya from the 1986 movie Raakkuyilin Raagasadassil.
Most female characters in the BMCU start off as bold and unapologetically themselves, maybe with a modern (for that period) fashion sense, but soon fall for the leading men who physically best them and ‘correct’ their behaviour by means of humiliation and physical violence.
While it may seem that Karyam Nissaram (1983) and Chiriyo Chiri (1982) don’t have anything in common, a simple analysis of the character arcs of both female leads will prove otherwise.
A glimpse at the way the characters played by Poornima Jayaram (Parvathi) and Swapna (Sethu) were written underline how Menon films celebrated the “women are/should remain inferior to men” school of thought by bringing in the age-old notion of “if women are not ‘well-behaved’, it would affect the harmony of the family”.
Through Sethu, Menon gave validation to the idiosyncrasy of Malayali men that even self-reliant and employed women dream of a partner who can ‘correct’ their behaviour through modes of physical punishment (vis-à-vis the good ol’ slaps), in case they do anything wrong.
Parvathi’s mother Amminikutty (played by Lakshmi) had it worse. Despite the fact that her husband Unnithan (Prem Nazir) was unemployed, she too was schooled, tormented and emotionally manipulated into believing that it was wrong to be a matriarch while the hubby was still around; and no matter how the partner heckled and humiliated her, she had to remain servile.
In Shekhar’s (Menon’s character in Karyam Nissaram) words, “Women should never control or command men. However, it is always advisable that every woman has a man in their life to control and command them.”
Achuvettante Veedu (1987), another movie from the BMCU, also looks down upon women who stand their ground. It is befuddling that the way the writer-director gives a grey shade to Aswathy (played by Rohini) is by making her unapologetic and outspoken, after the story empathised with the soft-spoken, dhavani-draped younger version of the character for a long time.
In short, most Menon family dramas reinforce that regardless of how arrogant, abusive, guileful and self-centred the patriarchs are, the onus of saving the family will always be on the women, who have to realise that they don’t have any existence without the men in their lives. Sobhana (played by Shobana) from April 18, Valsala (Shanthi Krishna) from Nayam Vyakthamakkunnu, Parvathi (Annie) from Ammayane Sathyam, and Vasantha (Geetha) and Beena (Parvathy) from Kuruppinte Kanakku Pustakom have all been ‘corrected’ this way, helping them become ‘better women.’
Thulasidas Cinematic Universe
Thulasidas, though he hasn’t made as many movies as the others on the list, is another filmmaker who created a few superhits by repurposing the same formula.
Most of his movies show women as either an extension of the manic pixie dream girl (MPDG) trope or the ones willing to go through any kind of suffering to live their lives with the protagonist men who are completely ignorant of their feelings (Nandini Raichand, played by Jaya Bachchan, from the 2001 blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham can be taken as an example to understand this stereotype).
For instance, Ganga (played by Meena) from Mr Brahmachari (2003) and Aswathy (Sangita) from Manthrikumaran (1998), throughout the movies, are desperately engaged in grabbing the man’s attention. While one of the men doesn’t give two hoots about the woman’s existence, the other marries the woman only because he thought she worked as an air-hostess.
In both the movies, despite the male characters taking the women’s feelings for granted, the latter end up bearing all the brunt of the men’s actions just for the sake of keeping the base of their respective families intact.
At the same time, Thulasidas’ Kouthuka Varthakal (1990) is a classic example as to how the Casanova trope is often romanticised and the insensitivity meted out to women by such men overlooked.
In this flick, after showing multiple instances that establish the fact that Mathew Ninan Koshy (Mukesh) is a ‘player’, we are introduced to a new ludicrous subplot that accentuates Mathew’s ‘talent’ further.
In this part of the movie, Mathew’s roommate Ravi (Suresh Gopi) shamelessly places a bet with the former by asking him to try and make a girl named Ashwathy (Urvashi) fall for him, without telling Mathew that she is his fiancée.
Regardless that we are shown this behaviour by the men, the entire blame falls on Ashwathy when she tries to help Mathew win the bet without knowing that she is being used as a pawn in their masculine ego battle.
Here too, the fact that the men behaved like complete narcissists is overlooked and at the end, the responsibility of saving their relationship falls on Ashwathy.
Dhosth (2001) is another Thulasidas flick that celebrates the ‘beauty’ of bromance (absurd) by making the women suffer. Though college mates Ajith (Dileep) and Vijay (Kunchako Boban) start off on the wrong foot, they soon become BFFs. Meanwhile, Vijay realises that the woman he’s been stalking is Ajith’s sister Geethu (Kavya Madhavan). However, since his love is honest (the filmmaker has made this pretty clear by making him stalk her constantly), Geethu too falls for him. In the meantime, Vijay learns about Ajith’s other sister who eloped with one of his close friends, leading to Ajith’s father’s death. As Ajith narrates this as a traitorous act, Vijay, in a bid to save his friendship with the former, decides to sacrifice his love for Geethu. Neither does he communicate the same with Geethu, nor give her any explanation as to why he is behaving in a negligent manner. Now, it is Geethu’s responsibility to save their relationship.
The movie also glorifies patronising women and justifies (male) sibling abuse on the pretext of showing extra care.
Thulasidas’ Sooryaputhran (1998) too is a hard watch, wherein a woman is used by an ultra-rich man to get a baby adopted and when she begins seeking material favours in return, he immediately starts plotting strategies to get rid of her.
And just like the 2008 Bollywood hit Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi which reintroduced the “making wives realise their love for husbands by manipulating them” tactic, Thulasidas used the same motif and created Melevaryathe Malakhakkuttikal in 2000!
There is not much to say about this movie as the only thing it focuses on is that the wife is more subservient to her mother than towards her husband which irks him. The couple’s four children, all girls, love their father a bit too much and hence, want their mother to stop being subservient to the grandmother and start being submissive to their father. What makes the movie even more gruesome is a plan that the male lead Sethumadhavan (played by Balachandra Menon) hatches to make his wife ‘realise’ that he is much better than other men out there.
As part of this strategy, Sethumadhavan arrives at the house where his wife and kids live, by dressing up as his father, a sexual assaulter and Sethu’s archrival, to help them fight against the former. Sethu, in the guise of the elderly man, starts misbehaving with all women, including his wife, to prove the aforementioned point.
In the end, despite realising that it was Sethumadhavan who was living in their house, all the women cheer as they learnt a valuable lesson: no matter how men try to cheat or violate you, if they are doing it for the sake of protecting your family, do turn a blind eye to them being the absolute worst.
Anthikad Cinematic Universe
The most successful filmmaker in the list, Sathyan Anthikad, is the creator of several commercially successful films and is well-known for his collaborations with Mohanlal and actor/writer Sreenivasan.
He too became a dear name to Malayalis by making some of the most celebrated family dramas. However, it is undeniable that a good number of them are problematic, especially in terms of the portrayal of women.
Two movies he made during the late 80s – Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu (1988) and Thalayana Manthram (1990) – carried misogyny and brilliantly ‘proved’ that women are the root cause of all problems that men face. Both movies have since then stood as a testament to Chandu Chekavar’s dialogue in Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, penned by veteran writer M T Vasudevan Nair: “Women will see things that others don’t; [they] will curse while pretending to be frolic; smile while crying; hate while desiring…”
Both Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu and Thalayana Manthram feature the amazing Urvashi, delivering fantastic performances, like always, as the female lead. However, her characters in both movies are cunning, devilishly devious and egoistic. While she plays Snehalatha, a person who dumps her boyfriend for selfish reasons , in Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu, her character (Kanchana) in Thalayana Manthram is an avaricious woman who wrecks her husband’s family. While the female leads in both the movies are shown in a grey shade, the writers conveniently whitewash the male protagonists who are either incapable of starting a family and fleece their partners, or are the ones who ignore the humiliation being faced by the women from within the family. In the end, the women are portrayed as the ones responsible for sabotaging the families.
In later years, Anthikad shifted to top gear and started making flicks that highlight the importance of maintaining familial relationships, no matter what. Two movies that depict this doctrine are Innathe Chinthavishayam (2008) and Bhagyadevatha (2009). Both the movies manage to gaily empathise with the male protagonists though they are clearly conniving and both works conclude that women should always forgive their husbands, despite the fact that they are at fault, and give them (not one or two) but as many chances as possible in life, regardless of how abusive they are.
While Innathe Chinthavishayam deals with the lives of three women, who saved themselves from the clutches of their husbands – one a cheater, another a man who is completely against his wife leading an independent and self-sufficient life and the third an extremely possessive, jealous and insecure man – Bhagyadevatha deals with, or more accurately tunes out the abuse associated with dowry harassment.
In both the movies, in spite of showing various circumstances from which viewers can conclude that the men are at fault and can never be empathised with, the maker finds the silliest of ways to reunite the survivors with their abusers, just for the sake of keeping the bases of the families intact.
Anthikkad’s Kochu Kochu Santhoshangal (2000) also had a similar possessive, jealous and insecure man, ruining the life of his artiste wife. However, even then the maker commiserates with the protagonist showing that he is a ‘good father’.
Another one of Anthikkad’s most problematic films is Yathrakarude Sradhakku (2002). Even after Ramanujan ( Jayaram) ruined Jyothi’s wedding (late Soundarya), he was portrayed as the one with a golden heart — sure, maybe for his friends. But from Jyothi’s POV, he is someone who hid the fact that he had feelings for her, thwarted her marriage, did not correct/stop his friend when the latter lied to everyone that they were in a live-in relationship though they were just flat mates, caused her father to suffer a heart attack, married her without seeking her opinion, sneaked into her bedroom, and after all this, gaslit her into believing she’s the petty one.
Despite all this, Anthikkad and writer Sreenivasan reunites them, after Jyothi realises that her husband is a good person (how did she realise it you ask? Oh, his mother died and… that’s it).
Rajasenan Cinematic Universe
Most of actor Jayaram’s blockbusters were born in this cinematic universe. And Rajasenan was, without a second thought, one of the most beloved comedy-drama makers of the 90s, with his movies having amazing theatrical runs.
However, most movies from RCU follow the same pattern – first, the ‘humorous’ incidents happening in the family in focus, followed by a misunderstanding between a few members, which in the due course of time will blow up creating major tiffs among them, and finally, a resolution by way of an emotional speech by one of the central male characters in the climax.
What connects most of these movies further is the way women are portrayed in them.
A look at movies like Meleparambil Anveedu (1993), Aniyan Bava Chetan Bava (1995), Aadyathe Kanmani (1995), Swapna Lokathe Balabhaskaran (1996), Sreekrishnapurathe Nakshathrathilakkam (1998), Kottaram Veettile Apputtan (1998) and Darling Darling (2000) will prove as to how misogynistic most Rajasenan works are and how the maker, by plugging in the notion that fallouts between family members should be resolved no matter, normalised domestic abuse faced by women.
While Meleparambil Anveedu revolves around a gullible Tamil woman (Shobhana) who is forced by her husband to work as a servant (literally) at his house since he is scared to introduce her as his spouse in front of others, Aniyan Bava Chetan Bava tells the story of a man who woos two sisters at the same time and make the best use of their feelings towards him just to ensure the safety of his job at the women’s house.
Meleparambil Anveedu goes on to become more problematic with all male members of the husband’s family, irrespective of their age, trying to court the woman, while the husband brushes it all under the rug as ‘funny incidents’. In fact, these scenes from the movie still evoke a good laugh in most Malayali households, ‘thanks’ to the amazing performances by late Narendra Prasad, late Meena Joseph, Jagathy Sreekumar, Vijayaraghavan, Janardanan and late Paravoor Bharathan.
On the other hand, Aadyathe Kanmani has a ruthless woman (played by late KPAC Lalitha) who torments all her daughters-in-law for not being able to give birth to a baby boy. The story is not just misogynistic but also crosses all sorts of lines by joking about female feticide quite a few times.
While Swapna Lokathe Balabhaskaran has another casanova who projects his wife as an evil person for throwing tantrums at him after coming to know about his premarital affairs which he did not disclose to her even once, Sreekrishnapurathe Nakshathrathilakkam banks on the age-old patriarchal narrative of “women are naïve, senseless and greedy”. Again, these are two other movies that still evoke a lot of laughter among Malayalis.
But, none of the movies mentioned till now can match the level of misogyny contained in the next one: Rajasenan’s Njangal Santhushtaranu (1998).
It appears the movie was made just to announce the makers’ hatred for bold women. The flick reeks of misogyny and sexism from tip to toe. Furthermore, the movie refuses to empathise with the female character until it is revealed that she is adopted. It further reasserts all the male chauvinistic notions such as “a woman’s life can be considered complete if and only if she knows her mother tongue and how to cook, takes care of her in-laws, wears sanskaari dresses, obeys her husband, and so on”.
Interestingly, this movie too has a song (Aanalla pennalla adipoli vesham) that describes how an ideal woman should behave, written by the same S Rameshan Nair.
The Multiverse and the influence it still has over Malayalam cinema
Though it might seem unfair to consider all these works as a homogenous whole, it can indeed be scrutinised in that way as all of them, in pretty much the same manner, have capitalised on sexism. The makers also extenuated the same by slipping the movies in as the ones that talk about the importance of “Parampara, Pratishtha and Anushasan.”
What makes it even worse is the fact that some of the most talented women actors in the Malayalam industry made a name for themselves by playing such characters written irresponsibly by the men of that period. Since these were the only kind of characters available for actors such as Urvashi, Shobhana and Parvathy, they all put their heart and soul into it, making these roles timeless and perfect. In a way, they too were living parallel (professional) lives while being stuck in the Multiverse.
Though most of these movies came out before 2008-09, the period during which Malayalam cinema started witnessing a paradigm shift following the release of Anjali Menon’s Manjadikuru (2008; though the film got its theatre release only in 2012) and Shyamaprasad’s Ritu (2009), these movies are still widely considered wholesome and are not often called out for propagating the problematic ‘ideal woman’ archetype.
A look at the family dramas that came out after 2008 will show us that even newbies are still relying on similar themes. In fact, though the young audiences are not very keen on such age-old problematic narratives, the family drama audience (on whom a lot of filmmakers pin their hopes even now) still make a beeline for these movies.
The acceptance that the movies of actor Dileep (an accused in a sexual assault case) like Mayamohini (2012) and Mr. Marumakan (2012), Saji Surendran’s Happy Husbands (2010), Akku Akbar’s Veruthe Oru Bharya (2008), Jibu Jacob’s Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol (2017), and Nissam Basheer’s Kettyolaanu Ente Malakha (2019) received indeed points out that the influence the Multiverse exerted is very much alive.
However, it has to be underlined that movies like The Great Indian Kitchen (2021) and Kumbalangi Nights (2019), which explore the intricacies of interpersonal relationships (among family members too), are like a breath of fresh air for Malayalam cinema.
It is hoped that at least the new era filmmakers break themselves free from the multiverse of misogyny’s influence and create inclusive flicks that reject benevolent sexism.
(Images, courtesy of m3db.com)