Sunday, 26 February 2017

Protecting patriarchy: The overpowering voice of misogyny in Malayalam cinema

Words of support poured in from the Malayalam film industry after actor Bhavana was abducted and assaulted in a horrifying incident that shocked Kerala. Actors, directors, and other film professionals condemned the attack and all violence against women. But the sharp contrast between the public statements made by film personalities and their boorish, misogynistic celluloid personas sends confusing signals.

FullPicture examines the mixed messages sent by Malayalam filmdom and the moral responsibility an actor has towards his audience. Where does the reel end and the real begin?

 As actors from Malayalam cinema rallied in support of their colleague what stood out was the patronising voice of patriarchy. Presiding over the function was director Renjith, the one who has made a living out of making his on-screen women prostrate before the alpha-male hero.

The tone was of a big brother (a tribute to probably his own much-feted Valyettan character on screen) who promises to safeguard his sister's honour. Renji Panicker, whose hero Thevalli Parambil Joseph Alex barked at his colleague for her arrogance and refused to rise to her ‘bait’ as he felt she was a ‘mere woman’ talked about the equality of gender and respecting women's rights.

And the loudest gripe was caused by the Megastar, who immortalised these blatantly misogynistic heroes on screen. And his words seem to be a clear reflection of that very image — “Manhood is not about overpowering a woman. It’s about protecting her. Our mothers should give birth to sons of valour, the one who will take on the role of their sister and mother’s protector.”

Advocate Harish Vasudevan Sreedevi called this “the collective joke of the millennium. A classic example of the hypocrisy of Malayalis”.

The superstar alpha males
It’s been over three decades since Mammootty and Mohanlal have maintained their fiefdoms in Malayalam cinema. While there can be no dispute over their talent, it’s ironic that some of their most popular onscreen roles are a case study for the most wanton display of misogyny. Since the late 90s they have taken it upon themselves to don the role of the alpha male, the protector of the ‘weaker’ sex, who belittled a woman with patronising sermons each time she tries to step out of the ‘Lakshman rekha’.

The argument that they were just playing a part and simply mouthing dialogues written by a writer notwithstanding, the reality is that they have influenced and continue to inspire a generation of Malayali men. “I don't expect movies and books to be politically correct but Malayalam cinema is decidedly and almost exclusively and gratuitously anti-woman. They not only reinforce stereotypes but create new regressive ones.

In the world of Malayalam cinema woman is a second-class citizen. And it is evident that even in real life, they cannot come to terms with an equal world. Even the comments after the assault had such blatant shades of patriarchy: the sister we will protect, etc,” says journalist Charmy Harikrishnan

Thanks to social media, the fandom is out in the open—in all its perversity. So much so that when a woman mocked Mohanlal’s 100 crore Pulimurugan, she was abused with the choicest of expletives. The writing on the wall was loud and clear—no one messed with our Lalettan and he was above all criticism. Similarly, Mammootty fans just couldn’t fathom the fuss over feminists opposition to Kasaba— “Now that’s real heroism”—declared his fans.

At a Bangalore multiplex, it was upsetting to be part of a cheering crowd who rooted for Rajan Zachariah, every time he derailed a woman’s dignity with sly sexist dialogues. These were urban educated youth, mind you. Probably their dads would have enacted the scene decades ago at a single screen theatre in Kerala at the actor’s own spirited dialogues in Aavanazhi or Oru Vadakkan Veeragadha. Single screens have made way to swanky multiplexes, bajjis have graduated to grilled sandwiches and ticket rates have escalated, but these towering alpha males and male chauvinism remain unchanged.

In the 80s and 90s that saw their meteoric rise to stardom, it’s interesting to note their onscreen patented images. Mammootty, after exhausting his quota of righteous, sacrificing husbands slowly slipped into the moustache twirling, angry young man roles. Interestingly, Mammootty’s hero rarely donned the lover’s garb. Take some of his most eminent outings in the late 80s and early 90s—Mahayanam, Kottayam Kunjachan, Nair Saab, Sangham, Inspector Balram, The King.

The women seem to bear the brunt of his anger and derision.  They were always relegated to the traditional role of a woman in an Indian society. So one-dimensional that the strong, spirited independent women never found a place in his cinema. They slip in and out of the background without fuss.

That’s why it seems ironic that the most memorable heroine in that period was Narayani, the woman we never see, in Mathilukal. It’s also the most celebrated lover role in his illustrious career graph. Basheer was the subtle, charming lover—the kind of lover that sits lightly on his rival, Mohanlal.

Mohanlal in contrast was your boy next door, the charmer who wooed with abandon —Vandanam, Boeing Boeing, Aye Auto, Kilukkam, Vishnu Lokam, Thalavattam, Yodha, Thoovanathumbikal, Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal. The mid 80s and 90s Mohanlal despite his boy next door lover boy charm, still retained his heroism in many ways.

The heroines, except for Clara whom we still name alongside his Jayakrishnan in Thoovanathumbikal, were still second class citizens. But then Solomon will remain his most epic, path-breaking hero—the one who broke the traditional chains of chastity attached to a woman.

While Mammootty persisted on with the traditional male roleplay (occasionally breaking it with a Danny), Mohanlal too made that dangerous and astonishing transformation into the moustache twirling alpha male in the early 2000, in collaboration with Director Renjith and others. Out came Jagannathan, Poovalli Induchoodan, Zakir Ali Hussain, Ravishankar, Karthikeyan and Kasinathan without full stops.

On any given day, they are inscrutable, unbeatable, knights in shining armour, and extremely desirable. They spew apolitical one-liners and indulge in fistfights. Alpha males who whetted their supremacy over women with sexist barbs. “In the film industry, the superstar has a key role in moulding their dialogues,” explains Harish Vasudev.

And audiences were not averse to these larger-than-life heroes. The humour is often stinging, with starchy references to a woman’s virtue and virginity. Women took it in their stride and they eventually fell at the feet of the demi-god. “It is the misogynistic dialogues these superstars had spewed forth in the last 20 years, and the chauvinistic images their films broadcast, that must have electrified these goondas and egged them on to unleash their kind of shameless violence on women.

What was the message the two were trying to convey? Mohanlal as one of Vishnu's avatar says he wants a wife so that he will have something to land his kicks on. Mammootty as 'King' looks down upon an IPS trainee and tells her she's just a mere girl as though she was more insignificant that the speck of dust that scrunched under his polished-to-a-sparkle boots.

Given that the film industry is a socio-cultural platform, what are these men up to uttering such inanities? Shouldn't there be some civilisational progress? How many women in the industry have the liberty to quote their own pay packets? I think only Manju Warrier could do that. Rest are just bodies, mere girls to be kicked about by the lords of the industry,” is how advocate Harish Vasudev explains in a TV show.

Dileep, though not in the same league as Mammootty and Mohanlal, is a habitual offender in this regard. In Meesa Madhavan (2002), as Madhavan breaks into Meenakshi’s room to steal her aranjanam, he looks desirously at the figure in slumber and mumbles— “I feel like raping her.” He keeps repeating such snide, obnoxious and blunt droplets of offensive, misogynist digs in every single blockbuster movie of his.

 Not withering with age
“Maybe they can argue that an actor shouldn’t restrict himself to doing only certain roles. These roles after all brought them money and stardom. And the audience are mature enough not to mix the reel from real. But my question is, even if cinema is reflecting the times we live in or vice versa, at least at this point of time, when they have the luxury to say no, can’t they take a stand against these sexist depictions and dialogues?

More so when a superstar half their experience like Aamir Khan is doing a film like Dangal, ready to be the pioneer of change in cinema.  An Amitabh Bachchan is doing a Pink that was one of the most talked about films of last year. So, why are they so hell bent on showing heroism all the time?” asks journalist Krishna Kumar.

What is more worrying is that the mantle seems to have been taken over by some of our younger actors as well. When on the one hand Prithviraj comes in support of his colleague and urges media to show compassion, the same actor had no qualms in warning his heroine in Chocolate “to behave herself or he will gleefully make her pregnant.”

There is no doubt that new generation filmmakers are showing more restraint and avoiding stereotyping women but even then, women are still playing second fiddle to men. Note the same patronising note in young superstar Dulquer Salmaan’s post— “It's equally our responsibility to care about, look out for, and to respect and protect our women.”

“90% commercial cinema celebrates heroism. Only the hero is right. The same Prithviraj who reacted strongly against this issue, when I approached him with a script, wants to know whether there are enough scenes to show my heroism. They claim that, my job, my art, but then that’s also your life. That job is what constitutes a major portion of his life. With due respect to their intentions, when it comes to their cinema, are they taking these factors into account? The industry should learn to keep aside male chauvinism in cinema at least now,” says Sanal Kumar Sasidharan in a TV show.

One can only hope that the superstars take note and throw away the misogynistic alpha-male garb for roles featuring a sensitive human being. We await that day eagerly.

(Source: Full Picture)

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