Monday 23 April 2018

Women in Aashiq Abu films

He is a self-confessed feminist. Many of the female characters that have come alive on screen under his direction have been called unconventional, radical…may be even feminist. Is there truth to this generalisation? Has his representation of women really gone beyond scraping the surface of ‘shock’, ‘voyeurism’ and a klutzy notion of the ‘radical’? We try to find out.

Tessa - the nurse-turned-avenger in 22 Female Kottayam - isn’t entirely a departure from the celluloid representation of a woman scorned. Of course, she presented in the garb of modernity, but you would agree that not taking the moral high ground while exacting vengeance on the man who betrays her was just for the shock value. As is the supposed composure she maintains while when talking to Cyril about not being a virgin. Though the film presents an interesting heroine, the director eventually reduces the character’s sense of empowerment with a soppy exchange in the climax. In a matter of seconds, vengeance saga becomes playful chick flick, and a thoroughly bemused Cyril promises to “catch her later.”

In stark contrast is Sriram Raghavan’s Ek Haseena Thi - one of the many inspirations for 22 FK. Sarika’s (of EHT) path to revenge is designed with a ruthless scheming that is not so onerously gendered; especially the climax (spoiler alert!) where she leaves him in a cave infested with rats.  Ah, sweet closure!

Ashiq Abu comes across as a director who wants to present a radical, progressive woman through his cinema. But they mostly fall prey to his fundamentally conventional mindset.

In 22 FK, two other female depictions also suffer from the director’s need for overt radicalness and shock value. There is a superficiality in that scene where Tessa’s sister eyes Cyril’s buttocks flirtatiously or in that nurse friend who sleeps with the businessman for money. These are characters who look planted; they are not organic elements of the script.

In Salt N’ Pepper, Maya is a dubbing artiste and though it’s a refreshing choice of profession for a celluloid heroine, she is sketched as someone who is unhappily, desperately single.  Above what is presumably the average age of marriage, her profession is shown as a match to her drab lifestyle. Besides being depicted as short-tempered, she is also shown as someone who is constantly solicited by men simply because of her single status.

Da Thadiya’s Ann Mary Thadikaran is an opportunistic girlfriend (cliche!) who decides to move on to greener pastures when the man she ditches finds himself in a better position.

The journo-turned-wife of Akbar Ali (Gangster) barely registers in our mind while the drug peddler played by Aparna Gopinath looks like a character written to facilitate the female actor’s bold image.

Rani Padmini, as the name suggests, is a story driven around the two women, not necessarily by them. The stereotypes begin with their names and how it’s reflective of their characters. The bold Rani and the docile Padmini—the non-conformist and the conformist. If there is one thing achieved by Shyam Pushkaran and Ravi Shankaran it is this: finally passing the Bechdel test. There are several instances where the characters indulge in a conversation that goes beyond the men in their lives. Their bond is beautifully written and yet the empowerment Padmini experiences is nipped when she so easily forgives her husband who callously signed off on their divorce in a bid to further his personal goals. The absurdity of that moment turns to be the undoing of Rani Padmini.

His best heroine arguably is also in his best movie till date—Mayaanadhi. But again, with the same disturbing paradoxes (it’s more visible upon a second viewing). Appu/Aparna seemingly breaks the glass ceiling when she refuses to let anyone shove chastity down her throat. But the statement “sex is not a promise” again sounded suspiciously like a forced feminist assertion, more of the scriptwriter’s ploy to be part of the changing scenario, where the role of women in cinema is more closely viewed and dissected than ever before.  Appu does come across as ambitious, open about her sexual needs and doesn’t think marriage is the endpoint of their relationship. Yet we aren’t entirely sold on her emancipation. Her relationship with Mathan seems like a case of reversed alpha male depiction. She snubs, dominates, mocks and simply takes him for granted and yet he comes back to her like a lost puppy. And we are made to feel that she is being the kinder of the two. It’s a sweet deception.

The mother in Mayaanadhi, on the other hand,is a relatable character; flawed, unlike the models of eternal sacrifice otherwise seen on screen. She is temperamental, conservative, even selfish. She is still hung up on how the society perceives people. She is aghast at finding her daughter sleeping with her boyfriend. These are moms we can easily relate to.

Aashiq Abu, from where we see it, is a filmmaker who has only scratched the surface. He is a canny marketing whiz who understands how to rake in the social media tinkle, who pegs a film like Mayaanadhi as a progressive woman’s lib moment, when all that it showcases is woman-friendly cinema - with gender roles being switched around the ‘alpha male’ prototype. There’s miles to go before the liberation, Mr. Abu.

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