Tuesday 2 July 2019

When there is no village to raise a child: Single mothers in Malayalam cinema

It’s been the subject of everything from derision to romanticisation. Motherhood in general. Single motherhood on the other hand has not had a very successful or composite representation in Malayalam cinema. In this piece we trace the many representations from early 80s to our very own new wave.

Urvashi in the Thulasidas directed Chanchattam (1991) (remake of a K Bhagyaraj film), is a divorcee and a single mother. She walks out of a marriage citing infidelity. Later, with her infant boy she moves to the city and finds employment in a firm that unfortunately has her ex-husband as her boss. Though she is shown as independent, it’s a very grumpy picture you get. Wearing oversized glasses, Yamuna still hasn’t gotten over her husband or his betrayal and reacts to him like a spoilt teenager. While her husband is the calm, empathising character who, in his new office, is treated as an object of desire by the women, while Yamuna’s marital status is always the source of gossip. The narrative typically ends up siding with him and making her apologise for the choices she made.

This is just one of the many depictions of single motherhood in Malayalam cinema, who are either miserable, lonely, judged, or sexually deprived and are considered incapable unless of course they find a man to live with.

In the 1985 film Oru Nokku Kaanan Ambika, who plays an unwed single mother, has to fight unwanted attention from men despite holding a position of power.

But in Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare, where the heroine is a widow and a mother, she struggles to accept the reality of losing her husband as well as being a single parent. The film is narrated from the point of view of a lonely young child, and goes deeper into the complexities of a single mother.

In the 1986 Padmarajan film, Kariyila Kattu Pole, a crime thriller, one of the female leads is an unwed single mother, a survivor of a brutal rape by the hero (Mammootty). Fate eventually brings the daughter and father face-to-face, while there is nothing problematic about the sketch of a single mother, the alarming issue is the total apathy towards the survivor in the film. The film at no point lets us ponder over the abject brutality Shilpa’s mother is subjected to.

In films like Mambhazhakaalam, Kilukkampetti and Minnaram, though the heroines aren’t biological mothers, till the point it is unravelled, the narratives are wrought with clichés. Apart from the obvious shift in the desirability quotient, they are also prey to the societal judgemental lens. In Kilukkampetti, though he falls for her despite her single mother status, there is a loud statement in his reaction to her admission that it’s her sister’s child. Chastity is also subtly played up here.

As long as her status is that of a widow, though she is still made to feel vulnerable, society empathises with her more than it would a divorced woman who is also a single mother.

The heroine in Siddique’s Bhaskar the Rascal (Nayanthara), is a single mother of a school-going girl. Despite being financially independent she is shown in an uncomfortable scene where a group of men think that her single status makes her a weakling and make sexually coloured remarks about her. More unsettling is her silent endorsement of it— “Being a single mother, I have limitations and have to put up with all these things,” she tells her daughter who is visibly appalled.

Remya in Left Right Left, is an interesting character. Being at the receiving end of an abusive marriage, she manipulates a man who is in love with her, into committing her husband’s murder and coolly walks out on him. Though what she does to her unsuspecting admirer is hardly justifiable, it also sketches raw her history of marital abuse that prompts her to plot a crime of this magnitude. When she leaves abroad with her son, one is tempted to just view it through her angle. An abused woman and a single mother who was running away from everything that reminded her of the past and struggling to make a life for herself and her son.

In Ennum Eppozhum, Manju Warrier plays an urban single mother and lawyer who even after coming out of a bad marriage finds herself being manipulated by her ex for the custody of their daughter.

But in Achuvinte Amma, Urvashi’s single mother not only has a bizarre backstory about rescuing the child and adopting her, we are also shown the society’s myopic reactions to her single status. The single mothers almost never confidently talk about being single; they either hesitate or fib to shield themselves from being judged or accosted by men.

Perhaps the most empowering depiction has to be Sujatha in Udaharanam Sujatha. A domestic worker, she doesn’t come from a space of privilege and yet is free from society’s prying eyes (save for a lone silent admirer) and allowed to struggle and make her dreams come true, without ever compromising on her dignity or importantly  without the help of a man.  Sarojini in Bhoothakkannadi comes closer, though unlike the maternal Sujatha, Sarojini who has a teenage daughter is also savouring her relationship with her lover.  She isn’t scared to explore her sexuality and seems to be the more pro-active partner in the relationship.

In Kadha Thudarunnu the heroine with her only child finds herself on the streets after the death of her husband. The journey from then on is helped by the hero who quietly takes her under his wings and helps her fly.

And then there is the mother from Kumbalangi Nights who chose to walk away from the responsibility of one and took refuge in spirituality. The boys grew up into men and learned to fend for themselves. There is only one scene that shows the mother and sons (two are her stepsons) having a conversation, just a casual, awkward talk without drama. In the next scene, it’s heartening to see how the stepson defends her choice even when her own son judges her. “She has suffered and done enough. Poor woman,” he says. Motherhood demystified and normalised beautifully.

(Source: Full Picture)

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