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The Many Misogynies of Malayalam Cinema


Meena T Pillai ( is Director, Centre for Cultural Studies, and Professor, Institute of English, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.

This article was published in EPW-

In the context of the recent sexual molestation of an actor in a public space in Kerala, this article analyses Malayalam cinema’s language of neo-liberal governmentality that seeks to police gendered subjectivities and regiment them within its diegetic and social terrains. It looks at the new kinds of networks forged between culture industries, the ideological state apparatus, a transformed civil society, corporate agendas, and individual actors in evolving newer forms of surveillance and punishment of bodies marginalised by gender and sexuality. The aporia of Kerala’s modernity that results in certain retrograde tendencies is most evident in its cinematic discourses, especially those built around its current investment in male superstardom.

A spectre is haunting Malayalam cinema, in fact many cinemas in India—the spectre of male superstardom. Kerala’s culture industry is written over by male desires, both economic and libidinal, and has become a superstructural expression of a reified capitalist patriarchy. It is also to a large extent today a commercial enterprise afflicted with varying degrees of mafiaisation, where the entertainment component displays a censored and censoring moral upper crust while the corrupt underbelly dips into less than licit businesses and partnerships, including money laundering, hawala dealings, predatory moneylending, pimping, blackmail, extortions, and loan-sharking that would necessitate a nexus with gangsters. The withdrawal of state subsidies and state funding for cinema, and the installation of cinema as the only art form that could weave itself seamlessly into the production–consumption industrial model within a market economy has contributed to undermining its ideological and aesthetic value. This has also led to cinema being established as the most viable of mass culture productions in its commodity form, validating, in a particularly localised context, Theodor Adorno’s seminal critique of the political economy of the culture industry.

That Malayalam cinema is steeped in misogyny to the core, blatantly and obnoxiously so, may be a given. But the recent dramatic events, while revealing the rot in its film industry, also point at the entrenched hypocrisy so characteristic of its cultural polity. A young woman, and a well-known actor at that, was on the night of 17 February 2017 waylaid on the national highway en route Kochi, forced into another vehicle, sexually molested, and had objectionable content involving her recorded by seven men in a moving car. The actor was brave enough to file a police complaint, undergo a medical examination and record her statement. The prime accused and his accomplices were soon arrested but there were attempts to write off the case as one of sexual assault by a bunch of history-sheeters for the purpose of extorting money through blackmail. However, the relentless media and public outcry kept the case under the spotlight, and constantly debated the possibility of there being a criminal conspiracy. Disturbing revelations were made about the fact that other female actors had undergone such assaults in the past, but had kept silent in fear of the “shame” and unwarranted attention it would force upon them. Finally, four months after the latest incident, Dileep, a self-styled “superstar” of the Malayalam film industry, was arrested on charges of criminal conspiracy. The police argued in court that Dileep had a personal grudge against the actor, over marital discord with his former wife who had filed for divorce.

While this is the bare bones of the story, the real plot lies elsewhere. There is indeed something rotten in the state of Kerala. It suffers from institutionalised misogyny in industrial, administrative, and educational workspaces. Its entrenchment in the religious, social, cultural, and political unconscious of the state makes it easy to render such misogynies invisible or to ignore oppression of or violence against women because they are women. Cinema is easily woven into this larger project of coercing into silence half the population of the state by co-opting them into a patriarchal mindset. The political left and the radical right forget their ideological differences in coming together to silence or repress feminist traditions of resistance and rebellion.

Dileep’s own personal life and professional trajectory have been illustrative. He flaunts himself as janapriya nayakan or “popular hero”’; his star identity was secured through a host of highly misogynist films. His personal life has been marked by his former marriage to the highly talented and critically acclaimed actor Manju Warrier when at the pinnacle of her career. Manju Warrier subsequently left films and was also allegedly prevented from pursuing dance, with Dileep time and again reiterating that his wife’s place was at home. However, Manju secured a divorce after 17 years and managed to return to Malayalam cinema and her own art. What is crucial in these incidents is that the personal is indeed political. Film after film starring Dileep has been about a typical romance, which celebrates the cult of domesticity and where women can find identity or meaning in their lives only in and through a man.

The housewifisation of women that is the cultural logic of Dileep’s films, and many other films in post- liberalisation Kerala, is a deep-seated malady that needs to be probed from multiple angles. For one, female employment in Kerala sharply lags behind men. “As per the 68th Round of NSSO (for 2011–12), the state average labour participation rate [LPR] is 40.3%, female LPR in Kerala is 24.8% and that of males 57.8% … the need to empower Kerala women with decent employment is urgent” (State Planning Board 2017: 234). This structural subordination of women’s livelihoods and rights in Kerala ought to be read in tandem with the rise of new patriarchies in the state. It has occurred in the context of the dominance of the market economy with its entailing culture of commodification, where it has become necessary to establish the home as the fundamental market for both goods and entertainment and the “housewife” as the prime agent of consumption.

The 1990s, in Kerala as in most other parts of India, witnessed the most drastic changes in its social and cultural life with the opening up of the Indian economy and its integration into a global capitalist market. The middle-classisation of Kerala society brought about a structural change in the social fabric involving a deradicalisation and embourgeoisement of the organised and the unionised working classes (Morrison 1997; Heller 1999). Partha Chatterjee’s contention that the post-liberalisation era has been characterised by the emergence of a capitalist class in a position of moral–political hegemony in civil society (Chatterjee

2008: 57) holds true for the Malayalam film industry as well. A newly liberalised economy that resulted in the creation of a spectacle of market excess became the most significant marker of Malayalam cinema post-1990s. One also saw in this period the syndicatisation of the film industry, which contributed to a propensity to control and regimentalise artists and technicians. Also crucial was the valorisation of the star. This was in a continuum with the refeudalisation of the public sphere, which was in turn legitimised by cinema through the re-traditionalisation of intimacy on the one hand and feudal nostalgia on the other (Pillai 2013). Malayalam cinema’s conservative backlash has come to be characterised by the idealisation of a feudal past, apolitical posturing, unconcealed male chauvinistic and sexist bias, and a strident revivalist rhetoric (Ramachandran 1995: 110).

The Birth of the Star

Post-liberalisation, when cinema metamorphosed from art to industry, creativity became saddled with notions of control and predictability. Market formulas emerged for the success of films. Organised production and standardised film types that tapped spectacle and stardom became a sure way of wooing large audiences. This synchronisation of the “merchandise” of cinema with an emerging consumerist capitalist culture was predicated on big budgets and maximising profits. This was also the historic juncture when “the death of the director” was staged. Malayalam cinema had great directors at one time, from Ramu Karyat to K S Sethumadhavan, G Aravindan, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, K G George, Padmarajan, and many others. But the director has been slowly edged to the margins, his sole function restricted to faithfully rendering visually a market-researched, pre-visualised drama.

The birth of the star occurred in parallel with this death of the director. Earlier, stars in Malayalam cinema were always honed and controlled by a director, with the films carrying the distinct signature of the auteur. Post-1990, the rise of the “megastar,” “superstar,” and “people’s star” consolidated the significance of glamour and spectacle in cinema. The arrival of digital cinema in the new millennium compounded the problem; it democratised the medium, making film-making cheaper and faster but in the process making it more vulnerable to the market and mass desires. Superstars began deciding who would direct them and who the rest of the cast and crew would be. It has been pointed out that the star system is an apparatus that posits stars as the truth of the films, thereby reducing the capacity of the reality of a film to question the true identity of the actor, and that it leads us to that which is behind or beyond the image (deCordova 1991). A cine spectator spends money not on the film per se but to experience the identity of a star. The Dileep incident strikes a blow to this perceived equivalence of a star with the concealed truth of the film.

When a film is rated on its star value and production value rather than on its artistic merit, one can safely surmise that the society in which the cultural text is embedded is deeply market-oriented and consumerist. The semiotics of stardom necessitates a network space in which audiences, fan associations, media houses, the fashion and cosmetic industries, and the advertisement industry are all ratified in one way or the other by the fetishist power of stardom. Stars and celebrities are integral to a consumerist culture offering great scope for the legitimisation and endorsement of a vast number of commodities. They determine the sites of purchase, the circuits of desires, and patterns of consumption.

This ideological manipulation and seductive containment of an earlier history of egalitarian socialist values of Kerala’s social reform movements became most evident in the post-liberalisation phase of Malayalam cinema. Starting from the 1990s, Malayalam cinema’s overinvestment in stardom, starting with Mohanlal

and Mammooty, and moving on to lesser actors such as Dileep, provides symbolic goods strong enough to defeat earlier socialist paradigms, create and endorse new age caste and gender romanticisations, and reinforce social hegemonies. The rise of stardom and its cultural signifiers spawned new pleasures of consumption for the audiences. The media too played co-conspirator in selectively projecting and promoting popular cinema, using stardom’s masculinist and capitalist spectacles to increase their own ratings. Thus, for example, the production of cinema is directly linked to the media hankering after stardom where the satellite rights to the film are bought by TV channels depending on the star value of its hero. This parasitic/symbiotic relationship of two industries of Kerala, where there are few other industries to boast of, make award nights, star shows, and music nights as well as celebrity gossip, the staple fare of entertainment on television. Amidst all this, women’s issues and the rights of marginalised sections get sidelined.

The “New Wave” cinema of the 1970s had underplayed the masculinity myth and revealed it as fragile and vulnerable. Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Swayamvaram (1972) and Elipathayam (1981), G Aravindan’s Kanchana Sita (1977), K G George’s Irakal (1985) and Adaminte Variyellu (1983), and Padmarajan’s Peruvazhiyambalam (1979), all showed masculinities that were ridden with anxieties and in crisis. But what the “New Wave” sought to install in the cultural imaginary of Kerala was negated post-1990s. Neo-liberalism, not just as an economic policy, but also as an agent for putting into social discourse new forms of hegemony and governmentality, became most trenchantly active in Malayalam cinema. It revealed itself in the ways in which it imagined new subjects and implemented ways of regimenting them, by proliferating new paths of desiring and new spaces of consumption.

Setting Up the Network

The trope of “janapriya nayakan,” or popular hero, invoked by Dileep during this period is to be critiqued in the context of a network society—wherein power is exercised through networks (Castells 2011)—within the forces of globalisation. As defined by Castells, it is an organisational form that is built around business projects and networks amongst themselves for a given project (Castells 1996). The media has become the essential space of politics, where media politics means to simplify the message. The simplest message is an image and the simplest image is a person (Castells 2009: 158). To take my earlier argument further, when the simplest message becomes the image of the star, and that star is able to tap into this media politics to achieve a higher order of power, “the power of flows in the network,” which can dominate “the flows of power,” then he becomes the game changer of an industry. This is precisely what has happened with Malayalam cinema. Stars, venerated in the media as “superstars,” who own the flow of cinema networks, from production, distribution, and exhibition, become nothing short of a cine mafia with linkages to other licit and illicit networks.

Following Dileep’s recent arrest, public relations (PR) agencies were deployed to whitewash the image of the actor through planned propaganda campaigns on social media and elsewhere. There also were orchestrated attempts to tarnish the credibility of the victim of the crime by perpetuating negative stories about her on media networks. “There seems to be an explosion of articles from unheard films and news websites on Facebook and WhatsApp trying to paint a human face to Dileep, making many suspect that a well-heeled PR machinery is at work” (Outlook 2017). The different kinds of organised campaigns in favour of Dileep tilted public opinion in his favour and enabled fans to vouch for his innocence more assertively.

Conspiracy theories and the #supportDileep campaign remind one of the similar campaign for Salman Khan.

One witnessed the systematic setting up and programming of a network, whereby the stars became the owners and controllers of corporations and institutions that function within cinema and between cinema and other areas of art and enterprise. The birth of associations for actors and technicians had been undertaken initially with the intention of forming artists’ guilds that would work for the benefit of its members. From a loosely constituted Malayala Chalachitra Parishad, the Malayalam Cine Technicians Association (MACTA) was formed in 1993. Subsequently, the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) was formed. The Film Employees’ Federation of Kerala (FEFKA) emerged out of a split in MACTA.

It is rumoured that Dileep had a role in the split within MACTA and the formation of FEFKA, and that he engineered a split within the Kerala Film Exhibitors Federation (KFEF). The Indian Express reported on 15 January 2017, “The who’s who of the Malayalam film industry vowed to ‘liberate’ theatres from the clutches of vested interests. According to actor Dileep, who is in the forefront of the movement, a new organisation represented by the different arms of the industry—production, distribution, marketing, and exhibition—will be launched within one week.” Dileep’s new association, officially named the Film Exhibitors United Organisation of Kerala, sought to bring together producers, theatre owners and distributors.

With the setting up of a network of this kind, Malayalam cinema thus passed into the hands of a small number of conglomerates and their star surrogates and partners. The managers of megastars became producers and the stars could be approached only through these networks. Moreover, the star networks within associations and unions in Malayalam cinema began acting as hegemonic conglomerates functioning to gain total control over both the market and the industry, resulting in a fetishisation of entertainment and the feudalisation of power. In 2009, MACTA accused the superstars, and especially Dileep, of scuttling its projects and applying pressure tactics to implement invisible expulsions and bans. In 2009, Thilakan, one of the most consummate of artists in Malayalam cinema, was expelled from AMMA on the grounds of indiscipline. Malayalam cinema witnessed one of its most shameful moments as star barons decided the fate of great artists through bans and ostracisation. The mechanism of ostracism, whether perceived or real, seeks to install and stabilise a larger power network of illicit businesses, underworld stakeholders, corrupt politicians, and human traffickers within the cinema industry. The disciplinary and punitive technologies of power that emerge from this network ensure the creation of docile bodies in the film industry and internalisation of regimes of discipline so that silence becomes a self-regulating mechanism at the individual level. The sexual attack on the actor was thus premised on the success of such disciplining devices to have created cultures of tolerance towards structural, economic, and physical violations.

Dileep as a star personifies this new tendency in Malayalam cinema kick-started by the ascent of superstardom—the rise of a film syndicate that seeks to gain complete control of the entire market of production, distribution and exhibition, and of the rights and lives of co-stars and technicians. This leads to a syndicated entertainment model replete with production houses, theatres, and distribution companies owned by the stars and satellite channel rights fixed according to the “star value” of the film. For example, Dileep has a film production company, Grand Production, which has produced one of the greatest hits of Malayalam cinema, CIDMoosa (2003), and also films such as Twenty-20 (2008) in which all the superstars of Malayalam cinema came together. This film was produced on behalf of the Association of Malayalam Movie

Artists as a fundraiser to financially support struggling actors. It turned out to be the highest grossing film in Malayalam until 2014. Dileep was one of the producers of the film, and is said to have bought the rights for ₹40 million.

Thus, the film was produced by Dileep, distributed by his distribution company Manjunatha Release, with satellite rights being bought by Surya TV, and the music by Manorama Music. The network that thus emerges signals a global vertical integration, with the film reaching millions of Malayalees the world over, control over it resting securely in the hands of an entertainment syndicate that has the economic power to monopolise production, distribution and exhibition.

The Trope of Family and Stardom

Action, slapstick humour, sexual innuendo, hegemonic masculinity, and regressive femininity are all hallmarks of a Dileep film. Cine audiences born into and moulded by these hegemonic pleasure networks, learn to create shared cultural meanings and markers that aestheticise such pleasures. These scopophilic and identificatory pleasures echo a politics that requires a focused critique of the culture industry of cinema as it functions in Kerala and elsewhere in India today. Malayalam cinema’s present crisis has roots that run deep into the extra-cinematic sphere. The attack on the female actor and the spectacle generated in its aftermath have to be viewed not as a singular incident but a symptom of social and cultural morbidity. The discursive camouflage of Kerala’s modernity has, for a long time now, cloaked the desires and discontent of the women of Kerala and subsumed them within the private domain under a cloak of feminine mystique. The sabotaging and silencing of the feminine has also become a prerequisite of hegemonic masculinity in Kerala.

Also, one of the most significant tropes in the cultural and social imaginary of Kerala is that of family and stardom, which often necessitated the portrayal of the star’s family as essential to the constitution of the star persona. The star’s credibility rested on his secure conjugal status and the apparent conjugal bliss of his spouse. It would be reasonable to conjecture how the family man is integral to stardom in Malayalam cinema and the wooing of family audiences, as also to the ideal of an ethnic masculinity. How audiences and stardom are culturally designed and industrially stabilised, how popular cinema mobilises the cultural memory of its audience to make patriarchy seem natural, and misogyny either invisible or innocuous are important subtexts of such exercises.

It is interesting to note how the media reports on Dileep’s police custody and questioning were interspersed with speculation on the reasons for his personal vendetta against the actor. It was reported that Dileep felt that it was the actor who had broken his family and instigated his former wife to file for divorce by carrying claims of his relationship with his current wife to her. The root cause of the sexual molestation is said to be the star’s personal vendetta against the victim. One sees here traces of anxiety around the star image that is punctured by the inability to keep one’s wife and family happy. The normative gender narrative—that a brilliant actor like Manju Warrier could be shackled to the confines of her home for 17 years, with the husband constantly speaking about her complete fulfilment as his wife and the mother of his child—was shattered when she filed for divorce and walked out of the marriage. The cleverly orchestrated feminine mystique received a blow and the severity of its effect, the crushing of the masculine ego, is evident in the accused bringing it up at the time of questioning.

That women in Kerala continue to be defined through their conjugal femininity while hegemonic masculinity continues to be constructed, enacted, and performed around control and subjugation of the feminine is what is to be read as the subtext of this much-repeated statement of the actor. This also speaks volumes about the fraught relation between women and the modern in Kerala, once again calling into question the gender blindness of Kerala’s modernity. Right from P K Rosy, the first woman, and a Dalit at that, to appear in Malayalam cinema’s first film, female actors in Kerala have grappled with off-screen and on-screen violence which takes numerous forms, including slut shaming and gossip to various other kinds of exploitative tactics. Female actors in Malayalam cinema have chosen to quit the profession post-marriage as though acting has never gained societal sanction as a legitimate domain of female labour. In the larger Keralite society, many women have been forced to give up education, dreams, and careers post-marriage. This denial of a woman’s subjectivity, whether be it a star like Manju Warrier or an ordinary woman, is a ploy to create a servile and dehumanised other whose subjugation and domination can then be ensured.

Dileep is thus representative of a social phenomenon in Malayalam cinema and Keralite society at large, seeking to control the cultural construction of femininity on the one hand, and the real bodies of women in the public and private spaces on the other. After Warrier’s divorce, Dileep came out with a movie on dogs with deplorable puns and third-rate innuendos wherein he sought to trash all women who attempt to jump their “kennels.” This was targeted at all wives who dared to file a divorce petition, the purpose being to establish that such women can only be looking for sexual fulfilment outside a conjugal relationship. On the other hand, the actor’s molestation on a highway in a moving car re-enacts hegemonic masculinity in the public domain. These different kinds of hegemonic masculinities function to undermine democracy and to violate human rights. The loopholes provided by the repressive state apparatus, the support offered by the ideological one, a profit-mongering market economy, and the endless misogynies of Malayalam cinema and the larger Keralite society, all serve to illustrate how individual episodes and isolated incidents are linked up with large-scale organisation of power.

Growing Crisis of Masculinity

Significant in this context is that Dileep, in contrast to Mammooty and Mohanlal, has played out different kinds of alternative or non-hegemonic masculinities, for instance in Chanthupottu (2005), Marykkundoru Kunjaadu (2010), Sound Thoma (2013), and many other films. He experiments with new forms of bourgeoisie and working class male subjectivities. Though straying away from an exclusively masculine pantheon, he has nevertheless embraced the cultural logic of patriarchal systems. Dileep plays characters who are outside normative masculinity but are nevertheless rather too close to the object of male desire. This “too closeness” marks the relationship of the Dileep hero with his heroines. He deviates from hegemonic masculinity, which, while being the normative archetype, nevertheless remains an unachievable ideal for most men. Dileep’s heroes gravitate towards what is more normal in a more statistical sense and therefore make it possible for a maximum number of men to identify with them. For ordinary men, it is easier to relate to Dileep’s non-hegemonic, masculine heroes.

Dileep’s heroes also alleviate the anxieties evoked by the practices of hegemonic masculinities by making available alternative spaces of identification. Within this complicated dynamics, his screen personae also echo a growing crisis of masculinity in Kerala in the wake of women’s movements and their assertions to selfhood, human rights, and the economic independence of women. Many of Dileep’s movies such

as Inspector Garud (2007), Pattanathil Sundaran (2003), and My Boss (2012), echo the anxiety of not-so- successful, not-so-powerful, diffident men who struggle to make a living in a world of successful women. In Pattanathil Sundaran (2003), the wife gets the job while the man experiences a sense of eroding masculinity in the context of his unemployment. While in Inspector Garud (2007), an ordinary inspector has a wife who is an IAS officer. In My Boss (2012), Dileep plays a servile subordinate to Mamta Mohandas, his overbearing CEO. Thus, the economic uncertainties in men, in the wake of intellectual and career advancements made by women create a reconfigured cultural map.

The competitive individualism which came in the wake of liberalisation refuses traditional gender hierarchies and accentuated a crisis in masculinity. Men felt less secure in their masculine moorings. This crisis is most obviously revealed in Malayalam cinema where cinema simultaneously constitutes and reflects social history and social processes. The nuclear bourgeois family, which had been the linchpin of Kerala’s modernity and into which reformed women of an earlier kinship system have been seduced to function under new regimes of social and cultural control, itself seems to have come under a new kind of siege. The increasing pressure on women to work outside their homes and to earn salaries towards the family’s upkeep, has transformed the dynamics of this social unit and contributed to increasing masculine paranoia. Dileep’s films function to shore up a reformulated patriarchy that echoes the male anxieties of this age.

Comedy is central to Dileep’s stardom. He began as a mimicry artist. However, it is bawdy jokes, sexual innuendos, misogynist puns, and slapstick humour that make his films such as Meesa Madhavan (2002), Mr Marumakan (2012), Mayamohini (2012), and Sringaravelan (2013) huge commercial successes. His popularity would have been due to the construction of a cine persona in tune with the values of Malayalam cine audiences. Dileep’s early fumbling, thick-headed simpleton roles fitted in with the identificatory model of most viewers. It was his man-next-door familiarity and his handling of alternative masculinities, as in Chanthupottu (2005)and Mayamohini (2012), which seemed to speak to a middle class morality and buttressed familial values, both of which then formed the subtext of his frolic and play. However, I argue that Dileep’s films make use of camp as a subcultural reception strategy by which non-hegemonic masculinities can also be represented in mainstream culture in a humorous and non-threatening manner. As Susan Sontag points out, “The whole point of camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious’. One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious” (Sontag 1961: 277). In patriarchal, misogynist societies, humour or camp becomes an effective ploy for representing masculinities in a less offensive, innocuous manner, making misogyny appealing to the masses through its bad taste and tongue-in-cheek suggestions. But the banality, frivolity, and mediocrity that were the highlight of Dileep’s films came to represent the industry’s formulaic aesthetic.

The gradual erasure of New Wave influences and avant garde movements, the overwhelming capitalist logic ruling the semantics and aesthetics of cinema, embourgeoisement of the artist and gentrification of leisure and entertainment industries, gentrification of the processes of production and viewing, cinema’s parasitic dependence on television, and vice versa, have all contributed to the transformed terrain of Malayalam cinema post-1990s. One curious phenomenon is the successful infiltration of Tamil cinema into Kerala’s home market, with its ideological implications and its effects on the film culture and cinematic idiom. The superstardom and spectacle of Tamil movies have created a crucial shift in the nature of fandom as well. The rise of a few superstars who command an increasing proportion of the economic value that the film

industry generates rests upon strategies to create cultures of viewing which depend on star-studded digital spectacles. Malayalam cinema had always claimed an opposing ideological paradigm from Tamil cinema’s superhero worship, but this seems to be no longer the case, with fan associations celebrating stars in the Tamilian way with great pomp. Chris Rojek has argued that celebrity status always implies a split between a private self and a public self where the presentation of the latter is always a staged activity in which the human actor presents a face to others while keeping a large part of the self in reserve (Rojek 2001: 11). While Malayalees had not promoted the slippage between what George Herbert Mead called the veridical self or “I” and the self seen by others or “me”, the large-scale rise of cultures of fandom and fan associations necessitated a minimising of the distance between “I” and “me” (Rojek 2001: 11).

Retrogade Modernity

The attack on the actor reflects the values and anxieties of the film industry but also of the larger society. As an actor, and a woman in Kerala’s public domain, she is at once reduced to a paradigmatic symbol of the culture increasingly structured around the erotics and aesthetics of the female as commodity. On the other hand, the attack also emphasises the patriarchal logic of modernity by underwriting the quintessential masculinity of the social, marginalising women to the private, inexpressible, and repressed realms that is part and parcel of the process of othering her. The attack was engineered with the confidence that the actor would remain silent about her “shaming.” This blackmailing schema implicitly means that the society perceives the shame to be hers and also emphasises her perceived powerlessness.

Misogyny of this magnitude cannot be endemic to cinema alone. Most certainly, it has seeped in from the larger society. The fear felt by the women of Kerala suggests that the state’s renaissance claims, the supposed attainment of civil and political rights by all sections of the people as part of the modernity project, and the flaunting of high development indices, all need to be re-evaluated and critiqued from historical and sociological perspectives. The large-scale communalisation of politics in Kerala, which harks back to the reform movements of caste and community identities under the aegis of a colonial modernity, has had a marked effect in the masculinisation of Kerala’s public sphere in recent years, whereby large sections of its women find themselves groomed and grounded within the undemocratic precincts of the private sphere, sabotaged by intimate and affective economies (Pillai 2014). The mass movements of civil liberties, social equity, and justice that characterise Kerala’s experience of renaissance and modernity stand in sharp contrast to the consolidation of religious rights and the soft selling of conservative hegemonic values in a re-feudalised public sphere in recent times.

The increasing levels of social inequality in post-liberalisation Kerala belie official claims of an egalitarian society and there is rising concern about the shroud of elusive silence that overshadows the status of women and marginalised communities in the state. The forces that made possible the native impulses of Kerala’s renaissance with the caste reform movements and subaltern uprisings in the 19th and early 20th centuries have been held hostage by the dominant elites of those very communities and groups. The civil society-bred political elites in Kerala have recourse to two languages, the language of civil rights and the language of political influence and power, invoking each according to convenience and necessity with access to and control over resources, both material and human. They have also at their behest institutions, religious organisations and political parties, which act as pressure groups, rallying for the political rights of the elite. In the long run, this has led to an appropriation of the concept of civil society, redefining it to mean the political bargaining that helps legitimise the hegemonic agendas of the elites of various heterogeneous communities and religions that constitute Kerala’s social and political terrain. The bourgeoning symbiosis of religion and politics in the post-liberalisation context has resulted in a market economy-driven religious and political imagination. The result has been a moral turpitude in both realms. Seeping through all these structures of caste and religious associations, legal, political and administrative systems, and social and cultural imaginaries, is the language of patriarchy which is so deeply entrenched in Kerala that a woman finds it impossible to live life on her own merit. Gender relations seem to be an aspect in which the state is losing ground at a phenomenal level.

The image of a reinvented civil society which has been the backbone of social reforms and creative interventions in the state has been eclipsed by everyday neo-liberalism and cultural impoverishment. This needs a political struggle for an ethical Kerala (Ravi Raman 2010: 16). Thus, the project of modernity in Kerala remains not only incomplete, it will continue to exhibit retrograde tendencies as long as the telos to reason fails to attain a social dimension by subjecting itself to the processes of democratisation assiduously, both in the private and public spheres.

However, the recent criminal conspiracy in the film world and the gruesome manner of its execution also brought in its wake two incidents that portend great hope. The first is of course the courage of the molested actor to boldly approach the police and file a case, particularly given the earlier unwillingness on the part of female actors to do so. It signals a positive change in the ways of politically confronting the question of women’s vexed relation to notions of the ideal feminine in Kerala and the implicit violence of the gendered, gendering world of Malayalam cinema. The spectatorial and narrative pleasures of our cinemas will come under scrutiny with other female actors too starting to speak out about the “casting couches” in the industry, exposing the structures of its patriarchal feudal stardom, and challenging its masculinist, phallogocentric practices.

The second development is the formation of the Women in Cinema Collective in Kerala. On 18 May 2017, a group of 15 female professionals in cinema met the chief minister of Kerala and informed him and the media of the formation of the collective. Though its immediate catalyst was the brutal attack on their colleague, the collective raised a number of silent questions which had been haunting Malayalam film industry since its inception, such as:

Why are there so few women in the Malayalam film industry? Why are the Vishakha guidelines and the subsequent Justice Verma committee report not applicable in our workspaces? If I am a film professional, do I have no maternity, healthcare or insurance benefits? Why does my contract not ensure that I have certain basic facilities available while I am working? If I have a security issue while working on a film, and not just on location, who do I go to? Where are the wage structures which look objectively at contribution and commerce? What about the (in)famous casting couch? Why are there no informal spaces of interaction where women can participate with dignity? Are there stories that women need to tell? (Paul 2017)

For the first time in the history of Malayalam cinema, of any cinema industry in India for that matter, there is an insistence on the imperative to create a space and devise a means of speaking as a woman, to re-vision sexed subjectivities in cinema and to puncture its masculine language with feminine needs, desires and anxieties. It will hopefully move a step forward in imagining and addressing the larger collective of women in

Kerala, by not only radically critiquing, and destabilising the masculinisation of female spectator positions here but also challenging the myth and mystique of the historically orchestrated Malayali ideal feminine.


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Updated On : 24th Aug, 2017

6 Replies to “The Many Misogynies of Malayalam Cinema”

  1. Having been part of the industry and yet an outsider to the intricate working of the industry, this is an eye opener. I hope we get back to the times where movies were an extension of art and entertainment.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A great writing on the reason to create WCC in Kerala. I have not seen such well written articles which states facts and reasons to believe in the formation of Women in Cinema Collective. Actress Parvathy Thiruvothu has been a great inspiration to many. Thank you.


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