If ever you are plagued by doubts about whether India is culturally one nation, watch our soaps or commercial cinema across languages.
Debutant director Nithin Renji Panicker’s Mammootty-starrer Kasaba perfectly exemplifies the shared cinematic tastes of India’s masses, beyond state borders and regional boundaries. It was released in Kerala on Eid and this week has come to theatres in Delhi, having already reportedly smashed the Kerala box-office.
The megastar of God’s Own Country is the story’s Circle Inspector Rajan Zachariah, an elderly brattish policeman with a trademark swagger who does not play by the rules. That is a polite way of saying he commits atrocities against members of the public. When a policeman dies in a mysterious incident in a town called Kalipuram on the Kerala-Karnataka border, Zachariah asks for a transfer there since two of his acquaintances were also killed in the incident.
In Kalipuram, he encounters the attractive brothel keeper Kamala (Varalaxmi Sarathkumar), her middle-aged lover Parameshwaran Nambiar (Sampath Raj) who is a politician, Kamala’s sidekick Thankachan (Alancier Lay Lopez), the ‘good prostitute’ Susan (Neha Saxena) and sub-inspector Mukundan (Jagadish).
Most films in this genre — yes, this kind of cop drama is a genre unto itself — get around those tiny little thingies called ethics and human rights violations by portraying the protagonist as a golden-hearted, well-intentioned chap constrained by a corrupt system and compelled to go outside it to deliver justice to beleaguered common folk. Not so much here. Kasaba just cursorily refers to the systemic issues that hold back honest police officials. Besides, though Zachariah’s desire to solve those murders purportedly drives the film, what truly drives it is his sickening misogyny couched in ‘humour’ and smart-alec dialoguebaazi.
That misogyny irretrievably mars this otherwise effective — though loud and not extraordinary — suspense thriller, the kind that India calls timepass fare. Over-the-top, stylised action flicks can be enjoyable if they get their tone right. Unfortunately, Panicker’s work seems rooted in a conviction that you cannot entertain the janata without bottom-of-the barrel sexist one-liners.
It is all very cleverly handled though, with justifications pre-emptively built into the script. For instance, in one scene, a woman police officer — Zachariah’s junior in age, but senior in the profession — unbuttons her uniform shirt (because, y’know how it is, a woman’s body is her only weapon against a cheeky man) before she needlessly needles him. He strikes her down with his words, grabs her by the belt, and as he holds her crotch against his, makes a disgusting comment about how he could disrupt her bodily functions.
Note: A pointed effort is made here to mark her out as an outsider by having her speak in Hindi and mention her IPS cadre. This woman is clearly not a Malayali, her accent suggests she is a north Indian. Is that meant to be another point in Zachariah’s favour?
Four centuries after Petruchio “tamed” Katherina in Shakespeare’s England, men across Indian film industries are still taming those damned shrews. Y’know how it is.
This scene in Kasaba has been as carefully designed as those Malayalam teleserials in which husbands smack their wives after they have been built up over several episodes as scheming witches out to harm the docile women and hapless men of the family. This sort of scripting is calculated to give fans excuses such as, “She asked for it. She started it. C’mon, it’s her fault.”
Stupid feminists just do not get it. She asked for it. But of course.
Panicker has been quoted on NDTV responding to criticism from Kerala’s activists and some reviewers in these words: “What you have seen in the movie happens all around you. Even worse things than this. Like the Nirbhaya case. The dialogues are nothing new and I have not made them up. We’ve heard these things. This is a commercial film and that’s why the clichés.”
Err… Yes, Mr Panicker, “these things” do happen all around us, but please do note the difference between portraying “these things” and glorifying them. Kasaba presents Zachariah’s misogynistic dialogues and behaviour as the epitome of coolth. Since the young writer-director brings up the December 2012 Delhi gangrape in his nonchalant explanation, it is important to ask him whether he would make a biopic of those six rapist-murderers and project them as cool dudes, the good guys of that story who attacked a woman because she asked for it.
It does not help the situation that some of the criticism of Kasaba has not been well articulated.
One reviewer, for instance, seems bothered by the fact that Parameshwaran Nambiar has two adoring wives. Another has issues with Zachariah’s use of profanities and double entendre per se. This is where Panicker’s misguided point about reality becomes relevant. Bigamy does exist in this country and many women do willingly play along with patriarchy. Nambiar is the villain of the piece and his two marriages are not shown in a positive light anywhere in the film.
Likewise, a film may well revolve around a foul-mouthed negative character. The reason why Zachariah’s troublesome dialogues and actions are objectionable is because they are comedified and glorified, and because they come from a man who is projected as a nice guy.
Kasaba’s gender insensitivity is particularly problematic because jolly ol’ Zachariah is played by one of the most respected star actors in the history of Indian cinema.
As it happens, even within its genre, this is an opportunity lost for the actor in Mammootty who is equally capable of bringing gravitas to serious roles and being hysterically funny. He does not walk, he struts about as Zachariah and is a hoot while doing so to the accompaniment of a signature tune that is amusing despite the decibel level. It is also nice to see his trimness at the age of 64 and his agility in the action scenes.
All the pizzazz in the world though is not enough compensation for the star’s willingness to play a character whose positioning within Kasaba normalises a congenital contempt for women.
This choice he has made hurts even more because Kasaba comes to theatres just 10 months after Salim Ahamed’s Pathemari for which Mammootty rightfully deserved the Best Actor National Award 2015 which went instead to Amitabh Bachchan for Piku. There was that stirring performance as the heart-wrenchingly dignified Pallickal Narayanan in an entertaining yet socially responsible film, and then there is this film that plumbs the depths of misogyny to play to the testosterone-laden gallery.
Mammootty’s co-stars in Kasaba are a talented bunch. Varalaxmi Sarathkumar merits a mention for making her mark as Kamala despite the veil of hair covering too much of her face almost throughout. Sampath Raj as Nambiar is excellent.
In a scene towards the end of Kasaba, Zachariah tries to enter Kamala’s brothel. “Where is your warrant?” she asks. “If you asked for a warrant from everyone coming here, your business would suffer,” he replies mockingly. Can there be a more undisguised metaphorical re-affirmation of the widely held social notion that a sex worker has no right to turn a man away, that if a man forces himself on a sex worker it does not amount to rape?
In yet another instance of the Censor Board’s confused ideology, Kasaba has been rated UA rather than A. UA stands for “Unrestricted Public Exhibition — but with a word of caution that parental discretion is required for children below 12 years”. I guess the point being made is that it is okay to feed coarse expressions of misogyny to kids so long as their parents do not mind.