Swetha Menon's childbirth on screen: Kerala’s surprising moral debate

by G Pramod Kumar  Nov 27, 2012 15:42 IST

#Blessy   #Malayalam Cinema   #OnOurMind   #Swetha Menon  

In the early 1980s, when the censors were tough on semi-porn movies in Kerala, sex-peddlers had found an ingenuous way to escape their scissors - importing medical movies that had a lot of skin and sex show, however weird and repulsive it may sound.

A movie that did very well those days was titled “Pregnancy and Child Birth”. As implied the title goes, two critical points in the movie were conception and delivery. Conception meant explicit sex; and delivery, considerable exposure.

Local clones, dealing with obstetrics, gynecology, reproductive health and sexually transmitted diseases, followed their English originals, one of which even landed a prominent film administrator in trouble. With the advent of VCRs and video tapes, the medical films made way for grainy, but original porn.

The actress was filmed delivering her first child in a hospital in Mumbai. Image courtesy ibnlive.

Pregnancy and childbirth is now back in the Kerala movie circuit  - but this time, it has gone mainstream and is in the eye of a storm. Reportedly, a film being made by a local director, Blessy, features the real pregnancy and childbirth of award winning actress and former international model Swetha Menon.

That the talented actress had been featured in some roles that raised eyebrows in the recent past has added to the excitement.

The issue is snowballing into a major controversy. Interestingly, most of it is moral.

The first to decry the yet-to-be-released movie was a soft-spoken speaker of the Kerala assembly, G Karthikeyan. Speaking at a public function, he said childbirth is the most private and sacred moment in a woman’s life and recording it for public view amounted to commercial exploitation. He said people should decide if the film should be screened or not.

He also wondered why women activists, who otherwise raise their voice against exploitation of women in advertisements, were silent on the issue. On Monday, a former CPM minister also criticised the movie. A former Left MP said that the event was a breach of privacy of the child, even if the actress didn’t mind delivering on camera.

Following Karthikeyan and others, theatre owners in the state said they wouldn’t screen the movie. Liberty Basheer, president of the Kerala Film Exhibitors’ Federation has reportedly said: “We are concerned about the movie's content. If the director includes the delivery scene, we will definitely boycott it."

The BJP women’s wing and some independent observers have also jumped on board and raised objections to the movie on grounds of morality, and to some extent, rights.

Although Kerala has an impressive record in resisting moralists, this time there has been hardly any response from the otherwise formidable lobby of progressives. Other than a film technicians’ association, FEFKA, nobody has spoken in favour of either Blessy and Swetha Menon, however, hard the director and the actress tried to present their idea of etching the emotions of a women in her voyage of child-bearing.

The controversy and a lack of support from the progressive voices was not surprising mainly because of the way the movie was pitched. Perhaps consciously, it was projected as a movie that depicts Swetha Menon’s pregnancy and childbirth. The state, despite its claims otherwise, is quite conservative and hence it was tactically a revulsive pitch to start with.

Then came the excessive publicity that the director sought to gain from canning the actual childbirth scene in Mumbai. He gave vivid details of how it was shot - how many hours, how many cameras, how he felt watching the delivery and other details. The New Indian Express quoted him after the event: “We talk about man’s creativity, but on Thursday I realised that one of the most stunning creations on earth is the birth of a child. I understood the magnitude of the event only when I actually saw it taking place.”

He also went on to add that he hadn’t seen the birth of his own sons.

Perhaps what landed the director in the controversy is a lack of creative sophistry in conceiving such a sensitive subject and articulating it. Instead of the creative exploration of motherhood and its complex emotions on film, all that the popular media heard was about Swetha Menon’s childbirth on big screen. With a prurient past, the misguided advance publicity hit the wrong notes.

Unfortunately, what got drowned in the controversy was Swetha Menon’s voice. She was always unequivocal, and well within her rights, on why she chose to agree to do the film.

"I decided to do this because of the message the movie carries," she had said.

As ace cinematographer Ravi K Chandran noted in Times of India, "She was proving that the delivery is just another natural event in the life cycle. At a time when using condoms was an unpopular practice, she acted in a condom advertisement. By appearing on the camera at her most private moment on Thursday, she was challenging the conventional practices in Indian cinema."

If only the director hadn’t botched up the plot.

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