As Kabir Singh battles brickbats, a look at Malayalam cinema's recent subversion of toxic alpha males
Kabir Singh is being slammed for its depiction of toxic masculinity. We journey around Malayalam cinema to check how it has fared on this subject over the years.
In this year’s Kumbalangi Nights, one of the main leads Saji (Soubin Shahir), believing himself responsible for the unexpected death of his friend, is almost on the verge of a meltdown when he turns to his little brother—"I think I am losing it. I need help. Can you take me to a doctor?” In the moment that he confides to the Doctor and sobs all over him, we are witnessing the overhaul of the toxic masculinity that has been celebrated in Malayalam cinema for ages. The scene simultaneously subverts one of its oldest and most successful tropes—the powerful, protective elder brother. After all, Saji is the eldest in that dysfunctional family of four brothers. In the same film, his younger brother (Shane Nigam) proves to be a by-product of toxic masculinity and gets enraged when he realises that he isn’t entitled to take ownership of his girlfriend yet. The girlfriend, meanwhile, calls out her misogynist brother-in-law who considers himself the protector and the law of the family. “In our family we give women reasonable freedom” being the constant refrain. The brother-in-law, Shammi (Fahadh Faasil), the picture of an “ideal family man” who is also casteist, snobbish and misogynist, ends up being the psychopathic antagonist in the film. Kumbalangi Nights, directed by Madhu C Narayanan and written by Syam Pushkaran, not only succeeds in overthrowing the celebrated alpha male but also points out that in theory he is the villain of the story. “But I wish they hadn’t made him into a psychopath. He actually represents the average chauvinistic Malayalee male,” says CS Venkiteswaran, film academician.
Having said that, the film still doesn’t drift away from the larger narrative in Malayalam cinema — showing women as nurturers, about women anchoring the men and offering them purpose in life.
Agrees film critic Sreehari Nair, who says Kumbalangi Nights was also about “how many strong, talented, independent women willingly give up their own personality to become captives of hairy brutes.”
“In Kumbalangi, the reactions of those women in the Shammi household, the way they almost tense up in his presence, how they, by conditioning, cower down before his masculine grandeur, is a reality in many Indian and Malayali households. Those reactions, I think, are as important to study as the character of Shammi. The truth is that a lot of women, by putting love before their own honour, bring slavishness upon themselves. I personally don’t think this is an element that needs 'correction'. It simply is one of our country’s many poetic insanities,” Nair observes.
Malayalam cinema, which has been on a learning curve post WCC and New Wave, is consciously trying to rephrase the century-old conditioning layered in the essentially male-centric narrative. Though Malayalam cinema has not always glorified the toxic male, it cannot be discounted that popular cinema always gave credence to him over the female voice.
There were the occasional KG George (considered one of the finest filmmakers of all times) films (1980s) with complex men and women who fell from the high pedestal of morality, got up and continued with their lives without being judged.
While the 1980s had a blend of realistic portrayal and endorsement of the toxic male hero, it was towards the mid-1990s that it grew out of hand. Much before Ranji Panicker-Ranjith-Shaji Kailas trio scripted their alpha male icons, Director Balachandra Menon (between 1979-mid 1990s) had created and popularised a narrative where the ideal woman was someone who bowed to her man and was not capable of making big decisions in the house. He made sure that whenever the traditional role play got disrupted (or whenever a woman spoke against this male-order), he brought them back in the patriarchal order, as he believed only that stabilised the perfect family. Several of his films rallied around the “real man” syndrome. Maniyan Pillai Athava Maniyan Pillai has a hero who rapes a woman to demonstrate his masculinity, while Prashnam Gurutharam’s protagonist opts for suicide over living as an impotent man.
“In the 1980s there wasn’t much age parity between the hero and the heroine, which helped to bring an equality in the relationship, unlike post-2000. Be it Jayabharathi-Soman, Venu Nagavalli-Jalaja or Shobha. But after superstardom, the age gap between the hero and heroine drastically widened, making the creation of alpha males easier. Now of course, we see the age gap reducing,” observes CS.
Director Padmarajan has depicted toxic masculinity in several of his films. In Kariyila Kattu Pole, we see a hero (Mammootty) raping a woman to “teach her a lesson” and to show her “what a real man” can do. And worse, her trauma is hardly addressed in the film which opts to digress into the bond between the father and child. Meanwhile, his 1983 film Koodevide has an entitled misogynistic hero who ends up in jail for murdering the student of his lover. In Thoovanathumpikal, his most celebrated work, the leading man, Jayakrishnan is a product of toxic masculinity, unable to take a girl’s rejection resulting in a one-night stand with a call girl. But even there, his fragile male ego makes him guilty of coveting a girl’s virginity as he believes like every patriarchal male that it defines a woman’s existence, prompting him to offer her marriage.
In the late 1990s, when heroines were being sidelined, alpha males rose in prominence. Director Rajasenan’s popular mainstream films featuring Jayaram had appalling plotlines woven around middle-class families. In all his celebrated films, be it Ayalathe Adheham, Meleparambil Aan Veedu or Njangal Santhushtaranu, men steeped in patriarchy mocked, judged or brought the “drifting women” back into the family. In Ayalathe Adheham, the hero is a grouchy sexist who believed that showing affection or flaws before his wife would make him less of a man. So, they end up demonising the one who overtly made a show about loving his wife. While Meleparambil Aan Veedu makes a statement that society considers a woman virtuous as along as her unborn child is claimed by the father. The heroine in Njangal Santhushtaranu is the stereotypical modern wife who cannot cook or be motherly and wears modern clothes. She is called out for not being the traditional obedient wife. But the minute she “realises her mistakes” she wears a sari and becomes the motherly figure he wanted her to be.
Sathyan Anthikad made sure his heroines were the catalyst for his heroes to understand their purpose in life. Once that is accomplished, the ladies go into the traditional gender roles.
In Priyadarshan’s Mithunam, it’s again a hero who doesn’t confide in his wife regarding his monetary issues, as he either thinks she is too dim-witted to understand him, or she would think less of him as a man. Eventually, she is forced to apologise for not empathising with his silent treatment of her. Lohithadas’s Kanmadam has a hero (Mohanlal) who thinks he can weaken a woman’s (Manju Warrier) defences with a kiss, as he feels that’s all she yearns for. But then she is also shown as a bold, grumpy woman who is being forced to shoulder the responsibility of her family in the absence of her brother. The general idea being sketched is that a woman is happiest when a man takes care of the house and she plays the wife and mother. At least the hero’s action and her reaction reinstate that theory.
Though Malayalam cinema has had relatively fewer romantic movies, the notable ones had stalking (Vandanam, Chithram, Annayum Rasoolum) being used as necessary tool for wooing.
While these are mostly depictions, the narrative took a disturbing turn by the late 1990s and early-mid 2000 when superstars (Mammootty and Mohanlal) were crafted as demi-god alpha males and their heroines where reduced to arm candy. They adhered more to hegemonic and hyper masculinity. There was Renji Panicker, who created heroes who always judged the “modern lipstick wearing woman with a mind of her own,” gave them a class on discipline, traditions, and family. And then there was writer-director Ranjith who made sure he created women who prostrated before their leading men and eagerly jumped at their flippant, sexist marriage proposals.
In all these narratives, a man’s worth is always weighed on the paternity scale — “If you are born of a single father, bring it on,” is the ISI mark of heroism in Malayalam cinema.
Dileep films endorsed misogyny and sexism in the guise of family entertainers, passing off crude humour targeting women in every film.
Once the trend of alpha male superstars started to decline (though this year, one of the biggest hits is a superstar glorification vehicle called Lucifer), the New Wave set in. That and social media together prompted the emergence of women writers in film criticism and the formation of WCC. Conversations began on women's representation and misogyny in older Malayalam films, resulting in more insightful discussions.
Political correctness was considered as crucial to a film’s acceptability as the story, medium and technique. The change is apparent in recent times, when audiences are woke towards misogyny, racism, and casteism being glorified on screen.
The result is the likes of Varathan and Ishq. In last year’s Amal Neerad directed Varathan, the hero is a metrosexual, the subversion of toxic masculinity. He is gentle, kind, giving, and doesn’t react to situations like how society perceives a man should. He is also vulnerable, emotional, and compassionate, traits generally seen as weaknesses in a man. In their marriage, he makes no fuss about being handy in the kitchen or in not being the salaried partner. “It’s an interesting depiction, but his climactic transformation is that of a superstar’s, which I think was deliberate,” says CS.
While director Anuraj Manohar’s Ishq has a more complex layering. It’s about a young couple who tries to rescue themselves from the clutches of a creep who harasses them in the garb of moral policing. But once the problems tide over and the vengeance has been extracted, comes the truth about the hero. It’s only when he is reassured that the villain didn’t touch his girlfriend that he decides to walk back into her life. He endorses machismo and has all the definite traits of a toxic male who thinks his manliness has been mocked and challenged when he couldn’t “protect and defend” his girlfriend. It’s that alone which makes him plot a revenge plan that goes completely against his character. But in the end when that façade falls in front of her, it’s heartening to watch her take a stand.
In Uyare, based on the story of an acid attack survivor, we have a popular actor like Asif Ali playing the role of a lover. His relationship with Pallavi (Parvathy) defines everything toxic, including devaluation of her opinions and sense of self. He emotionally blackmails her to be with him, and she puts up with his manipulation in the name of love. But the minute, she stands up for herself, he shows his true colours by throwing acid on her face and even after remains remorseless. Scripted by Bobby-Sanjay, the film brilliantly underlines toxic masculinity, explaining how problematic it is.
Between all this is the baffling fact that Arjun Reddy, the 2017 Telugu film which has been remade in Hindi as Kabir Singh (and is currently running in theatres) which in turn has been aggressively slammed by North Indian film critics for its blunt glorification of toxic masculinity was well received in Kerala.
Probably we should just take heart in the fact that Malayalam cinema and a section of the discerning audience has though belatedly acknowledged toxic masculinity and the harmful, abusive ways it’s reared its head, the conversations are in full swing. The change will also be well on its way.
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