How Malayalam cinema mapped gender bias and toxic masculinity in 2021, from The Great Indian Kitchen to Joji

As the year comes to an end, we explore how Malayalam cinema has tackled quite a lot of issues in their narratives — primarily circling around patriarchy, casual sexism, the stigma around second marriages, abortion, and gender-equal spaces in marriages.

Neelima Menon December 25, 2021 10:14:32 IST
How Malayalam cinema mapped gender bias and toxic masculinity in 2021, from The Great Indian Kitchen to Joji

Suraj Venjaramoodu and Nimisha Sajayan in The Great Indian Kitchen

With OTT platforms catching on, South Indian films have finally clinched their individual identities in the world of Indian cinema. At last, a viewer from North India realises that there are languages like Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, and Tamil down South, and that each state produces innovative cinema. Though they still stereotype South Indians in their films with Rajnikanth love and Kanchipuram sarees, by and large, they are now able to delineate the films.

That love has passed on to Malayalam cinema — they are already in love with Fahadh Faasil’s eyes, Mohanlal’s subtlety, and Dulquer Salmaan’s charm. And they understand the mind-boggling variety of themes churned out on a regular basis (from Kumbalangi Nights, Drishyam 2, Joji to The Great Indian Kitchen).

As the year comes to an end, we explore how Malayalam cinema has tackled quite a lot of issues in their narratives— primarily circling around patriarchy, casual sexism, the stigma around second marriages, abortion, and gender-equal spaces in marriages.

In 1983, KG George’s film Adaminte Variyellu, which is about the travails of three women belonging to different socio-economic sections of the society, one is particularly drawn towards Vasanthi (Suhasini), a young married woman who is a government employee. Her day begins before dawn, where she undertakes every imaginable domestic work before rushing to the office, and returns home to the same drudgery. From silently enduring the taunts of her mother-in-law to tolerating her wayward husband who awakes her in the middle of the night to have sex, Vasanthi is a painful reflection of a lot of Indian women trapped in the patriarchal structures of a family.

Three decades later, director Jeo Baby assures us that nothing much has changed for women in families through The Great Indian Kitchen, where a young bride (Nimisha Sajayan) discovers a few days into her marriage that her role is easily interchangeable with the domestic help of the house. Maybe it is this inflexible status quo of women in Indian families over the years that has resulted in far and few narratives around what has been Indian families' worst-kept secret that has also kept it alive since human evolution — the amount of physical labour undertaken by women to keep the families together. The conditioning is so deep-rooted, and the narrative is so ordinary that it is no wonder why most writers or filmmakers, who constitute largely men, found nothing rousing about placing the camera on an average Indian woman’s daily chores of unpaid labour. Or they were too busy comfortably stereotyping women on screen.

How Malayalam cinema mapped gender bias and toxic masculinity in 2021 from The Great Indian Kitchen to Joji

Still from The Great Indian Kitchen

If in Adaminte Variyellu, Vasanthi is one of the three segments, Baby throws a similar but nameless woman into his narrative, and meticulously captures her dreary routine with daunting precision. From dealing with an entitled and sexist husband (Suraj Venjaramoodu), who expects her to be at his beck and call day in and day out, a father-in-law who casually insists on upholding the patriarchal regime, a mother-in-law who is powerless and silent to fight the system, and relatives including an aunt who gleefully perpetuates patriarchy, the film leaves no stone unturned to show the brutality of patriarchy, and the manipulative social structure called marriages that are crafted by men to exercise their control over women. The camera ruthlessly frames her routine, and the routineness almost chokes you. As it is meant to be.

Brewing morning tea, rustling four elaborate meals, dipping her bejeweled hands into the pile of dirty dishes that keep reappearing throughout the day, segregating food waste, clogged sink to cleaning loos, dusting, mopping, washing clothes, and ironing. Rinse and Repeat. No one raises their voice nor is there physical violence displayed anywhere. But we are shown instead the casual, implicit male chauvinism. It is the husband’s absolute sense of entitlement that strikes you in their relationship. Consider the scene where she points out his ‘table manners’ at a restaurant after his habit of dirtying the dining table by strewing leftover food. The man does not take it kindly, and insists on an apology from her. The apology is followed by the routine nightly sex — even there, he is offended when she suggests foreplay. At night, though bone tired, she is forced into sex, but her mind is already thinking about clogged sinks and smelly hands.

Though the closure is rather convenient, unlike the KG George film, which does not offer any gratifying inferences, just the fact that it really shook the collective consciousness of the male psyche, validates the honesty of the storytelling. What is relevant here is such patriarchal evils have always been celebrated under the guise of preserving tradition and culture in Malayalam cinema. It is perhaps the first time that they have been called out.

Senna Hegde’s second directorial Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam again is placed in the backdrop of a middle-class family steeped in patriarchy, where the father is pulling out all stops to marry off his second daughter against her wishes. The fact that his eldest daughter eloped with a man of her choice has bruised his mighty ego. He is the traditional patriarch who thinks women in the family should toe the patriarchal line, and not take any decision on their own. Be it his wife or daughters, it is unthinkable that he let them challenge his decisions. But despite the opposition, the second daughter eventually gets her way, and marries the man of her choice.

How Malayalam cinema mapped gender bias and toxic masculinity in 2021 from The Great Indian Kitchen to Joji

Still from Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam

The women in The Great Indian Kitchen and Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam are all born into patriarchy — if the bride in The Great Indian Kitchen has seen its uglier side and managed to flee, the daughters in Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam have managed to reclaim their agency by negotiating with patriarchy. Coincidentally, they have even chosen partners who are willing to listen to them. The dominion of the patriarch in Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam is normalised to such an extent that no one finds anything odd about the father’s bouts of violent streaks at the dinner table.

But in Dileesh Pothan’s Joji, it is not just the lone female member of the family who is the victim of patriarchy and toxic masculinity.

If Joji’s sister-in-law is enslaved in the kitchen, silently biding her time, Joji (Fahadh Faasil) is struggling to rise up to the expectations of his feudal and toxic father and brothers. In a way, it is the unrealistic expectations to occupy a space bursting with hyper-masculinity that throws Joji into a state of frenzy, spinning him into a criminal.

How Malayalam cinema mapped gender bias and toxic masculinity in 2021 from The Great Indian Kitchen to Joji

Fahadh Faasil in and as Joji

What we witness in Don Palathara’s Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam is an urban couple who are living in a space that has been rinsed of patriarchy. Well, almost. They are a postmodern couple, salaried, and sharing an equal domestic workload. The woman’s (Rima Kallingal) reluctance to legalise the relationship arises from the knowledge that it can tilt the equality status in his favour, and parenthood (considering the core of the narrative is over a suspected pregnancy) can weigh heavily on her. Though the man tries his best to shrug off his conditioned patriarchy, it resurfaces now and then, especially when it comes to empathising with the complexities of pregnancy and motherhood. Here, even the woman’s behaviour is borderline abusive, constantly pulling him down to ascertain her rights. But true to the narrative, the film takes the point of view of both the man and woman— the woman clearly communicates her fears and perceptions about what is generally considered as a sacred topic— motherhood.

How Malayalam cinema mapped gender bias and toxic masculinity in 2021 from The Great Indian Kitchen to Joji

Jitin Puthanchery and Rima Kallingal in Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam. Twitter @ANANTHPVISHNU1

Rarely do we see films where women are allowed to express their hesitation and anxieties in embracing motherhood. In Sara’s, a young woman (Anna Ben) marries on the condition that motherhood holds no appeal to her as she is eager to make her first film. But when an unplanned pregnancy occurs, she considers abortion, much to the disapproval of her family and her partner who gets cold feet. Though the film is otherwise middling, it has to be applauded for stating in irrevocable terms that a woman has every right over her reproductive rights. The decision to have a child should always be hers first — it is her body, her right.

How Malayalam cinema mapped gender bias and toxic masculinity in 2021 from The Great Indian Kitchen to Joji

Anna Ben, Sunny Wayne in a still from Sara's

Though Sanu Varghese’s debut directorial Aarkkariyam is an unexpected crime drama, which explores the vagaries of the human psyche, and the moral ambiguities tied to an act of crime, it is the beautifully written man-woman relationship that is fascinating. For Shirley and Roy, marriage is about companionship, sharing chores equally, and not making a big deal out of it. If Shirley is independent and assertive, he is a kind, sensitive person who could not give two hoots about traditional gender roles. Every little exchange between them underlines their love and respect for each other. Nothing between them comes across as a forced assertion to underline political correctness. It flows rhythmically and organically as if to say life exists that way too. The Roy-Shirley relationship also states the beauty of second chances (for both of them, it is their second marriage). They had a chance to learn from their mistakes and be more conscious and appreciative.

Having said that, it has not been the best time for Malayalam cinema owing to the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, there have been a questionable number of terrible direct OTT releases in Malayalam too. But this interest in Malayalam cinema is definitely a blessing, as more filmmakers and actors are talking about feeling responsible to come out with quality content as they know they have a pan-Indian audience who are watching them keenly.

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She runs an exclusive Malayalam movie portal called fullpicture.in. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny, and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

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