Moral policing: A changing narrative
Deccan Chronicle| Vandana Mohandas
Malayalam cinema has started addressing the issue of moral policing and is not taking it for granted any more.
A still from Ishq
The most immoral activity of the times, ironically termed moral policing, has time and again rocked Kerala as murders, protests, literature and most recently, movies. Invading into others’ privacy has been, for long, taken for granted as a virtuous act, but of late, representation of moral policing is trying to knock sense into the audience. Traditionally, it is the villain in the movies who indulges in immoral activities and is publicly booed by the crowd while the much-hailed hero earns the claps and cheers. But if it’s the hero, heroine or hero’s sister who is ‘caught in the act’, they might always be a ‘victim of circumstances’ – someone who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with no intention to ‘sin’. However, over the years, the representation of moral police in films has shifted from heroism to antagonism. Recent movies like Y, Varathan, Sexy Durga and the now-successfully-running Ishq call moral policing a problematic issue, without being preachy about virtuousness or chastity of the lead actors.
The change in narrative is an admission that intruding into others’ space is not right. Through their films, the filmmakers have responsibly and realistically started acknowledging that anyone’s activities with consent should not be subjected to public trial. Anuraj Manohar, director of Ishq, calls his debut movie an experience of moral policing from a woman’s viewpoint. "My movie is about the brutality and emotional intensity of moral policing on a couple and how it hurts the ego of the hero, who gets hurt when he is unable to protect his girlfriend at the hour of crisis. What movies like Uncle and Varathan have discussed is how the hero reacts to such violence.
Ishq is about how the heroine responds to moral policing and to an extent, toxic masculinity."
Malayalam Malayalam film industry hasn’t addressed moral policing as problematic for years. It has always been normalised as part of a tear-jerker narrative. That now it is changing is very positive. Anuraj sees it as an awareness attempt. "Sometimes, when you are part of society and find yourself as a victim to issues like moral policing, it strikes you that it’s high time the viewpoint changed. Everyone might have faced it, though not in the same intensity – for some as uncomfortable stares, for some as questioning and even as violent physical attacks."
Movies being a reflection of society, such representations mirror a hopeful era, feels Jai Vishnu, who calls himself a hardcore cinephile. "With more progressive and realistic movies becoming popular, social issues are presented in a disturbing manner and people can’t just walk out of the screens without brooding over it. When parallel movies like Sexy Durga and Cr No: 89 or a cinematic movie like Varathan talk about political and gender-based intrusion, people get irritated. When movies like Ishq and Varathan show how prying eyes need to be questioned, the audience cheers and claps. However, we can’t expect people to get inspired from these and just talk back in real life," he says.
Moral policing, Jai observes, is not just about sexual innuendos. "Any type of branding of a person, for his choice to wear a saffron mundu, to sport a wrist thread to chat with friends on the roadside, to grow beard is moral policing. These discussions and representations need to continue till realisation dawns on everyone that it’s not okay to infringe on another person’s privacy," he adds.
However, not everyone is of the opinion that the changing narrative is an attempt to create awareness. Prathap Joseph, director of Randu Per Chumbikkumbol, another movie that touches upon moral policing, opines, "Any narrative change in a commercial movie is aimed at receiving cheers and profit. Films these days are a cross section of social media campaign. Go with the most popular campaign; even if you have not sincerity towards the cause, you earn likes and shares."
Prathap agrees that there’s a sea change in the treatment of social issues, only that it is superficial. "The attempts are worth appreciating, but they don’t leave any deep impact. A commercial movie, though appears to have social messages, has no genuine pro-people stance; it aims at entertaining the audience and creating ‘catch phrases’ like ‘Sex is not a promise’ for social media campaign. These films are nothing but the new-gen version of superstar movies," he says.
Director Sunil Ibrahim, who made the movie Y, too, agrees with him on that point. "Filmmakers do not make a movie with an intention to bring about a change in society. Our only criteria will be to make it relatable for people in the theatre and end up as a commercial hit. If today’s movie addresses moral policing as a problem, that’s because taking sides with the oppressor will affect the prospects of the film and the makers. Any movie made at any point of history talks about the contemporary. If you look back at the past five years, the attitude of youngsters has undergone a transformation. They are bold and independent, their lifestyle is progressive. At this juncture, who will make a movie about archaic ideas? Movies are never meant to be preachy. Films are about perspectives. Take what you want and leave what you don’t," he says.
Morality, according to Sunil, depends on each person, "Everyone is expected to uphold their values, but not at the cost of others’ right. It’s a free country, but respecting another citizen too matters. Any incident evokes different reactions from each perspective. If a person decides not to communicate to his neighbour, who lives alone and does not ask anything when he finds a stranger near her apartment, it’s perceived as a ‘good deed’ because he doesn’t intrude. However, if someone finds the woman dead, the fingers would be pointed at the neighbour fellow for not bothering to check on the next-door woman. Everything changes with perspective. We can’t classify anything under the binary – as good or bad."
"Changes will keep happening in narratives, but rather than focusing on the impact, it’s better to brainstorm how beautifully changes can be brought in," he winds up.