On February 17 when a popular female actor was abducted and brutally assaulted, all the lights that had shone bright on Malayalam cinema went out. But the industry's darkest hour also marked a major turning point in the way Malayalam film audiences approached the 'hero'. Hopefully the outrageous assault has challenged a section of informed, progressive audiences, the temperate and benign 'patriarchal' feminists, as it surely did a section of women workers in the medium of Cinema with more than 200 year of collective experience amongst them. The women actors, friends and colleagues of the Survivor of gender violence decided to present their unified voice in support by forming an advocacy group, Women in Cinema Collective. A section of the viewers hopefully have had enough of the prevalent hypocrisy, and the insensitive celebration of misogyny.
Where are the men - the 'Heroes' we can all be really proud of? Where are the Humanists? When will the selective deafness against women's points of views disappear and instead actively engaged with, in decency and grace in civil spaces, in civil debate where thoughts and ideas matter more than the gender?Prithviraj is one young actor who has sensed this anomaly. He has been graceful and bold enough to accept that he had done certain things wrong in the past, and promised that his films would never ever be derogatory towards women. It makes him a good human being and a fine example he has set of how with dignity one can respond in a time of crisis in the industry. Somewhere along the line it seems feudal residues sewed into our cultural fabric that it is macho-cool to speak bad about women. Why should servility of a woman to man define manhood? What stops our leading men in the field, from owning up the changes in the air manifest in outspoken women's voices against exploitation and discrimination in the film industry world over?
Being a 'Fan' is an expression of identification with the 'star'. It provides an identity, and a role model to the Fan. Stars become stars as the fan clubs become a visible evidence of the mass support. Nothing would be done or said to shake up this section as that would mean the opening collections be affected. Imagine the reach of the 'Hero' amongst the fan base. What an opportunity to do the right thing and succeed in preventing woman-hating, demeaning messages. Characters in a story of the protagonist may be negative. It cannot be faulted if such a hero is dismissive/abusive of a woman/man. But the harm is done in the way a filmmaker chooses to dramatize the hero's misogyny; for instance the use of the background score and the angles and the reaction of sidekicks to heighten the effect. Rather than squirm in their seat, all of this prompts the male viewer to cheer lustily.
In the instance of Parvathy speaking her mind in the Open Forum at IFFK, skewed perceptions merged reel and real. Fans of the 'Hero' got upset to a reference to their star, not to bother with the details nor the context of the comment set about a vilifying troll attack. Far from being appreciative about the virtuosity with which she essays complex roles, they deny her professionalism and caliber only because she is outspoken. Scales of Morality are always carried in any encounter with women actors and indulgence in character assassination based on a role she has essayed. When will women professionals working in this medium of Cinema get their due respect and acknowledgement of their skill and prowess? When will the audiences accept the heroic in a woman actor? When will bullying-across-media stop? Ganging up to persecute the woman with a mind of her own? May be these are times of change, maybe the propagation of woman-hating psyche is rejected by the ever-evolving film-going public!
Then of course, Malayalam films, excepting a few masters' works, have been blind to the perceptions of women. Differing from Tamil cinema where films are packaged by sentiments for the 'thaikulam'. Earlier generation Tamil filmmakers ensured that there were necessary ingredients in their stories to bring in women (mothers as patrons of cinema) to theatres. This can be dismissed as formulaic, but one cannot ignore the practicality of including 'familial' women as potential audiences in the formula, with an eye on the cash register. Women patrons of a film are seen as the measure of a film's success. Malayalam films do not see women patrons as a potential audience. Malayalam films generally talk to the male viewer, the idea of a mass film being a regressive mix of violence and female bashing. But then the success of 'Udaharanam Sujatha' is proof that change is possible, films with a female protagonist can bring in audiences.
Though Manju Warrier may be the sole exception to being accepted as a hero. When we see a reel-take set in contemporary sensibility, we are seeing change. Ashiq Abu's Mayanadhi is gloriously breaking the usual uni-dimensional on-screen portrayals by refreshing real characterization. With a finger on the pulse of the moment, subtly and surely, finer sensibilities are upheld. "Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution."...Khalil Gibran
It is about time our heroes realize the power at their command, how they can make the crowd do right things. It is high time they used it responsibly. We have already reached a stage where persons overconfident of their invincibility have gone about unleashing sexual violence on a colleague, a top female actor, and yet the coterie of support for him remains. Responsibility is certainly with the writers and makers of the films. No longer can arbitrary presumptions and prejudices be loaded onto a film. Films are being WATCHED... It is high time conscientious men and women filmmakers take over the screens and articulate their points of view in Cinema and set right the skewed gender perceptions that have been keeping half the population in a passive, depressed state.
(The writer is the first ever woman cinematographer in Malayalam cinema, and is the force behind Indian Women Cinematographers' Collective)...