Farhana, Farhana (Tamil):
Directed by Nelson Venkatesan, the film is about a Muslim woman from a conservative family who takes up a job at a call centre and ends up in a nightmarish situation. Farhana, played by the able Aishwarya Rajesh, is caught between her dreams that are stifled within the large family, and the dangers of the world outside to which she has limited exposure. Though she develops an emotional connection with another man outside her marriage, the film takes the trouble of establishing why she feels the need without castigating her actions. The conflict and its resolution may have shades of the male gaze but this is still an interesting departure from conventional depictions.
Nandini, Ponniyin Selvan 2 (Tamil):
Credit for Nandini’s fabulous character as the antagonist of Ponniyin Selvan should rightfully go to novelist Kalki, but director Mani Ratnam also deserves praise for bringing the character to screen. The sequel to the historical fiction drama Ponniyin Selvan 1 revolves around Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) and his bittersweet love story with Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). Nandini is strikingly beautiful and extremely ambitious – two characteristics that have usually been vilified on screen when it comes to women. But Mani Ratnam also shows us why she became venomous. We’re taken through her entire story arc, from love and promise to betrayal and shame. Though it’s disappointing that Nandini dies in the film (she merely disappears on a horse in the novel), such an empathetic portrayal of a female villain is unusual in Tamil cinema.
Shivani, Ayothi (Tamil):
Directed by Manthira Moorthy, this drama is about a Hindi-speaking family from Ayodhya that meets with an accident in Tamil Nadu. The film explores how patriarchy and religious bigotry are intertwined. Preethi Asrani plays Shivani, the daughter of the family who learns to stand up to her father’s notions of sanskar and religion. In an explosive scene, she confronts her father and questions him about how he had treated her mother all along. Preethi is amazing in the scene and brings a lot of sensitivity to her role as a young person who defies all that she’s grown up learning.
Umma, Thuramukham (Malayalam):
Directed by Rajeev Ravi, this historical drama is set in the 1940s and 50s when the inhuman chappa system was in practice in the Mattancherry harbour in Kochi. Nivin Pauly’s Moidu is at the centre of the story, but equally impactful is Poornima Indrajith’s role as his mother. When the family is abandoned by her righteous husband (Joju George), it falls on her to bring up her children. Her sorrow, fears and courage form the emotional core of the film, and Poornima with her expressive eyes, is terrific in the role.
Sulu, Ennalum Ente Aliya (Malayalam):
Set in Dubai, this comedy is about a Hindu couple that’s trying to get pregnant and how their life intersects with a conservative Muslim mother and her growing fears about her rebellious daughter. Lena is hilarious in the role of Sulu, the overbearing mom who has a good heart but is given to saying all the wrong things. The film, directed by Bash Mohammed, paints a realistic portrayal of a middle-aged woman caught between two cultures. Sulu is old-fashioned, moralistic and often callous – but there is a human side to her that makes you warm up to the character despite her obvious flaws.
Ambika Chechi, Thankam (Malayalam):
It’s rare for a woman character to be anything other than a love interest, mother or sister in a film. In Thankam, Ambika Chechi (Indira Prasad) is a businesswoman in the gold trade which often involves shady dealings. Ambika may look like a harmless older woman but she’s made of sterner stuff. It’s a small role but a refreshing surprise nevertheless in this Saheed Arafath police procedural that jumps from Kerala to Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Ambika is practical, thinks about protecting her own business interests first, and cannot be fooled easily.
Sujatha, Purusha Pretham (Malayalam):
A wacky police procedural about an unidentified corpse, this film directed by the maverick Krishand, has Devaki Rajendran playing a woman who is in a relationship with a policeman investigating the case (Alexander Prasanth). But nobody can know because Devaki’s husband is missing and that’s how she originally met the cop. Even as the investigation proceeds on one side, the couple is forever trying to find places where they can have sex. This is a role that could have easily turned into sleaze, but Sujatha merely seems like an ordinary human being with desires. Devaki is especially good in the comic scenes, making you laugh at the absurdity of the situation that she finds herself in.
Laila, Pachuvum Athbutha Vilakkum (Malayalam):
Akhil Sathyan’s debut film is about an elderly woman who defies her controlling son to embark on a mission. Viji Venkatesh plays Laila, this rebellious grandmother who takes it upon herself to go to Goa. If young women have less to do on screen than their male counterparts, older women have even less. It’s rare to see a well-written older woman character like Laila – she’s assertive, has a mind of her own and is willing to see the flaws in her beloved son. She’s also manipulative when she needs to be!
Hamsadhwani, Pachuvum Athbutha Vilakkum (Malayalam):
Anjana Jayaprakash won the audience’s heart with her portrayal of Hamsadhwani, a young woman who is pulled into the drama playing out between Laila and her son. Her conversation with Pachu (Fahadh Faasil), when she reveals why she’s in Goa, is a moving scene when she lets down her guard. Hamsadhwani is a realistic portrait of a young woman who has several balls in the air, balancing career, personal relationships and her own emotional baggage.
Nandini, Virupaksha (Telugu):
Karthik Varma Dandu’s supernatural thriller has Samyuktha Menon playing Nandini, the daughter of the village sarpanch. Saying more about her character would prove to be a spoiler for those who haven’t watched the film yet. But Samyuktha’s performance as a troubled young woman has layers to it that make her role quite intriguing. She is at the heart of the film and gets considerable screen time too.
Vennela, Dasara (Telugu):
Srikanth Odela’s period action drama has Nani playing Dharani, a Dalit protagonist. He’s been in love with Vennela (Keerthy Suresh) from childhood but decides to sacrifice his feelings for her since she gets into a relationship with his best friend. But eventually, Dharani marries Vennela due to circumstances. Keerthy, who has been stuck in ‘bubbly’ roles barring a few films like Mahanati (2018), gets another chance to show her acting prowess. As the heartbroken Vennela who questions Dharani’s assumptions about her in an important scene, she makes an impact in a film that otherwise runs on hypermasculinity.
OSK, Daredevil Musthafa (Kannada):
Shashank Soghal’s comedy drama is about a Muslim youth who joins a Hindu-majority college in smalltown Karnataka. The film is mainly about the conflict between the Muslim boy and his male Hindu classmates, but an interesting female character is OSK (Chaitra Shetty), the English lecturer. Chaitra has limited screen time but is fun to watch as the plain-speaking OSK. She also gets a funny scene when the benevolent sexism of the film’s most righteous character – the PT Master (Vijay Shobhraj) – stands exposed.