It’s not that such issues are unimportant. Cinema is a powerful medium, and representing these issues sensitively in popular culture can contribute to a positive change in society. Recent films like The Great Indian Kitchen (2021) and Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey (2022), for example, led to a lot of discussions on how the oppression of women is normalised and even celebrated in families.
But, on the other hand, we hardly have films with women protagonists that function purely as entertainers, capturing the mundane and ordinary moments of life. Of the four southern industries, Malayalam cinema has done better in this aspect. Here’s a look at six such films that have come out over the years.
Padmini (2023): Senna Hegde’s film is about a man who is nicknamed Padmini (Kunchacko Boban) but the plot is driven by three women characters – lawyer Sreedevi (Aparna Balamurali), teacher Padmini (Madonna Sebastian) and Smriti (Vincy Aloshious), his wife who elopes on their first night. Padmini doesn’t have the biting humour of Hegde’s celebrated film Thinkalazhcha Nischayam (2021) which was about a dysfunctional family, and the laughs here are drawn more from slapstick comedy. But the film does a good job of sketching its women characters, especially Sreedevi and Padmini. Sreedevi is a divorce lawyer who is tired of meeting one unsuitable groom after another for her own marriage. Her friend Padmini is a sensible and level-headed teacher who gets increasingly frustrated with her to-be-husband’s inability to obtain a divorce from his first wife. The women aren’t pitted against each other and are actually portrayed as good friends. The plot threads in the script could have easily soured the friendship with a stereotypical jealousy, but the film steers clear of that.
June (2019): Ahammed Khabeer’s coming-of-age film begins with a schoolgirl (Rajisha Vijayan) who wants to wear her skirt short. From then on, the audience is taken through her journey – of love, friendship, career – until she figures out what she actually wants from life. June is a perfectly ordinary girl and there’s nothing unusual or exceptional about her. This is also why the film works so well because it speaks to a large section of the female audience. The events in her life are relatable, and there isn’t one big incident that defines the plot. There have been many coming-of-age films with male protagonists. Alphonse Puthren’s superhit film Premam (2015) too traced the story of George from his school days to the time when he gets married. But seeing such an arc with a female protagonist is unusual.
Ohm Shanti Oshana (2014): Before June came Jude Anthany Joseph’s coming-of-age film with Nazriya in the lead. Here, too, we see the protagonist from her childhood to the time she becomes a doctor and gets the man of her dreams (Nivin Pauly). What’s different between the two films is how they view love and romance. In Ohm Shanti Oshana, the attraction that Pooja Mathew feels for Giri never abates even as they are separated by circumstances. Interestingly, the attraction isn’t disguised as anything noble – she just has the hots for him. His activism appeals to her because she’s already drawn to him and it’s not the other way around. Female desire is rarely represented in cinema without the woman being objectified or vilified. Unlike June who grows beyond her crushes and infatuations, Pooja is steadfast in her passion and ultimately “wins” the boy – a reward that’s usually reserved for male characters in such narratives of single-minded love.
Geethu Unchained (2022): Directed by Akhil Anilkumar, this short appears in the Freedom Fight anthology that was streamed directly on SonyLIV. Geethu (Rajisha Vijayan) breaks off her engagement after she discovers that her boyfriend is of a controlling nature. But everyone around her blames her for the fiasco because she had insisted on marrying him earlier. Under constant pressure to move on from the breakup and make something of herself, she considers a proposal made by her colleague. There’s nothing remarkable about Geethu, and even her streak of rebelliousness isn’t written as anything out of the ordinary. As she struggles to learn English and stand up to her more sophisticated colleagues, Geethu comes across as someone you could run into in real life. The ending of the film is funny and apt, with Geethu realising that the mindset of most men is similar, however different their approach might be.
Varane Avashyamund (2020): Directed by Anoop Sathyan, this film is about an older woman (Shobana) who falls in love with her neighbour (Suresh Gopi). Neena is also a single mother to an adult daughter (Kalyani) but she clearly has an identity of her own. She is divorced but lives without letting the stigma take over her life. Films usually root for the reconciliation of couples, however unsuited they might be for each other. It’s rarer still to show an older woman leading an independent life after divorce and prioritising her needs and wants over her familial obligations. What’s heartwarming about the film is also its easy storytelling – what could have been portrayed as a ‘transgression’ is depicted as natural, without any song and dance over it. The film also has other interesting women characters, like Akashavani (KPAC Lalitha), an elderly woman who is a TV serial actor, and Dr Sherly (Urvashi), a dentist who calls out the regressive values of men in her family.
Archana 31 Not Out: Directed by Akhil Anilkumar, this film is about a young woman who is under immense pressure to get married since she’s approaching her 30s. This ‘time-bomb’ like situation is very familiar to a lot of women in real life, with families constantly drilling into their heads that it will be “too late” for them otherwise. To make matters worse, Archana (Aishwarya Lekshmi) loses her job as a teacher. When at last a match works out, she is relieved, but the groom elopes the day before the wedding. While the film has a somewhat meandering screenplay, it redeems itself with the ending. Archana stands up for herself and makes an unusual speech that leaves the wedding guests applauding.