2017 is marked by a watershed movement in world feminist history. The momentum gained by the #MeToo movement not just aided in calling out abusers but simultaneously kickstarted a wide range of debates and discussions regarding women’s space, sexual autonomy, safety, and camaraderie. Tarana Burke, who coined the phrase ‘Me Too’ as early as 2006, urged women to express their open solidarity with survivors. Her vision was to empower women through empathy and the result was thousands of shocking testimonies. As women came to the fore, taking up the onus on their shoulders to stand by their sisters, the world witnessed the emergence of yet another powerful model of sisterhood built upon unanimity, resistance, and mutual respect. The movement naturally had its ripples all over the world. Women started drawing strength from each other to exercise their voices that remained subdued for generations. As in the case of Kerala, 2017 beheld some critical interventions in the film field following the assault of a famous actor. The Malayalam cinema industry saw several women stepping forward, querying the deep-rooted sexism in the field. It further led to the formation of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), an organization working towards creating equal space and opportunities for women in Malayalam cinema. Despite confronting multiple challenges, their willingness to stand together to fight against the odds, and defend the survivor rendered patriarchal conventions uneasy.
Women’s movements indubitably enlighten us about the pertinence of engendering a renewed sensibility to perceive and properly address gender issues. At the same time, it reminds us of the underlying presence of a collective companionship that is inevitable to materialise such movements. However, to limit women’s shared sense of empathy to the discourse of grand campaigns alone is fallacious. Rather it should be seen as an extension and an effect of what they share in their everyday lives. It is equally important to take a relook at the dynamics of female friendships so that, we could subvert the popular perception that considers gossiping and backbiting as central to female bonds. The kind of representations we have of women friends in Malayalam movies become a subject of critical interest, at this point. To what extent does female bonhomie get represented in Malayalam cinema? Isn’t the rendition of women’s friendship in Malayalam cinema still underwhelming? How many of them have been celebrated for what they really are? How many female counterparts are there for the dynamic pair, Dasan, and Vijayan, or the four friends in In Harihar Nagar very fondly remembered for their rapport with each other?
Whether the lived experiences of women with all their subtilities and contradictions have received fair representation in our movies or not is a question that merits discussion. If they have, what factors mediated it? If they haven’t, how can we account for their unexciting depiction? This article is an attempt to briefly trace the evolution of female friendship in Malayalam cinema over the years and dwell on questions concerning its portrayal by focusing on the representation of asexual (or seemingly asexual), social relationships between female characters. My effort, here, is neither to claim the supremacy of friendship over any other relationship nor to suggest that movies should necessarily include friendship themes in them. Rather it is to reveal the lack of a proper depiction of the complexities of female friendship in Malayalam movies and to critique its existing representations.
Female Friendships Over the Years
Movies since the 1970s like Sreekumaran Thampi’s Mohiniyattam (1976), Mohan’s Salini Ente Koottukari (1978), Fazil’s Nokketha Doorathu Kannum Nattu (1984), Sathyan Anthikkad’s Ennum Nanmakal (1991), Hariharan’s Ennu Swantham Janikutty (1998), and Sibi Malayil’s Pranayavarnangal (1998) are a few which depicts women’s homo-social relationships. Padmarajan’s 1986 movie, Deshadanakili Karayarilla while celebrating the friendship between Sally and Nimmy (starring Shari and Karthika respectively) also hints at a rather unconventional subject matter for its time. But the question is, how far do these characters seem liberated from the clutches of patriarchy, whose insidious network runs beneath the epidermis of the film industry within which these characters themselves are designed?
On analysis, even movies that purportedly claim to be progressive, turn out to have in them, misogynistic undertones that disempower and ‘discipline’ the bold, career-oriented woman and plot the death of the free-spirited one. Both Sally and Nimmy in Deshadanakili Karayarilla commit suicide. The plight of Girly in Nokketha Doorathu Kannum Nattu is no different. She’s fated to die from a brain tumour. Instances are many where women who appear as friends, in the beginning, would fight for the love of a man by the climax as we see in Pranayavarnangal. Another trope is to depict friends as ‘unequal.’ This othering happens as one of them embodies certain ‘virtues’ that the latter lacks. Moreover, the ‘other’ would personify behaviours that a conservative society might find repugnant. An example would be Siddique’s 2003 movie Chronic Bachelor. Here, Bhama (starring Rambha) is defined in contrast or presented as an ‘other’ to Sathyapradaapan’s half-sister Sandhya (starring Bhavana). The relationship that develops between the two further helps the viewers distinguish between the desirable and the undesirable. Nonetheless, there are a few gripping portrayals of female companionship during the time. Koch Thresia and Kunj Maria (Sheela and K.P.S.C. Lalitha respectively) in Manasinakkare (2003) might steal our hearts with their enduring friendship. Sathyan Anthikkad’s Achuvinte Amma (2005) has in it another heart-warming representation of the Vanaja- Achu bond. However, the development of these relationships is largely restricted. Koch Thresia- Kunj Maria’s friendship is neither the focal point on which the movie revolves nor does it have much significance in the plot development. The entry of Ijo (Naren) into Achu’s life destabilizes what Vanaja and Achu have in between and signals the unassailable presence of the male subject.
The Present Scene
The past decade witnessed the emergence of several women-centric movies like How Old Are You? 5 Sundarikal, Rani Padmini, Uyare, and Take Off, among many others. Marking their departure from the star-oriented movies, strong women characters began unfurling varied hues of their lives on the silver screen. Scintillating performances by women, both on-screen and off-screen, have set new standards in the industry. That said, a realistic portrayal of female friendship isn’t still materialized in Malayalam cinema, save a few.
The 2011 movie, Salt & Pepper by Aashiq Abu, attempts to liberate its women characters. Yet the bond between Maya (Shwetha Menon) and Meenakshi (Maithili) serves more as a tool through which both of them finally find their partners, thus, reaffirming the patriarchal conventions that they seemed to subvert at the beginning of the movie. Movies like Jude Anthony Joseph’s Om Santi Oshana (2014), though with a female lead, also fails to explore the possibilities of female friendship. Even the very recent release Super Sharanya (2020) fails to widen the ambit. Though the movie is initially successful in presenting women’s friendship in an unprecedented manner, the novelty doesn’t persist. The story which could have been a celebration of female harmony re-channels its focus onto the romantic relationship between Sharanya (Anaswara) and Deepu (Arjun Ashokan) by the second half. It ends when Sharanya patches up with Deepu, dismissing Sona’s (Mamitha) earnest advice against it.
Nevertheless, a couple of movies serve as the silver lining. The Razia- Jyothi bond in Kavya Prakash’s Vaanku (2020) is one among them. Set around the life of Razia, a college student from an orthodox Muslim family, the movie spares time to delve into the affectionate bond the girls share. They are pals who stand for each other’s dreams. Even in the face of grave threats, Jyothi helps Razia fulfil her biggest desire: to sing Adhaan (Vaanku). Similarly, Mottachi’s (Vaishnavi) role in inspiring and emotionally supporting the titular character June (Rajisha), in the movie June (2019) cannot be overlooked. It’s an endearing bond that surpasses the stereotypical depiction of women’s mutual attachment that Malayalam cinema is familiar with. Pallavi-Sariya’s friendship in Bobby & Sanjay’s Uyare (2019) is an equally appeasing one. Sariya’s empathetical engagement with Pallavi, an acid attack survivor, helps her to develop a positive attitude towards life and outstand her circumstances to an extent.
Many movies that explore the dynamics of female friendships, which haven’t been included in this discussion, would be there. But the point I want to make is that female ties that flourish without pomp and splendour deserve further critical representations. They need to be acknowledged, and appreciated. Redefining female comradeship in movies is, thus, crucial to cast out the existing popular representations. It is high time that we dismiss the hackneyed expressions of female companionship, and replace them with models of strong, empathetical, and mutually empowering female friendships.