Cover Story

Slap and Strut

KR Meera is a Malayalam writer. The Unseeing Idol of Light is her latest novel translated into English
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Malayali matinee idols and their vulgar masculinity

SOMETIME IN 1986, a veteran non-Malayali actor- playwright of national acclaim acted in a Malayalam film directed by a star director. In one scene, he had to slap the heroine, a teenaged character who had fallen in love with the protagonist he portrayed. Reportedly, even after many takes the slap wasn’t satisfactory. The director was impatient and wondered aloud why an acting genius like him had to struggle with an ordinary slap on the face. “I have never ever slapped a woman in my life,” replied the actor. “Don’t worry, just imagine she is your wife and give a thrashing,” he was advised. “That will make it all the more impossible,” the actor- playwright replied. “How can I ever raise my hand on someone I love and respect?” Some of the men at the set looked at each other with disbelief. The others laughed at the gentleman for his naiveté. For a normal Malayali male, it would be very difficult to understand the concept of respecting a woman, and least of all, one’s own wife.

The above situation should be juxtaposed with another film on the same lines produced in 1982. It was also about a teenage girl falling in love with a handsome man twice her age. Not surprisingly, there was a slapping scene in this film too. Of course, it was the pre-superstar era in Malayalam cinema and the hero was just a hero. Although he was much younger than the actor-playwright aforementioned, he had no qualms in enacting the scene. It is easy to conclude that Malayalis in the 1980s were yet to understand the worldwide women’s rights movement.

But how can we write off the incident where this same actor (by now a superstar) playing the role of a District Collector in a film of the mid-90s, used a slur for his female co-star, twisting her hand raised to hit him and delivering that punch dialogue, “I know what to do to prevent you raising your hand ever against a man; I am not doing it, as you are a woman. A mere woman”? It appears as if the writer, the director and the actor were ignorant of and insulated from the voices of women’s empowerment that were reverberating across the country. Even more worrying is that in a film called Kasaba (2016), the same superstar enacted even more misogynistic scenes with more vulgar dialogues. This was at a time when the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 was alive in discussions. Since superstars decide everything about their movies, even the camera angle, not to say the script, it is impossible to dismiss the apparently innocent encouragement of misogyny as mere dialogue.

It is obviously deliberate because such dialogues and situations where women are disrespected are increasingly employed in films—so much so that it has become nearly routine, as if it were necessary for commercial reasons. So in one film, if Mammootty’s character is abusing and arm-twisting a lady IAS officer, in another film we see Mohanlal’s character abusing, ridiculing and arm-twisting a lady IPS officer. Then in the next film, it is Dileep’s character who delivers innuendo-heavy dialogues to women, followed by Prithviraj passing comments on the same lines. All these films can be boiled down to two or three important messages: the man has to be an alpha male to be a hero; an alpha man has to be violent and that an alpha man should use force to control and tame the heroines. The fans’ associations, which behave like a personal militia or private army funded and controlled by superstars, welcome such dialogues and violence with thunderous applause in the theatres, proving that such stereotypical violence and misogyny are highly addictive. Consumers of it would always want a higher dose of it the next time to satisfy themselves.

The irony is that Amma and its members play innocent fools refusing to accept the fact that the times have changed. They remain oblivious to the tremors of the great #MeToo movement

There is something revealing about these slap-on-the-face stereotypes. In the 70s, it was mostly negative women characters who got slapped, by their husbands. Then in the 80s, the heroines themselves started getting slapped. Only that these heroines were mostly illiterate or childish. But ever since the mid-90s, even educated and empowered heroines have been destined to receive their share of slaps. Isn’t there a pattern emerging here? When you look at the political, social, communal and financial transformations the country has undergone, with the ushering in of a technological revolution and an increased participation of women in governance, can it be innocent to appreciate a slap on the face of a heroine as just a slap on the face of a mere woman?

It cannot be. Because misogyny is not about women alone. It is about a lack of sensitivity and respect for human dignity. Film after film, if heroes glorify acts that violate the dignity of a fellow human being just because she is a mere woman, it demonstrates the hero’s disrespect for our democratic values as well as our constitutional fundamental rights. It explains why outside their reel life, these superstars maintain a cowardly silence or take a non- progressive stand on socially sensitive issues.

The recent controversy over reinstating the actor Dileep in the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) at a time when the trial of the case of abduction and sexual assault of a co- actor in which he is an accused is about to start, once again reveals their lack of good sense and judgement. They lack the spine to take pride in the immense courage of the survivor to fight for the generations to come. Instead, their sympathies are with the actor accused rather than the actor survivor and they are all proud of it. But this is hardly surprising. Members of the Association have a history of supporting the powerful and the upper-caste rather than the weak and the lower-caste. AMMA did not feel guilty about isolating a great actor like Thilakan and banning him from films for not being subservient enough. When fans’ associations opened a nasty cyber attack on the young actress who incidentally criticised the misogyny in Kasaba, neither the superstar nor the Association came to her support. But these incidents are nothing compared to the reaction of AMMA’s office-bearers to the resignation of four actresses (including the survivor) from the Association. When the media and the general public extended their support to the four and when three other members gave notice to call a general body meeting to discuss the issue, Mohanlal, the president of the Association, was forced to react, albeit reluctantly and evasively.

The irony is that AMMA and its members play innocent fools, refusing to accept the fact that the times have changed. They remain oblivious to the tremors of the great #MeToo movement which has been reverberating all over the world. They pretend to be ignorant of new laws that deal with sexual assault. They remain impervious to discussions around the legalisation of same-sex marriage and penalising marital rape in India. Sadly, they ignore the new sensibility ushered in by young directors like Ashiq Abu and Dileesh Pothen who are shattering gender stereotypes with their wonderful films. Ridiculously, they try to trivialise the formation of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), at a time when an increased number of intellectually and emotionally empowered women are entering the film world and winning critical as well as commercial acclaim as directors and technicians. The courage with which these women have fought for their colleague is astonishing. They have won half the battle by proving that when women support the cause of women, the world will change. Citizens of the cinema kingdom have no idea how to deal with empowered women. This is one problem with misogyny, it stunts the emotional and intellectual growth of the misogynists themselves.

The veteran actor -playwright mentioned at the beginning acted in one more Malayalam film. He played the role of father to the hero, Mohanlal. The dialogues in the climax of the film were prophetic: “It doesn’t matter whether you realise what is right and what is wrong. But once you have realised what is wrong, to repeat it is unpardonable!”

How sad that the actors do not learn from the dialogues they themselves voice.