Readers Write In #383: Sara’s is the latest entry in the series of Malayalam ‘women’s issue’ films that actually downplays its content

Posted on July 12, 2021

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(by Alex John)

I really started thinking about this after watching the Asif Ali flick ‘Kettyol anente malakha’, which came out two years ago. Now, before I start this, I want to let you know that I don’t have anything against films those who take a light-handed approach to grave social issues. I am a fan of Rajkumar Hirani films, films like ‘The Truman show’, Taare zameen par’ and umpteen other feel-good ‘social-message’ films. ‘Kettyol’ is a really good movie too, in its own account. In fact, I am not here to write about a particular film, but a trend that makes rounds in Malayalam movie Industry, which has movies sugarcoat any social insanity and dismissing it as a minor inconvenience. You won’t get alarmed as these usually are well-made films that ‘address’ the issue, but in-fact it plays-down the issue so well that the viewer is sort of hidden from the emotional severity of it. In a place which is so backward in gender equality and women’s rights for all its educational and human development progress, I believe Malayalam cinema is upholding this condemnable knack of making social maladies look much less hazardous than they actually are.

Take ‘Kettyol anente malakha’, for instance, which is a breezy entertainer and a box office hit. After watching it, I couldn’t figure out what to make of it. Even while I liked it, it felt terribly inadequate as the issue of marital rape is so rampant in India that if there is an exponential rise in the cases reported, it has all the potential to be a ghastly historical event. The movie takes this issue and treats it like flimsy, redeemable fare, like a bull-run in a stock market. Life and the other characters are so easy on him after the ‘incident’ that I felt kind of guilty that I enjoyed this film about one of the most dreadful acts being committed by humans. Quite ironically, it is this easy approach that turns the film into a comfy entertainer, and this makes things more complicated when it comes to the ‘social’ movies from Kerala.

That’s why I wrote I am not complaining against a particular movie, but against an alarming pattern displayed by Malayalam cinema, of making movies about social issues that sort of trivialize the very issues handled by them. Take ‘3 idiots’ from the films I mentioned before. Put all those jokes aside, and you will get a hard-hitting movie about the pressure our nation exerts on its students. ‘Taare zameen par’ is a text book on how kids should be treated by parents and teachers. ‘The Truman show’ is sort of about everything corporates did, and do now. On the contrary, watching ‘Kettyol’ made me feel like…nothing happened, in terms of the impact it was supposed to make in viewer’s minds.

Let’s take the director Jude Anthany Joseph’s first feature ‘Ohm Santhi Osana’ which is about a girl choosing her life partner by herself, which is a big deal in India, especially in Kerala. The film goes gaga over its tomboyish and supposedly free-spirited female lead. She rides motorbikes, ‘man-spreads’ while sitting on a couch, and drools over a guy who’s a family acquaintance. We are supposed to think she’s riding the progressive bandwagon, while what she actually does is being annoying, dweeby and throwing herself into the hands of a violent chauvinist, who actually yells at her to go home at one point (as in girls are not supposed to roam around alone, day or night).

Now, anyone who has seen this film should understand what I am talking about. These films are usually charming and well-made, there is no doubt about it, but they either tactfully hide the message they are supposed to spread under the cloak of that charm, like in ‘Kettyol anente malakha’, or send out thoroughly conventional messages masquerading as notions of reformism, like in ‘Ohm Santhi Osana’ (I once thought of writing a separate write-up on how Anjali Menon’s films do this regressive-progressive circus in her films. I always cringe when her films celebrate oppressed women, because they stealthily sublimate the oppression instead of exposing it, and this peaks in ‘Ustad hotel’. Squeezing that thought in here).

Okay, let’s talk about Jude Anthany Joseph’s latest directorial venture ‘Sara’s’. The movie is, without a doubt, much better than the ones mentioned above. It doesn’t back-pedal on the issue it talks about, provides the viewers a surprisingly uncompromising climax, and is an overall feel-good affair. And god knows I am glad that the movie makes Sara say she doesn’t want to conceive, in a film that comes out to a place that instantly demonizes a woman if she even says she doesn’t like children (believe me it’s true). But again…. everything seems so easy for her in the film. In order to make the film more ‘feel-good-y’ the makers toned down the plot and narration to such an extent that it seemed border-line unconvincing. I mean, she only had to convince her closest relatives and in-laws that her reasons are legit? What about the distant ones? The ones she meets at family gatherings? The ones who visit her? The nosy neighbors? The grocery people? ‘

Sara’s’ joins the club of those mushy message movies that leave little or no impact on the viewer despite the thematic heft. I’m not saying Malayalam cinema should stop making such films, but along with these films, we need hard-hitting, no-nonsense movies that weigh in on our consciences. I don’t really look forward to movies toppling our rusty societal values, but in place and a country where women’s rights and equality are more of a joke, our own movies on par with ‘The accused’, ‘north country’, ‘Thelma and Louise’, ‘Monster’ and plenty other gutsy movies isn’t going to hurt. Even some films in the league of the zany ‘Stepford wives’? No problem at all. Of course, watching sugar-coated versions of our own problems is gratifying, but we, in India, could definitely do with some blood-boil too. Films like ‘Kammattippadam’ showed us they can kick-off serious discussions on class-struggle in our society. In that case there is nothing wrong in expecting films like that about women’s right’s too. And maybe there is no better time for that than nowadays.