IFFK 2017: ‘Avalkkoppam’ package has seven films that feature women of substance

  • By Hindu
  • | Thursday | 7th December, 2017

Women in these films inhabit distinctive socio-cultural and familial contexts and show up a society in the throes of deep transformations. It will be a unique moment of assertion, resilience and celebration as IFFK 2017 opens this year, affirming its solidarity with the women in cinema through a package of seven films titled ‘Avalkkoppam: Male auteurs and Malayalam women’s cinema of the 20th century’. Each film is woven around a woman or women of extraordinary mettle and testifies to the spectrum of femininities explored by a largely male-centred industry. Bold plotThe film caused a stir by its daringly provocative plot line and understated emoting by Jalaja, who once again proved herself an asset to Malayalam cinema. This package is an affirmation of our pride in a certain tradition of filmmaking in Kerala that was compassionate and sensitive towards women of substance, fire, fury and love.

It will be a unique moment of assertion, resilience and celebration as IFFK 2017 opens this year, affirming its solidarity with the women in cinema through a package of seven films titled ‘Avalkkoppam: Male auteurs and Malayalam women’s cinema of the 20th century’. As a part of the ongoing counter movement against the brazen display of sexism by certain elements in the cinema industry, this package is an attempt to trace the lineage of gender sensitive modes of representation in the history of Malayalam cinema.

There could not have been a more opportune moment to conceptualise such a creative intervention given the spate of sex scandals rocking the film community world over, especially in the post Harvey Weinstein scenario. And closer home, we are yet to recover from the shock and trauma of the brutal assault on a female actor allegedly engineered by dominant cliques within the film industry itself.

The seven films looks back in anger and hope at a legacy of cinematic imagination that explored the immense possibilities of rebellious, insubordinate women who fought to the finish, instead of buckling down to powers that be. Each film is woven around a woman or women of extraordinary mettle and testifies to the spectrum of femininities explored by a largely male-centred industry.

Starting with Kallichellamma (1969) the list features landmark films in Malayalam such as Kuttyedathi (a 1971 film that went on to become an integral part of actor Vilasini’s screen identity), Avalude Ravukal (1978), Adaminte Variyellu (1983), Alicinte Anveshanam (1989), Deshadanakkili Karayarilla (1986) and Parinayam (1994). Women in these films inhabit distinctive socio-cultural and familial contexts and show up a society in the throes of deep transformations. Their deviant behaviour is at the heart of these gripping narratives and catalyses seismic shifts in sensibility notwithstanding their tragic finales.

Challenging notions of femininity

Kuttyedathi embodies this deviance in all its subversive dimensions. M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s prescient script directed by P.N. Menon unfolds a woman completely at odds with idealised notions of femininity in her appearance, behaviour and expression of desire. Released in the early 70s, the script and its visualisation anticipate MT’s own subsequent women protagonists such as Janakikutty in Ennu Swantham Janakikutty and Ammini in Aranyakam. The narrative deftly intertwines caste and gender ripping off the veneer of caste honour and its lethal impact on upper caste women. While Kuttyedathi is situated within the matrix of matriarchal Nair dynamics, Parinayam directed by Hariharan is a throwback to the hapless fate of a Namboodiri girl excommunicated for adultery in the early decades of the 20th century.

Seeking alternatives

Once again, MT’s screenplay, inspired by the fictional world of Lalithambika Antharjanam and the compelling myth of Thathrikkutty, give a different spin to the Namboodiri woman’s agency by urging the heroine to choose a life in nationalist politics rather than return to the fold of household domesticity. The film invites one to a rich palate of colours drawn from myth, history, rituals and performance traditions. The closing image of Unnimaya at the spinning wheel, rejecting her repentant lover’s attempts to woo her back suggests the possibilities offered by the Gandhian path to seek an alternative, autonomous and dignified existence for women.

Kallichellamma directed by P. Bhaskaran moves beyond the privileged caste/class spaces to follow the life of Chellamma, a bold woman living with her foster mother in a typical rural setting still within the stranglehold of feudal hierarchies.

Life on her own terms

Even as the plot is woven around Chellamma’s romantic flings and her struggle for daily survival, the film still remains a powerful evocation of an ordinary rustic woman’s courage to live life on her own terms.

Flanked by two heavyweights like Prem Nazir and Madhu, Kallichellamma remains Sheela’s film, testifying to an era of filmmaking unfazed by the demands of male superstars.

Path-breaking narratives

I.V. Sasi’s Avalude Raavukal was a game changer of sorts, openly challenging the unwritten laws of society and cinema by making the protagonist a feisty sex worker. An iconic film in more senses than one, Alleppey Sheriff’s script indicts the double standards of middle class morality towards uninhibited expressions of female desire.

What makes this film still relevant is the director’s determination not to trap the sex worker within conventional forms of victimhood and his efforts to work out the differences between her desire for a man and other men’s desires for her. T.V. Chandran’s Alicinte Anveshanam unspools the hollowness and hypocrisy of marriage as an institution through the figure of a conventional wife who sets out in search of her missing husband only to realise how little she knew the man called ‘her husband’.

Bold plot

The film caused a stir by its daringly provocative plot line and understated emoting by Jalaja, who once again proved herself an asset to Malayalam cinema. The journey to find her husband becomes ironically and hearteningly a journey into her own selfhood.

Complex portrayal

K.G. George’s Adaminte Variyellu has gone on to immortalise itself as a crucial reference point while discussing gender and cinema in Kerala. Interweaving stories of three women from different social strata, George’s innovative structuring and complex portrayal of female predicament showcased the histrionic talents of actors like Sreevidya and Suhasini in all their vibrant potential.

Female bonding

Deshadanakkili Karayarilla designed around the uneasy friendship between two teenage girls, steers clear of a heteronormative framework by courageously imagining a female intimacy outside acceptable spaces of bonding. The lesbian undertones were noted and whispered about even in the mid 80s when it was released and viewers accepted it as a fait accompli of a Padmarajan film.

Padmarajan, true to his style, probes into the repressive mechanisms of school and family, as they intimidate and stigmatise these runaway girls whose excessive energies cannot be accommodated within the system.

This package is an affirmation of our pride in a certain tradition of filmmaking in Kerala that was compassionate and sensitive towards women of substance, fire, fury and love.

The writer is an academic and film enthusiast

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