Malayali women are at Cannes: Does it justify underrepresentation of female characters in Mollywood? | Opinion

Crew of 'All We Imagine As Light', Aavesham poster. Photo: AFP/Loic Venance/IMDb

'Where are the women in Malayalam cinema? They are at Cannes'. This has been a hot topic on social media recently. Malayalam cinema has seen a string of hits this year, including 'Manjummel Boys,' 'Bramayugam,' and 'Aavesham.' Interestingly, none of these films featured female leads, nudging questions about the lack of important roles for women in Malayalam cinema. When asked about this, the filmmakers and actors responded that the stories did not necessitate a female protagonist, which might be true.
At Cannes, filmmaker Payal Kapadia’s 'All We Imagine As Light' won the Grand Prix, the second most prestigious award after the Palme d'Or. Malayali actors Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha starred in lead roles in the film. This achievement is a matter of pride for India and particularly for female filmmakers, as Payal is the first woman filmmaker to enter this category and win the award.

The involvement of Kani and Divya Prabha is a personal triumph for Malayalis. However, suggesting that the underrepresentation of strong female leads in recent Malayalam cinema is mitigated by the presence of those two Malayali actresses at Cannes is skewed. In an interview with Brut, Payal Kapadia emphasised the issue, stating, 'There are only four women filmmakers in competition at Cannes, and how many have won? It’s not enough, in my opinion'.
Also Read: Malayalam blockbusters marred by poorly written female characters?

In one viral video discussing the absence of women in Malayalam cinema, a comment reads, 'What is the requirement to have female characters in a movie? If the story demands a female character, then it's enough to have one'. Another comment says, 'Because men are brave." These comments suggest that a significant portion of society believes there is no need for strong female characters, and the underrepresentation of women means little to them as long as successful movies are being made. This discussion centres on why strong female characters are missing from Malayalam cinema. Some argue that films like 'Premalu' and 'Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey' feature strong women characters. However, criticism arose regarding Mamitha Baiju's character Reenu in 'Premalu,' suggesting that she only accepted Sachin (Naslen) because he was leaving for the UK, implying that girls only accept boys with well-paying jobs.

The lack of strong female characters in recent Malayalam movies reinforces the old practice of focusing solely on male protagonists while relegating women to sidekick roles. Even recent releases like 'Thalavan' and 'Guruvayoor Ambalanadayil' lack strong female characters. In the latter, the story centres on the relationship between two brothers-in-law, with the characters of Nikhila Vimal and Anaswara Rajan serving as mere spectators. Anaswara, who is the female lead in the Nivin Pauly starrer 'Malayalee From India', barely had 15 minutes of screen time in the movie.

While many factors contribute to this issue, one of the main reasons for the lack of strong female characters in Malayalam cinema is the weak writing of women's roles. It seems that writers and directors today believe that if a certain formula works in the industry, there is no need to forcibly include a strong female character in the narrative for the sake of it.
The movie industry produces only a handful of women-centric films, and fewer still get recognised. The reliance on outdated formulas or the inability to find effective stories about women is a significant issue that needs redressal. It shouldn't take another 30 years for a film like 'All We Imagine As Light' to make it to Cannes for this problem to be acted upon.

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