Misogyny & Malayalam Cinema: Why The Women In Cinema Collective Is Striking Fear

The subtle and direct attacks on the Women in Cinema Collective only show how the patriarchy of the Malayalam film world is running scared - of women's resistance.

The subtle and direct attacks on the Women in Cinema Collective only show how the patriarchy of the Malayalam film world is running scared – of women’s resistance.

While Hollywood decided to speak up and demand action against sexual abuse and exploitation in the world of cinema, Bollywood remained relatively silent. The casting couch was mentioned in discussions but cinema remained a workplace where male hegemony prevailed.

Women were silenced either by the industry or by the numerous fans of male stars through trolls and verbal abuse on social media. There were several actors like Swara Bhaskar who received threats, became victims of slut shaming and encountered the worst form of abuse on social media spaces. Malayalam cinema was no different; perhaps the violence inherent in patriarchy became more visible with the incident where a woman actor was sexually abused and attacked in a moving car in Kerala.

The Women in Cinema Collective or WCC, as it is popularly called was formed as an organization for women artists belonging to the world of Malayalam cinema – singers, actors, directors all included. The collective shaped itself last year after the brutal attack on a woman actor, shocking the sensibility of the people of Kerala. The decision to form a collective of this kind was a response to the misogynous position adopted by a male-dominated organisation of Malayalam cinema that was established in the year 1985.

AMMA as it is popularly known, Association of Malayalam Movie Artists, according to their website, is meant to provide a professional platform for open and healthy discussions and provide care and protection to its members. The double standards of this industry were revealed when the attack was later exposed to have been plotted by another leading male actor and he was taken into custody and his bail application rejected thrice. AMMA, as an organisation, as a collective, refused to adopt a firm stance against the male actor and preferred to gloss over the violent attack on the actor.

Kerala: A superficial modernity

Kerala with its admirable social development indices and the huge female work force, is increasingly being revealed as a misogynous society, deeply entrenched in patriarchal social structures. Malayalam cinema reflects this complex social reality, where the Malayalee population appears to have embraced modernity, yet prefers to be patriarchal and male dominated within the confines of domestic spaces.

While this remained a reality for several decades, recently, this male hegemony seems to be more prevalent and visible in public spaces as well. The fact that though Kerala has women graduates in large numbers, very few of them get employed, is itself an indicator of this change.  Moreover, surveys reveal that there is a relatively low level of participation of women in the work force.

Malayalam cinema since the 1990s and the beginning of the superstar reign, has seen major paradigm shifts, with regards to the position of women. Films tend to have male actors with larger than life characters and women sidelined, ridiculed with abusive dialogues are aplenty. With greater visibility for these films, through television channels, the dialogues repeated again and again, patriarchy has asserted itself firmly in Malayalam cinema industry.

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Masculinity was celebrated in the most vulgar manner in the films of the times, and idolised by the innumerable fan clubs that soon took on the role of non-ideological groups of youngsters, mostly male. The fan clubs gained in popularity through their philanthropic activities, and seemingly innocent interest in the stars they supported blindly. Recently, the watershed event, the attack on a female actor exposed this oppressive nature of the industry and the Malayalee population was shocked by the callous and brutal silence of their onscreen heroes.

The Indian film industry chose to remained silent, a loud silence, in fact, while Hollywood started to expose the perpetrators of sexual violence and declared firmly their resistance to sexual abuse through the #MeToo hashtag movement. This silence in one of the biggest industries speaks the language of suppression and the might of the patriarchal norms that rule this country. Women artists in cinema seem to lack the agency or the voice to speak up; rather, we often see them strongly endorsing the hegemonic male positions.

When women dare to form a Collective…

The Malayalam film industry went a step further, attacking the Collective, by presenting a short drama at the programme organized by AMMA, titled AMMA Mazhavillu (Rainbow).  The drama was titled ‘Women Empowerment: Inaugural Ceremony of the Collective‘. The short play had super stars and a few women actors donning the roles of the women artists who had dared to form the collective. The barbs were thinly veiled, the sarcastic comments and observations clearly intended to belittle the efforts of the women and the script with very little humour and that in bad taste.

Every character was stereotyped, and the women were revealed to be hypocritical and weak, shallow and ridiculously stupid. Endorsing male domination through various dialogues and incidents, the play progresses, with superstars acting out their parts as irresistible alpha males, their maleness emphasised through dance moves and songs by the women characters. The women are depicted as inherently vain, typical of every other female character who populated the screens during the glorious years of the superstars. The short play affirms the fear and insecurity of the patriarchal hegemonic powers that have been ruling the world of Malayalam cinema and the resistance the Collective seems to be putting up against them.

Women in Malayalam cinema is not a united front, the women who resist and rebel are only a few. Yet their voice sound loud and clear and the WCC as a collective, seems to have travelled far in one year. It becomes evident not just through their proactive interventions, but also through the reactionary responses from the patriarchally conditioned Malayalam cinema industry and through the abusive trolls and memes and other acts intended to silence them.

Their responses are organic and rational, resorting to ask sensible questions that challenge the positions and narratives of the privileged. The threat this collective presents to male domination is very real and every act of violence, both virtual and real, seems to empower them, and strengthen them in their struggle for dignity and equality in work spaces.

Top image is from an interview of Actor Parvathy where she called on superstars to stop glorifying violence against women

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About the Author

Swapna Gopinath

Reads and writes and thinks about gender identities and cultural contexts.. involves actively in women's issues.. read more...

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