In 2007, I joined a senior Malayalam writer-director to assist him in the scripting of his new television serial. It was a great experience to work with him. A simple and straightforward septuagenarian of immense creativity, he knows what works in a scene and what does not, at a glance.
We would sit once a month to draft the one line to decide on the situations required for each scene. Once, while discussing a scene in which a negative female character would cross the limits, he said, "Here, at this point, her husband should slap her right on her face! How thrilled the audience would be!"
I protested and asked him whether there was an atom of logic in the instantaneous transformation of a person, who had been arrogant and nagging all her life, by a single slap. The director, who has created some of the biggest hits in the history of the Malayalam film and soap industry, was sympathetic. "Dear child," he said, "you ask this question because you do not understand the pulse of an average viewer. An arrogant wife defeated by her husband is a very successful formula with the Malayalis. Only one condition — that, in the climax, the husband should endorse his manliness and thrash her on the face. The whole theatre, including the women, would clap or whistle!"
His remark struck a chord in my mind. He had said it without any malice. Maybe that's why it struck me. For a moment, I tried to recollect the number of films I have watched and enjoyed having such slap-on-the-face scenes. There were more than I could count. As a writer, I knew very well that a scene would capture the attention of the viewer only if there an action and a reaction in it. There is nothing more engaging than violence and sex, taking place or imminent. A slap on the face is the easiest action a writer can work into a scene to make it violent. But what makes the average Malayali forever thrilled with the same sequence leading to the slap on the face of a woman, time and again?
I could convince the director to avoid such scenes in our serials. Because this conversation gave me a new insight into the functioning of stereotypes. For a long time, I had believed that stereotypes do not affect a civilised society. As years passed, I realised stereotypes could, of course, produce a non-progressive society. Now, I understood, it could be the other way too. A non-progressive society always demands stereotypes. It desires the status quo. It effectively preserves patriarchy in some form of hegemony in all relationships. Hegemony always thrives on violence. And that is how a non-progressive society propagates and legalises violence — by reinforcing a set of beliefs and ideas over and over so that nobody questions anything. Hence, the heroes of our films are created at the expense of the intelligence and self-esteem of the heroines, the human dignity of the comedians, the rationality of the villains, as well as many of the progressive values that shape today's civilised world.
A non-progressive society always demands stereotypes. It desires the status quo.
It's not that there aren't deliberate efforts to counter this in Malayalam cinema. There are a bunch of youngsters who try to bring in new ideas and a team of daring actors who are ready to portray unconventional characters. So, these days, we see films in which there are women drinking with men and a group of young women are celebrating the New Year with bottles of beer. We see a heroine who admits she is not a virgin and avenges her lover by performing penectomy on him. We see girls complimenting on the nice ass of the hero. We see a heroine in her old age who goes in search of her cheater lover, only to give him a nice slap on the face. We see even a heroine who tells the man who sleeps with her that she slept with him not out of love and tells her friend that she is to going to keep the baby and doesn't want to get married. We see maids who work in a guest-house ready to take out a knife and scare away men.
But they are not yet the blockbusters. They are just in the multiplex cinemas. The real change would come when such cinemas would become blockbusters, in which case, a heroine would be able to slap the hero and leave the room without being raped.
There are a bunch of youngsters who try to bring in new ideas and a team of daring actors who are ready to portray unconventional characters.
When movie stars, directors, writers and producers organised a protest march in Kochi against the brutal attack on a young Malayalam actress, I sat upright in front of the TV. I thought it was a historic moment for Kerala. It is our failure as a society that we have not groomed a group of artists like America Ferrera, Ashley Judd and Michael Moore, who would come to participate in a march where millions of women take part and state their political stands. But considering how conservative and outdated the views and beliefs of the doyens of Malayalam cinema are, even a protest meeting is a giant leap for Malayali filmdom and our society.
Finally, they have accepted that violence against women is a serious social issue and have come forward to openly condemn the violence as violence. This was a good time to turn over a new leaf and endorse a belief like: "We hereby take a solemn pledge that in any of the films we act, write, photograph, direct or produce, we would not promote or propagate misogyny in any form." Or "Just like the statutory warnings against smoking and drinking or driving without seat belts, in scenes depicting violence against women, we shall announce the laws under which the offence is punishable."
However, except for one or two, all who got to the dais were men. Some of them cried. Some of them expressed anger. Some of them preached. Then they all stood up to take an oath and said something like, "We will protect women and treat them as sisters." The very next day, the actors' association exhorted actresses not to travel alone anymore. What a predictable anti-climax, typical of a mediocre Malayalam blockbuster.
But I am hopeful that this incident would impart a momentum to the changes that have already been initiated by our young directors and actors. Because we saw writers who have written the most number of misogynistic dialogues in Malayalam movies are now at the forefront of the protest. The actress who decided that her rights as a citizen is worth fighting for, even at the risk of her "honour" as a chaste woman, has slapped back on the face of a society thriving on stereotypes.
Personally, I don't believe that a person could be transformed by a slap or any form of violence at all. But it may help to remind the world that as you slap, so you will be slapped.
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