Gendered Spaces in Post-Emergency Kerala: Frames of K.G. George

in Article
Published on: 05 September 2017

Rasmi Binoy

Rasmi Binoy is a journalist with The Hindu, Thiruvananthapuram. A graduate in history and a postgraduate in journalism and mass communication, she writes on cinema, literature, and culture for her paper. She has published two books, 'Charithrathile Pennidangal' ('Fifty years of women's life in Kerala', Kerala Bhasha Institute) and 'Thirike Nee Varumbol' (poems, with Olive Books).

Although declared by a female Prime Minister, the Emergency was arguably the crudest and most sadistic expression of masculinized power in the largest democracy of the world. Aimed at achieving a short-term end—of curtailing growing political opposition—the Emergency, however, had long-lasting repercussions not only on the Indian polity, but also on the psyche of its citizens. The massive crackdown on civil liberties and political freedom was unprecedented and shocking for a nation that had fought colonial forces barely three decades ago. On the one hand, it was a state of oppression for the politically minded; on the other, for a section of the middle class—equipped with government jobs and a steady lifestyle—the Emergency brought in the unlikely phenomenon of trains running on time and offices functioning punctually. For them, this apparent ‘working’ (at last) of the new government, like a well-oiled machine, in itself could have defined the very ‘Independence.’


It is interesting to note the prevalence of such middle-class mores based on meritocracy and submission to power in the Indian social fabric of the post-liberalization era too. Gemma Scott (2014) while studying gender and the Emergency, says that the government used Emergency powers to pursue intrusive slum clearance and family planning policies, which, in such a political climate, meant the destruction of thousands of homes and a vigorous programme of forced sterilisation. K.G. George says that Sanjay Gandhi used to evoke a sense of madness during those days,  'An aberration that was the creation of his surroundings…Though not directly involved, Emergency did affect me emotionally. Irakal (1986) reflects the violent politics of those days' (Venu 2015).


That K.G. George started his cinema journey exactly the year the Emergency was declared could have been incidental. His first film, Swapnadanam (1976), dealt with a disturbed youth, a doctor, who is torn between an unfading love for his girlfriend and obligations towards his wife.


Through his focused attempt to redraw the cinematic idiom, George provided the viewer with a mirror in which the socio-political clashed with the individual. To an extent, it would not be wrong to see Swapnadanam as the struggle of the subconscious to swim against the current. The film is emphatically urban, not only in terms of its characters and the locales they are placed in, but also with regard to their perceptions and approach to life.


Urbanisation is often theorized as exaggerating the sense of the ‘I,’ making the individual see her own self as the centre of the world. One grows omnipotent and collapses into oneself at the same time, like a black hole gobbling up its own lonely existence. Gopinathan is a prototype of this individual while the two lead women—Gopi’s wife Sumithra and girlfriend Kamalam—are clear about what they want from life.  Sumithra is keen to exercise her power as the socially sound partner, a unique gender position considering the times. Swapnadanam thus attempts to subvert the status quo, a trait George follows throughout his career.



Demystification of the female

In Mattoraal (1988), homemaker Susheela exchanges a glance, which is at once empty and loaded with meaning, with the workshop owner she has an affair with. She is neither standing in the courtyard, nor inside the house, but at the front door, signifying a critical turn of events. The impressive oeuvre of George, still vastly understudied, is marked by such moments.


Like in real life, his women appear full and rounded on the outside, but are flawed and broken inside. Thus, we have Alice of Adaminte Variyellu (1983) having her own form of revenge on her crude, manipulative husband, all the while nursing a heart that longs for some empathy. Kumudam in Ee Kanni Koodi (1990) is no mere toy in the hands of fate; she is determined to face it, deal with it and turn it around to achieve her own ends. But this gives her neither a heart of stone nor a sense of vindication. In Yavanika (1982), Rohini is the epitome of the hapless female, yet she does not want to escape jail by putting the blame elsewhere.


For the most part, Malayalam literature, and by extension, its cinema, have attempted to look at women through a hazy glass of intrigue and mystery. At the other extreme of the spectrum, they are either objects to look at, desire, claim and discard, or deities installed on a pedestal, locked away behind the stage and worshipped when needed. What George endeavoured for was the demystification of his women. By choosing to place them on a plane of vulnerability, he declared their full right to their character arcs vis-à-vis the milieu. This is best expressed by the roles played by Sreevidya in Irakal (1986) and Adaminte Variyellu. The young, feisty daughter of the patriarch has no qualms in ridiculing her ‘socially conscious’ husband or sleeping with a servant. Yet she fears humiliation at the hands of her brother, and is crushed by her affection for her daughter. In Adaminte Variyellu, Alice treats her loveless marriage with the contempt it deserves, yet is devastated when rejected by her lover, in whom she finally wanted to find compassion. In the same movie, Vasanthi, the middle-class government servant ill-treated at home in every possible manner, manages the tyranny by imagining her empathetic father-in-law coming back alive. Though she ends up in a mental asylum, a place decreed for a large part of suppressed womanhood, the illusion of the father figure watching her makes Vasanthi smile. Raappadikalude Gaatha (1978), the print of which is no longer available, features a woman attracted to drugs and who dictates her own terms.


By and large, all these women destroy the ‘ideal’ at some point in their lives, by looking for love elsewhere, by escaping its tyranny through mental illness, or when nothing works, by toppling the very system as done by Ammini (in Adaminte Variyellu) when she runs out of the ‘rescue home’ pushing away the very camera that has been capturing her plight. A literal declaration of freedom from the ‘male gaze,’ it remains one of the most iconic climaxes of Malayalam cinema.


Panchavadippalam, which came out in 1984, the year of Indira Gandhi’s death, picks on the polity of the times, and is still piquant three decades hence. By painting Mandodariyamma and Rahel, pointedly named after characters in legends, in harsh, colourful strokes, George unabashedly attempts to show women in a negative light. Corruption and greed are not at all the preserve of men alone in Panchavadippalam. Demystification—of politics, women, and power—is effectively used as a tool here. By taking a sharp detour from the kind of movies he had made until then, George incisively deconstructs the politics of greed, using no abstracts, grey zones, or dream sequences.



Silent struggle

In Mattoraal (1988), a jurisprudential method of inquiry is employed, by looking at the scenario from various angles. The overarching question of how to interpret the elopement of a not-so-young middle-class housewife with a car mechanic is addressed by each character in the movie, a stakeholder in the family's day-to-day life. The husband, Kaimal, has rigid perceptions of a wife, which are totally in sync with the times and in no way illegal. He is the provider and she, the facilitator. Their emotionally cold relationship is so normalised, it's the archetype of a ‘happy’ family. He even takes Susheela and children to the beach and reminiscences about a romantic past, by a time when Susheela is no longer invested in her marriage.


She smiles wistfully while telling Veni, their family friend, that Kaimal did not want her to work though she wished to. Yet, absolutely no trace of frustration is visible in Susheela until she goes away with Giri. Susheela’s act can be read as a silent protest against patriarchy and a large chunk of it could be sexual. We are not told what she thinks of her children, one of them a girl. While Nora walked out slamming the door shut in Ibsen’s legendary Doll’s House, Susheela makes no noise as she leaves. It’s evident her decision is final, one that she takes full responsibility for. She is fed up of being a prop in the family.


As time passes, Susheela finds that what she thought a refuge was only quicksand. She confesses to Balan, Veni’s husband, that there is no salvation for her, but unlike what is seen in popular cinema, gives herself a chance later by returning home.


For Balan, it is a universal-love-proclaiming mission, where he does judge Susheela, but is also sympathetic. He appeals to Kaimal’s humanity and strives to bring her back. The independent-minded Veni is the one who sees the situation for what it is. While stating that nothing is going to be the same again even if Susheela comes back, she shares the existentialist angst of a woman who is victimised by everyone, foremost by the system. In other words, Mattoral brings alive women who are ‘makers’ of meaning, rather than its ‘bearers.’


While Adaminte Variyellu can easily be classified as feminist, Mattoraal is more nuanced in its approach to the female. The climax, where Kaimal is seen impaled by the knife he himself bought to kill his wife, stands testimony to this. His masculinity is ‘feminized’ since popular movies usually ‘punish’ only the woman even when the man sins, the film Cocktail (2012) being a case in point.


As Engels puts it, 'in the monogamous family…we have a picture in the miniature of the very antagonisms and contradictions in which society, split up into classes since the commencement of civilization, moves, without being able to resolve and overcome them' (Engels 1948). These contradictions are brought forth by George in all his movies dealing with marriage, be it Mela where a jester-dwarf weds the village beauty and the entire circus team turns its voyeuristic lens on their tent, or Kolangal, where undercurrents of the village life are stronger than its visible life that is coloured by women like Chantha Mariyam. Ulkkadal has three women entering the life of Rahulan, with Reena, the artist, eventually uniting with him.


Lekhayude Maranam: Oru Flashback has three women of three different shades. Moneymaking is the sole aim in life for actor Lekha’s mother Vishalakshi, whereas Lekha feels trapped in this mission. She tries to find solace in talented director Suresh Babu, who has no qualms in using her. In this process, his ‘uncaring’ wife is first utilised as a bait to win the love of Lekha. The same wife later becomes a convenient excuse to get rid of his clingy lover. 'Marriage is a serious affair,' he exhorts.




A shift in sensibilities

The year that Ee Kanni Koodi released, 1990, also marked the beginning of massive changes in India's economy, and subsequently, its socio-political reality. The market became all-pervading and the citizen its slave. This was the time when Kerala witnessed the waning of the feminist movements that had taken root across the State in the previous decade. With the widespread acceptance of the Left movement and its participation in governance, the question of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ gained greater currency than the issue of the agency of women, which was relegated to the background. It did not take much time to establish ‘women’s empowerment’ either as mere rhetoric or as a term that consciously and unconsciously put the ‘men’ on the opposite turf, flexing their muscles.


This reductionist approach has definitely had a regressive and destructive effect on the Kerala of the 21st century. The Malayalam industry had no dearth of melodramas when Ee Kanni Koodi was released. In fact, these dramatic narratives manufactured and perpetuated the ‘ideal’ family that was largely based on the assumption of a self-effacing mother/wife. The education and employment of women had very much become the norm, but they hardly meant their emancipation.


Feminism was represented by exaggerated and elitist women in films—‘society ladies’—out to destroy the peace and well-being of the familial structure. The binary of good woman and bad woman, with no allowance for grey areas, was exercised by such movies with a vengeance.


'Being in love means being willing to ruin yourself for the other person,' goes a diary entry of writer-filmmaker Susan Sontag. The protagonist in Ee Kanni Koodi, Susan Philip who is later called by the name Kumudam, seems to live out this maxim.


Though designed as a crime investigation narrative, the film is a sharp, terse attack on the double standards of patriarchal morality. Kumudam is discovered dead in the opening scene. A highly-paid sex-worker, her past is a mystery. Each new suspect reveals a different layer of her personality, until the investigator finds her parents to complete the picture. A victim through and through, Susan refuses to be let down and chooses to be a sex-worker, a predicament resulting from her husband’s alcoholism, disappearance, and a subsequent trap laid by her lover.


Depicted as an intelligent, confident young woman with an artistic bend of mind, Susan is later seen treating her own body as a mere resource to make money. The camera never exploits her curves, but behaves like a witness. Desire belongs plainly to the man here but Kumudam is admonished, by none other than the owner of the hotel that uses her body to enhance patronage, for ‘disrupting’ the family of a wealthy client. She coolly responds that it is the one with family who has to be careful about not breaking it. Her words have to reverberate in a cinematic culture spawned by an upper caste-macho society. In a milieu where sex worker is mostly the ‘hooker’ and never a victim of her circumstances, Kumudam’s characterization remains unparalleled. Over two decades later, K.R. Meera’s Malaakhayude Marukukal ​(2014) painted the heroine Angela in such bold strokes. That George conceived such a woman as Kumudam at a time when cinema was celebrating the machismo of the Mammootty-Mohanlal duo, deserves more credit and deeper critical attention. 



The ‘Male’ question

Films such as Irakal, Adaminte Variyellu, Ee Kanni Koodi, Mattoraal, Mela and Kathakku Pinnil unashamedly shatter the concept of the male as the saviour, the protector of the female. Already alienated by the larger world because of her sex, the woman in each of these movies is seen either abandoned or cruelly betrayed by their partners.


At the same time, George does not want to judge them in isolation. Just like the women, or more pathetically so, each of these men is imprisoned by his own image—the pressure to remain manly and invincible. Baby in Irakal is a case in point. The criminal in him is born not out of accident, but is shaped by his very own family drunk on money and muscle power. His uncle, a bishop, reminds him while addressing his violent side, 'You lack nothing,' to which he replies, 'There is only abundance.'


While remaining the epitome of villainy, Baby also evokes a strange kind of sympathy in the viewer for it is shown where he comes from. Vulnerable and confused, he is visibly scared when Nirmala, his ex-lover, flashes a knife. Along his dark conscience, the director juxtaposes the snow-white heart of his overtly virtuous, docile mother who is only capable of shedding copious amounts of tears at each atrocity being committed by her husband and sons. This traditional role of the hapless mother, who has no say in shaping her family’s dynamics, largely remains the norm for Malayalam mainstream cinema till today.


Why tabalch Ayyappan of Yavanika is a violent persona is clearly stated in the movie. 'Orphaned at a very young age, he left home at 15. He has a wife and child in Lucknow. He came back 15 years later as an accomplished tabla player.' It could have been this abandoned, unaccounted-for existence that triggered the first impulses to crime in him.




K.G. George’s repertoire instantly calls to mind a number of women whose eyes glisten with individuality, rather than tears of passivity. Even the weakest, Ammini of Adaminte Variyellu, is not reluctant to abandon her baby born out of a pathetic past. Even Alice of the same movie and Susheela of Mattoraal do not exalt motherhood as the core of their existence. 


John Abraham’s Amma (from Amma Ariyan, 1986) and Kadammanitta’s Kurathi could be seen as figures in the same political discourse. It is important to note that it is the notion of motherhood that is foregrounded in all these narratives.  While discussing the intellectual/public placement of Kerala women in the '70s, Ratheesh Radhakrishnan (2003) notes, 'The position of the woman in the revolutionary moment, then, is that of the mother who "understands".' This becomes a point worth mentioning as this article ends, considering how the revolutionary artists of the time wanted to see a woman only as a mother figure and how a filmmaker, using popular actors and not completely avoiding songs and action, consistently chose to explore gender outside established patterns.





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