A comment by actress Parvathy condemning the misogynistic undertones in Malayalam star Mammootty’s 2016 release Kasaba has erupted into a storm. After she expressed disappointment over some of the dialogue in the film while speaking at the International Film Festival of Kerala on December 11, the Qarib Qarib Singlle star became the target of vicious and relentless online abuse, including rape and death threats. After Parvathy filed a police complaint, two men have been arrested for sending her threatening messages. According to reports, Kasaba producer Joby George, in a Facebook comment, offered a job to one of the arrested men. George defended his comment to The News Minute, calling it “an act of empathy.” On Thursday, Mammootty said that he had spoken to Parvathy and that he supported a person’s freedom of expression. “I don’t go after controversies,” he said. “What we need are meaningful debates. I have not assigned anyone to respond on my behalf or defend me.”
Writing for Scroll.in, Parvathy emphasised that the issue wasn’t about an individual or a movie, but a deeply entrenched culture of misogyny: “An army is rising to fix what for generations we have condoned.”
Why grammar matters
I did not insult Mammootty.
In fact, I called him an actor par excellence because I truly believe it. I respect him and I have no personal vendetta against him. But when my speech got out, most of the headlines were on the lines of Parvathy-criticises-Mammootty. Only one or two publications put out a headline saying that I actually criticised how our films glorify misogyny. The people attacking me did not read the entire report. They saw the headline and were up in arms against me. Even insiders in the industry who have spoken against me seem to not have seen the video. If they had, they would realise that I did not say anything against him.
What I spoke about in the video was about how filmmakers employ visual grammar to emphasise bad, misogynistic qualities as something to root for. Let me break that down with an example that Sreehari Sreedharan posted recently on this issue. The simple act of opening a car door and getting out can be shown in many ways. A regular actor playing a normal person will open the car, get out, and close the door. A very simple scene. A comedian will open the door, fall down, stumble, close the door, and people will laugh.
With a superstar, there is going to be extra effort put into the scene. The background score will be intense, the car will perhaps take a turn and stop. The hero will step out, put on sunglasses, and walk in slow motion. Unimaginably hyped BGM. Kicks the car door with his legs. Glorification. Celebration of heroism.
So yes, a character can be anyone. They may have sexist, misogynistic tendencies, but is his misogyny being underlined as a bad quality or is his misogyny being knowingly or unknowingly portrayed as something good? It depends on what cinematic grammar you use. You can always reflect reality by showing a misogynistic man but you can also show make sure it isn’t looked up to as a good quality.
A medium of influence
One of the criticisms against me has been that I am trying to curb creative freedom. Well, no. Please create away. Make films where the protagonists are sexist, violent, misogynist, difficult people in general. Make them about serial killers. You can celebrate the heroism of a superstar with all the slow-motion walks and everything else without glorifying what’s wrong.
People say cinema is just cinema. When a thousand people are sitting in a dark room laughing, clapping, crying and empathising with a story for two and a half hours, cinema becomes a political activity that can influence a collective consciousness. One can show reality, but one does not need to glorify its vices to do so. This responsibility resides with the writer and director. Above all, a star in a position of power can always have a say on the matter of what he can project or say on the screen.
It’s of this awareness that I spoke about. I have had these discussions in every film of mine. None of my writers or directors has had a problem in having that discussion!
Also, when movies portrays misogyny and sexism and then glorify them for the sake of “commerce”, what does that say? What is really being sold here? They are trying to sell something negative as having a “cool”, “badass” quality. When you make a villain a misogynist, you will not follow him because you know he is a villain. However, when a hero gets similar scenes which are lunched with celebratory BGM and slow motion walks, you want to be like him because he is a hero.
It takes a while to study it, but taking a step back and seeing how our social construct is ingrained with misplaced ideals – you will see how art deeply affects human psyche.
The right kind of intolerance
Our society reflects what is given to it through art as much as art takes from the society. Look at the level of intolerance that has increased in leaps and bounds especially since the advent of social media. No one outside a “comforting” definition of man/woman is accepted. Why do we make characters in our films so insensitive to someone who is, say, not macho enough? Why do we treat homosexuals and transgenders in our films in such a derogatory manner? Why are there so many comedy tracks based on them? An effeminate man or a person who is too dark or too fat is made fun of. Why?
And why should we tolerate this intolerance?
If you say I am intolerant, then yes I am intolerant towards the depiction of women and people of diversity in cinema. I don’t want to sit and squirm in my seat watching such scenes. This is my film industry and I work here. Therefore I have every right to speak about this. If someone has a logical argument to make against mine, I am all ears. All I ask for is healthy discussion and debate.
If this incident has started a discussion around “prevailing misogyny in Kerala”, then let me remind you that it is not like such incidents are not happening in other places across the country. I don’t want national media to portray this as a localised issue. Only when people realise that it has been happening everywhere can anything be done about it. And I am very proud that my state is making this much-needed noise so that we can pave the way for changes.
Why do we even bother? Here’s why
I truly hope others would follow suit as well. Journalist Dhanya Rajendran was viciously attacked for expressing her thoughts on actor Vijay’s film. Journalist Anna MM Vetticad goes through the same when she writes her opinions on superstars and her study in the state of affairs in the industry. The truth is that intolerance is more towards the fact that a woman spoke, than of what she said. The matter that must be discussed and debated finds no space after all.
Misogyny is everywhere around us, and we have normalised it to an extent it doesn’t even seem wrong. If you are at a party or a family event, people, usually seniors, say things to a woman like, “Let the men do the work, why do you bother?” “You are not feminine enough”, “Why are you a tomboy?”
And when these conversations happen, even the women giggle. Nobody tells anybody that it is not okay to say such things.
Even men are suppressed by this constant pressure of needing to “be a man”. They are taught not to cry, not to feel. And that’s as much of a contributing factor as anything else.
This small group of people giggling at each other’s jokes made at the expense of someone’s gender is just a microcosm. The bigger picture happens in a film theatre. In the arts. And in that hall someone may think, hey, that is wrong and I shouldn’t laugh. But you laugh along because everyone else is laughing. The mind has been conditioned to consider misogyny as normal for the longest time everywhere.
Women need to be sensitised too
And our women also play a part in this. Especially those who are not threatened by misogyny. They are so rooted and conditioned to accept that it is alright to be asked to shut up, to be hit, to be abused. They are just so far removed from the concept of liberation.
A lot of women, for example, do not get why I live a happy life because I am not conforming to their notions of happiness. They think I am an extremely incomplete person.
I am not just talking about the woman who out up a post criticising me. What she uses against me is the things I wear in films or that I did a “liplock” scene in a film. How can the act of being intimate with your lover with mutual consent be the exact same thing as being sexually intimidated and threatened a woman?
The idea is that since I did such a scene, I am automatically not qualified to criticise anything. Ultimately, it all goes back to the age-old patriarchal concept of the purity of a woman. If a woman is not a virgin or has been touched by a man, she is not pure. So her opinions are invalid. My personality is being judged by the characters I have played. Today, I can safely say that none of my films or at least my characters glorify or have played a part in portraying misogyny positively. And any representation of my characters’ sexual expression is something I’m proud to show our society because we don’t have enough of it. Women are told they can be their emotional, intellectual selves. But seldom are they allowed to be their sexual selves.
Once the attacks against women begin, they reach criminal proportions with rape and murder threats.
My age is also a factor. If an older woman were to say what I said, her words would have seen as mature advice. “How can you talk being so young?” has been another take. Then, there’s using “aunty” as an insult. It is like there are different permutations and combinations in insulting one on the basis of gender. If you are a woman, you are insulted as a sexual being, then on the basis of your physical features – how well-endowed or not you are, how less feminine you are, and finally, age.
My good friends, scriptwriters Bobby-Sanjay recently wrote a sarcastic piece where they said that the attacks happen in levels and beyond a point, they descend into their vilest form, when the attackers see that the woman is not backing down. Director Aashiq Abu has spoken about this at length too. At the bottom of everything is the thought, “Don’t talk. You are making me uncomfortable.”
I have been told that you must ignore it and it will go away. I have been asked to lay low for a while and people will forget things. Well, sure, people will forget because these days, people make noise over an issue for a while and then they move on to other things. But if I stay quiet now, I have to stay quiet the next time too, right? So should I be fearing for my life every time I speak? I am also a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen, and every such citizen should have the freedom to speak. And I spoke respectfully.
Courage in numbers
Today, we have the Women in Cinema Collective in Kerala, a platform where female individuals from the industry can come together and have a dialogue about the portrayal and treatment of women in our films and find ways to make our workspace better for women, men and transgendered people. After one of our colleagues was abducted and molested in February, we realised that we don’t even have a space where we can discuss these matters and clear our doubts. Before this, we all thought we were just alone with our experiences, dealing with one-off incidents, sometimes from the same people, and we learned to ignore them or accept that this is just how it is. But not anymore. We wanted to know what our rights are as women in the workplace and have discussions and hence, the WCC was formed.
There is a thought that we are attacking men with our association. Then, some attack us with the word “feminist”, as if it were a bad word. That is because of the misunderstood definition of “feminism”. Those who are open to listening will know in time that we are only here to work together for progress.
It will take time. But this time will be now used well. An army is rising to fix what for generations we have condoned. This time, it will be done right. Through the law, love and respect.
Today, no one in the West uses the n-word. Maybe 10 years later, at a dinner table, someone will crack a joke on someone’s gender, and people won’t laugh because it’s not funny. That day will come.