Far away from the glitz and glamor of Mollywood, two Malayali women — actors Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha — along with their co-star Chhaya Kadam and director Payal Kapadia, scripted history as their film. All We Imagine as Light won the Grand Prix award at the 77th Cannes Film Festival, making it the first Indian movie to achieve this honor. Speaking to reporters, while discussing the state of Indian cinema, Kapadia praised the Malayalam industry saying, “an immense range of films are made here, with even arthouse films getting distribution.”

Cut to: Kerala cyberspaces abuzz with debates and discussions on the rise of Malayalam films where women have little to no on-screen roles. While some dismissed these discourses, others argued that forced representation of women for political commentary, sans any creativity, is counterproductive. Another group, mostly men, made memes mocking these concerns, those who were raising it, and feminism in general, asking if real-life stories like Manjummel Boys and Aadujeevitham should feature female leads. These “counterarguments” highlight that, for some, the issue of female representation will remain a joke.

But what exactly is the issue? Have women been completely wiped out from Malayalam cinema? Was there not a single female character in any recent movie? Are things that bad? Well, not entirely. A look at this year’s films shows that while things aren’t entirely bleak, there are concerns. Malayalam cinema has seen worse, but despite the industry’s success—with cumulative gross collections already crossing the Rs 1,000 crore mark and many works receiving worldwide acclaim—most mainstream and big-budget films have relegated women, including stars, to mere presences. This is especially troubling as smaller projects without big producers or male superstars have consistently highlighted women’s roles and made significant strides.

Unlike 2023, which produced few noteworthy movies, 2024 started off on an impressive note with director Anand Ekarshi’s Attam. This spellbinding film, both technically and content-wise, featured a woman at its core—Anjali—brilliantly portrayed by Zarin Shihab. Despite the screen time being dominated by 12 men, the film maintained its focus on Anjali, creating one of the most intricately written female characters in recent Malayalam cinema. Produced by Joy Movie Productions, Attam received immense praise in festival circuits but had only a small release in Kerala. However, its OTT release sparked significant discussions, with many dubbing it one of the finest Indian films of the year, a sentiment that persists.

Malayalam, malayalam movies, malayalam movies 2024, Bhavana, Anaswara Rajan, Sonalee Kulkarni, Kalyani Priyadarshan, malayalam films, Mollywood, feminism, Malaikottai Vaaliban, Varshangalkku Shesham, Malayalee From India, Nadikar, Premalu, Aattam, Bhavana actor, Bhavana movies, Anaswara Rajan movies, Anaswara Rajan new movies Aattam, like All We Imagine as Light, won immense praise in festival circuits. (Image: Joy Movie Productions/Facebook)

Starting the year with a brilliant film centered around a woman, many hoped Malayalam cinema would continue to break away from its male-dominated narratives. The industry, known for momentous feminist films like Adaminte VaariyelluDeshadanakili Karayarilla, Ozhimuri, and more recently The Great Indian Kitchen and Jaya Jaya Jaya Heyseemed poised to provide more space for women in its stories.

Festive offer

However, major commercial films that followed showed that the industry and its storytellers haven’t progressed. They have developed a habit of using female stars in promotional materials—posters, teasers, and trailers—to attract audiences, only to present male-centric tales with women playing minor roles. Films like Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Malaikottai VaalibanVineeth Sreenivasan’s Varshangalkku Shesham, Dijo Jose Antony’s Malayalee From India, and Jean Paul Lal’s Nadikar all used this bait-and-switch tactic, with stars like Bhavana, Anaswara Rajan, Marathi star Sonalee Kulkarni, and Kalyani Priyadarshan being the primary victims.

Although most of Malayalee From India’s promotional materials prominently featured Anaswara Rajan, who had gained immense fame with her performances in Nehru and Abraham Ozler, the film’s handling of her character was nothing short of outrageous. The posters and the video song Krishna Misled audiences into believing that the romance between Aalparambil Gopi (Nivin Pauly) and Krishna (Anaswara) was central to the plot. However, Anaswara’s screen time was so minimal it felt like blatant clickbait. The film that got embroiled in a plagiarism rowsaw director Dijo Jose Antony and writer Sharis Mohammed making grand claims about the film’s political tones, which were not substantiated in the final product.

Similarly, Bhavana’s role in Nadikar, bankrolled by Godspeed Cinema and Mythri Movie Makers, was an insignificant extended cameo despite being heavily featured in promotions. The film included her lip-lock scene with Tovino Thomas and a poignant dialogue on “Karma” in the trailer, exploiting her real-life traumas, to generate interest. Throughout the film’s promotions, Team Nadikar ensured Bhavana’s presence, cashing in on her stardom without giving her a substantial role in the movie.

In Malaikottai Vaaliban, produced by multiple major companies, Sonalee Kulkarni faced a similar situation. She played the role of a dancer, Rangapattinam Rangarani, primarily leveraged for her Lavani dance skills and occasionally showcased in glamorous attire. Despite her star status in the Marathi film industry, she had little opportunity to display her talents. However, her case was slightly better than others, as Rangarani did play a pivotal role in the story.

Kalyani Priyadarshan, although not yet a major star, was similarly underutilized Varshangalkku Shesham, bankrolled by Merryland Cinemas. Since the film’s initial announcement, her name was prominently featured, leading audiences to believe she had a significant role. However, she was merely a token female character, included only to develop Pranav Mohanlal’s character in an otherwise male-dominated film.

In Vipin Das’ Guruvayoor Ambalanadayil, backed by Prithviraj Productions and E4 Entertainment, the women had no significant presence or influence on screen. Although Parvathy (Nikhila Vimal) and Anjali (Anaswara Rajan) were as crucial to the movie’s foundation as Anand (Prithviraj) and Vinu (Basil Joseph), their characters were sidelined, contributing little to the events unfolding on screen, despite these events having a significant impact on their lives. Parvathy mostly stood by, aghast, as a mute spectator, forcing Nikhila to maintain a perpetually tense expression. Anjalitoo, was reduced to a mere pawn in the Anand-Vinu faceoff, with minimal dialogue despite frequent appearances. Post-release, critics pointed out Nikhila’s seemingly mediocre performance, attributing it to her character’s severe underdevelopment.

Made on a modest budget of Rs 3 crore, Girish AD’s Premalu, produced by Fahadh Faasil, Dileesh Pothan, and Syam Pushkaran, centered around Reenu (Mamitha Baiju, in her first major role as the sole female lead). The film ensured that Reenu was not just a love interest or a manic pixie dream girl (MPDG) but was individualistic, smart, and autonomous. Premalu set an example of how to create an entertaining film without relying on clichés. Additionally, the film developed the character of Karthika (Akhila Bhargavan), Reenu’s best friend, giving her a proper identity and arc.

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Don Palathara’s chilling drama Familyproduced by Newton Cinema, mostly follows Sony (Vinay Forrt), a paedophile, but it is filled with women of varied shades, with Divya Prabha standing out for her performance. Without resorting to benevolent sexism, Family depicts how far social institutions go to maintain the status quo and how members, especially women, are conditioned, highlighting their complexity.

The recent Hotstar series Perilloor Premier League also deviated from the norm by presenting many stellar, well-drawn female characters, with Nikhila playing the central role.

Despite its shortcomings, Arun Bose’s Marivillin Gopurangal, produced by Kokers Media Entertainments, presents two self-sufficient female characters, played by Shruti Ramachandran and Vincy Aloshious, attributing to them individualistic and progressive traits without making it look contrived. The film avoids placing the entire burden of conveying its message on these women, thus breaking away from traditional norms.

Vinod Leela’s Mandakini, backed by Spire Productions, stands out as another commendable work where female characters play an equal role in the story, delivering performances that outshine the men. Vinod ensured that the significant screen time allocated to men did not overshadow the women, and he placed powerful female characters in traditionally male-dominated settings. The film provided ample room for women to showcase their talents, not only the central character portrayed by Anarkali Marikar but also the supporting roles, led by the remarkable Saritha Kukku, resulting in a powerful and satisfying climax driven by them.

While we’ve discussed only a handful of Malayalam films released this year, they illustrate how major productions exploit female stars for their fame, only to discard them later. Learning from smaller projects could lead to significant improvements, especially as Malayalam cinema gains prominence on the global stage.