When K.G. George’s Malayalam film Adaminte Variyellu was released in 1984, it was perhaps a rarity for that era – being one among the few women-oriented films in Malayalam cinema that exclusively focused on that subject alone. It didn’t stray into other clichèd angles of romance, sex and violence; that are meant to cater to the male audience.
The film revolves around the lives of three women, each a victim of patriarchy in a different manner: one an upper-class, wife of a businessman caught in a torturous marriage, with a history of sexual abuse and exploitation, the second a middle-class working wife, whose alcoholic husband constantly abuses her both physically and mentally (not helped much by the indifferent attitude of his mother), and the third a Dalit housemaid employed with the first family, who is sexually exploited and impregnated by the businessman and gets thrown out mercilessly to save the man’s honour.
This isn’t going to be a review of the film, but more about the intriguing way the director concludes it.
In the last few scenes, the Dalit housemaid – who is at a rescue home now – starts gazing at the camera (and the viewers) fiercely and unwaveringly, breaking the fourth wall. The other women around her at the shelter do the same and then, the woman abruptly gets up and runs out, coaxing others to join her, shouting: “Come, let’s run away from here! Let’s escape!” And as they are running out and away, you see the film’s crew in the frame. The women knock them over and keeps sprinting, with the director (K.G. George himself) watching them with mild amusement.
One way of interpreting this scene could be as a social criticism of Kerala – which boasted of being progressive even back then – for its failure to genuinely empathise with the women’s liberation movement.
Often films based on feminism or any other social movement for that matter, fail to stick to their core as the makers find it hard to not objectify the characters. The recurring themes of disturbing male gaze and exploitation scenes in films even now (across the globe as a matter of fact) indicate this very problem. The male filmmakers trying to explore female perspectives have been guilty of this mis-portrayal.
But even if the objectification was successfully eliminated from the story telling, the makers lost their sense of empathy in the process – unconsciously reducing characters and their stories to some subject-pieces of interest towards the end of the film.
You may write and speak in volumes through speeches, literature and cinema; but – with a narrative like this – you really can’t contribute to the women’s movements at large.
Hence, the scene being discussed becomes even more fascinating, as it feels almost like the filmmaker is critiquing himself. In other words, the oppressed (women of the society in this case) become mere objects or subjects of philosophical and revolutionary discussions for you (the audience), just as for the crew in the film.
The poetic justice here could be the utter disdain the women, who were running away to freedom brushing the crew aside, had for that. They seemed to be silently shouting that they had had enough!
The debates around feminism in Kerala as well as in Malayalam cinema have transitioned in the past 36 years since Adaminte Variyellu released. But in any discussion revolving around social issues, the element of poverty porn or an attitude of patronising those who are being discussed, have to be carefully introspected even now. It’s even more glaringly necessary when it comes to the representation of the female characters.
Bharath Thampi is studying Print Journalism at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.