The 'murappennu' complex never seems to die in Malayalam cinema. The idea of murappennu in traditional Hindu society in Kerala, especially among the Nair community, meant the right and rightful claim of a boy to marry the daughter of his maternal uncle or, in some cases, paternal aunt. This practice seems to have persisted despite the emergence of the nuclear family, spilled over into the Malayalee male psyche, and has no caste, community or religious barriers, especially in Malayalam film narratives.
One can trace its lineages to the eponymous 1965 film scripted by MT Vasudevan Nair and directed by A Vincent that portrayed the tragic love stories of two men and their murappennus. Many films in the following decades too went back to this theme of 'claim' over women, which extended to the community, caste, religion, and region. Then, it further extended to claims over women in the same college campus, and even political party. The recent Eeda by Ajitkumar was about the tragic love affair between a boy and a girl from families owing allegiance to different political parties!
A parallel narrative has been that of the love stories of sibling-like lovers that also resonate with the murappennu complex of men. Such possessiveness that masquerades as 'love' and justifies itself as 'protectiveness' obviously arises from the insecurity of men in the face of the growing independence and assertiveness of women in the family, society and public sphere at large. Recent films such as Uyare, Kumbalangi Nights and Ishq have searingly dwelt upon the toxicity inherent in such relationships. Movements such as the Women in Cinema Collective that recently shook the Malayalam film industry also register the rise of female power and its assertion in the public realm.
The Muracherukkan on the run
It is in this context that a film such as Love Action Drama by Dhyan Sreenivasan outrages a contemporary viewer with its unabashed and toxic misogynistic narrative. At the centre of the narrative is a free-floating playboy — Dineshan — whose character or milieu, intentions or compulsions, are beyond logic or reasoning. He is a muracherukkan (cousin-brother) par excellence and the only obsession that seems to rule his life is to marry his cousin Swathi at the beginning of the film, and later, her friend Sobha. There is no other activity, thinking or emoting that he is involved in, but for pursuing, conspiring, pleading with and pestering Sobha to marry him.
His financial resources seem endless. His family — no father, only two uncles he sponges from — seems to command enough wealth; he practically does nothing to earn his living. So, for Dineshan, struggle for existence is meaningless and alien. He lives and splurges in the pure present, with no baggage from the past but for his infatuation with his cousin; he does not have any angst about the future too.
Interestingly, both the women he proposes to refuse his love. Swathi is someone he grew up with, and she firmly refuses his romantic overtures and decides to marry another man. Sobha, who is at first only curious about her friend's strange cousin, tries to, many a time, get away from his sly, and often aggressive and vulgar overtures. Dineshan needs a woman under his possession to justify his existence. The film begins with his ludicrous antics on the night before Swathi's wedding, and once it takes place, his obsession shifts to Sobha. The rest of the film is about his attempts to possess her at any cost, more hers than his.
The film takes misogyny to absurd heights. There is no reason why a successful, urban, sophisticated professional such as Sobha should accept a loser like Dineshan. The only qualification he has and flaunts is wealth and self-pity. The only way his vacuous character can sustain his 'show off' is by placing itself against an incredibly insipid sidekick (played by Aju Varghese) who slavishly follows his whims and fancies and acts as an ever-ready punching bag whenever the hero needs to vent his anger or frustration.
Beyond the miserable antics of the hero Nivin and the sparkling presence of Nayanthara, what if one looks at the 'actions' of the hero as his 'reactions' to a changing world where women are assuming more power and freedom? For, at the core of the film is the strong bond between women who are emotionally and financially free. All of them, Swathi, Sobha, Kala (Gayathri Shan) and Priya (Dhanya Balakrishna) are confident, self-reflexive and assertive. Sobha is a professional and a successful entrepreneur.
In contrast, the men in the film are insecure, unsure, and frustrated. They booze, conspire (to win love, and kill it) and scheme. Obviously, it is the insecurity created by assertive, decision-making women that annoys and frustrates male egos in this film. There are several instances where Kala's husband refers to the independent and adamant character of his wife, who listens only to Sobha, rather than him. Likewise, in Padma's divorce too, Sobha is accused of playing an instrumental role. It is this independence from men or the fact that they don't need a male to protect them emotionally or financially that triggers the impotent anger and vengeful conspiracies of the men.
Lastly, mention must be made of the legacies the film tries to evoke. The names of the central characters Dineshan and Sobha is an all-too-obvious reference to Vadakkunokkiyanthram (directed by Dhyan's father, Sreenivasan. Is it an attempt to mark a contrast or generational shift, or just for the fun of it? For, there is nothing in common between the two couples — Srinivasan's Dineshan and Sobha are firmly placed within a specific milieu, and their mindset, motives and struggles are portrayed in a convincingly realistic manner. In LAD, there is no such attempt. Dineshan and Sobha are presented as Nivin Pauly and Nayanthara, stars who do not need to explain their actions. Both misogyny and female beauty never needed any explanation in Indian cinema.
Sreenivasan, who appears as Sobha's father, looks tired and bored. Interestingly, and very uncharacteristically (in many cameos, he is always someone who holds the key to the narrative), even when he gets to know the real character of Dineshan, he refuses to intervene or warn his daughter, or to stop the wedding. He, instead, allows himself to be fooled, and leaves the matter to the choice of his daughter. Something similar seems to have been the case with his son's film too!