Recently, an old clip from a television show featuring actors Annie and Nimisha Sajayan went viral. In the clip, Annie, a prominent and talented star of the 90s, asks Nimisha, who has won rave reviews for her performances, if she ever wears makeup. Nimisha’s reply was simply ‘No’. On being pressed further as to why she doesn’t adhere to the conventional norm of ‘looking’ like a celebrity, she said the audience enjoys her performances onscreen and that her persona outside of cinema is private.
This conversation reflects the difference of how Malayalam cinema has come to perceive the female lead within the span of 10 to 20 years. For a heroine, it’s not only about ‘standing out’ as it once used to be, with her distinction being announced right with her entry shot. Today, it’s all about the character. So, if a heroine in a film makes an ‘entry’, chances are that she’s probably playing the character of an actor within the film.
But, for the longest time, across the majority of film industries, female artistes were expected to look a certain way and tick a few boxes, both onscreen and off it. This included them having to use a certain amount of makeup, speak with a certain sweetness in their voice, and dress in a particular way. In movies, all this had to be reflected in such a way that it would be obvious, right from the moment she appears on screen, that she’s the heroine. But this has changed; now the actor is expected to belong to the world of the movie rather than the one outside. Let’s take a few examples to understand this further.
Through the 80s and 90s
In Sathyan Anthikad’s 1989 film Mazhavilkavadi, the heroine (Sithara) makes a subtle entrance when her grandmother (Philomina) is singing her praises. Philomina’s, “Athreku nalla kutty aanu Ammini (Ammini is a very good girl)” with Sithara silently walking in, was among the typical heroine entry shots of that period. Gouri’s (Annie) introduction in the 1994 Rudraksham was more dramatic, with her smiling and moving directly towards the camera. When Mini (Shalini) first catches a glimpse of Sudhi (Kunchacko Boban) in Aniyathipraavu’s iconic love-at-first-sight moment, he immediately breaks into a song, indirectly intimating us of her arrival.
Even in films where the heroines seem one with the storyline, several tropes would make them stand out. Much of Urvashi and Shobana’s earlier films fall under this category. While they had well-written roles in a lot of them, there was still a need to sort of announce their prominence in the film. In Minnaram, for instance, Shobana’s dramatic entry involves her getting out of a train in Ooty, engulfed by steam, as the credits of its director flashes on screen (usually, this is reserved for the introduction of stars). Revathi’s intro scene in Kilukkam is very similar, with the film’s title appearing the second she steps out of another train.
Of Slo-mo twirls, foot tapping numbers and hair flips
Shriya Saran’s dramatic entry in Pokkiriraja ticks all the boxes of the cliched heroine introduction shot. The focus is on one lady in a group of friends with the slo-motion capturing her beauty as she walks forward in a strikingly distinctive costume from her friends, overshadowing them. While watching this scene, you can almost hear Nivin Pauly’s, “Olu aa thattamittu kazhinjal enthe Saare, pinne chuttum ullathonnum kanan pattoolla,” sans the thattam (veil), of course.
Nayanthara’s introduction in Bodyguard was subtler, but not without the dramatic hair flip. Few other notable introductions for skillfully articulated roles are Amala grooving to ‘Rapadi Pakshikootam’ in Ente Sooryaputhrikku, Pooja Batra’s ‘Ammumakili Vaayadi Alli’ song in Chandralekha, and Kavya Madhavan dancing to ‘Manjupeyyanu’ in Chandranudikkunna Dikhil and ‘Penne Penne’ in Meeshamadhavan.
Deftly camouflaging the lead in the screenplay
In the last decade, there has been a positive shift, which has taken the audience a while to get used to. Female leads have stopped being mere props and are integral to the storyline. The audience now has to identify the leading lady through her place in the film’s storyline rather than familiar tropes. This challenge intensified when newer actors fearlessly took up roles that gave them scope for performance but no pedestal to pre-establish their territory.
When Jimcy throws a tantrum at her mom while Mahesh is in her house (Maheshinte Prathikaaram), we are tricked into thinking that this scene is about Mahesh coming in search of his foe. Little do we know that it is an adeptly-camouflaged heroine introduction scene. In fact, as the audience, we are so caught up in the film that we grasp the fact of Jimcy being a fleshed out lead only a few scenes later.
Having walked in knowing nothing about the artistes in Premam, registering the fact that Malar is one of the ‘leads’ surely took a while. This is because of three reasons: a) Sai Pallavi neither wears any makeup or eye-catching designer clothes to convey the gravity of her role. b) She unabashedly speaks in a deep voice, unknown terrain for our ears that are used to actresses having a sweet voice. c) Malar teacher comes across as someone we know in real life. She can be that friend of ours whom we regularly hang out with or that pleasant face at the supermarket who smiles at us when our eyes meet. She could also be a mirage of our own self. Her introduction shot is devoid of hair flying drama or a close-up slo-mo of her pedicured feet. And, most importantly, had Malar’s character conformed to the typical norms, we would have probably been denied the nostalgia associated with her name.
In the recent Kettiyolaanu Ente Malakha, there’s no high drama when the title character is introduced to us. In fact, we only catch a glimpse of her left hand and our attention is diverted to the other actors in this scene.
Baby Mol and Simmi in Kumbalangi Nights also fall into the category of new faces stealing the show with performances, not grand introductions.
Parvathy played a beautifully-etched Sameera in Take Off. Now, while it is not unusual to play a nurse, it is a positive change to see a well-established actress ditch her makeup and adorn the character with her acting prowess alone. The same can be said of Amala Paul’s title character in Mili or Aishwarya Rajesh’s role in Jomonte Suvisheshangal.
Digitisation and sync sound
The role of technology in bringing about these changes is seminal. Digitisation brought with it the trend of subtlety. This meant that actors were expected to have a more natural tone than dramatic ones, and less could finally become more.
The advent of sync sound too has contributed heavily to this change. While earlier, filmmakers had the privilege of dramatising scenes through dubbing and sound effects, embracing sync sound technology has meant that most of the voice acting is recorded in sync during shoot. Dubbing is still used to accentuate the output, but what this has done is made the audience more receptive to a range of new voices instead of the same voices being used for several actresses.
This is not to say that cinema itself has changed completely into a space that has room only for well written female roles. But given the change in the way these heroine introduction scenes have evolved, it looks like, finally, they are getting the importance they deserve.