When director Kamal's Swapnakkoodu, starring Prithviraj, Meera Jasmine, Kunchacko Boban and Jayasurya, released in 2003, 'Ishtamallada' became one of the most popular songs of the year. Many still remember the lyrics. But is it really a song to remember even today? Some of the YouTube comments include the usual 'Is anyone still listening to this song in 2021?' There are several others that say: Love their pair; this is a legendary song; Oru rakshayum illa Prithviraj; Kunju's thrill is lost after Kamala begins to love him; I love Prithviraj, etc.
If the song had released now, social media users may have cancelled it across platforms, articles would have been written for and against the song, and after a month, the issue would die down. What would the real implications be?
Pop culture and real life, sometimes, reflect each other in the most bizarre ways. Recently, a 23-year-old woman spoke up about a traumatising incident where a 14-year-old schoolboy asked if he could touch her inappropriately while she was giving him a lift. The schoolboy, regardless of his age, made a disturbing gesture, and there's really nothing debatable about it. She said male privilege exists even to this day, because that makes men behave the way they do. This led to an outburst of supportive comments from social media that reminded users of similar situations in workplaces, within family and outside.
While some male users felt bad about the incident, others went on to say things like: 'Have you seen the clothes you wear in your photos? They're sleeveless'; 'But he asked for consent no?'; 'You heard it wrong, Chechi, Feminichis know how to make a scene out of everything'; and 'In a way, he is a manyan [respectable], you are destroying the kid's life'
Swapnakkoodu was one of the earliest films of Prithviraj, who started his career in 2002 with Nandanam. His 19-year-old charm and sensibilities instantly made him a heartthrob. It was also the time when there was a huge rise in softporn films.
Swapnakkoodu's director Kamal doesn't show his female characters Kamala and Padma as objects of pleasure, submissive or even as eye candy. He shows Kamala, through Kunju's (Prithviraj) eyes, as an object that should be won over. Kunju is a massive flirt and a womaniser whose grand gestures towards Kamala (a marvellous Meera Jasmine) makes her uncomfortable and disturbed. Kamala initially dislikes him romantically and as a person. However, their impending romantic relationship shows how a strongly-written character is reduced to a woman falling into the patriarchal system. Kunju's eyes eventually become the director's eyes.
Kamal presents three different men who like the same woman. Ashtamoorthy (Jayasurya), Deepu (Kunchacko Boban) and Kunju like Kamala in their own ways. Deepu strikes a friendship with her during his morning run but keeps his feelings to himself. Ashtamoorthy likes Kamala at first glance and tries spending time with her, but the other two get her to tie a rakhi on him and spoil his plans, whereas Kunju acts on his first impulse — he pulls her away on their first meeting to tell her that he will woo her like he has wooed several other women. This, when Kamala already knows of his flirtatious behaviour from his friends who don't support him.
Kamala is clearly disturbed while Kunju is excited at his new attempt to seduce another woman he barely knows. He only knows how to pursue a woman and leave her for another — this thrills him.
'Ishtamallada' is a hit, but a quirky version of harassment that's presented as a conversation between Kamala and Kunju. He comes home early from college to flirt with Kamala who's busy with her chores. As he begins to make advances towards her, she gets frustrated saying, Ishtamallada, enikishtamallada ee thottunottam ishtamallada (I don't like you, I don't like you touching and staring at me) Karyamilladaa oru karyamilla ee pirake nadannu karyamillada (there is no use, there is no use of you following me) kochu kallane, eda eda, venda mone, venda mone, venda mone (you small thief, don't you dare).
Kunju replies, Ishtamaanedo, enikishtamaanedo, ninde soothrangal ishtamaanedo (I like you, I like you and your games) kochu kalliye, edo, edo, venda mole,venda mole,venda mole (you small thief, don't you dare).
It's clear that Kunju isn't willing to accept rejection. After all, he's a womaniser who wants to satisfy all his female customers, ogle at strange women, and the word 'No' probably does not exist in his dictionary. When Kamala says, You small thief, don't you dare harass me, Kunju takes it playfully, replying, You small thief, don't you dare stop me. One of the lines has Kamala saying I'm Unniyarcha, a revered warrior known for her Kalaripayattu skills and for fighting men who harassed women. But Kunju finds that attractive and pounces on her yet again.
She says: Inangiyal Oru Vaalaatti Pakshiyaakum
(If we are close, then I'll obey you)
He replies: Chilachu Chilachu Parannidenda
(Don't fly away noisily)
Kulungi Kulungi Nadannidenda
(Don't walk away shaking your body)
Pathanju Pathanju Pongidenda
(Don't go away like froth)
Athinu Vecha Vellam Maattedo
(Take that water away — meaning, I know you've come prepared for something like this)
Whenever sympathisers of attackers in real life bring up things like 'She invited the harassment because she was wearing provocative clothes', this is what one can say: Kamala, wearing a blue kurti with sleeves and loose-fitting trousers still got harassed, and Kunju does not stop even when she throws things at him. He finds that even more alluring, assuming this is part of her games (soothrangal). By the end of this song, Kamala physically hurts him, resulting in his fracturing a leg.
Listening to this song during the lockdown brought several memories of listening to the song as a seven-year-old with a huge crush on Prithviraj. This film was an uncomfortable watch. One always wondered why Kamala didn't end up with someone as decent as Deepu. Why Kunju? God, why Kunju? Why was that song even there in that film?
It is difficult to draw a line between reel and real, because such harassment takes place even today. It's painfully close to real life, because you don't have to wear 'provocative' clothes as an invitation to be harassed, men will harass you anyway.
It's not just 'Ishtamallada' that was popular for its beats and ignored for its harassment. In Vandanam, Mohanlal's character Unnikrishnan is a sub-inspector who follows his love interest Gaadha around the city. He goes to great lengths to show how much he likes her, but she's visibly irritated. Eventually, Gaadha begins to like him.
This became a popular trope in several other films where harassing and stalking women was shown as acceptable, because eventually the woman would fall in love. However, in real life, this became the language of love for stalkers. A friend who walked along for tuitions suffered. Upon spotting them, we'd change routes. They followed resolutely, little realising this was harming someone psychologically. These incidents are never reported, for fear of being judged and shamed by family and friends.
After the sexual assault on a leading actress in 2017, Prithviraj posted a open letter supporting her, saying he regrets being part of films that celebrated misogyny and would not be part of such films in the future. Now, films such as The Great Indian Kitchen, Uyare, Kumbalangi Nights, Jallikattu and Ishq brutally showcase the impact of patriarchy on men and women. This is a good shift for the industry as well as for viewers. We can only hope that this reflects on real life to initiate actual change.
However, if these tropes were to repeat in some form or the other in our films, the audience is, perhaps, more mature and aware today to collectively say "Venda mone, Venda mone, Venda mone" (No dear, no dear, no dear).