Ten well-written women leads in Malayalam cinema

It’s not March, so it’s not a Women’s Day special. But, what’s the harm in talking about women every day that you can, especially when well-written characters are so hard to come by. We went through them all and here’s a short list of profound women characters – golden leads, no less – that have appeared over the years on the silver screen.

Nagavalli/Ganga
Manichithrathazhu, 1993

Shobana as Ganga in Manichithrathazhu
Shobana as Ganga in Manichithrathazhu

In the Fazil-directed Manichithrathazhu, written by Madhu Muttam and deemed one of the greatest classics of Malayalam cinema, one of the most-intriguing female characters is trapped inside a quintessential celluloid heroine. Shobana won her first National Award for playing the complex dual roles of Nagavalli and Ganga. The former is a court dancer, who belongs to another era. She knows her mind and is aware of her desires and rights. Ganga, the ‘normal, sane woman’ has lived a chunk of her life in a city, but happily submits to the traditional role of the ardent wife and lover. Therefore, when Nagavalli enters Ganga in the guise of multiple personality disorder, to murder the man who took away her lover, she becomes the “mad woman in the attic” who needs to be tamed. The film ends with Nagavalli being exorcised out of Ganga, who then goes back to her old self. The sheer extremity in their personalities and how they are pitted skillfully against each other, with one fighting outside the patriarchal system and the other fighting to retain it, makes them unique.

Ammini
Aranyakam, 1988

Saleema as Ammini in Aranyakam
Saleema as Ammini in Aranyakam

MT Vasudevan Nair’s most fascinating female character, 16-year-old Ammini (Saleema), is the teenager we all aspire to be. She is a loner, converses with birds and writes letters to Basheer, Madhavikutty and Indira Gandhi. She whistles, hikes up her skirt as she sits, loves to cut into conversations and gets reprimanded for her lack of decorum. Despite this eccentricity, Ammini finds herself mostly ignored. She is also an interesting counter to the trope of angry young man. She develops a friendship with a Naxal leader, begins to understand how her uncles are playing the upper caste card against Adivasis, but can only fight it from within. So, unlike young male anger that manifests itself heroically onscreen, her deep disquiet struggles to find expression and her contribution to the struggle remains unsung.

Ammukutty
Aalkoottathil Thaniye, 1984

MT Vasudevan Nair teams up with IV Sasi to weave a tale of relationships in the backdrop of a decadent Nair tharavadu. Ammukutty (Seema) is an elementary school teacher who is also smart, enterprising, homely, sacrificing and generous. Madly in love with her childhood sweetheart, she remains his anchor, and even funds his MBA. But she is left in the lurch when he is married off into a rich family. Ammukutty chooses to remain unmarried and refuses to remain bitter about the man she lost. Throughout the narrative, it is her cheerful presence and quiet strength that helps us sail through a lot of uncomfortable battles between siblings.

Kanchana
Thalayanamanthram, 1990

Urvashi in Thalayanamanthram
Urvashi in Thalayanamanthram

There is nothing extraordinary about middle-class homemaker Kanchana (a terrifically nuanced Urvashi) — she is greedy, jealous, and her ambitions are always directed at materialistic possessions. But, in a cinematic space, a Kanchana is always placed on the periphery, as Malayalam heroines rarely get to choose beyond black-and-white characterisations. That’s why Thalayanamathram’s Kanchana, directed by Sathyan Anthikad, and written by Sreenivasan, is such a fascinating female character — a blend of humour, greed, manipulation and ordinariness, so rare yet so enticingly real.

Bhadra
Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu, 1999

In Rajeev Kumar’s revenge saga, Manju Warrier plays a daughter who vows to wreak vengeance on her parents’ murderers. What really makes Bhadra different is that she is raw and vulnerable, yet steps out of her comfort zone to exact her revenge. She uses her feminine charm on a father and son, and succeeds in her mission. That Manju Warrier plays the role, balancing anger, allure and naivety with commendable ease, makes Bhadra a dynamite of a character.

Clara
Thoovanathumbikal, 1987

Parvathy in Thoovanathumbikal
Parvathy in Thoovanathumbikal

The alluring, mysterious hooker who stands between Jayakrishnan (Mohanlal) and his lady love Radha (Parvathy). Perhaps, it’s how Padmarajan romanticises Clara, irresistibly drawing her into the psyche of the average Malayali man’s no-strings-attached fantasy. She stands somewhere between reality and fantasy, and despite sharing an intimate bond with Jayakrishnan, ironically, remains an unattainable enigma to him and us. Sumalatha epitomised Clara in all her pristine, sensuous glory, however much of a paradox that sounds!

Alice
Adaminte Variyellu, 1983
This KG George film chronicles the life of three women from different economic and social structures of society. Between them, it’s Alice (a brilliant Srividya) who piques our interest. She is married to a rich manipulative and scheming businessman (Bharath Gopi) who used to pimp her for his business deals; she’s a cynic, who has little love to offer her children. She tries to find happiness with a much younger man (Mammootty). Alice is one of the earlier female protagonists who stay within the patriarchal system, endure the torture and yet try to pick the pieces and find some semblance of happiness for themselves. She falls from the pedestal and yet we empathise with her. She easily resonates with women of today and yesterday.

Sally
Deshadanakili Karayarilla, 1986
A fascinating female sketch from Padmarajan’s stable, Sally (Shari) is a rebel without a cause. In school, the lonely and stubborn Sally finds a partner in Nimmi, who calms her. She is the antithesis of the regular sweet teenager who isn’t afraid to bend the rules to win. If Nimmi is more prone to getting swayed, Sally holds on to her loyalties fiercely. She isn’t easy to like, but difficult to ignore. Today the film is discussed for a possible lesbian angle to their relationship. Understandably, the undercurrents are too obvious to ignore. Sally quickly gets a boy cut, prefers jeans and shirts, while Nimmy has the more outwardly ‘feminine’ traits. Together, they share an intimate emotional bond, and the closure, though tragic, had a strange poetic justice to it.

Anniyamma
Irakal, 1985

Srividya in Anniyamma
Srividya in Anniyamma

Auteur KG George’s most underrated work, in which he first created his own version of the angry young man, a realistic portrayal of what Emergency created in the psyche of youth, also has one of his most unapologetic female protagonists Anniyamma (played by the hugely talented Srividya). She is a subversion of the stereotypical mother and wife that was the norm then. She ignores her husband (Nedumudi Venu) and child, and keeps visiting her home to sleep with the house help, as she is sexually discontent in her marriage. But the film does not judge her. In a narrative filled with nefarious characters, Aniyamma becomes one of them.

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