Malayalam cinema has not exactly been kind in its depiction of female police officers. They are often portrayed as uptight shrews who need taming, typically by the moustache-twirling, muscle-flexing male leads. So it is understandable why those of us who have watched movies like Ustaad and Chathurangam growing up find DCP Catherine Maria in Anjaam Pathiraa refreshing.
Unnimaya Prasad brings a restraint to Catherine that makes it very easy for the audience to immediately pay attention to her. Catherine is a thorough professional who listens to her colleagues and takes expert opinion seriously. And the movie thankfully doesn't give us those glimpses of workplace misogyny that would've been so easy to accommodate despite being irrelevant to the plot, like her male subordinates speaking ill of her the moment her back is turned.
In fact, Catherine's gender doesn't even come up in the movie. One of the things that stayed with me long after I first watched Anjaam Pathiraa is a scene where Catherine is shown drinking beer with two male colleagues in a bar. There were no theatrics and there was no judgement for a woman to be out drinking with men. It was so matter-of-fact, just as drinking beer is in real life. That's revolutionary for a mainstream Malayalam movie.
If anything, the filmmakers seem to have used her gender subtly to establish her as a kind person. She acknowledges the low-ranking officer who brings her tea during a tense moment. She apologises to the protagonist Anwar's wife when the latter has a corpse delivered to her home. She asks Anwar to take a few days off to help his family recover from the shock, even though the investigation cannot afford to let him, the consulting criminologist on the case, go for that long. These may seem like little things, but they help elevate Catherine from a two-dimensional upright police officer to a real person. And of course, they completely do away with the hypermasculinity that is often attached to male police officers.
Police personnel are so often stereotyped in our films. Depending on whether he is the protagonist or supporting character or antagonist, male cops usually have to contend with conforming to a certain set idea of what a policeman should be. Male protagonist cops often get 'mass' moments that are typically directed at a negative character. The examples are aplenty, from Suresh Gopi's famous "Just remember that" in Commissioner to pretty much everything Nivin Pauly does in Action Hero Biju.
While Catherine is, for the most part, very no-nonsense, she gets her mass moments too. One is when she tells a reporter off and, in the process, takes a pot-shot at the sensation-hungry news media. And then, of course, is the point in the climax when she delivers the coup de grâce, almost literally. But in all these instances, she retains her dignity, never once making the audience cringe.
I don't know if the makers of Anjaam Pathiraa intended for Catherine to be a pathbreaking depiction of female policedom or not, but they certainly did a good job of normalising the part. And I know that I, for one, am not complaining about the lack of the toxic masculinity that is usually attached to the DCPs of our film world.