An accomplished corporate leader once told me that despite her professional achievements, her presence in most corporate boards oscillated from invisibility to hypervisibility. Her opinions were either completely ignored by her male colleagues because she was a woman or treated as a monolithic representative of her gender and she was expected to know anything and everything about all women. Women experience this duality in almost every sphere of life. This phenomenon is used and overused the most in cinema. Whether it is the Mary-Madonna complex or the bitch-bechari conundrum, the male gaze in cinema rarely paints women in grey, the color of reality. Bheemante Vazhi is a beautiful exception to this rule.
The women of Snehanagar, the fictional village in the film, laugh, cry, love, make out, fight, abuse, drink, and live on their own terms. Irrespective of their screen-times, they are shown to have a life of their own, independent of the hero and his ilk. Let's take Reeta (Divya M Nair), the ward-councilor for example. We see her spending most of her time with Bheeman (Kunchacko Boban), the protagonist, as a co-lead in building the road (the movie's core plot). But she is also a politician busy plotting moves against her rival, a male ex-ward-member, Joseph. Kinnari (Megha Thomas), one of the love interests of Bheeman, is a railway engineer who moves to a new city as part of her job without clinging to a future-less relationship. The judo teacher, Anju (Chinnu Chandni), continues to earn and support her in-laws even after her husband passes away, much to her brother's ire.
Watching three-dimensional women characters on screen is joyful. Like forbidden fruit, its rarity makes the experience all the more pleasurable. But Bheemante Vazhi doesn't stop there. In an organic and non-preachy way, the movie shows the delightful possibilities in a society with free women. For instance, the relationships in Snehanagar aren't jacketed to suit patriarchal constructs. Instead, they are allowed to evolve organically and, if required, die.
Bheeman and his neighbor Blessy's (Vincy Aloshious) relationship is a shining example of how unconventional but consensual sexual unions can be fulfilling for both genders. Reeta's hilarious extra-marital antics are a source of happiness for both her and her lover. Dating, a concept that most rural and much of urban India resents and castigates as a western evil, is normalized in a remote hamlet like Snehanagar. Drunk women are treated like buddies and not objects of harassment or shame.
In the climax of the 1996 hit, Azhakiya Ravanan, when Mammootty's character 'accepts' the non-virgin heroine, we are expected to treat the hero as a saint. But in Snehanagar, when Maharshi (Chemban Vinod Jose) marries Sita (Jeeva Janardhanan), an orphaned and possibly sexually abused woman, we understand that the union is as much Maharshi's need as Sita's. When Maharshi reveals his real name as Ravanan, he underlines the possibilities of reinterpreting age-old myths and customs. A grown man breaks down into a crying spree when his pet-canine dies. No one laughs at him. Instead, they dedicate the newly built road to the departed animal soul. Dull moments and events are made exciting. Even a Malayali wedding, possibly the most low-key of all varieties of Indian marriages, is resurrected into a fun and joyful event with love, dance, and booze.
But the change in perspective doesn't mean that everything in the story is light and flaky. A scene where Blessy talks about one-sided love is more profound than any male ramblings on heartbreak in Malayalam cinema (usually packaged under the sexist garb of 'thepu'). Death, miseries, and pain are realistically depicted. The difference is that instead of imbalanced, over-the-top reactions to setbacks common in our movies, characters in Bheemante Vazhi respond with the pragmatism of evolved social animals.
The possibilities of a society where women are free peaks in two scenes in the film. One of them is the climax – a sequence that takes audio-visual gratification to the next level. The other is the intimate scene between a drunk Bheeman and an equally drunk Kinnari. The complexity and dynamism in human relationships is portrayed in how the two leads react to a kiss. The character who experiences 'kick' in sex and alcohol eagerly wants to move to the second kiss after the first one. The other character, excited by sex and love, savors the first kiss with a sensual smile, looking eagerly into the lover's eyes. The difference in philosophies leads to a breakup, but not the end of their worlds.
The gratification-cherry on top is the last line from the abusive and chauvinistic Osthep. Ironically, he does all the skin show in the movie – a gimmick that's often reserved for women in Indian cinema. After being beaten up literally and metaphorically, he wails aloud, "If my Daddy comes to know of this, he will not spare anyone." We can't help but laugh and pity all those Daddy-Mamma-Boys whose cowardice gets exposed at the drop of the patriarchal veil.
Maharshi puts it eloquently when he asks Bheeman – "If two people are happy during and after a consensual relationship, then who has a problem?" That 'who' is our patriarchal society, and the 'problems' are the unnecessary veils we put over women. All we have to do is drop those veils to begin building a pragmatic world of love and freedom for all.
Bheemante Vazhi is far from a perfect movie. But once in a while, from an otherwise tunnel-visioned movie industry, a story comes out that, without taking itself too seriously, helps us envision the innumerable possibilities of an egalitarian society (gender-wise in this case). We might as well ignore that story's shortcomings and embrace its message with all our hearts.