Oftentimes, when we watch a woman’s story on-screen, it is never quite her own. It becomes a collective expression of multiple voices that have been snuffed out before her story was allowed to be told. Darshana Rajendran-starrer Malayalam film Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey, directed by Vipin Das, is an all too familiar story about domestic abuse. Yet, the film manages to escape the trap of a preachy narrative that invests much of its energy in telling victims how to survive or how to not become a victim at all in the first place. Rather the film takes an escapist route that makes us introspect about our own complicity in creating a society that abuses and subjugates women, while we continue to be entertained and intrigued at the same time.
The story follows young Jaya from childhood to adulthood, and allows the audience to view her struggles with an empathetic gaze. The trauma of abuse overshadows Jaya from a very young age and every attempt to escape it is met with another shove into a more exploitative situation.
Systemic patriarchal violence faced by women by their partners and enabled by their families is a story that reflects the fate of multiple women all around India. But Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey is not a film that is interested in finding a realistic resolution to the conflicts plaguing our protagonist Jaya perhaps because there isn't an easy one. Thus, it relieves the victims from the onus of saving themselves from the stronghold of patriarchy and turns its gaze on all those who help maintain the status quo of abusive men in society.
The film cleverly uses humour and irony to highlight the injustices that Jaya faces from a very early age, both at home and outside. We all know of that well-meaning relative who makes an appearance before important decisions are taken. They embody patriarchal ideals and influence our fate to serve the existing patriarchal hegemony that they strive to uphold. It is all done with ‘good intentions’ and ‘love’ - a ‘love’ that leads Jaya to the entrapments of an abusive marriage and a doomed life.
Young Jaya shows academic merit by studying with her brother’s tattered books and no tutor. Yet, she is advised and subsequently stopped from pursuing the degree of her choice in a reputed university by this ‘well-meaning’ relative. Ironically, the comment that ‘if she is a good student, she will find a way’ follows Jaya as every door of opportunity is shut in her face.
Jaya is given very few dialogues but Darshana Rajendran portrays her internal turmoil with subtle expressions and brilliant skills. She is stopped from completing her degree and married off against her will to save her honour after her affair with her professor, who too turns abusive and controlling towards her, becomes known to her family.
At her wedding, Jaya’s entire family breaks down into tears, especially that ‘well-meaning’ relative whose wails of despair seem heightened to the level of a caricature, almost as if they are mourning Jaya. As Jaya incredulously observes the tears of her family as though they did not force her into marriage, the song ‘Enthanithu Engottithu’ accurately portrays her confusion. The song questions how she ended up nowhere, shackled to an absolute stranger for the rest of her life even though she obeyed her elders and did everything right.
Jaya, being no stranger to uncontrolled anger and abuse, notices signs of violence as soon as she steps into her in-law's house. Cracked glass, broken remote control put together by a rubber band, chipped wooden furniture, and distorted photo frames - they all give an unsavoury warning about what would follow soon. The first time she is slapped by her husband, Jaya knows that it won't be the last time. For six months, she begs her parents and brother to help her out of the situation. They all resort to justifying violence as men's second nature and advise her to "adjust".
As she finds herself cornered with no help coming her way, Jaya starts to fight back. She obstructs a slap coming from her husband and shows him his place with an immaculate karate punch. Soon, a fight sequence ensues between them with a live commentary that is meant to entertain the audience, and frighten them into considering this alternative possibility.
The scene with its exaggerated techniques and stylistic delivery manages to veer away from the suggestion that all victims in Jaya’s place should or can fight back. While there is a tendency to advise women they must learn to fight back, we often fail to consider the ableist implication of such a suggestion and how easily it relieves society from taking the responsibility for inflicting and enabling such violence in the first place.
The film takes on a humorous turn as Jaya’s husband, brilliantly portrayed by Basil Joseph, struggles with the fear of being beaten up and losing his honour on being discovered that his wife beats him up. This reversal of the situation forces the audience to consider their reaction toward the severity of domestic violence if the roles were reserved and whether the question of adjusting even pertains to such situations. Rajesh’s plight closely reflects what Jaya suffers in the first six months of her marriage - the fear and anxiety of inviting another attack from her and spending his days in anticipation as to when it would happen again.
The film drags a little once it introduces the twist in the plot. However, the narrative effectively guides Jaya, with a veneer of humour, into finding a way not only out of her marriage but also to outsmart her ex-husband in the professional field as well. The music, composed by Ankit Menon, poignantly compliments Jaya’s struggle while adding a healthy dose of bigger-than-life essence to Jaya’s stylistic fight sequence.
In the last half of the film, the film becomes focused on Jaya’s struggles and shows the limits of her individual power. It seems to forget how most women in Jaya’s place would not be as lucky as her. Yet, the film is an interesting take on the societal implications of domestic violence and starts a discourse that shines hopefully on the future of Indian cinema.
Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey (2022) is currently streaming on Disney-Hotstar.