Manassinakkare is a movie that has its adult female characters divided quite neatly into compartments—the elderly mothers are objects of pity; their daughters and daughters-in-law are unkind and calculating; and, of course, there is the love interest.
While the love interest escapes one-dimensional treatment by being given a lovably quirky miserliness, the other women under 40 don’t get the same kindness. Especially with the Bangalore-based daughter-in-law, the writer freely makes use of the she-wears-jeans-so-she’s-a-bad-woman trope.
Contrast that with the two women in the film who are at least 20 years older—protagonist Kochu Thresia (Sheela in her comeback role) and her best friend and neighbour, Kunju Maria (the ever-wonderful KPAC Lalitha). They are both conscientious women who don’t miss Sunday mass but turn into naughty kids when they meet on the pews, gossiping about the other people in the parish.
While this Sathyan Anthikkad movie is a bit of a misogynistic mess vis-à-vis the younger women in the family, it redeems itself with its kind treatment of the adorable friendship between Kochu Thresia and Kunju Maria. These two have been friends for a long time. Kochu Thresia is the feisty friend and Kunju Maria is the mild-mannered one with a culinary gift.
Speaking of which, Kunju Maria’s skills in the kitchen serve as a great excuse to establish the Bangalore daughter-in-law’s character as the family meanie. Her meanness is hinted at the first few times we see her, but it really takes on a life of its own when Kunju Maria walks into Kochu Thresia’s house as she has been used to doing for decades and doles out her specialties to the kids in the house. Mean daughter-in-law chides the children for accepting snacks from a dirty stranger and throws the food away.
While this scene is a little too in-your-face, what follows is a hurrah for female friendship, as Kochu Thresia stands up for her friend in full view of the guests, telling the meanie that her husband grew up eating the same ‘dirty’ food that she just deprived her children of.
Supporting characters are often poorly developed. It sometimes feels like the writer forgot that the characters are supposed to be real people and ended up writing them exactly as they are in the film—a protagonist surrounded by supporting characters who are not full people themselves. This was often the case with women in movies from the 1990s and early 2000s. In movies like Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, you have a feisty Poo, whose ‘friends’ are simply two pretty bodies walking behind her, singing her praises like they have nothing else to do.
But Kochu Thresia and Kunju Maria are a breath of fresh air. The last scene where we see Kunju Maria is when she calls Kochu Thresia over to tell her that she has been summoned to the USA by her children. And that scene belongs to KPAC Lalitha. I especially love her shy little giggle in response to her friend complimenting her culinary skills.
As Kunju Maria laughs off Kochu Thresia’s comment on how lucky she is that her children want her to be with them, saying that they only want free childcare, and as she talks about being buried in that strange land whose names she cannot pronounce properly, the audience is all eyes and ears for her predicament. Kunju Maria revealing that this is probably the last the old friends will ever see of each other and telling Kochu Thresia not to come see her off is heartbreaking.
Malayalam cinema definitely adds more depth to its supporting characters than mainstream movies from other Indian languages that I am familiar with, but it has had its fair share of one-dimensional friend characters too. But to return to Kunju Maria and the equal footing she shares with her protagonist friend in their few scenes together, I wonder if the assumption was that two older women can be better friends than youngsters because vanity is now out of their way and neither sees the other as competition. (If that is true, it is, of course, wrong at many levels.)
Whatever be the rationale, one must admit that the end result that is Kochu Thresia and Kunju Maria’s friendship is a treat to behold. To the film, their friendship is a meaningful subplot. To some in the audience, it is its own kind of squad goals.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.