I will be nobody’s fool
(June Jordan, Resolution # 1,003)
That a female-centric film like Manu Ashokan’s Uyare featuring one of the most outspoken and courageous of actresses in the main role, turns out to be a commercial hit is heartening news. Parvati, the lead actress of the film was in the forefront of Women in Cinema Collective, the movement for women’s rights in Malayalam cinema that voiced the pent up anger, career concerns, and professional ambitions of women in the industry. This film in many ways resonates with the same themes and concerns: that of woman’s dreams about career, love and life, and her struggles against the stifling structures of male domination. Very rarely have the professional ambitions of a woman been posed so powerfully and overwhelmingly in Malayalam film narratives. From the self-sacrificing, self-effacing and ever-nurturing women that we are used to in films, Uyare marks a turn towards a female protagonist who pursues her dreams single-mindedly, dares to talk back to her father, boldly rejects her lover (bad guy), and do not fall for the ‘good guy’ who condescends to save her, the damsel in distress. Instead, she resolutely decides to pursue a life and dream of her own, most importantly, on her own terms. The men in her life in the film, and her male colleagues in cinema industry, may have a few lessons to take home both from the character and the actress.
Disfigured bodies are not a rarity in Malayalam cinema, but that of women has been far and few between. Right from Sathyan in Yakshi, male protagonists have battled with physical and facial disfigurement in many narratives. But the whole drama rested with their damaged, frustrated and suppressed masculinity.
Interestingly this gender shift also coincides with another shift in narrative patterns in Malayalam cinema in recent times: which is a definite move away from the conventional tragic and social realist modes of narration to that one centred around individual protagonists fighting all hurdles to achieve their own dreams, personal and narrative aspirations very much in tune with Hollywood narrative formats. In this battle of the individual against all odds, it is usually the male hero at the centre of everything. In contrast, at the narrative centre of Uyare is a woman (Pallavi Raveendran played by Parvati), with all the male characters appearing in ‘supporting’ roles, literally and figuratively. Friends at the school and aviation training centre, the three men in her life— her father, her lover and her benefactor-employer, the women at the collective of acid attack victims etc—all of them constitute, in one way or other, different aspects of her relationship with the world, her potential trajectories in life, the points of departure and possible destinations. Interestingly, it is more of departures than arrivals for her. The natal family she comes from, the family-to-be of hers she may or may not make, the profession she yearns for and the airlines which only can provide her dream job, the NGO of her sister victims, her erstwhile training mates and colleagues—she boldly leaves all of them behind, and ventures on a journey of and on her own. Her father is unable to provide any alternative; within the patriarchal legal system, she is unable to settle scores with the man who destroyed her career, and she knows that beyond the token gestures of charity towards the likes of her, the corporate system cannot and will not accommodate people like her in the long run. So, where does she go from here? It is exactly this question that the film asks us. And that is the most important aspect of the film, in the sense that it doesn’t allow us any easy and comfortable closures, but leaves her destiny—present and future—hanging indefinitely and in the open.
Disfigured bodies are not a rarity in Malayalam cinema, but that of women has been far and few between. Right from Sathyan in Yakshi, male protagonists have battled with physical and facial disfigurement in many narratives. But the whole drama rested with their damaged, frustrated and suppressed masculinity. In the case of Sathyan in Yakshi and Fahadh Faasil in Akam, both based on the celebrated novel Yakshi by Malayattoor Ramakrishnan, it is male impotency that manifests as disfigurement, with the crisis culminating in violence against the woman. Physical disfigurement here is a metaphor for the mental state of the male protagonists. If in the case of men, such metaphorising ultimately turns out to be some sort of excuse or justification, it is never so for the women. For them, it is all about their body; it is corporal punishment sans redemption of any kind. But in stark contrast, in Uyare disfigurement of the heroine is just that, nothing more, nothing less. She is disfigured by her lover, who covets her in toto, he wants complete and total possession and control over her body and soul, mind and intellect. When he realises that she will not cut herself to the size of his dreams, he destroys her by disfiguring her. It is not a coincidence that the originary moment of their relationship arises out of her shame—of her being ridiculed by all her schoolmates for wetting her bed. It is her helplessness and loneliness that drives her to him and more importantly, what attracts him to her. The moment she shakes herself free from his asphyxiating ‘protection’, he realises his irrelevance; he is a master without a slave. Maybe, disfigurement was his desperate attempt to shame her all over again; but that too fails in her case. In all the scenes after the attack, at the court during the trial or inside the airline where he requests her to withdraw the complaint, he is worried only about his career and future, and does not reveal even a hint of love, affection or even guilt towards her. In a way, for her, the very fact, existence and presence of men undergoes radical change after the attack. For, both the lovers—the bad and the good guy—turn out to be hollow figures, imprisoned in their petty egos and self-image. She realises that both relationships are toxic—in the short or long run. Or, it could be a damning indictment of men: you only have the all-too real, possessive demons like Govind (Asif Ali) in real life; the other pole, Visakh (Tovino Thomas), the empathetic angel of a man, is as unreal as an angel. In any case, for both of them, it is all about oneself—women for them are there, as objects to possess or to means to vent your charity.
Another striking feature of the film is the way in which the heroine is picturised: most often films where disfigured characters appear, the camera tends either to dwell upon it in the case of negative or villain characters, or flinches away from it in the case of heroic characters. It is as if any kind of physical deformity, disfigurement or blemish is a manifestation of the true nature of the character; it is as if it is the evil nature of or dark energy in the character is externalised on the surface of the skin, or it is a punishment, divine or otherwise, for their evil nature. (Reversely, all fair, beautiful people are by default, good). In contrast, the film treats Pallavi’s disfigurement as an actual and visceral blemish inflicted upon her. Hence the frontal compositions where the charred half of her face is not kept hidden; nor does the camera tend to limit itself to imaging her from her ‘better’ side. Such unabashed frontal imaging radically changes the relationship of the viewer with the character, and affirms affinities of a different sort, where we are forced to accept a person for what he or she is rather than for what I want/wish her to be, in appearance and affinity.
Obviously, it is all departures for Pallavi Raveendran, with only some transient arrivals in between that are anything but permanent or substantial. But she makes definite departures from her family, love relationships, and even the profession she loves and aspires for. She doesn’t arrive anywhere in the end, but for sure, she is at the verge of several beginnings. Maybe she would rather fly in a world where men are just men, not demons or angels.
To return to June Jordan,
might be waiting for me not
too far away
but definitely not
on this side/definitely not
on my side
of the water
(Speculations on the Present Through the Prism of the Past)