Hari and I were skipping channels today when we happened to watch a scene from an 80’s Malayalam movie for hardly 2 minutes. My oh my! That would count as the most “Whaaaa???!!!” 2 minutes of my life. There was the hero who was shown to be from a not-so-well-off background looking unhappy. The heroine was a lady with a tomboy haircut, extra modern clothes, scarlet lips – all suiting the typical mould of that age of a rich and arrogant modern girl whose destiny in life is to be “set right” by the macho hero, fall in love with him in the next scene over the machismo and devote the rest of her life to begging him to marry her. Apparently the scene we were stuck at was the one where she was trying to convince him to marry her. I am going to give a verbatim translation of the dialogue to convey the epic awesomeness of this scene.

He: In my view, a husband is someone who should be dominating his wife. And without a penny in my hand, I am not in a position to dominate you. So I can’t marry you.

She: I have always been looking for a guy who would dominate me. You are the first guy to have ever slapped me. From that moment I decided you should be the one to marry me.

At this point I forgot the rigorous training I have been undergoing for the last 8 months to cut down my habit of using swear words before the baby comes, and exclaimed at the top of my lungs – “WTF!!!” I’m sure the 2 year old next door is now saying that repeatedly and driving his mom crazy.

But that made me think of a whole lot of Malayalam movies from the 80s, 90s and even the 2000s which conveyed more or less the same message. I’m sure that was a consistent message across movie industries in our country – that a man is considered a hero if he can put his girl “in place”. And in contrast any female character who raised her hand at a guy, even a guy who stalks or harasses her, was looked at as a rebel and someone who should have waited for her hero to do the beating up.

In the 90s I guess Jayaram was the hero who had maximum number of roles of this kind to his credit – where he would have an arrogant wife or just any girl who he sets right by giving her one tight slap. And as was typical of the movies of that age, the leading lady would swoon at this display of heroism and fall head over heels in love with the guy.  I remember women, including my mom, watching movies and saying in an irritated tone, “I wish he would give her one tight slap and put her in place”. I used to wonder even at that age why that was the best corrective measure even women would advocate.

When Shaji Kailas and Renji Panicker teamed up to bring out some of the most explosive hits of Malayalam movie industry in the 90s, this motif of the hero ripping apart the arrogant heroine became redundant. In the movie, “The King”, which came out in 1995, there is this scene where the District Collector (Mammootty) yells at the Sub-Collector (Vani Viswanath) in his office. While people were cheering the hero who was breaking the arrogant snob, a 10 year old me was wondering what kind of supervisor talks like that to a subordinate in office. At the end of the scene, the lady, quite rightly pissed off at the continuous and over the top personal attack in the name of official scolding, loses it and raises her hand at him. He grabs her wrist and finishes off the scene with a dialogue that went on to become a huge hit – “You are a woman, just a woman!” Hardly 2 scenes later, the lady has become coy and sweet. The hero asks her the question, “What makes you a freak, a snob?” and she is only too happy to admit that she was one and gets into a heart-wrenching story of a broken home. Once again, the self-righteous hero wins the day and the lady and reminds her that she is always one step below man!!

The start of the millennium has been one of the worst times in the Malayalam movie industry that has seen some of the most pathetic movies to have come out. But I thought a new millennium would at least bring about a change in the portrayal of the hero-heroine duo. However, in 2007 when the movie “Chocolate” came out, it shattered all my expectations. The youngest superstar of the time, Prithviraj, portrayed as the badass yet larger-than-life macho hero broke my heart in the scene where he slaps his lady love out of a misunderstanding. The lady, who was also supposed to be a badass, wails like a baby and runs out. And when his friend tells him it was not right of him to slap her, our remorseless hero says in a heroic tone, “That’s okay. She can count one slap less from the ones she will get after we are married.” Thus the new age hero set the tone for the new millennium too – that getting slapped by her husband is the basic birthright of a woman.

Thankfully, from 2009 the Malayalam movie industry turned a new leaf with the coming of a number of sensible writers, directors and also young actors who have given us some remarkable movies which have certainly changed the tone. Soon most of the senior actors, writers and directors also took the hint and joined the league. Today I see Malayalam movies where female characters are no longer looked at as simply eye candy or the obligatory object to be “set right” to prove the machismo of the hero. There definitely are a few exceptions. But overall, it is a good age for women as far as Malayalam movies are concerned. And I hope this trend is here to stay and will help change the age-old patriarchal mindset of our society to some extent.