Is Misogyny and Child Marriage the New Wave? - Dangerous Propositions in Parava.
The new directors are being applauded for introducing into Malayalam Cinema, a novel visual culture and social sensibility, that are starkly different from that of the previous decade. Parava (Dir. Soubin Shahir, 2017) is one such movie. One of the online reviewers has seen it as a “welcoming change” as it reduces the use of dialogue in filmmaking. The sheer beauty of the movements of animals and humans alike, create a sense of harmony that makes it a delightful watch. The idea has been communicated brilliantly to the audience. On the other side, the movie also shows a child marriage, but doesn’t bother to shed any light on it. It’s dealt humorously, without any subtexts. Also, none of the reviews so far, neither in newspapers nor in any online portals, has addressed the issue.
In Parava, the girl child [emphasis added] Surumi is introduced as “vella thoppi” (white cap), for she was wearing a white headscarf. There is an enthusiasm among the boys to introduce themselves to her and one of them manages to get her attention. The movie then shows the boy actively pursuing his romance, while the girl responds to it rather meekly yet with no considerable interest. One day “vella thoppi” disappears from the school. Next, we see that she is married to a man who appears to be in his late twenties or early thirties. The audience but breaks out into laughter thanks to the touch of humour added to the script.
Earlier in the movie, we have seen a teacher taking the initiative to facilitate her studies and help her continue her education in the context of a difficult family situation. The same teacher is happened to be seen consoling a failed student, trying to boost his morale. So, the teacher here is depicted as a person sensitive enough to the societal pressures the students face. She is also seen as possessing the professional ethics and integrity to intervene in easing out the situation for them. Throughout the movie, we also see the presence of a caring and concerned police officer who has a close tie with the neighbourhood community. There are enough hints about the possibility that he hails from the same neighbourhood. Also, there are references about educated men and women living among the neighbourhood population. And no one including the teacher and the police officer appears to be troubled to see the marriage of a fifteen-year-old girl.
More importantly, it is not even the talk of the town that such an event is taking place. Given the fact that the narrative is set in Kerala, the event is to get the attention and intervention of the informed community, such being the history of the state. But, this is not happening here. The writer, the producer, the director and some of the actors all claim to be part of one of the emerging groups in the film industry. How did this miss their eyes? The answer can be found in the body of work this group of people have produced.
Look at the movies CIA (Dir. Amal Neerad, 2017) and Maheshinte Prathikaram (Dir. Dileesh Pothan, 2016). In both the movies, men react to their partners exactly the same way, when the women decide to break away from the romantic relationship. Even when it is obvious in the narrative that these women are in a difficult position and their decision to walk away is their choice, the blame is on them. In both the movies, men try to make a public appearance in their ex-lovers’ wedding. If in CIA the act is intentional, in Maheshinte Prathikaram it is incidental. On both the occasions, the women are left with no choice but to rattle and broke into tears. The word “theppukari” (a woman who betrays) entered into common parlance and has become a popular usage across Kerala, post the success of Maheshinte Prathikaram. Likewise, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017), another movie directed by Dileesh Pothan, pushes the woman to shoulder the burden of the relationship. The movie says so unambiguously that if a woman is not courageous enough, the relationship will not survive. A “theppukari”, or rather a woman with a choice, is someone who is a coward, while men are always ready to honour their commitment. To put it differently, if a woman thinks that the relationship is not going to work for her, then she is a “theppukari.” Contrary to this, in Rajeev Ravi’s movies, women are largely absent. And one is left to wonder where all the women have gone.
It takes a very notorious turn in Amal Neerad’s movie Iyobinte Pusthakam (2014) when he tries to bring in the legendary revolutionary leader Rosamma Punnoose into the plot. We see her in the movie as someone among the crowd who stands by the male lead. Rosamma Punnoose was not just one among the crowd in the freedom struggle or in the ensuing historical resistance by the workers in the plantation sector. As one of the stalwart leaders of the movement, she deserves to be treated as one, if someone decides to bring her into the narrative. The only possible explanation for such an atrocious downplaying could be that this is to make it in tandem with the understanding of heroism in Malayalam cinema.
A reviewer has opined that the “movie is rising to the sky and breaking the barriers of boundaries… It resembles the Iranian New Wave” (It doesn’t matter whether it exists or not). This is an overstretching of the situation at hand. There is no doubt that the making-style and treatment is slowly getting reshaped. But the usage of “international nature” and “new wave” is not quite accurate. In French and Iranian New Wave, the directors reflected upon the social, political and cultural issues quite sharply through their works, by subverting existing consensus about plots and styles. They have reshaped the narrative and thereby reconstructed the perception of art itself. The New Wave has emerged in France post the world war, ensuing the crisis the war has caused and the technological opportunities it has given. Critics identify New Wave in a country, with the emergence of a group of directors whose works subvert and critique the existing order and revolutionise the use of form. The Iranian New Wave was a response to the then political climate in Iran. Violence, be it direct or indirect,was not accidental, was not merely a reckless act in these movies. Rather, they show how violence is embedded in the system and how the system reproduces it constantly through the cultural, social, economic and political activities. Now, let’s compare it to the so called New Wave in Malayalam cinema. The role of the state and of the system in producing class, caste, gender, and religious disparities and alienation are seldom dealt within these movies. An exception is Rajeev Ravi’s attempts. But in all his three films the relationship between individuals and their relation to the state and the society is perplexing. If anything is absent in these movies, it is the everyday life of people in the locality. Women constitute more than half of the population and without them, there is no such thing as the everyday life of any locality, be it in Prakash City, Mattancherry or Kammattipadam.
Time is absent
Presumed time in a movie is the Present unless otherwise stated. In all the movies except Iyobinte Pusthakam (Dir. Amal Neerad, 2014), there are no references to the time period in which the narrative is set. Hence the assumption that these movies are set in the present time. And for the same reason, it is hard to believe that a Child Marriage in contemporary Mattancherry has gone unopposed, in any given context. Any absence of discomfort at this can only be understood as a lack of awareness and careful thought from the part of the filmmakers. It ridicules generations of struggles to get girls into the schools for better social and economic mobility in a patriarchal social arrangement. There were consistent campaigns among educators, civil society activists, police and other law enforcement officers, community leaders and local political and social leaders to create awareness about it.
The depiction of child marriage in Parava is problematic for the reason that the presence of informed community members (an educator, a police officer) fail to translate awareness into action. Equally disturbing is the fact that this aspect along with the anti-women statements and formulations in other recent movies have been largely untouched by the critics. At the same time, there was a huge uproar against the misogyny in movies such as Action Hero Biju (Dir. Abrid Shine, 2016) and Kasaba (Dir. Nithin Renji Panicker, 2016). So, do aesthetic and technical brilliance call for a blind eye towards voyeuristic and misogynistic content? If so, we would be slipping back to a predicament that will challenge the progressive reality and history of the state. It will also challenge the attempts at raising awareness. A similar example would be the presence of feudal nostalgia in Malayalam cinema, especially of the 90s.
“Vellathoppi” is also the name of a pigeon in Parava, around which the central plot revolves. The fight between children and certain adults are around the ownership of the pigeons. The conflict over the girl (Vellathoppi) therefore appears placed as a farce to the central conflict. It is all about men’s fight for ownership, control and protection of their their “toys”, be it women or animals. The dubious absence of power relations in the narration makes sure that nobody gets disturbed or annoyed, including the critics.
[There are many other dangerous propositions in these movies. For instance, in Parava, Child Marriage is shown as an exclusive social problem of the Muslim community, irrespective of the fact that Child Marriage in other communities too get reported occasionally. The community is still an exclusive target in popular culture as well as in public discussions surrounding Child Marriage, and is Parava any less different? The movie also tries to establish that the cause for all the problems are outsiders. It is problematic to say that everything inside is peaceful and violence happen only accidentally. In this article, though the focus is only on the representation of women, in Parava as well the other movies mentioned.]
 Meanwhile, note how the movie Paadam Onnu: Oru Vilapam (Dir. T. V. Chandran, 2003) dealt the very same issue with caution and concern.