Supernatural and Feminism in Malayalam Film
(Ph. D. Scholar, English and Foreign Language University, Shillong)
Film as an art form is representational. Film originated from its earliest versions of ‘image illusion’ devices like ‘magic lanterns’, zoetropes, phantasmagoria halls and photography. Photography, which was once described as the ‘ghost of painting’, had an academic tradition of bringing meaning into the images it captured. This later led way to the process of meaning making in the motion camera as well. Motion picture as the film is called also creates a hyper-reality that captures the real in cinematic ways. While photography recorded the still images, cinematography recorded the moving images. In its developed stages, camera was no longer considered as a recording machine but as something beyond as pictures could be manipulated to cinematic end.
A film is also known as movie or motion picture or cinema. Cinema includes many aspects of film, film distribution, filmmaking etc (Hill and Gibson 9-12). Audience is an integral part of film, for its visual presence is uniformly experienced by a crowd sitting in darkness, in rows of seats directed towards a screen, separated from one another, but sharing the experience with the rest of the audience (Nelmes 88). Unlike the other arts, film needs an immediate response of the audience either for its success or failure.
Films operate in three ways in a society. (1) It derives its themes and inspiration from socio-cultural and historical climate of the society. (2) It depends on the reception of the audience since films need an immediate response significant to its financial success. (3) It can introduce change subtly. (Jain 2011) Films play a seminal role in shaping the perspectives of a large majority of viewers through these three ways.
Feminism utterly rejects the notions of objectivity and neutrality (Habib 668). Feminism studies on difference. ‘Body’ is a powerful metaphor in feminist writing. Simone de Beauvoir interpreted the man-woman relationship in a master-slave discourse influenced by the Hegelian philosophy. In her book The Second Sex she points out the anatomical differences between the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. “Masculinity is considered to be the “absolute human type,” the norm or standard of humanity. A man does not typically preface his opinions with the statement “I am a man,” whereas a woman’s views are often held to be grounded in her femininity rather than in any objective perception of things” (Habib 683). Beauvoir states that humanity is male and woman is considered as ‘the Other’. She calls it ‘the slavery of half of the humanity’ to mean the inequality of women and hopes that if girls are to be brought up with the same free and assured future as boys, a child would perceive an androgynous world rather than a masculine world around him or her. Hélène Cixous demythifies the draconian transformation of beautiful Medusa into an ugly woman with snakes as hair in Greek mythology and interprets it as something as a repressed female sexuality by men. She says that, in her work Laugh of the Medusa, a new feminine language will act like the laughter of Medusa, a demoted character, on the face of the theories of male dominated world.
Now let’s see how feminism works in films. Representation in film is about how choices are made to portray a particular character or situation. When we analyse the representation of something or someone we need to think about 1) who or what is being represented and who the preferred audience are, 2) what are they doing? Or are they acting conventionally or unconventionally, 3) why they are presented like that or what could be the possible reading of it and 4) where are they situated or where are they framed and what is the background of that person (Wilson).
Representation of women in arts has always undergone study. Women’s ideas have traditionally been overlooked often and omitted in academic disciplines. Definitions of women “are communicated through images, language, and non-linguistic symbols in myths, rituals, folklore, and the media.” (Women’s Realities, women’s choices 16) Women have been the subjects of arts in various ways. Men artists shaped the ideal ‘woman’ according to their perceptions. Women were the ‘consumers’ of the arts where the ‘producers’ were men. The ideas of women who read, listened and viewed those products were shaped one-sided in terms of reality. They viewed themselves through the eyes of men.
In ancient times, folk tales presented a more direct and extreme image of women. They were either (1) witches or sorcerers or (2) mother goddess. Women were feared in many societies as they were depicted as ruthless, attacking men and threatening their superiority. The second image-mother goddess- is the counterpart of the witch. This ‘Madonna’ concept had been popular in most of the Western folk tales. These two extremes are rooted on the ancient religious writings and philosophies. Tertullian famously called her ‘devil’s doorway’ and Chrysostom said that among all savage beasts none is found so harmful as woman (Habib, 688). The myth created by these men writers formed this disfigured version of woman.
A myth or an image, be it is by media or arts, soon becomes a social imagery. Social imagery provides a rational backing for the real social order. “The social distancing established by the notion of women as “other” provides an excuse for the actual devaluation of women…” (“Women’s Realities” 30). If our senses are formed by the social and media images, then our senses can be changed according to the change of this imagery. The representation of women in arts defines a woman in society. If we want to study how society defines her, we need to study the woman in media, or in this case, film.
Women in Malayalam Film
The high social development in Kerala had given rise to the ‘myth of a Malayali woman’ enjoying high status in her family. The early matrilineal Nair cultures and high literacy strengthened this idea. But the mindset of every Malayali was conditioned centuries ago by their various indigenous visual art forms. Kathakali is a major example here. Kathakali has two types of women; women like Sita or Draupati- chaste and loyal women and the evil characters like Poothana. These types classify the whole women into two classes- the Mother Goddess and the Witch. Malayalam cinema had to face instant reactions from the audience for crossing the boundaries of these preconditioned images of women in its starting periods. J. Daniel’s Vigathakumaran shows turned into a brawl sometimes even damaging the screen with stones and sticks for showing love scenes.
Family is the locus of the narrative where conflict and resolution take place in an average Indian cinema. Mother is the centre of the family. “At its centre lies the iconic presence of the mother, stable in her virtue and her place, a moral orientation for her son but also a figuration of the past; for the space of the mother must give way to the changes introduced by the shift of authority from father to son”.(Vasudevan, 2000) There is a ‘burden of morality’ on the mother. She can’t afford to be wrong. She is the unifying thread of the family on which the story relies on. The character who can take freedom of acting on her will is the mother-in-law -the evil icon- the ‘witch’.
The idea of a ‘wife’ has been defined clearly by the Malayalam cinemas. The vocal definitions often were given in their songs. The Malayalam movie Raakuyilin Raagasadassil, 1986 (In the Musical Court of the Nightingale) is known for its song ‘Poomukha vaathilkkal” which says how a wife should be-
‘A wife is the moonlight who lights up the front yard with her love, she turns the thorns of sorrows into flowers by her gentle touch..She is the lamb from which oil never runs out...’.
Most of the ‘family cinemas’ of Malayalam appropriate this image of woman.
Women in Supernatural: A Study on the Movies Aakashaganga (1999) and Indriyam (2000)
The movies Aakashanganga and Indriyam were two financially successful films with beautiful songs and brilliant technical backing. Aakashanganga is about how a servant girl named Ganga falls in love with a high caste thampuran and gets pregnant, only to be later killed by his father to avoid the low caste girl entering in the family. The young thampuran commits suicide, heartbroken and Ganga turns into a yakshi to avenge her and her lover’s murder. Indriyam is about a tribal girl Neeli, with whom a King falls in lust and later kills her when he finds out that Neeli has a lover and she is committed to him. While Akashaganga uses a psychological background in the whole yakshi discourse by bringing multiple personality disorder and exorcism, Indriyam leaves the yakshi alone with all the killing to be done by her. There is no psychological explanation given and the forest setting adds to the horror.
Etymologically, the term ‘yakshi’ stands for a goddess in Hindu mythology, associated with wealth and fertility. But the term ‘yakshi’ is often synonymous with a female ghost in popular culture. When it comes to Indian films, yakshis are clad in white saris and long undid hair.
In Aakashanganga, Ganga is happily in love and the beginning scenes show how she was modelling for the thampuran for a portrait. She is pregnant and when the thampuran is told to get rid of her, unlike the other feudal stories, he denies it and wants to marry her. Ganga gets killed right on that spot by Father thampuran himself with a clean kick on her abdomen and she is put to the pyre to burn. Suddenly Ganga begins to move and opens her eyes. Realising that she was not actually dead by the ‘kick’ the men set fire to the pyre and Ganga burns alive screaming loudly. The death is cruel especially when her body sizzles on the pyre moving, rolling and trying to get up and run. In Indriyam the murder is done when Neeli and her lover make love. When the King stabs Neeli with his sword, Neeli, writhing in pain, has to watch him killing her lover. The king, without wanting to wait till her death, strangles her to death. In both the stories women are brutally killed- killed twice.
Now let’s analyse the representation of women in both these yakshis- Ganga and Neeli. Ganga is beautiful and voluptuous. The bathing scenes and the rain dance scenes give maximum exposure to Ganga’s body. She is presented as very shy and docile girl who dances and poses at the young thampuran’s whims. The pre-yakshi Ganga is a girl who demands nothing, not even legal marriage after she was pregnant. The dramatic change in Ganga, when she turns into a Yakshi, intensifies how angry and how wronged she is. She is given a white saree while saree was not worn by Kerala women when she died. Neeli is loyal to Udayan and is quite upset when the King wants her to pose for his paintings. Afraid of the punishments, she half-heartedly agrees to do the job. The parting scene of the lovers shows how vulnerable Neeli is in front of Udayan’s love.
There are a few characteristics a yakshi in Malayalam film acquires with her changing status. (1)First is her movement. The movement of a yakshi is smoother and faster. She glides through the air and never uses her feet to walk. In fact she moves a step above the floor level. Next is her physical image (2). This feature is to be compared with the concept of vampires in the West. A vampire never gets old. So does a Yakshi. When a woman gets murdered in her youth, she turns into a yakshi and remains in the same age even after centuries. The third characteristic is her (3) voice. Yakshi has multiple voices. She sings, talks and roars. She has both feminine and masculine voice. The sweet voice is to seduce and the man voice is to celebrate the anger. Another feature is (4) her laughter. Like the ‘laugh of the Medusa’, a yakshi laughs loud and fearless. She laughs at men and the exorcists. The last is (5) the power. A yakshi is physically very strong. She can control the elements and this is why in both the films she kills by water, fire, earth and wind. Trees and animals obey her. Nature is controlled by yakshi.
In Malayalam film, Yakshi is always the wronged woman, who was very virtuous (like the mother goddess) and beautiful in her past life, then later killed by a man. She turns into a ghost, revengeful (the witch) and she uses her voluptuous body in order to attract the enemy to her trap (the vamp). The only character in Indian film tradition in which we can find all these three images is perhaps yakshi. Ganga and Neeli were extraordinarily beautiful and submissive. Ganga was pregnant and Neeli was in a relationship with her lover Udayan. Both were loyal to their men. When Ganga turns into a yakshi, she possesses the body of Maya, a Christian girl and seduces the younger son Unni, of the old Tharavadu where she had been brutally killed. Scene 2:23:58 shows both Maya and Ganga performing Thiruvathira dance, singing with two different expressions- sringara and raudra. Unni is supposed to be celibate since the men in their family follow this practise in order to prevent the attack of Ganga. To kill Unni, Ganga uses Maya’s body and seduces him to break the law of celibacy. While Ganga plays the ‘vamp’ in one man, Neeli does it on many. The changed forms of Neeli is irresistible, provokingly dressed and appeared in favourable situations in the forest where men find it safe to have sex. The revenge in a Yakshi gives her the ‘witch’ image and this is unquestionably obvious in the scenes.
What are the limitations of a Yakshi? She is limited to a small geographical area where her murder took place. But that small space is her kingdom. Before both movies begin, the yakshis are shown as bound in trees by a nail. They are being released by people who are ignorant of the consequences. In Aakashaganga, yakshi hovers in the surroundings of the old Tharavadu while In Indriyam Neeli owns a whole forest though she is restricted to it. Her boundaries are set often by an exorcist who either gives copper plates or special ornaments to wear to prevent her attack. The exorcist is always a man. Ganga is scared of only her exorcist Meppaadan and the copper plates he blessed, worn by people in the house. She is also shown being scared of the Christian symbol Holy Cross and the rosary chain. The Hindu exorcist and the Christian priest join hands to tame Ganga and finally defeat her. A Yakshi is a failure only when the man comes in the form of an exorcist. She never hurts children and women and instead she uses them to get things done for her. Ganga is shown friendly with the children and uses them to remove the blessed ornaments from men’s arms while they are asleep. Neeli is given a whole forest but the campus of the palace where her enemies live. Neeli doesn’t hurt women and in fact uses the form of different women in her surroundings to trap men. The sisterhood of the yakshis and other women and motherly affection towards children present her as a perfect feminist. She avenges her death with the same masculine power with which she was once destroyed. The aversion towards men seems normal since she was killed brutally and more than once. In Indriyam the exorcist tries to advice her when he tries for an amicable conversation with her. This dialogue presents exactly what a woman should be.
“Neeli, you shouldn’t be this angry..! Woman is mother. Mother is patience. Patience is equal to the Earth. Earth should never be unstable. If it’s unstable, it will destroy this universe. And I will stop it.”
Neeli scoffs at this male chauvinistic sermon and challenges him. But what is ironical about Neeli is, it is not her death she avenges but it is the death of her lover Udayan. Until she clearly states this in the conversation with the exorcist we wrongly assume that she kills to punish those who wronged her. As a yakshi Neeli is more submissive than Ganga. In the climax scene Neeli is shown disfigured, aged and horrible. When she is defeated her power is captured in a clay statue and later it is burned to ashes. Ganga’s defeat is more impressive than this. Ganga fights till the last moment and when she is left with no choice, she leaves Maya’s body and rises to the sky to become a star. Ganga’s retreat is shown as how a Goddess would return to the heavens accompanied by a pleasant music. Ganga’s end is not as embarrassing as of Neeli.
Neeli and Ganga are two unforgettable yakshis in Malayalam film history. The study of these two yakshis helps us to understand how men demand the stereotyped women in them even in supernatural. A feminist reading of these yakshis uncorks the hidden agendas of the male dominant ideologies. Though the yakshis are feared by men, when it comes to films, they are given limitations and restrictions. No matter how yakshi is strong, the last laugh is of a man, not of her.
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