Why do heroes slap women in Malayalam films? Is there a pattern? Does it have something to do with the so-called educated Kerala society? Should it be termed as artistic liberty? Gulf News journalists discuss the issue in the light of latest Prithviraj-starrer Ayyappanum Koshiyum
Why did Prithviraj go back on his promise?
Manjusha Radhakrishnan, Chief Reporter
There’s no denying that Malayalam superstar Prithviraj’s new film ‘Ayappanum Koshiyum’ is a searing portrait of toxic masculinity and patriarchal privilege, but there was one scene that was deeply troubling.
Nearing the climax of this superbly acted film, Prithviraj — who plays the entitled man-child Koshi Kurian — slaps his on-screen wife during a heated argument with his domineering father, who has emasculated him and his family since childhood. He slaps her hard when his submissive wife stands up for herself for the first time in her life and asks her father-in-law to stay out of her personal life. As soon as his hand connects to her face, he exclaims: ‘why could you not say this earlier?’ In the next scene, you have Koshi sitting on a chair while his wife kneels in front of him comforting her husband, who had just slapped her. There’s no talk of his physical violence as she continues to nurture him and his wounded ego. Let’s just press pause here. What just happened here?
Why did one of Malayalam’s most progressive actors, who vowed in his interviews to this journalist that he would never promote such regressive scenes or normalise violence against women as routine in his films, succumb to this deeply problematic scene.
For arguments’s sake, an actor can claim helplessness with that oft-used ‘my role demanded it’ spiel, but couldn’t that reckoning scene in their marriage — where the wife breaks off from the shackles off a patriarchal father-in-law — be as effective without the hero slapping his woman into submission. Remember, Malayalam films are flooded with blockbusters where on-screen alpha males hit their lovers as routine. To witness accomplished actors like Mammootty, Mohanlal or Suresh Gopi slapping their lovers elicited catcalls and claps from the men who relished that scene with glee. The dominant narrative in those films is that the hero or the anti-hero is slapping you for your own good. It’s an age-old tradition that has been perpetuated by younger heroes now.
Actress Parvathy, who famously called out films like Mammootty-starrer Kasaba and toxic love story Arjun Reddy for glorifying brutality against women, was punished with trolls and threats on social media for several months. The normalising of violence in films by good-looking, virtuous heroes is routine, but isn’t it time to call them out?
In my eyes, a perfectly engaging Malayalam film like Ayappanum Koshiyum about a cop (Biju Menon) who takes on a rich, feudalistic man (Prithviraj) who embarks on a bitter battle of egos and pride was tainted because of that scene featuring the slap.
What’s in a slap, you ask. Plenty. As a seemingly progressive Bollywood film Thappad, featuring Taapsee Pannu as a woman who files for divorce when her husband slaps her during a heated argument, gears up for release on February 27, we seemed to have taken a step backward with a movie like Ayappanum Koshiyum. Isn’t it time that we get out of this creative rut where heroes need to slap their women to teach them their place in life and society. Dear men, we promise you that we will understand your frustrations and displaced anger without being beaten black and blue.
We see red here.
Accept [commercial] films for what they are
Jaya Chandran, Senior Web News Editor
Before jumping into any emotional battle of words about the scene, let us consider this first.
It is a scene from a commercial film and it probably doesn’t mean anything outside the frames the story has been told. We all know what our commercial potboilers are. If anyone in the public is riled up and thinks everything shown on screen by some leading actor in a blockbuster film is going to influence them despite their best intentions, they probably need some counselling. They can also consider growing up as another option - however hard it might seem at this point.
Remember, it is not Prithviraj Sukumaran beating his real-life wife. It is the director’s interpretation of the character and that is how he or she wanted people to see it. It could be part of the whole story and may not be taken in isolation in our urge to analyze toxic masculinity of the Kerala male, which, truth be told, exists.
However, just like the character Ram in the epic Ramayana didn’t exactly initiate the cult of men abandoning their wives (though some in real-life do so and still go on to become heroes of sorts is a different subject altogether) I think the character whatever in the film Ayyappanum Koshyum doesn’t necessarily promote the idea of men beating women just for the sake of it.
Now, what is the argument? That a man beating his wife is wrong? Yes, of course, it is wrong, wrong, wrong and a crime under domestic violence. Does it happen in our society? Yes, of course.
Was it out of character for the male character to beat the female character in the film? May be and may not be. Was it still okay to show it if it was out of character? Let the director/artist be the authority.
It is one of the privileges of creation/art (whether driven by artistic aims, arbitrary whims or monetary cunning) that everything can only follow it (the incident, the slap). If the scene was not there in the film, there was no way this debate could have existed. Such a scene can be included for any reason. It could be an act place it on centre stage, or a deliberate ploy to muddle the characterization; it could have come out as an improvisation during rehearsals, or even as a cunning attempt at creating controversy to sell the film in this time of touchy feminism. It could be all of the above or just an example of bad story telling.
So what do we want? Not to show such toxic male acts on screen? No. I would say it is more like our PM Modi erecting a wall around slums in Gujrat so that Trump would not see the poverty in his home state.
You may be able to hide it for some time, but it is still going to be there. And the walls will come down exposing all, sooner than later.
In slap we trust
Anupa Kurian-Murshed, Social Media Editor
A slap is a slap. Violence begets violence. And normalisation of that is a slow and insidious process, which women and some men around the world have been battling continually. Can we pin it down to a particular community, faith or nationality – the answer is no.
Genetics tells us the XX chromosome is stronger, tougher and designed to survive, while society tells us that it is the XY chromosome which rules the roost. Nature ought to know better.
But, today’s discussion is a bit more focused on the portrayal of violence against women in Malayalam cinema and on a wider scale in Kerala’s society, which ironically used to be matriarchal.
There’s a Malayalam phrase I heard a long while ago: “Oru pottika kodu kua!” (Translates to: “Give a hard slap.”) A father was telling his son to slap the daughter-in-law to control her. It was in a movie. Despite being part of a family with a long feudal ancestry, this was a foreign concept. My parents raised me gender neutral, my grandparents the same. And nobody “slapped” anybody.
So, this scene led to a discussion with my grandfather and his friends on one of our long summer walks. He was a finance man from the Indian Railways, his friends included doctors and judges from the Indian High Court. My parents weighed in, too. And what I understood was that Kerala society despite its literacy levels still, at some level, believed in the woman serving and the man being served.
Each of them agreed that this was all the more jarring because in the case of Kerala, both the victim and the oppressor are educated, thinking people. Unfortunately, this movie shows that much has not changed, despite decades having passed since my conversation.
“Into that heaven of freedom…” will we ever truly awaken?
Indian movies will be worse off without the slap
Manoj Nair, Associate Editor
Background music shoots up a few decibels…
Heroine – the one who receives the slap – turns mute…
Hero – who administers it - gets to have a few minutes spewing some of the most testosterone-pumped dialogue to have hit a cinema screen near you…
Variations of the above storyboard have played right through the 100 years and more of Indian cinema… and continue to play out in this highly enlightened 2020. If anyone had any doubts, do check out the Malayalam movie, “Ayyappanum Koshiyum”, where Prithiviraj, who essays the role of “Koshi”. He delivers a well-timed five-fingered physical on the cheeks of his lady-love.
But this seems to have set off a storm of debate about how heroes – it’s never any other character - can still engage in putting their heroines in their place. The term “toxic masculinity” is getting thrown up all the time over what is, at heart, a simple “tap” on the cheeks.
Look, it could have been a lot worse – instead of a slap, the lady could have ended up with a cheek cut. Or worse, a black eye. But heroes in our movies always seem to be aware of the minimum force required to make themselves clear. Now, aren’t they being considerate.
Now, if all through this 100 years and more, a slap is used as a plot device to take the story forward, where’s the harm? If a well-timed slap manages to transition the heroine into an idealised version of Indian womanhood, right down to the bindi and traditional wear, isn’t that saying something about the power of a slap?
If in the process, the male part of the audience engages in wolf-whistles and instant applause when the slap and subsequent monologue play out, where’s the harm? All in the name of selling a few extra seats…
Indian cinema, or large swathes of it, still operate in a time lapse frame of mind. However much story telling has progressed, there are certain tenets that will continue to be followed. Whether it’s 2020 or 2070. The woman needs to be shown the right way… so, let’s knock some sense into her, literally. (In a society where still many believe that an assault on woman was because the woman was “asking for it”, how can art be separate from life?)
The latest Prithiviraj starrer has lots going for it, at heart it’s a fine story well told. And the acting is a few notches above the ordinery. But if a simple slap is what it will be defined for, it’s unfortunate. Toxic masculinity is too heavy a burden for this movie to be saddled with.
If someone can’t lump it, don’t watch. Or make a song and dance about the whole toxic culture. Now, the downside is an actress who sounds off about it spends more time in TV debates than playing interesting characters on screen. Just check out Parvathy Thiruvothu’s career graph.
Or the actress could venture out on her own, sit astride a (mechanical) horse, brandish a sword, and chop off a few heads… Cue Kangana Ranaut.
But for the rest, actors and viewers, let the slap remain… Indian movies will be worse off if it’s not there.
Normalising toxic masculinity
Dona Cherian, Web News Editor
I love watching movies and I watch each movie as I would read a new story – separate from reality. In this case, since I haven’t watched the movie, I am not going to comment on whether the plot called for the scene in question.
However, I do feel that given the influence of the movie business on society – in the sense of mirroring life – there lies a responsibility on storytellers to ensure their story does not normalise or glorify what isn’t supposed to be normal.
Sometimes movies can – and have done before – normalise ingrained patriarchal norms in Kerala society. For example, if a man is seen slapping his wife as part of ‘discipline’ or ‘to teach a lesson’ with no emotional repercussions for the man, it could further normalise what is often considered okay to do in the Malayali society.
While domestic abuse is frowned upon in all sections of the community, a slap that is deemed ‘necessary’ is not frowned upon by many men or women in Kerala. What is frightening to me is that the line, between what a couple’s individual struggles are and how a couple ‘should be’, is very thin – and in some cases, non-existent. Mothers tell their daughters, and fathers their sons, that there is a ‘right’ way to behave as a woman and sometimes that could mean getting a ‘necessary’ slap.
In other instances women, regardless of compatible education and careers, are expected to conform to an accepted way of being a wife, a sister or a daughter-in-law. Disrespect and equality are defined differently for men and women in basic roles of society, despite the high level of education and gender parity touted by the state.
This is not to say that women can do no wrong, or that men don’t go through the same societal expectations. This is also not to say that everyone in our community does this, or that ours is the only community with these issues. It is no one’s fault that these norms have been ingrained in to us through our mothers and fathers and their mothers and fathers.
However, it is definitely our fault if we continue to ingrain these into the community now, whether through our own life choices or through a strong medium of expression like cinema.
Don’t break the mirror
Biju Mathew, Senior Web News Editor
A slap, violence against women, needy being exploited - a cruel reality around the world - when translated on to the silver screen in their myriad hues, debates roll out.
Is it morally right? What will be the impact on impressionable minds? Are we corrupting another generation and giving more impetus to an already corrupt society?
The questions and also the answers are unending and the debates have been going on for ages.
Violence in any form, whether it is against woman, man, child or animals, is deplorable. Should that be depicted in cinema? Yes, if the filmmakers deem it necessary.
The epitome of cinematic experience was best explained by the famous American film critic Pauline Kael: “There is nothing quite like that moment when the lights go down and all our fantasies and hopes are focused on the screen.”
To restrict a filmmaker in delivering that moment of beauty is a crime. In that process of blending dreams and reality, the creative freedom should have no bounds. And cinema viewers have the complete freedom to watch or not to watch or even boycott the film.
At times, the outcome of such creative exercise could result in utter trash. But that is the sheer reality of life: the good, the bad and the ugly.
From South Korean film maker Kim Ki-duk’s cinema ‘Birdcage Inn’ to the popular TV series ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ or Bollywood’s ‘Kabir Singh’, to name a few, violence and subjugation of women have been used to their heart-wrenching effect on the screens.
Are they all a result of male chauvinism? In that case, what should we say when a man is slapped by a woman in a film?
The inherent decay of a patriarchal society should be fixed at its core and not in its reflection. Let us change the ‘man in the mirror’, not its reflection by breaking the mirror.