South Indian actress Bhavana Menon, who was allegedly abducted and sexually assaulted in 2017 in a moving vehicle under the instructions from a popular actor from Kerala, took a tough call to distance herself from Malayalam cinema after that tragedy.
In an earlier interview with Gulf News last year, Menon – who had featured in over 70 South Indian films until then -- had even claimed that any association with the Malayalam-language industry triggered “terrible memories”.
Cut to 2023, Menon – who has become the fierce poster girl for speaking up on sexual harassment at workplace – has learned to conquer that crippling fear and is back with a new Malayalam film ‘Ntikkakkakkoru Premandaarnnu’, out in UAE cinemas on February 24.
It almost feels like a magnificent “comeback”, she tells Gulf News.
“But it wasn’t easy to resume acting in Malayalam cinema after such a long gap. I had my fair share of nervousness and anxiety. I was even unsure whether it’s the right decision to make a comeback to Malayalam industry,” said Menon in an exclusive interview with Gulf News.
However, it was a smooth ride because her cast and crew of ‘Ntikkakkakkoru Premandaarnnu’ – which roughly means ‘My Brother Had A Romance’ – made her feel at home. So, what was the biggest change she observed on the sets of a Malayalam film since her 2017 foray?
“The first thing I noticed was the presence of women in the technical department, which was very heartening,” she added.
The 36-year-old actress, who now lives in Bengaluru with her producer-husband Naveen, also felt Malayalam cinema had subtly evolved in terms of its narrative and story-telling.
“The mainstream cinema has become very content-driven now. It’s not the hero-heroine-villains-songs anymore. More meaty roles are being written for other supporting characters as well and good movies coming out of our industry is now being discussed across the country and beyond,” said Menon.
She takes the example of the stirring and celebrated Malayalam drama ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’, which was a tale of a young woman and housewife smashing patriarchy and sexism. But the change is slow, she adds.
“I haven’t watched many of the new releases [in Malayalam], I am slowly catching up. But cinema has always been a reflection of society. I saw ‘The Great Indian kitchen’ and I was very proud of it. It’s a long process to change our system and the conditioned minds but I feel we’re slowly getting there,” said Menon. While Malayalam films are admired for their realistic stories made on modest budgets and compelling acting from talents who are not all brawn and blusters, there have been instances when mainstream heroes like Mammootty and Mohanlal have spoken dialogues that were toxic and disparaging towards women.
Plus, this actress and survivor knows a thing or two about being discriminated based on gender.
In February 2017, Menon was headed for Kochi from Thrissur in her vehicle when she was allegedly intercepted by a group of men who reportedly sexually assaulted her and filmed the attack to blackmail her later. A few days later, a popular Malayalam actor and producer was accused of orchestrating the crime and arrested. The actor is being charged with criminal conspiracy and is now out on bail after spending more than three months in jail in 2017. Immediately after the attack, she was victim shamed and the subject of vitriolic social media hate, with a legion of haters accusing her of inviting the violence upon her. Back then, in an interview with this journalist, she had described the venomous hate as “appalling”.
But has the negativity diminished? The actress was surprisingly pragmatic in her response.
“I still don’t know how I am overcoming my issues. I am trying and figuring out different routes and methods. I battle with anxiety and I have occasional meltdowns,” said Menon.
As she rightfully points out that healing isn’t an overnight phenomena and the process of surviving such a heinous assault is often painfully slow.
“It definitely takes time and tests the patience, but it is what it is. We need to move ahead with our lives without giving up,” said Menon. The trial involving the main accused and the popular actor, who remains the eighth accused is still on-going. While the actress chose to skip the question on whether justice delayed, is justice denied, Menon believes that the grit and gumption she displayed has made her the reluctant idol for sexual assault survivors in India.
“I had the support of my family and friends who lifted my soul up! But the problem with most survivors, sadly, is that they don’t have that support system. Sometimes, they are encouraged to brush it [the assault] under the carpet,” said Menon.
While she had to battle an avalanche of trolls and victim-shamers, Menon’s spirit was bolstered when her female peers including Geethu Mohandas, Samyuktha Varma, Remya Nambeesan, and actress Revathy continued to be her pillars of support. Following the attack, a Women In Cinema Collective was even formed to provide safer work environment for female actors.
Her husband also has also been a sturdy pillar all through her adult life, apart from her friends who continue to throw their weight behind her.
Immediately after the assault in 2017, the two announced their plans of getting married and beginning a new life. In many parts of the world, a sexual assault survivor is often ostracised and sidelined in society. But their collective determination to not let the violent crime define her existence and identity was admired.
Even her latest role in her proverbial comeback in ‘Ntikkakkakkoru Premandaarnnu’ isn’t a simpering wall flower. Just like her real-life personality, her latest role is that of a strong independent woman.
“I play Nithya, a school teacher. She’s independent and level-headed. The story begins when she meets her ex-lover at a crucial point in her life. More than challenging, it was fulfilling to play a strong independent today’s woman,” said Menon.
So in life, is she an incurable romantic?
“I am more of a realistic lover in life. We love giving space to each other, we respect our individual choices and decisions, but at the same time it’s very important to be there for each other all the time,” said Menon.
They have both fulfilled their promises to each other.
Surprisingly, she isn’t even a fan of romantic comedies, but chose her comeback film because she loved its story and her role. She’s more a ‘Game Of Thrones’ and ‘Stranger Things’ fan.
“Honestly speaking ,romance isn’t my most favorite genre. I can spend an entire day watching Game Of Thrones or Stranger Things. I grew up watching some of the best love stories in Malayalam , Tamil, and Hindi and I miss a romantic movie like ‘Innale’.
Starring Shobana, Jayaram, and Suresh Gopi, ‘Innale’ was a cult hit and revolved around a woman who suffers from amnesia and fails to recognise her past or her beloved ones. It was a story said from a female perspective.
“Also, recently I watched a film called ‘Nayattu’. Everyone in it was phenomenal. And I am extremely happy and proud that we are discovering new talents.”
True to her vision, her comeback in Malayalam has a clutch of talented but relatively obscure actors. But the story will tug your heart, she says.
We agree, just like how her life and the grace with which she lives is a crash course in resilience and strength.