ANNA MM VETTICAD 30 Aug 2021
The discussion on abortion, contraception and women’s bodily autonomy in two new Malayalam films has generated widespread debate in Kerala, drawing attention to the continuing battles against patriarchy in the same Malayali society from which this progressive cinema emerges.
Anna Ben as Sara Vincent in a defining still from the film Sara’s that has been used in its most popular posters.
New Delhi: Kerala’s image outside southern India is largely based on the best of what the state stands for: natural beauty, the country’s highest literacy rate, human development indices matching developed nations, and progressiveness, including in government schemes for the marginalised.
For close observers though, Kerala is an eternal conundrum, a state in which the co-habitation of extreme liberalism and extreme conservatism in gender-related issues makes it challenging for analysts. For instance, Kerala has consistently topped India’s female literacy levels (92.1% as per the 2011 Census, 95.2% as per the National Sample Survey report of 2017-18 issued by the ministry of statistics and programme implementation), yet it has a poor female workforce participation rate (25.8% in rural Kerala versus rural Himachal’s 52.9% in 2011-12).
These figures exemplify the contradictions in Kerala society that are also reflected in the Malayalam film industry a.k.a. Mollywood. In 2017, a group of the state’s women artistes and technicians set up the Women In Cinema Collective (WCC) to push for gender equality in their profession. A first of its kind for any Indian film industry, WCC came about eight months before the global MeToo movement sparked by media reports on sexual assault in Hollywood, and 1.5 years before MeToo travelled to India’s other film industries. It was formed, though, in response to the rape of a leading woman actor, allegedly at the behest of the superstar Dileep whose arrest divided Mollywood and drew attention to the misogyny in the industry.
The latest illustration of these social extremes is an anti-abortion campaign by the Catholic Church in Kerala coinciding with pro-choice proponents unexpectedly finding allies in two new Malayalam films, Sara’s and Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam.
Malayalam Cinema: An Ally for India’s Pro-Choice Advocates
Just days back, the Church in the state observed a Day of Protection of Life on 10 August, marking the 50th anniversary of the date on which the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act 1971 came into force, giving women in India the right to abortion.
The Kerala Church’s protest observance of the MTP Act’s golden jubilee is a reiteration of the Catholic Church’s long-held anti-abortion stance across the world. It came just weeks after the release of these two films that foreground women’s reproductive rights, proving yet again that for every conservative argument emerging from Kerala, a forceful liberal counter argument unprecedented elsewhere in India comes from within Kerala itself, and vice versa.
In director Jude Anthany Joseph’s Sara’s, the titular protagonist seeks an abortion when she gets pregnant after marriage. Don Palathara’s Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (English title: The Joyful Mystery) is about the effect of an unplanned pregnancy on a relationship.
Sara’s goes so far as to feature a doctor spelling out the various conditions listed in the MTP Act under which a woman in India can have an abortion, including mental health concerns if she proceeds with her pregnancy. This is especially important because of the extent of ignorance about the law among the public. What’s just as extraordinary is that Sara’s was designed as an out-and-out commercial venture complete with songs and the popular star Anna Ben as the lead.
Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam is shot entirely on a car ride to a doctor’s clinic to confirm a suspected pregnancy. Unknown to their parents, Maria in this film (Rima Kallingal) and Jitin (Jitin Puthanchery) live together without being married.
Jitin states that decisions regarding her body are the woman’s alone, a progressive stand that belies a later revelation about his attitude to contraception. Maria is anxious about their families’ reactions, her own readiness to be a mother, his immaturity and laidback nature.
Nixing the Notion that Every Pregnancy is “Good News”
Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam translates to The First/Primary Secret of Happiness. The name takes a swipe at the belief among societies worldwide that every pregnancy is a cause for cheer for the prospective parents.
It snubs its nose at intrusive relatives who bombard married youngsters with that clichéd question: “When are you giving us good news?”
Since no conservative in India views a pregnancy for an unmarried woman as “good news”, in a sense Palathara has limited himself by not writing his leads as a married couple, but this loss pales in the face of the remarkable stand he takes with his choice of English title.
The Joyful Mystery is not a translation of the Malayalam Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam. It is a reference to the “joyful mysteries” of the rosary recited by Catholics, that cover significant episodes—some mythical, some historical—in Jesus’ life. Among these is the Angel Gabriel informing Mary that she was set to be the mother of Jesus, the Son of God.
Mary was unmarried at the time. Her pregnancy has been spun in Christian lore as the ultimate blessing bestowed on her, and she is revered as the epitome of obedience to her Lord.
It’s not as if Mary had a choice though in this mythology around the birth of Jesus. But for 2,000 years, the faithful have ignored her lack of agency in that legend and the uncomfortable truth that a pregnancy would have been a terrifying prospect for a single woman two millennia back.
The film’s English title thus defies the Christian establishment by implying that Mary’s pregnancy was only as “joyful” as the present-day Maria’s suspected pregnancy is. As Palathara puts it, “This is my modern version of the Biblical story, or rather the opposite version of it. Here the joyous moment comes from the knowledge that Maria is not pregnant.”
The Malayalam Film Industry as a Microcosm of Malayali Society
These films, primarily Sara’s, have led to an animated debate in Kerala, including a video by a priest narrating his vision for Sara’s Part 2 in which an elderly Sara struggles because she has no children to look after her. The comments below the video on YouTube underline the director Jude’s point that the overall response to the film has been far more favourable than he expected.
“I was expecting a 60-40 ratio of negative to positive,” he said laughing, during a telephone interview. “But the actual public reaction to Sara’s has been the opposite–80% support, 20% criticism.”
Jude’s experience mirrors actor-producer and WCC founder member Rima Kallingal’s contention that Malayali viewers deserve credit for Malayalam cinema’s progressive ideas despite the confusing co-existence of patriarchal and liberal values in Malayali society at large and in the film industry.
“This small state has always tried to be ahead of the game in gender issues, and I feel we owe this, I wouldn’t just say to education, but to this universal knowledge pool that even women have access to, the fact that most women here are educated, aware of what’s happening around the world, aware of their rights,” said the award-winning artiste. “This kind of cinema has an audience because these women want to see themselves represented on screen. They have a say in general and a say in which movies they watch.”
Another factor Kallingal cited was an ongoing fiercely feminist movement on Malayali social media that has zero tolerance for sexism and patriarchy, with women online discussing even the slightest slight unrelentingly (here and here).
Parallel to this reality though is another that she also acknowledges: the minuscule number of women writers, producers and directors in the industry.
“Even movies with strong female protagonists like Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam and Sara’s are written and directed by men,” she said ruefully. “As of now, even that is a step ahead, but I’m waiting to see these women characters represented on screen by women filmmakers with the lived experiences of pregnancy, failed relationships and so on.” Kallingal herself is currently working towards writing and direction.
In this matter too, an unprecedented response to a disturbing situation has come from within the state itself. In 2019, the Kerala government allocated Rs 3 crore in its annual Budget for films to be directed by women. In 2020, the scheme was extended, with Rs 6 crore being set aside for four films, two by women and two by members of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes.
Coincidentally, Sara’s and Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam are making news at the same time as the anti-abortion position taken by Mimi from the Hindi film industry a.k.a. Bollywood.
Women’s reproductive rights are largely anathema to Bollywood, which has more women (still a minuscule number, but notably larger) writing, producing and directing films than in Mollywood. While most Hindi films ignore the subject, in Laxman Utekar’s Mimi—a remake of the 2011 Marathi film Mala Aai Vhhaychy!—Kriti Sanon stars as a surrogate mother who delivers a monologue on her disapproval of abortion.
In Seema Pahwa’s Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi this January, Konkona Sensharma played a difficult wife whose reconciliation with her considerate husband was preceded by an apology for acts unspecified—the ambiguity in her words left viewers free to assume, if they were thus inclined, that she regretted having undergone an abortion earlier in their marriage.
Spreading Awareness About the MTP Act and More Through Films
Sara’s may have faced some flak, but since the criticism has been democratic and the support enthusiastic, it has led to considerable awareness-building.
The director himself said he was unfamiliar with the nitty-gritty of the MTP Act till he received the script by Akshay Hareesh. “We’ve never discussed the MTP Act in school,” said Anna. “I came to know that it is legit when the discussion on Sara’s happened seriously. I’ve heard about the Act, but I had to confirm all that I’d heard before joining this project and I was surprised, because though I knew abortion is legal in India, I thought you can only get one when the mother’s life is threatened by the pregnancy at an early stage. I didn’t know her well-being or her decision are taken into consideration. I didn’t know a woman had that choice.”
Beyond the obvious pro-choice messaging in Sara’s are the religious identity of the heroine and her gynaecologist who is her ally—they are Christian and Muslim respectively, in an India where even liberals are under the misconception that Muslim and Christian conservatives alone oppose choice. In fact, conservatives in all major world religions tend to be anti-abortion and/or anti-choice; and media archives tell us that abortion has been common among Kerala’s Catholics for a while now.
When asked if he made Dr Hafees a Muslim to counter the nationwide prejudice that Muslims have more children than other religious groups, Jude said he did not—this implication is a collateral benefit of his commitment to ensuring minority representation in cinema.
“When I do a film, I intentionally feature characters from all religions. I want my movies to be human-oriented, so I make some characters Christian, some Hindu, some Muslim, since they too live in this country without anybody saying their religion,” he explained. “I never mention the person’s religion, I just want to make it normal, to show that it is normal in India to be a friend of a Muslim or have a Muslim doctor.”
The assumption that only Muslims and Christians are anti-choice was subtly nixed by the Malayalam short Aval (2020), produced and co-written by a medical professional, Dr Veena J.S. In the film, the protagonist who wishes to terminate her pregnancy is Christian; the junior doctors at the clinic who back her are Muslim, as are a couple who ask for an abortion.
In the absence of definitive indicators, one assumes the sindoor-wearing senior doctor who refuses to conduct abortions is from the majority community, thus standing the prevalent stereotype on its head.
Feminism Vs Patriarchy in Indian Cinema
This is not to suggest that Malayalam cinema is uniformly broad-minded or well-informed. On the contrary, commercial men-centric Malayalam films are routinely regressive. Even in Mahesh Narayanan’s otherwise brilliant feminist film Take Off (2017), when the heroine (Parvathy Thiruvothu) wants an abortion and her husband declares that he will not give his “consent”, her doctor does not correct him, thus perpetuating the impression that his consent is needed. Fact: under the MTP Act, it is not.
Sara’s and Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam are not flawless either. Sara’s, for one, seems to be compensating for its bold pro-choice, pro-women stand by playing into the conventional social notion that those who decide to be parents have picked the toughest of callings available to humankind, one that requires a “divine talent” as Dr Hafees put it.
Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam, among other things, paints Maria as an unreasonable person who even hits Jitin, while it appears to demand that Jitin must have empathy for her. Palathara disagrees with this criticism of their characterisation.
“For me, Jitin being laidback is not equality, it’s privilege. He can do that because as a man, the pregnancy doesn’t affect his body, it affects hers,” the director said. “Definitely Maria is more worried and expresses her worry not in the conventional way of a soft crying woman.”
Palathara insisted that Maria is not impossible, she is assertive. “She constantly asks Jitin assertively what she needs and how she needs it. She asks because she sees it as a collective problem,” he said. “Jitin tries to find a solution, but his approach is to evade this problem itself.”
“That’s only because he has the freedom to do that,” Palathara added. “And they are not married so, socially also, he’s not bound that much. He has the option to run away if he wants. For her the problem is more real.”
There is not enough space for a more detailed critique of Sara’s and Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam in this write-up (you can read my reviews here and here), but any faults in these films are overshadowed by the anti-abortion stand taken by Mimi, which, to be fair, is small change compared to the 2018 Tamil film Diya earlier called Karu (Embryo) and released simultaneously in Telugu as Kanam.
In Diya, Sai Pallavi plays a woman who gets pregnant with her boyfriend and is deceived into undergoing an abortion by members of both their families and a doctor friend. This criminal act is conflated with legal abortions by text on screen in the end “dedicating this film to all unborn lives” and offering statistics on abortion in India. In the story that plays out in between, the karu returns as a ghost murdering those responsible for terminating the pregnancy.
Although the film bats for an embryo’s rights, it is telling that the spirit is not portrayed as an actual embryo–instead, it is a walking, talking five-year-old called Diya played by an actor incidentally with light skin that fits the Indian standard for female beauty. No pro-choice advocate in the world has ever asked for the right to extinguish a five-year-old’s life, but the anti-choice advocate in writer-director A.L. Vijay needed the image of a five-year-old to convince the audience that the embryo is a life.
Meanwhile, despite all its failings, the best of Mollywood regularly plunges headlong into women’s emancipation including, just this year, with The Great Indian Kitchen, Biriyaani, Sara’s, Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam and Chathur Mukham.
This truth leaves Anna Ben as perplexed by the Kerala conundrum as veteran observers. “Patriarchy is very real in Kerala, we face it every day,” she said, “but I think as strong as the opposition we face is the pushback from us. We have a lot of strong women around, and people support us.” That pushback includes women demanding the kind of cinema they wish to see, and not resting till they get what they want.
(Anna M.M. Vetticad specialises in the intersection of cinema and socio-political concerns. She is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic.)