As a queer person who grew up in a Malayali household, there always existed an angst inside of me, to see people like myself on the silver screen. Visibility and representation matters to someone who feels like they have no models to look up to. And while I wasn’t oh-so-proud of the Mammootty-Mohanlal duopoly, where all major releases had one of the two actors, and persisted for the longest time in the Malayalam film industry, I was always told that Malayalis tend to hold their cinema in high esteem.
It took a long time to understand why that is so but for me it was about searching for that kind of inclusivity that mainstream cinema tends to leave out when it comes to alternate genders and sexuality.
The good news is, I found a couple of films that have sufficient queerness in them for the gay boy in me to get all hyper. The bad news is, it’s not enough. But for anyone looking to discover these secrets of good ‘ol Malayalam cinema, here are a few of my choicest picks:
Arguably considered to be the first ever Indian film to deal with a lesbian romance, it was released 20 years before Deepa Mehta’s “Fire” (1998) that has come to occupy a larger share of the limelight.
Literally meaning “two girls”, this film was based on the eponymous 1974 novel by Malayalam writer V T Nandakumar. In the film, Kokila, a high school senior, is madly in love with her beautiful junior, Girija, the dancer. The latter is showered with gifts from the former and she even makes it clear as to what kind of a relationship she is looking for. While Girija is flattered, she is not interested and is, instead, charmed by a dashing photographer (a guy). The depiction of Kokila as this crazy possessive vamp is shown when she does all that she can to make sure men stay away from her love by planting false stories and rumours about her.
Although the ending is quite predictable with Girija getting married to a man, it reads as a comment on how lesbian representation in cinema ends with a character realising the error of her ways and her ‘indiscretions’ are passed off as a ‘phase during teenage years’ and that getting married to a man is the best course of action.
A personal favourite of mine, the title means “The Migratory Bird Never Cries”, because like migratory birds, the young women in this film aren’t obliged to be attached to a world in which they don’t think they fit in, and so they fly away.
This movie is far more subtle in its expression of romance between the two leading women (even referred to as ‘womance‘). The plot revolves around the two, and their life in a boarding school, and how they decide to just leave town (dare I say elope) during a school trip to get away from their troubled families and an annoying teacher. There seems to be quite a few parallels with the film “Thelma and Louise”, (which would release five years later) , but while Thelma & Louise’s relationship never seemed to be homoerotic in nature, this film is beautifully homoerotic.
It is interesting to note that when this movie was initially released, it was marketed as a film showcasing a close friendship. But it is the shared glances and the physical closeness (not intimacy in its strictest sense) that is palpable with its coded caresses, that has provided fodder for queer readings over the years by filmgoers leading to this film gaining cult status. However, unlike “Randu Penkuttikal”, it is left to the viewers to take away from what they think of the relationship portrayed in this film.
However, the entry of the uninvited heterosexual man (with whom one of the girls fall in love with) is a recurring trope that drives a wedge between the lead characters of “Deshadanakkili”, and one of the last lines that they share is when one tells the other, “After all these years, you haven’t understood me.” Clearly, the filmmaker moulds these characters to push beyond the politically correct endings that society would have in store for women their age.
It was in 2004 that this movie, meaning“The Journey”, dealt openly with lesbian love and not just homoeroticism.
Starting with exchanging love letters, Kiran, having realised her ‘unconventional’ love for Delilah, has to voice her affection through a boy who is infatuated with Delilah, and delivers the letters to her as his words and his thoughts. Delilah, after realising the true source of those warm words, begins a delicate affair with Kiran.
What struck me the most was the representation of the intimacy that they share in this movie. Through conventionally romantic gestures and an exchange of a kiss, the intimacy that this couple shares is shown as not alien to heterosexual couples – normalised to an extent, until one day, the boy encounters them sharing an intimate moment and informs the respective parents.
While Delilah is married off, it is Kiran who comes out as a lesbian and is shown as the rebellious character – but there is a clear departure from the ‘vamp’ trope that easily becomes a part of these narratives. The depiction of how caste and religion intersect to tear Kiran and Delilah apart is significant for its almost accurate portrayal of Hindu casteism and conservative Christian principles respectively – which also makes this a must-watch for its real-life portrayal of such a delicate situation.
While this film does not have queer women being forced into marriage, it does show the relationship between two gay men. This couple, looks at the concept and the institution of marriage as an exclusive space in which they even don’t even want to belong. The theme of them just having each other is symbolic of how queer love is pushed away to fend for itself but it stays away from the angle of hopelessness. However, not even their love for each other can circumvent cisgender heteronormative marriage if they want a child. Therefore, one is forced by the other to marry a girl so that they can have a child together.
But there seems to be an allusion to male privilege that isn’t bound to the same patriarchal norms as women are. They are not necessarily powerless in the sense that they aren’t forced by their respective families to get married. They are educated and have jobs making them financially independent, perhaps why they are shown as capable of ‘conning’ an orphan girl. On the other hand, seen as the powerful sex, the film portrays how gay men are looked down upon for not exercising their conventional position of power (while for women, homosexual love is seen as a means of acquiring sexual power).
From all my movie watching, a few things struck me about these films dealing with alternate sexualities. When it comes to representing lesbian love, there is a running theme of the uninvited heterosexual cisgender man who comes to ruin it for the lovers, while bringing the patriarchy with him. The sanitation of queer love as a ‘phase’ in “Randu Penkuttikal” is not something new. Despite the evident tropes, for a film released in 1978, it sure was groundbreaking to say the least. As for “Deshadanakkili Karayaarilla”, the ending was far more dark, as the lovers chose suicide over giving into a hegemony that doesn’t allow for them to be with each other the way that they desire.
But what keeps “Sancharam” in a class of its own is the ending in which it doesn’t resort to belittling the experience that they shared (like in “Randu Penkuttikal”), the helplessness that they are faced with, or the extreme depression that possibly lies ahead (like in “Deshadanakkili Karayaarilla”). Instead, there is a strong sense of hope, a note on which the film ends, perhaps indicative of how queer love must thrive in India.
It is great to see that long before Bollywood got onto this bandwagon, Malayalam cinema had a clear head start portraying love of different kinds, subtle or not. Good on regional cinema!