Films have, over the years, become more about inclusivity, but when you think of the cavity that exists in the matter of roles written for women in South Indian cinema, it’s still a big one. Writers and directors are, even today, making movies where leading women are just there to be wooed — and cooed to — in songs. Although there’s another time to bicker about it, here’s a list of some films where women’s stories are told unabashedly.
Oh! Baby (Telugu, 2019)
Oh! Baby is a remake of Miss Granny, a Korean film. But when you watch the Telugu version, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the adaptation. Director BV Nandini Reddy doesn’t tune out any of the emotional beats and makes sure that the original’s spirit is left untouched. Therefore, what you get is a powerful performance from Lakshmi as a 70-year-old grandmother who complains about women to the men in her family. And later, Samantha walks in her footsteps as the 24-year-old ‘Baby’ and charms her way through the young-and-old folks and makes her mark as a singer. This is a movie about second chances and unknotting the threads of patriarchy. It does it sweetly and humorously, and sometimes even mischievously.
Magalir Mattum (Tamil, 1994)
There’s a scene in the second season of Netflix’s Sex Education where a teacher throws a challenge to a few teen-aged girls by telling them to find out what binds them together as women. The girls, who belong to different friend-groups, at first, find it hard to pick something that they all agree about. But soon, they open up about the various ways in which they were sexually harassed — each one has a story to tell. And thus emerges the bottom line, which a character tells the teacher, “other than non-consensual penises, Miss, not much.” This seems to be the binding factor in Magalir Mattum, as well. The Tamil film doesn’t deal with penises directly, but Nasser plays a general manager who generally molests women. This gives room for three women — played by Urvashi, Rohini, and Revathy — to cook up plans to stay-and-slay together. It’s a comedy where tragedies are thoroughly mined
Take Off (Malayalam, 2017)
Sameera (Parvathy Thiruvothu) has to face opposition from her in-laws initially, as she wakes up, gets ready, and goes to work in the morning unlike other women in her family. Her orthodox and patriarchal family members think that women belong inside the boundaries of a house. Sameera doesn’t have time to pay heed to their murmurs as she has made several plans already. Nevertheless, when she actually gets what she wants, she has to start afresh as she becomes a single mother. After marrying her co-worker and moving to a war-torn country to earn more money, her husband gets kidnapped by terrorists and she gets ready to move the mountains to get him back from their clutches. The film, which is based on true events, will unsettle you and give you a glimpse of the true power of love.
Mozhi (Tamil, 2007)
Mozhi was a rage when it was released and if you’re familiar with the qualities of a regular Tamil film, you’ll know why. Many actors have a penchant to play characters with disabilities, but, sometimes, they go overboard and make it difficult for us to connect to their performances. Jyothika, while channeling her inner Chandramukhi whenever she gets angry, smiles like a child throughout the run time, otherwise, since her friends keep her happy. And she steals the scenes as a deaf-mute woman who navigates through the muddy waters of romance and reconciliation. Her real fear is that her kid might also turn out to be like her and there are a truck load of trust issues as her father turned his back on her when she was young. By unburdening her heart slowly, Archana (Jyothika) learns to accept new things in her life.
Mahanati (Telugu, 2018)
A young girl becomes a star in Telugu and Tamil cinema, and, as her popularity rises, a man begins to shower her with attention and love. She knows that he’s whirlpooling her with mere poetic gazes and cheesy lines, but her love for him seems to shoot only upward. And when she realizes that he’s already married, she gets the shock of her life, but that’s not enough for her to draw a line between them. This biopic, based on real-life yesteryear actor Savitri’s ups and downs in her personal-and-professional life, hits too close to home as the story could have very well been about any woman from any part of the world. Keerthy Suresh’s portrayal of the Mahanati (The Great Female Actor) leaves us with abundant tears, questions, and, maybe some fears, too, since we’ll never be able to fully accommodate the people we love in our hearts without harboring suspicions about them.
Uyare (Malayalam, 2019)
When a woman’s boyfriend says that he doesn’t like the dress she’s wearing for a college cultural event, you know that he’s trying to police her. At every juncture, in Uyare, Govind (Asif Ali) tries to make Pallavi (Parvathy Thiruvothu) feel small in front of others. He belittles her achievements and acts as a wounded animal when she refuses to engage in a conversation with him. These basic signs are important since they carry the film forward. Govind goes as far as cutting his wrist in a scene and then plays the victim card; however, he doesn’t show an iota of regret after throwing acid on her face. He is under the impression that she brought it upon herself and the more disturbing aspect of it all is that he says he can’t get a job offer because there’s a police case against him. This is the kind of film that’ll make you go,
Nathicharami (Kannada, 2018)
Can a widow have sexual desires? Can a woman sleep with a man without getting married to him? And can a woman work peacefully without her boss asking her if she wants to go on a holiday with him? Gowri (Sruthi Hariharan) looks angry, disappointed, and hurt for a large chunk of the movie. You don’t have to look for an Easter egg there as the dialogues make it clear that the men around her — including her father — are judging her actions constantly. The man she kind of likes, Suresh (Sanchari Vijay), treats her nicely, but he’s a misogynist himself as he doesn’t appreciate his own wife. He sweet-talks his way into others’ shoulders pretty quickly, but, when it comes to the woman he’s married to, he takes her for granted. Again, this is a film that asks many questions and gives only a few answers, not all.
Many newly married women have dreams — men also have dreams, but that’s for another story. In Ottamuri Velicham, a wife (played by Vinitha Koshy) suffers at the hands of her husband day and night. She doesn’t know whom to turn to for help. All the sources seem to be blocked for her and she receives no godly message as her husband acts as though he owns her. This sensitive story of marital rape is told deliriously and the light in the room — as the title says — is a great figure of imagination that stands for the film’s message. Also, it’s not just the husband who harasses the woman. Her brother-in-law, too, wants a piece of her. These troubling ideas stay true to the realities that keep unfolding around us and it makes us question the authenticity behind the free hand that men get in all sorts of relationships.
Shuddhi (Kannada, 2017)
With the amount of hatred that the right-wing political parties are pumping towards the ‘others’ in this day and age, in the West and in India, there’s no doubt about the WhatsApp University getting more popular in the coming years. Shuddhi doesn’t tackle all the problems at once, but it picks a couple of incidents that have rattled the state of Karnataka and fictionalized them. The reason I say right-wing is because of the moral policing that it’s associated with. Violence is not a joke and Shuddhi definitely knows in which direction it should go. What could have been narrated as a straightforward tale of revenge is twisted into a non-linear screenplay with thrills placed at many junctures. And like Ottamuri Velicham, Shuddhi is not an easy film to watch and digest. It’ll take a lot of time for you to come out of it.
Helen (Malayalam, 2019)
The opening credits of Helen show an ant carelessly enjoying the perks of its littleness by running around all over the house occupied by its eponymous protagonist (played by Anna Ben) and her father (played by Lal). Unfortunately, though, the ant soon falls into a tray of water that’s being put in the refrigerator. And the streak of bad luck doesn’t stop there as the water slowly turns into ice. These brilliantly written scenes are visual metaphors for what’s going to happen to Helen later. She, too, like the ant, is going to struggle to keep herself alive in a cold storage room after being accidentally locked in. She stays there for nearly five hours and follows every trick in the book to not lose any hope. The doctor, who treats her towards the end of the film, is surprised that she withstood the cold for such a long time and throws in the verdict by calling her a strong girl.