Aavesham, Manjummel Boys, and Bramayugam succeeding with few or no female characters at a time when Malayalee actors Kani Kusruthi and Divya Prabha hogged headlines at Cannes for All We Imagine As Light had triggered a debate among Kerala’s movie lovers about the underrepresentation of women in Mollywood.

But new films, which include Christo Tomy’s Ullozhukku, with Urvashi and Parvathy Thiruvothu in the lead roles, Sajin Baabu’s Theatre: The Myth of Reality, starring Rima Kallingal, and Amal Neerad’s Bougainvillea that sees the return of Jyothirmayi after 11 years, reveal that women power is back in Malayalam cinema.

Ullozhukku, directed by the man who helmed Curry and Cyanide, the Netflix docu-series based on the Jolly Joseph murder case, will be the first off the block.

The absence of female characters in Malayalam films is not a new phenomenon.

“Women have not received equal representation in Malayalam cinema for several decades. However, the popularity of several films that show male bonding and friendship without a significant female character triggered a conversation about the portrayal of women in films on social media, ” said movie critic GP Ramachandran.

The disparity has been there ever since the beginning.

Deedi Damodharan, a Malayalam screenwriter, blamed it on men feeling threatened.

“It was reflected in the recently-concluded general elections as well. When the men make the decisions, they make sure that their interests are protected. At least some filmmakers decided to exclude women from their projects when they began to question and stop compromising,” she said.

Ramachandran echoed what Deedi said.

“In the post-WCC (Women in Cinema Collective) era, people thoroughly scrutinise political correctness in every aspect. So, to avoid controversy, some directors are taking a safer way, that is, excluding female characters,” he noted.

But according to writer CS Chandrika, the marginalisation of women in Malayalam films is only a recent phenomenon.

“We had women actors like Jayabharathi and Sheela who acted shoulder to shoulder with the male actors in the film. However, at some point, the trend changed. After the success of Manjummel Boys and Aavesham, there was a discussion about the underrepresentation of women in cinema. It is good that the audience is noticing and criticising the absence of women in cinema,” she said.

Deedi felt that with “the emergence of social media, where there is no censorship, people can question and open a discussion. It has made institutions, organisations, and even individuals accountable. Women have the potential, and we saw two Malayalam actors at Cannes.”

Ramachandran, who had earlier mentioned the flip side, also spoke of the benefits the launch of the WCC has brought about.

“When female artists formed a collective and started speaking up for their rights, we saw the system becoming more inclusive. The new directors are also more sensible and inclusive and try to give equal importance to male and female characters,” the movie critic observed.

Sajin Baabu, the director of the upcoming movie Theatre, highlighted a few female-oriented films from the recent past to stress that the stretch was not all barren.

“We have seen a few female-oriented films like Uyare, 22 Female Kottayam, and Biriyani, which I directed. These films need to be watched and celebrated more by the audience. Ours is a patriarchal society. We need to change the system, and it will take some time for the audience to accept the change. We have evolved and will evolve,” he said.

Chandrika was hopeful. “We will see more women in cinema because we have a lot of talented women in cinema. Also, there is a revival in women being active in their field, not just in cinema. The discussions after the success of films portraying male bonding can also help in bringing about a change.”

It will help if the audience voted for the new films with their wallet, everyone agreed.

“Recently, we saw how audiences celebrate. Such support should be given to films directed by women and films with women in relevant roles. Whether the female actors have a prominent role in the film can only be analysed after watching the films. Yet it is good that actors like Parvathy, Rima, and Jyothirmayi are returning,” said Ramachandran.

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