The evolution of the ‘female cop’ in Malayalam cinema has seen the character shed their stereotyped image and acquire much grit.
Malayalam films have online streaming platforms to thank for their growing popularity. With Fahadh Faasil (Joji), Roshan Mathew (C U Soon), Soubin Shahir (Android Kunjappan), and Anna Ben (Kappela) headlining some of the most acclaimed films, it’s safe to say that Mollywood is surely witnessing a renaissance-of-sorts.
But looking back, till a decade ago, most Malayalam films were testosterone-fueled, misogynistic nightmares. A trope that bore most of the brunt during this era was that of the ‘female police officer’ who was a little more than an extra, tossed into the film for comic relief. A common fixture, the character was invariably reduced to an insignificant prop, often shadowed by the larger-than-life hero. Many films such as Praja and Kasaba even made light of scenes which would today be considered appalling. For instance, there are scenes in both these films which portrayed a female cop being physically harassed by the lead and were only intended for comic relief. But this has changed in recent years as the industry has witnessed a revival as is evident from the female police characters played by Lena (Spirit), Asha Sarath (Drishyam), Unnimaya Prasad (Anjaam Pathiraa) and Yama Gilgamesh (Nayattu). These fierce female onscreen characters have proven that gender is inconsequential and have effectively portrayed capable and unswerving officers of the law.
Film critic Vishal Menon believes that films such as Chathurangham (2002) is a prime example of toxic masculinity being glorified at the expense of these female characters. “There is a song in that movie where Mohanlal’s character is ridiculing Nagama’s character, her uniform, and making fun of how she’s easily riled,” says Menon. The entire movie, in fact, leans on the theme of glorifying sexual harassment. There is another scene in the same film, where the lead character tries to get back at the police officer by grabbing her in a hotel room and invites the paparazzi to take pictures of the incident. Menon also points out that in these films, the female cops inevitably fall for the hero, despite all the objectionable scenes that transpire between the two through the film.
The first sign of this change was witnessed in Ranjith’s Spirit, (2010). The film starring Mohanlal, introduced a new kind of female top cop through Lena’s portrayal of ACP Supriya Raghavan. It was the first time a female cop was seen performing action scenes and even confronting the lead with much conviction.
“The very intro of the police officer, where she’s seen in plain clothes and not wearing her uniform, was surprising for audiences. Until then, Malayalam cinema had made the uniform as the projection point and not the character,” explains Lena, who has often essayed a female cop in several films in the last decade.
“In the ‘90s and 2000s, the lady police officers had to perform extravagant stunts. It was all for the glamour associated with the character, it was very unrealistic. But following Spirit, these characters were written in a way to seem more authentic. I have signed a film with Raheem Khader (writer and filmmaker), who is a police officer himself. It is about a day inside a police station and packs every nitty-gritty,” adds the multiple award winning actress.
Lena also explains how discrimination in real and reel life faced by female police officers has been on the decline of late. Having worked with female police officers as part of a self-defense training camp for women gave her a lot of insight about female officers in the force. “They mentioned that the sub-inspector level has a large female representation. Now, they are trained together with the men, which wasn’t the case earlier,” she explains. When quizzed about how recent films like Nayattu portray a female top cop as someone who drinks or smokes, she reasons that it could be an attempt to fit these characters into a man’s world. “None of the lady police officers I know smoke or drink. They are regular women, who actually lead a difficult life, as they are expected to be homemakers as well as working almost 24 hours per day like doctors,” says Lena.
The influence films have on society cannot be understated. The actress believes that cinema is a bridge for society and is influential in helping one form opinions, process, understand and accept situations in life . “Do you know any real-life gangsters? Most of us don’t know, but when someone says ‘gangsters’ we have several references of that gangster or this don based on films,” she says, adding, “Cinema has a huge responsibility; we create these pictures in people’s minds and also influence their decisions in life. Even relationships, for instance, for years, were based on the Bollywood template.”
Bina Paul, a film editor who has held several positions such as vice-chairperson of Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, a senior member of the Women’s Collective in Cinema, and artistic director of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) believes that despite all the change and evolution that the construct of a lady cop has undergone, there is still room for improvement. “There has been a change. I feel that in recent films, the woman police officer has become more powerful. But the problem is they follow the tropes associated with the male version of what represents power – to be [seen as] strong, one must walk in a certain way. Women police officers do not have to be [portrayed] like that. The gender has changed, but the idea of the police remains the same. It is that of being in a position of power which is misused and punctuated by aggression and violence,” explains Paul.
Paul alludes to actress Vani Vishwanath who, she feels, was often typecast as a female cop in Malayalam films but was rarely ever assigned a role of much consequence. And even in the handful of films where her character was written with some heft, it was invariably peripheral to the film’s central plot. “Today, there is a streak of violence in many of these characters, particularly in films such as Drishyam. But I think more than a gender role, it has to do with the role of the police in society. The police represent the state, and the state represents a sort of violent intrusion,” says Paul, who feels there’s scope for more nuanced female characters in films.
Menon, Lena, and Paul all share the opinion that there has been a noticeable change in how these characters are written and perceived by audiences today. Lena summarises this change by paraphrasing from Yuval Noah Harai’s Sapiens, “The world over human beings learn from stories.” Menon asserts that a true renaissance in Malayalam cinema would be when a mainstream blockbuster such as Lucifer would embrace this change.