Last Updated: 11.52 AM, Jul 07, 2021
The newly released Malayalam film Sara’s features Anna Ben in the titular role as a woman who’s made a decision to not have children. While the film has sparked some much-needed dialogue on child-free women and bodily autonomy, once you peel back the layers, patriarchy shines through.
Let’s begin at the end, with the most jarring scene in the film. A character we’re introduced to earlier, Lisi, is seen in her house “fighting back” against her husband’s advances. This is a woman who has just given birth to her fourth child due to her “inability” to stop her husband earlier—she is a victim of marital rape. The film plays her story for laughs.
We see her first at the hospital during Sara’s first visit to the gynaecologist. Her characterisation is such that the audience knows she is from a lower class and, perhaps, caste. She is well into a pregnancy and seen sitting with another young child. The exhaustion is visible on her face. In contrast to the caring and understanding doctor that Sara is met with, Lisi is made fun of and looked down upon. He chides her for the number of children she has and scolds her for not listening when he asked her to stop with the previous pregnancy.
The soft-spoken Lisi, instead of being made aware of the options of birth control or being offered the counselling session given to the her more privileged counterpart, is met with condescension from the doctor. When she says that her husband is the one responsible, he makes fun of her: “Aren’t you the one who should be making decisions?” he asks. It’s all written and played out in a humorous manner that makes light of the plight of many women, not just across the state but also the country. The doctor doesn’t direct her to a psychologist, doesn’t explain her rights to her. All he does is scold her for not standing up for herself. But she is not provided with the means to do so.
The last scene is framed as a triumph, but it comes across as a caricature. Lisi, now having given birth to her fourth child, is woken up by a screaming baby. She walks around her small room, which houses all six members of her family, as she puts him to sleep. Once she lies back down, the camera moves to her husband and the typical comedic background music starts playing. He turns and it’s revealed to be Aju Varghese, an actor known for his comedy, another moment put in for laughs. We see him lusting after his wife and making a move on her, all while a Looney Toons-like tune plays in the back. As he touches her, she kicks him away. This push is framed as a victory, one that the director wants the audience to clap for. With no conversation on marital rape and no conversation on the man’s role in contraception, this woman is left to fend for herself while taking care of four children.
But that’s not all. As noted by a friend during a conversation, even Sara’s independence, her strength and her feminism are credited to her father. Her mother is just there, existing in the background as nothing more than a nagging voice. He’s the quintessential cool dad, the one who’s fine with his daughter dating, supports her passions and stands by her no matter what: an ideal father. While that’s great, in a film about motherhood or the lack of an inclination towards it, her mother is reduced to a forgettable side role.
Even her “progressive” father is not all that progressive when it comes to marriage. The twenty-five-year-old Sara is already running behind schedule, he says. He gives her a six-month deadline to find a boy or have one chosen for her. In typical “cool dad” fashion, he allows her to extend this deadline, but marriage is never off the table and there is a constant pressure to find someone before it’s “too late”.
And when she does find someone, Jeevan, she’s convinced to marry him almost immediately. They go on a trip together and get stuck there overnight. Jeevan’s mother tells her son to be “wary” of Sara, as if the thirty-two-year-old man-child would be corrupted by a twenty-five-year-old. They are confronted by her once they’re back. She assumes that they have had sex and immediately initiates the conversation of marriage. Sara doesn’t want to: she doesn’t want to bring the family into their relationship yet. She wants two more years, but Jeevan wants to please his mother. He tells her that two years is too long, his mother would have him married off to someone else by then. Sara resists, but Jeevan convinces her it’s not a big deal. He wants to be with her but he wants to please his mother. In the end, his mother’s pressure makes the decision for them.
The only agency Sara has is of whether she wants children. Even that is questioned multiple times in the film, not just by others but by Sara as well. It is only when she is validated by her father’s support that she goes ahead with her initial decision to abort the accidental pregnancy.
Another area she controls is her career. In the beginning, we see her notebook, where she keeps a list of actors that she won’t cast in her film. She notes down the name of one person who didn’t cooperate with the director. She is shown as a meticulous researcher with an eye for detail, someone who would want to have final say on everything that goes into her film. But as time goes by we see her slowly lose that agency as well. The most obvious is when she agrees to cast an actor with a similar temperament to one she put on her no-go list. She is rushed into the decision by the producer: she barely even gets a word in during the meeting. It was all decided for her. The film brushes past this. There is no acknowledgment by the makers or the character.
When it is first revealed to Jeevan’s family that Sara doesn’t want to carry children, it a result of a quip from Sara in response to a comment body-shaming her. She is seen as too thin to carry a child, not fit to be a mother. After her big reveal, Jeevan’s mother acts as if she has been betrayed. She calls out to Sara’s father and accuses him of burdening his son with a woman who can’t give birth. Instead of standing by Sara, all the family members comfort the mother. They say that this will all change in a few years. This is after Sara has asserted her decision.
Another grouse I have with the film is Jeevan and his U-turn on who gets to have a say in the pregnancy. When it is first revealed to Jeevan’s family that the newlyweds don’t want children, Jeevan says that the final decision rests with Sara. He even stands up to his mother. But later, even though Sara had explained to him why she didn’t want children, it took the advice of another man, their doctor, for Jeevan to come around.
The progressive central plot is surrounded by a whole bunch of rotten writing. While these flaws are distracting, it is undeniable that the film has opened up the forum for further conversation. Hopefully, more people will carry it forward.