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Between Inquiry and Polemic

M.K. Raghavendra

By Meena T. Pillai
Oriental Blackswan, 2010, pp. 242, price not stated.


Academic publishing on cinema in India has seen a boom in the past decade or so but, by and large, it is Bollywood that gets most of the attention. The ‘minority cinemas’ in India—especially films in the regional languages—receive less thought and this is unfortunate—considering that understanding Bollywood gives us little purchase on the cultural significance of something like Malayalam cinema. Kerala is widely regarded as having produced some of the most noteworthy films in India but there has been little critical literature in English about Malayalam cinema although there is apparently some local writing which is not translated. The arrival of Women in Malayalam Cinema: Naturalising Gender Hierarchies is welcome because we now have some serious critical literature on Malayalam cinema in English even if the volume announces that it is looking at its subject entirely from the viewpoint of feminism and feminist theory. Critical anthologies are not always reliable because they are often byproducts of hastily convened seminars but the volume under review evidently has a sharp focus. Film theorists and academics writing on Indian cinema have not always distinguished themselves by their clarity but the essays are cogently written and this is no small relief. Writers like C.S. Venkiteswaran and V.C. Harris (who contribute to the volume) are not given to obfuscation but here this is true of the other contributors as well. The ‘naturalizing gender hierarchies’ in the subtitle suggests a polemical purpose and a disapproval of Malayalam cinema’s patriarchal tendencies and the erudite introduction by Meena Pillai begins by castigating it for its disinclination to ‘represent women’s experiences from their varied and different social locations.’ A feminist perspective on a regional cinema could easily become too broad and applicable to every other kind of cinema in India but the introduction demonstrates that Kerala is a specific case where the woman’s position has not kept pace with the general progress—as indicated by the social development indices. While on the one hand Malayalam cinema was, from the time of its inception, strongly rooted in contemporary social reality and took on issues like caste and feudal oppression, it remained strangely mute on the question of women. The editor cites and briefly analyses a number of films but a surprising omission is Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Mathilukal (1993), which is based on a novella by Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. This film is set ...

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