Monday Malayalam: Zachariayude Garbhinikal, Misogyny is Alive and Well in God’s Own Country

Well, this is depressing!  I went for a new film, with Rima Kallingal, thinking I would be safe from that horrible strain of really gross misogyny that runs through Malayalam films.  But, no!  Still there!  Even in a film from 2014 with one of the strongest actresses working today.

I guess it’s all about balance.  Malayalam cinema has some of the most refreshing interesting strong feminist films in the world today.  So, naturally, it also has to have some of the most disgusting small minded films.  Versus, say, the Hindi industry which has everything sort of in the middle.  Or Telugu, which veers wildly scene by scene in the same films, terrible stalker romances combined with heroines who speak for themselves and confront the bad guys.

So if I think of this film as the price I have to pay for having 22 Female Kottayam, then maybe it is worth it.  The question being, are the same people who watch this movie also watching 22 Female Kottayam?  Or are they preferring to stay in their small world and small minds and avoid anything which might challenge their view of the world?

Image result for Zachariayude Garbhinikal poster

And it is such an ugly view!  This is a film about pregnancy and birth, and of course it is told through the eyes of a wise male gynecologist.  Because, as we all know, it is male doctors that know the most about pregnancy and birth.  They are the ones who control and guide the unruly pregnant women, making sure they successfully complete their duty of carrying the baby to term.  Telling them when they are and are not allowed to have abortions, what they are and are not allowed to eat, ordering them to be calm during birth and stop making so much noise, and of course doing the useful job of judging them for their morals in the decisions that lead to their pregnancy.

The women in this film are a little less than human.  Impulsive, amoral, unpredictable, no logic or consistency to them.  The film, and our “hero” Lal, make no effort to look for an emotional cause behind their behavior, any meaning to it.  They just do what they do because they are women, the best you can do is indulge them when they are silly, and hit them when they step out of line.

What makes it especially frustrating is that the 4 main women all have fascinating stories.  If only we had been allowed to get into their heads, to see their stories as, truly, THEIR stories, rather than merely experiences in the life of Lal.

 

 

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

 

 

 

 

Besides all the mysogyny, this is also just a bad movie.  Like, the plots are picked up and then dropped and then reappear and don’t make sense.  So instead of telling it like it is shown, I will tell it straight through.  Lal has 4 pregnant women in his life.  First an older nun who left her vocation, feeling the need for a baby, and has become pregnant thanks to Lal through artificial insemination.  Second, a young woman who is pregnant by her lover and planning to have the baby if her husband (who is very ill) dies, but abort the fetus if he survives since he will know it is not his.  Third, his nurse Rima Kallingal who is pretending to be pregnant in order to get better hours at work.  And fourth, a high school student who comes to him asking for help in finding adoptive parents for the child she is pregnant with, and Lal and his wife decide to adopt themselves.

Lal is introduced as a wonderful doctor who does not do abortions, or c-sections.  I realized as I was watching the film that both of those really mean he has decided what is best for the women coming to him, we are supposed to applaud him for controlling them and making sure they do “what’s best” instead of what they might actually want.  I know that abortions are a painful difficult thing, and that c-sections might be encouraged in India in order to needlessly drive up hospital bills and endanger the mother and child for no reason.  But they are also valid medical options that women might prefer for a variety of reasons, and doctors should not have the right to restrict them from them.  Certainly there should not be an across the board ban on the procedures just because it is what the doctor thinks is best with no consideration for individual circumstances.

Lal has a lot of opinions about what is best for all his pregnant women.  The older former Nun, he has the fewest opinions.  I guess because he approves of a woman who is giving in to her natural instinct for pregnancy and birth?  Although the film still punishes her, late in the film her baby dies, partly because she insists on only going to Lal for care instead of calling in a different doctor.  Oh, and of course her brother doesn’t approve of her giving birth and the real tragedy of her baby’s death is that her brother has started to come around and is now sad.  Yes yes, let us all cry for the sorrow of the middle-aged man, the deepest and truest of all sorrows, unlike the shallow unhappiness of a mother.

(Women doing what they are supposed to do, care for babies and be pregnant and listen to men)

His nurse, Lal has few opinions besides being extra nice to her and giving her vitamins and stuff.  But the film has ALL KINDS of opinions on her.  Rima is the nurse, and she manages to infuse some sense of interest and depth to her role, but she has to struggle to find it.  She’s a nurse who impulsively blurts out she’s pregnant (women=incapable of impulse control) and then goes with it because, I guess, she’s lazy?  And she enjoys skipping night duty and having an excuse to sit down and take breaks?  The real tragedy is, of course, the effect her lie has on the men around her, specifically Aju Varghese who is in love with her and ready to marry her and raise her child as his own.  There is no investigation of the idea that the only way a woman can get any basic consideration from others is to pretend to be pregnant, that the only hard luck story people will listen to is one that involves a baby.  Oh, and of course her happy ending is to be pregnant and married to Aju.  No, scratch that, we have no idea how Rima feels about this ending, we just know Aju is smiling and happy about it.  And isn’t that all that matters?  That the man is happy?

And then we get to the really tricky one.  Sandra Thomas, the married woman pregnant by her lover.  Whose character is some kind of cartoon nightmare version of a woman drawn by someone who has never met an actual human woman in the wild.  Or at least, has never taken the time to really get to know her.  Interestingly, this is the story that the epilogue of the film claims is based on a true story.  I suspect it is a true story, but filtered through the scratched lens of a woman hater’s eyes.

In the broad outlines, there is a man who is impotent and spends no time with his wife.  She has an affair with a man who is engaged to someone else, a clean innocent young woman.  Her husband is injured, and she dreams of having her lover’s child and marrying him, lying that the baby was her husband’s.  But if her husband lives, she is terrified of the shame and confusion of him finding out she is pregnant.  Her lover rejects her, even if her husband dies he still doesn’t want her.  In the end, her husband admits he knows the truth and still wants the children.

Now, the sympathetic version of this, the one from the woman’s perspective, would show a woman married to an older man who is incapable of sex, who should never have married a younger woman he couldn’t possibly fulfill.  And then he abandons her, turns to his own interests now that he has satisfied his need to marry the woman he wanted.  Naturally, she cannot help but be lonely and look for companionship elsewhere.  She believes a man who says he loves her, and finds some brief happiness with him.  Her husband, who never bothered to try to make her happy, is injured.  She cannot help but dream of having a real life, a child and love with a man instead of this empty life.  Only to learn that her lover is the same as her husband, wanting the perfect young untouched wife instead of the older woman with whom he has a real connection.  She goes to a doctor, desperate for an abortion, ready to make the best of the life she is trapped in, only for yet another man to let her down, to refuse to give her what she needs to save her life, both her actual life (in danger if her husband learns she is pregnant) and her emotional life, her ability to be free and happy instead of shamed and miserable.  And, like every other man in her life, he lets her down.  Finally, her husband admits he knows the truth.  And she is left with half of a happy ending.  Married and with children, as society tells her she should be, but still without physical love, still shackled to an older impotent husband who would rather spend time with his hobbies than his wife.

Of course, we don’t get that version.  We get the version in which she is some kind of strange demon woman, coldly planning to raise her lover’s child as her husband’s just because she wants to, even looking forward to the child inheriting her husband’s wealth, trying to blackmail her lover into staying with her because she is cold and angry, emotionlessly planning to abort her pregnancy just because it is inconvenient without even thinking about the baby that could result until Lal talks to her.  I mean, really, is there anybody like this in the world?  Outside of some crazy men’s rights activist’s fantasy?

(morning sickness!  The punishment God gives unfaithful women)

And then there is the worst story.  Sanusha, the pregnant teen who Lal and his wife agree to take care of through her pregnancy and then raise her child.  She first arrives in her school uniform, refusing to say who the father of her child is, and demanding that they find an adoptive parent for it.  The film consciously uses the image of her in the school uniform to horrify and terrify the audience.  But, we learn in a later scene, she’s 18.  If she were 18 and married, would her pregnancy be horrifying or wonderful?  The use of the school uniform is a cheap shock, trying to make us clutch our pearls at the unnaturalness of such a young mother.  But it’s not “unnatural”, it’s a social construct.  Put the exact same girl in a sari with a Mangalsutra, and it would be heartwarming.  Her age has nothing to do with it, it’s her position that is causing the horror.

Lal and his wife visit her family home to arrange to adopt the baby.  Her parents pressure her for an abortion, her father yells at her and her younger sisters.  Lal and his wife Asha Sarath agree to take Sanusha into their home and care for her through the pregnancy.  And Sanusha turns into a little demon once she is in their home, eating things not on her diet, refusing to take her prenatal vitamins.  Asha Sarath yells at her, and then Lal (of course) has to control his wife, explain to her that she shouldn’t have done that and gently correct her behavior to be more understanding.  Because Sanusha is upset?  But there is no effort made to figure out WHY she is upset, to consider that maybe they should talk to her and find out if there is something more going on, if she is unhappy with her life.  No, women aren’t capable of talking things through, better to just “handle” them.

And Sanusha keeps getting worse, playing a game on Lal’s cell phone and ignoring an emergency call that comes through, even taking the house phone off the hook when it keeps ringing and bothers her.  But, WHY????  Not like “why is she unhappy”, but why would this even be happening?  Why did Lal give her his cell phone, isn’t that INCREDIBLY IRRESPONSIBLE from a doctor?  Why wouldn’t she at least let the house phone ring so someone would answer it?  Why would she turn suddenly soooooooooooo stupid, so stupid that she shouldn’t even be able to function, let alone go out in the world and find adoptive parents for her child?

Oh, and in response to all of this, Lal comes home and DOESN’T say “why were you acting like this?” or “I am a terrible doctor for not making sure my emergency phone is on my at all times”, instead he slaps her hard enough that she falls on the bed.  Only way to train a woman, right?  Slap some sense into her?  Oh, and the death of the nun’s baby clearly happened because Sanusha didn’t answer the phone, not because death sometimes just happens, not because Lal hadn’t referred them to a pediatrician outside of his clinic, not because Lal didn’t have a competent on duty doctor working for him.  Nice to know that if anything happens to me at an Indian clinic it’s never the fault of the male doctor working there, it’s always the fault of some woman in his life somehow.  And then he will go home and beat the heck out of that woman and force her to accept the blame, and thus healthily get rid of his frustration.

Sanusha learns her lesson and becomes nice and docile just in time to give birth.  She screams a bit during labor, but Lal just tells her “quiet quiet” and she obediently quiets down.  Terribly inconsiderate of her of course, to make a bunch of noise and distract the doctor while the doctor is bringing a baby into the world.  These women in labor just have no idea how difficult it is to be a doctor in the room with them.

And then the twist in her story.  Months later, she comes over to visit Lal and his wife and leaves a book of short stories for Lal, with one marked, a story of a father who rapes his daughter.  And Lal is left with the mystery of puzzling over whether Sanusha was raped by her father and the child is a product of that rape.  It’s just a gentle puzzle for him, another thing to weigh on his mind.  There’s no implication that he will actually DO anything about it.

So, let’s go back.  Sanusha is raped by her father.  She does what she needs to get out of that dangerous house.  She is struggling with the emotional aftermath of all of this, and the physical challenge of being pregnant, and naturally acts out in strange ways, subconsciously crying out for attention, for someone to ask her what is wrong so she can tell them the truth.  And instead, she is shut out, punished for acting out, trained to be silent and still and as expected.  She survives the birth, and somehow manages to complete school as well and escape to medical school.  And in her confusion and fear she leaves a hint of her story, the story she can’t bring herself to speak of, to the one man she thinks she can trust, who is still abusive but at least less abusive.  And instead of him calling the police, or trying to save her younger siblings from potential abuse, he sits back in reflection, stays within the union of men and chooses to be silent and protect his fellow patriarch above all else.  And protect the baby over the mother, keeping the baby’s name clean instead of avenging the mother’s attack.  Just as he chose his patient’s husband (who he never met) over her own desires.  And his nurse’s unborn child over her own need to work different hours.  And himself over Sanusha, choosing to blame her for the death of his patient.

How wonderful!  How heroic!  A doctor who is so wonderful because he always puts his patients last and social expectations first, come what may.  Truly a man deserving of a film about his virtues.

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18 thoughts on “Monday Malayalam: Zachariayude Garbhinikal, Misogyny is Alive and Well in God’s Own Country

  1. Since your reviews are so generous and you always seem to find something worthwhile even in films I find worthless, it’s refreshing to me when you really let it all out and hate a movie. And, this one seems deserving of your ire.

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  2. Oh Margret! I don’t even know where to begin with.I haven’t seen this movie but do remember hearing someone comment it’s an OKAY watch. I don’t remember any discussions or debates around any of the issues you mentioned because that’s how much we have been conditioned to overlook things. I don’t think as a society Keralites realise how much patriarchy & misogyny is embedded into our psyche(actually that would be true for all India). I remember someone mentioning about matrilineal system in Kerala where the daughters carry forward the line,are the household heads & their husbands generally don’t have much say. That’s true for Hindu families in old days .But even that was a sham. Woman is a titular head only & if not hubby there will be another man-brother, uncle, dad-with whom she has to consult.So while divorce rates maybe high-owing to more awareness of law and/or being financially independent, educated-the women are not truly free. The divorced single woman has to get under the protection of another man before she’s labelled as loose. Or she has to have kids. Then it’s okay not to remarry cos she’s sacrificing her life for the kids & dedicating her life for the noble cause. We worship too many goddesses which maybe why we want to idolise women. Either she’s the all-forgiving, all-sacrificing, pious embodiment of perfection who has no thoughts other than the well-being of her family. Or she’s the evil, loose type-affairs, career-minded , bad kids. Even in 22Female Kottayam, Rima has to have an affair with the older guy to get favours. It’s a way of saying she’s now truly BOLD/BAD & will go to any length to get what she wants.
    The theme of misogyny & patriarchal treatments run through almost all movies from 80s-90s itself -though in a much subtle tone than what is present today. It’s only now that some of us are noticing it when looking through with a fresh pair of eyes. Im speculating that the makers of this film would have thought they are doing women a service by trying to show the difficulties/poignancy of being pregnantYou mentioned the backstories are good, so the intent was there but the overall treatment & tone of the film-set by the director-seems deeply problematic when you look at it with your world-wisely & academic eyes. For the general crowd, this is how things are & this is how things should be.
    Hindi movies are able to tread middle ground simply because they can’t even think of creating any kind of stories for women-good or bad -unless a major star is involved.

    Btw the nun in the movie-Geeta-has done one of the strongest female roles in Malayalam in her debut film called Panchgani. It’s a great watch if you want to feel empowered. Plus there’s Mohanlal without his trademark moustache.

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    • I like your point at the end, other cinemas don’t even try to do female roles so you won’t have the failures or the successes in them. I was thinking of something similar, watching this movie and thinking about the variety of abuses actresses suffer in Malayalam cinema from rape to random bans (Rima is wonderful in this but her role is so small, I could see how the industry would think “doesn’t matter if we ban her, anybody could play those roles”). It’s partly because they are there, working and present and noticed, that is what puts them in danger. In Hindi films, there are fewer female technicians, maybe they seem like less of a threat. Even if you have actresses producing now, the overall number of women in the industry is tiny, there is no need for a concerted effort to “control” them.

      On Tue, Apr 3, 2018 at 12:39 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. I watched this when I was newly pregnant, I was so freaked out, I started crying uncontrollably towards the middle. Except for Rima the whole movie was downright depressing and weird. This one should’ve come with a disclaimer that its not suitable for pregnant women.
    BTW, they also gave Lal a best actor for this lol

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    • Oh I am so sorry! It was such a strange view of pregnancy, as a medical condition that results in a baby rather than something that was connected to a woman’s whole body and experience. And almost as something disgusting? The way they treated Sanusha, like she had lost the right to make her own decisions about anything, she was just an incubator, was horrifying.

      Have you seen the BBC show Call the Midwife? It’s had 6 seasons now I think of varying quality, but no matter what it is perfect in it handles the reality of pregnancy and birth. It’s uncomfortable and dangerous and painful, but also emotional and over-whelming and beautiful, and you can’t separate out the various parts. And, it’s all about women. Because isn’t it obvious that is what pregnancy should be about?

      On Tue, Apr 3, 2018 at 12:40 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Today I can’t watch a movie/show with a kid because I get overtly emotional if anything happens to them. So probably not the target audience for this movie, but I’ve noticed that men have a very holier-than-thou view of pregnancy. They think its a very sacred, godly experience whereas it also very uncomfortable and possibly life threatening. I wish filmmakers humanized it more than putting it on a pedestal.

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        • Ugh, that was the worst part! They just brush right past the emotion of losing a child in order to explore how it effects the doctor.

          On Tue, Apr 3, 2018 at 12:09 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. I was struck by “male gynecologist”, and never really got past it. I know there are male gynecologists in India (primarily in the mega urban areas), but most of them in the country are still female, and most women prefer to go to a female gynecologist. Can any of the Malayalees here clarify for me — is it common in Kerala for pregnant women to go to male gynecologists? And how many of them are there, anyway (as a proportion of total gynecologists).

    I don’t know why, but this reminds me of a billboard I saw in Hyderabad in the early 1980’s I think. It was during the Reagan era, and the abortion wars were at high pitch in the U.S. So I was just riding along, seeing the sights, when I saw this huge billboard saying (in Telugu), “Remember. You are entitled to a free abortion by a government doctor. Go to any Family Planning clinic and inquire.” It struck me very forcefully, because I was thinking what a contrast to what was going on in the U.S., and that probably many Americans would faint if they saw such a billboard. The best part was the billboard was sponsored by the “Department of Women and Children’s Welfare” — i.e., a government agency! Even my mind was boggled. And all the brouhaha over showing condom ads on American TV! Not only do they have ads, they even have the flavored condoms on public display! (actually the ad that really boggled my mind was one that I saw some years later, where a teenaged girl comes home late and tells her mother she is worried by what happened on her date that night. The mother says, “Tell me about it,” and then, “Don’t worry, we’ll go to the doctor in the morning and take care of it.” They go to the doctor and get the “morning after” pill, and drive away smiling and happy, while the male voiceover says, “Trust (pill). You never have to worry again.” Try to imagine *that* on American TV! :))

    So I guess the moral is, if all these women in the film had gone to a government clinic/hospital instead of to a private doctor, they wouldn’t have had any of the problems they did.

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    • A little story before I answer you-I was in US when I had conceived for the first time and went to a 80 year old male gynecologist as suggested by my colleague. The doc had delivered three generations of her family, came with high recommendations.I don’t think I would have been able to sit through all the internal examinations in the true old fashioned way if I wasn’t convinced of him being the true professional that he was.I had moved to India in the 7th month,so did not get to experience the labor with him.Bless him always.I couldn’t find any practicing male gynecologist in Kerala or even in metro Bengaluru for my second one-not that I was actively looking for one.But have never heard anyone mention of a male gynecologist in Bengaluru. Dad is an orthopedics surgeon,and in all the years I have heard him talk about his class mates,friends & colleagues-never heard him mention of a male gynecologist.So I would assume the male gynecologist in the movie would be a plot device to put a man at the center of things.

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    • The whole concept of a “male gynecologist” troubles me. I don’t want to tell a doctor what they can and cannot specialize in, but wouldn’t it just make sense for someone who has actually experienced the specific things they are going to spend 90% of their time treating to be in that specialty? It’s not a modesty thing, more of a “I don’t want to explain what cramps feel like to my doctor, I want them to just know” kind of thing. And in this case, the problems were what made the whole film weak, here was a man going around telling women what pregnancy was like, what motherhood was like, what they should do with their own bodies, and obviously he had never experienced any of it.

      Having this tiny window into Indian culture has really changed how I look at the abortion and birth control debates in America. I’m still pro-choice, but I have a better understanding of what “choice” means. It’s not just a PR spin on being “pro-abortion”, it really means that a woman should have the right to do what she wants with her own body. A woman shouldn’t be forced to have a pregnancy she doesn’t want but she also shouldn’t be forced to end a pregnancy she DOES want. It would never have occurred to me that there would be government encouragement for birth control of all sorts, and I really never imagined those horrible stories of woman being forced to abort female fetuses over and over again. Just shows the American blinders I had on.

      On Tue, Apr 3, 2018 at 1:22 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I don’t quite get you, Margaret. There is no government coercion in India to make anyone have an abortion. The billboard I mentioned was for the purpose of informing women (who might not otherwise know), that they have a legal right to a safe, free, and medically supervised abortion. Isn’t that what the pro-choice groups in the U.S. fight for? So what’s the problem? The more affluent women will go to a private doctor. The less affluent, who depend on government medical care, may or may not know they have this guaranteed right. For instance, if the women in this film knew that they were guaranteed this right, they might not have fallen under the doctor’s influence so readily.

        What I was saying about the “male gynecologist” issue, which Meenakshy confirmed, is that, not only is this storyline troublesome, but it is actually an impossible one, because Indian women as a rule don’t go to male gynecologists, and there are precious few of them anyway, mainly in places like Delhi and Mumbai.

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        • Not government coercion, but family coercion. Which is also present in America, but is slightly less so (I suspect) just because of the difficulties of getting abortions here. I wasn’t thinking of your particular examples, but more how they show a different over all attitude towards birth control which doesn’t mean everything is necessarily perfect.

          On Tue, Apr 3, 2018 at 8:15 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Birth control for men (condoms) and women (various options, not just the pill), is also provided free by the government. But yes, one major difference is that the government also pushed sterilization, after the couple had had their ideal two children, as a form of permanent birth control. Of course it was carried to excess under Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, which was why it was dialed back after she lost the election and that period ended. Nevertheless, it’s an acceptable alternative for many couples, who don’t want to deal with the side effects from the female birth control methods.

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      • On your second point about what “pro choice” means: In the 90’s some time, there was a case in the San Francisco bay area, where an expectant couple learned that their baby would be born with severe birth defects. Why this got into the newspapers, I don’t know, but it did. At any rate, after a week or so of agonizing, the couple decided to continue the pregnancy and have the baby. You should have seen the amount of vitriol that was heaped on them in all the papers, by I guess the “pro choice” groups (they certainly wouldn’t have been the “pro life” ones), calling them selfish, irresponsible, cruel, etc. for not getting an abortion.

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  5. I found someone in a facebook group asking for malayalam film recommendations and interested to learn more about kerala. i gave the link to your blog. Then came here and read the review and all the negative comments about kerala. I went back immediately and deleted that comment fearing they may not watch any more malayalam films and hate all malayalees.
    😁

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  6. Not sure what’s wrong with a male gynaecologist, it’s a profession and men and woman have equal rights to pursue it. It’s a science and not sure how gender plays a role in ones knowledge/competence of the same. Additionally, no one is forced to meet a gynaecologist of a particular gender, it’s the individuals choice (not sure where is the misogyny here). Lastly, not agreeing with the politics of a film like the main character being pro life and the film itself being bad are two entirely different things. I believe that the politics of a good film need to be coherent within the universe it defines rather than with ones personal politics.

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