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?
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.
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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.