Monday Malayalam: Nee-Na, Complete Failure of the Bechdel Test, and Complete Failure to See the Reality of the Character They Created

I was browsing through einthusan and I saw this movie and thought “oh hey, I’ve heard about this film a lot, I should check it out”.  Not a great decision!  Really a very odd and strangely regressive film that is supposed to be about two women but is really just about the man torn between them.

You know the Bechdel test?  It’s not the end all-be all of feminist film theory, not by a long shot, but it is an interesting starting point to look at a film.  It’s really simple, are there two female characters in a film with names who talk to each other about something other than a man?

There are 4 layers to this:

  1. Are there any female characters at all? (think of all the police movies, army movies, all the other films that exist in an entirely male world)
  2. Are there female characters who are named, not just eye candy? (think of the movies with the sexy girl who dances, the mother who calls from the other room, the secretary and the waitress and all the other women around with no names)
  3. Are there female characters who intersect, rather than being isolated in their own little man islands? (think of all the movies where each of the male heroes has their own girlfriend or wife or daughter or mother, but those women never talk to each other, just their respective men)
  4. Are there female characters who relate to each other directly, not through their relationship to a man? (think of all the movies where women only talk in order to fight over a man, or fight back at a man, or raise a man, or whatever)


This film is sold as about the female characters because it easily passes the first 3 rules.  2 women lead characters versus one man.  Their names are the title of the film, “Neena” and “Nalini”=Nee-Na.  And they not only converse with each other, they also both converse with female friends.  So, yaaaaaay!  A feminist film (not in the political sense, in the film criticism sense).

Image result for nee na malayalam

(See, “a tale of two women”, it’s right there on the poster)

Only, the Bechdel test is just the beginning.  For instance, Dushman is an extremely feminist movie.  In which Kajol bonds with Sanjay in order to defeat Ashutosh Rana.  Kajol plays a double role and talks to herself (that sounds weird, but you know what I mean), but that only lasts for the first few scenes, the rest of the film Kajol is only talking to Sanjay about Ashutosh Rana.  But the film is so much more than that!  Sanjay is supporting Kajol in her endeavors, not the other way around.  Her feud with Ashutosh revolves around a woman, not a man.  There may not be another woman onscreen, but there is one behind the camera, a female director who wrote a film for a female star.  And so on and so on.

This film 3/4ths passes the Bechdel test.  And yet, it is not a feminist film (again, in the film criticism not the political sense).  Because it fails that final 4th step HARD.  Deepti Sati talks to her friends only about Vijay Babu.  Ann Augustine talks to her friend only about Vijay Babu.  And of course, Ann Augustine and Deepti Sati talk to each other only about Vijay Babu.  These women have literally no lives outside of the man they are talking about.

Well, Ann Augustine also has her son.  And Deepti Sati has her father.  Mothers don’t matter, sisters, certainly not daughters.  Just men, men are all women care about, ever, the source of everything.  It’s incredibly old-fashioned and Freudian and ridiculous.

It’s so Freudian that it misses something post-Freud which is pretty obvious to me.  But I can’t get into that with out getting into SPOILERS.








We open with Deepti attractively wandering around St. Petersburg as an English language emo song plays in the background about missing someone.  So yeah, it’s that kind of crushingly thick melodrama.  And then we flashback to Ann Augustine and Vijay Babu talking about leaving Bombay and moving back to Kochi after his transfer.  Vijay arrives at his office and is the cool boss that everyone likes, and offers to give them all a party that night.  At the party, he notices a cool dangerous girl with short hair and jeans trying to walk a straight line and falling into the lake instead.  He rushes over and drags her out, learns she is the “weird” girl at the office, but she immediately expresses her hero worship for him, knows he will understand her and appreciate her work.  And insists that she will call him “sir” rather than by his nickname like everyone else.

(She does have a nice hat, I like that part of the song video)

The relationship follows the predictable moves after that, Deepti is troubled and strange, always drinking vodka from her water bottle, all her friends are tough boys, she ignores everyone else at the office as too normal and beneath her but identifies Vijay as someone special.  He is flattered, he overlooks all her line crossing and indulges her crush.  She gets drunk on New Years (after he helps her buy liquor for her party with her friends, which is definitely his own line crossing and the film never calls his character out on that) and calls him up and says she wants to kiss him.  And then at the office the next day she says she wants to tell him her life story, and he listens as she pours her heart out over the next several days, culminating in her cornering him in the men’s restroom at a club at an office party and declaring her love for him.  He brushes it off, they go dance together and she tries to kiss him, he leaves and goes home to Ann Augustine, his wife, and puts his phone on speaker so she can hear him turn down Deepti once and for all.  It would all be over, only Deepti ends up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning and Vijay is called as her emergency contact.  The doctor tells him that Deepti will die if they don’t get her into rehab, but the rehab needs a family member to go with her.  The doctor also indicates that her romantic obsession with Vijay is part of her addiction, if she gets into rehab and gets cured, she will leave Vijay alone.  So Vijay decides to gamble on this and goes with her to rehab, lying that he is her husband.

(I have never heard of a rehab center expecting/requiring family members to stay with the patients.  Is that an Indian thing? Or is it just totally made up?)

Through rehab, Deepti confronts her relationship with her father which is of course the root of all her problems, and realizes that her obsession with Vijay was just because she wanted a father figure (Freud is still totally relevant, according to this movie).  Vijay, meanwhile, is coming to care for her.  But in the end, he talks to her therapist and learns that she no longer cares for him, she is cured and past him.  He even catches her talking on the phone with the nice age appropriate young man from the office.  And so he is able to drop her off at her apartment and go back to his wife, heart whole and happy.  Only for the audience to see that Deepti is really being picked up by her parents.  She has reconciled with them, it was her father on the phone not the young man from the office, and she still loves Vijay just as much as ever.  But he gave her back her life by helping her through rehab, she is going to give him back his life by lying that she doesn’t love him so he will go back to his wife without any doubts.  And she ends the film at the beginning, wandering around St. Petersburg dreaming of Vijay forever and ever.

Meanwhile, Ann Augustine barely has a plot.  She overhears and knows about all the phone calls at odd hours from Deepti and starts to get worried.  She tries to befriend her, invites her for coffee, and Deepti turns down the friendship.  She talks to her own friend about Deepti and Vijay and what to do and (of course) how much she loves her son.  And then at the end, she goes to the rehab center and overhears the psychiatrist telling Vijay that she knows he isn’t Deepti’s husband, but it is okay, Deepti doesn’t really love him.  And the psychiatrist then tells Ann Augustine that she will always be the only woman in Vijay’s life.

So, this is the movie that is supposed to be about 2 women.  Vijay comes to a new city, Vijay struggles in a new job, Vijay is torn about his relationship with Deepti.  Deepti is an alcoholic, Deepti is troubled, Deepti is in love.  Ann Augustine is…..there?  She doesn’t really have much to do.  It’s not a movie about 2 women, it’s the same old “perfect noble man torn between the dangerous interesting young woman and the mature good woman”.  The “Nee Na” of the title isn’t about the two women being the focus of the film, it’s about Vijay trying to decide between them.

I’m not really interested in taking down this film as unfeminist (again, in the film criticism sense), because that is so obvious as to be boring.  Two women both obsessing over a man, Deepti’s entire mental journey being about dealing with Vijay and her father and nothing else (her mother isn’t even present for her, not a factor in her life story), and of course Vijay being perfect and blameless and innocent in this whole thing.  Blah blah blah, whatever, you can see that for yourself I am sure.

No, what I find fascinating are the indications that Deepti’s character is on a journey the filmmakers aren’t even capable of imagining.  She describes her whole childhood to Vijay.  Her father wanted a boy, so when she was born, he raised her as one, cut her hair short and so on.  She spent her childhood playing with the boys in the nearby slum, one of them, happy.  The saddest day of her life was when she got her first period and suddenly was told she had to be a girl instead of a boy.  That trauma is what started her drinking, why she still drinks.  She says she doesn’t have female friends, doesn’t know how.  Has never been interested in a man before Vijay.  Can’t relate to her parents because she is so miserable at them seeing her as and treating her as a girl.

This doesn’t sound like a “tomboy” to me, or an alcoholic, or at least not just an alcoholic.  This sounds like someone who is transgender.  A boy born in a girl’s body.  The trauma over the onset of puberty, the insistence on considering herself a boy and misery when that is challenged, the inability to relate to anyone who sees her and treats her as a woman, and this desperate attempt to fall in love for real with Vijay to prove that she is a woman after all.

That’s not the “real” journey of this character, because of the opening and closing scenes that show her all feminized in St. Petersburg.  Now that she is “cured” she is back to conforming to gender norms.  This film is sticking with the idea that her father made her into a boy in order to please him, and she rejected femininity because she saw it as what made him retreat from her, until she got the fatherly approval she needed from Vijay and resolved her internal conflict, blah blah Freud.  And now that her internal conflict is resolved and she is “normal”, she has long hair and wears skirts and has female friends.

But the whole thing just played to me as so clearly a trans journey.  It makes me wonder if perhaps the scriptwriter based the character on someone he knew, a story he had heard, and then invented other bits and tacked it on without realizing that the real person he knew was trans, not just a “tomboy”.

Image result for nee na malayalam

India has such a long tradition of Hijras, if a boy had insisted he was a girl his whole childhood, played with only girls, wanted to wear dresses and grow his hair, and cried and cried at the signs of puberty, then it is highly possible his parents would realize he was really a girl and know what to do about it.  But all those same things the other way around, a girl who insisted she was a boy, played only with boys, wanted to wear pants and have short hair, and cried and cried at puberty, that is clearly something that can be “cured”.

This film positions itself as teaching us all about alcoholism, being all up to date and understanding and modern about mental health.  But it is terribly old-fashioned.  It misses something shockingly obvious (to me) because it is far outside of the realm of what this film and the filmmakers could possibly understand.

29 thoughts on “Monday Malayalam: Nee-Na, Complete Failure of the Bechdel Test, and Complete Failure to See the Reality of the Character They Created

  1. Pingback: Monday Malayalam: Nee-Na, Complete Failure of the Bechdel Test, and Complete Failure to See the Reality of the Character They Created — dontcallitbollywood – Business Startup-Bay Area

  2. Hey, this is a movie that was on my Malayalam list, but I never got around to. The writing seems like a let down in this one, don’t know if I want to watch it now.
    What particularly interested me is the second last paragraph of this article; it near perfectly describes a post 2000s movie called Chanthupottu with Dileep as a feminine character, have you heard of it?


    • I haven’t heard of it, I just looked it up. Sounds a little more clear in its gender message than this film, which sort of ducked the issue.


      • Ah, but the ending of Chanthupottu basically shows the protagonist being fixed, similar to this film as well. That was also directed by Lal Jose, I just realised.


  3. Lal Jose tried to make a movie about ‘modern women’ ergo alcoholic woman & because he’s still a traditionalist at heart-the loyal supportive wife. There’s some backstory needed to justify the alchoholism. Love failure would be too much Devdaas-ique. The other important man for a woman is the father. So invent daddy issues. I’m speculating that’s how the thinking went. Isnt this the same backstory for Amrita Arora’s character in Main Hoon Na? A less-girly girl always have daddy issues. Maybe in this one, they went overboard establishing her as a tomboy with the haircut, puberty talk & drinking issues giving a completely plausible alternate reason for her problems. Btw Chanthupottu was also Lal Jose movie & it does make a caricature out of a man who’s superficially caught in woman’s skin. So Lal Jose’s understanding of gender or transgender psychology is questionable.

    Qn-which Indian movies have you seen where the Bechdel test is passed?


    • The step 4 of the Bechdel test is tricky, because it depends on what you consider a conversation not about a man. So, I would say Veere Di Wedding passes the test easily. But then someone else could argue that it doesn’t, because their conversations are about sex (with men), motherhood (of a son), and parental relationships (with mother AND father).

      Kal Ho Na Ho would be another one, Preity’s family is 75% female. But the hidden undercurrent of all their conversations is getting Preity married, and anger over her father. So, does that meet the Bechdel test or not? I would say yes, that this is just the reality of life, men and women intersect and you can’t cut their relationships apart that cleanly.

      Raazi is interesting as one that does not. For all its focus on the female central character, she has no significant relationships with other women excepted as bridged by men. Her conversations with her mother revolve around her father, with her sister-in-law about their husbands, her real interesting conversations about larger issues of the world are all with men.

      Raid does pass it, thanks to the female tax official who’s name I can’t remember but I know she has one. She talks to the women of the household, who also have names, about searching the house and jewelry and issues such as that. It is very small and brief, but it is there, a woman interacting with other women about issues of the world, not just a man. My Name is Khan passes it too, thanks to Kajol talking to her friend about starting her own salon. It’s really not a hard barrier to cross, even films that don’t feel very female oriented in general can pass it.

      On Tue, Jul 3, 2018 at 8:53 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • Kandukondain Kandukondain, Rani Padmini(actually a bunch of other Manju Warrier movies), Mahanati, Nill Battey Sannata, Rudramadevi, Aruvi are few I can think of. They all qualify rt?


        • Not Mahanati, if you think about it her friendship revolves first around the lack of a father figure, and then around her husband. KK yes because of Tabu’s conversations with her pregnant coworker about work (even if their conversations at home tend to revolve around male relatives and love interests). Rudhramadevi, absolutely!!!! Love that movie. Aruvi too. The others I haven’t seen, but based on what I know of them. probably.

          This goes back to my “feminism versus feminist film criticism” post. Indian film really is better at making feminist movies, in the film criticism sense not the political sense, than Hollywood. Way more “feminist” films, meaning films with strong female characters, in India than America.

          On Tue, Jul 3, 2018 at 10:28 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • Mahanati I was thinking abt Samantha & Keerthi’s interactions. But yeah Keerthi isn’t even aware of Samantha’s existence, so it’s a one-sided conversation. I haven’t read that post of yours. Maybe something to dig into.


          • And even from the one sided side of things, Samantha’s big take away from Keerthy’s life was that love is the most important thing, bleh!

            On Tue, Jul 3, 2018 at 10:48 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  4. I hated this movie! They just found a way to make it all about the man. I though Ann Augustine was the most interesting part of the movie, but she’s relegated to an observer and nothing else. And Deepthi Sati – her lipsync was godawful. Anyway, can’t expect anything better from Lal Jose who publicly endorsed support to Dileep.


    • Oh blech, Lal Jose!!!!! I liked him so much for his interesting early 2000s stuff, but now I just don’t know.

      I wish Ann Augustine had more to do too. She just sort of was there in the background, I wanted much more of her internal life and backstory. I wanted her to actually become friends with Deepti and interact with her and turn this into a real triangle with all the lines connected.

      On Tue, Jul 3, 2018 at 12:39 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • And Vijay Babu wasn’t very good I thought, a better actor could’ve done more, but Malayalam today doesn’t have as many Indie actors like Hindi does.


        • Yes, now I finally know what was wrong with this movie – this guy. I mean there are a lot of other things but this actor is so bland, that I didn’t know why those two beautiful women do everything for him.
          Ann Augustine’s character was the best, but she was there doin nothing, only waiting for her husband to leave her. And the other girl – I remember she has said something about decent looking people being the worse and I was waiting for some shocking reason why she has become alcoholist. But it was only because her father wanted a boy? I mean, really? I’m happy Margaret, that you wrote the review of this movie, because I was sure you will see more than I’m able to see.


          • I can almost never see what it is that would make two women fight over a man. I mean, if he doesn’t want you why would you want him, you know? It would have to be a really spectacularly charismatic actor (like Amitabh in Silsila) to make that work. And in this case, not only is he not charismatic at all, the women go to such extremes! Both of them just torn up about it, and this guy is just not that great.

            On Tue, Jul 3, 2018 at 3:29 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  5. “The doctor also indicates that her romantic obsession with Vijay is part of her addiction, if she gets into rehab and gets cured, she will leave Vijay alone.”

    The doctor misunderstands that VP is her husband since his number was saved as ‘My man’ in her phone and suggests counselling thinking that they her alcoholism is due to the marital discordances, especially the age difference.

    “(I have never heard of a rehab center expecting/requiring family members to stay with the patients. Is that an Indian thing? Or is it just totally made up?)”

    Some rehabs do, especially for women. But I haven’t heard of any institution insisting that the by-stander should be of the opposite gender.

    “And so he is able to drop her off at her apartment and go back to his wife, heart whole and happy.”

    Not really. He drops her near a mall, as she insisted and returns to his wife with a heavy heart. The idea is that he starts to fall for her romantically as she starts to gain a new perspective of life. There are subtle hints of him approaching her even physically(well, ultimately he must return to his wife as the good guy). As she befriends another guy in the rehab and start to spend more time with him and avoid him, VP starts to get irritated and it is then the doctor(played by Lena) reveals that he attraction was a part of the father fixation or whatever.

    “This sounds like someone who is transgender. A boy born in a girl’s body.”

    Regardless of the biological and social aspects of such identity crisis in real life, such depictions are common in indian cinema. Parents(especially father) giving the girl child the freedom to wear shorts-pants and befriend boys, at least till puberty. Often, it will resolve itself when the girl falls in love. Even in real life, moderately progressive parents suddenly restricting the freedom of the girl child when she get her first period(“you are no longer a child”) is commonplace.

    Probably Lal Jose had an extreme version of such a predicament in mind rather than a gender conflict. In ‘Chantupottu’ he portrayed the male version of Neena in a ridiculous manner.

    For half of the screen time, Radha(Dileep’s character) insists that he is a female and walks and talks with mannerisms associated with femininity. When others mock him, his mother tells him that he should woo a girl so that even other women should desire him. He does the same and impregnates his childhood friend-lover.

    Later he says that though he is like a woman, he can be quite masculine too, by imitating the poster macho man of Malayalam cinema, Jayan, comically. Finally, he returns as a man, wearing pants and shirt and a new hairstyle. When he sees that his own baby son has ‘feminine’ adornments, he throws them away and says that he should be brought up as a boy.

    It seems Lal Jose has a notion(which is shared by many people) that even cis gendered people can have some sort of confusion if upbringing and conditioning is not ‘right’ but can be corrected later.

    “she is going to give him back his life by lying that she doesn’t love him so he will go back to his wife without any doubts.”

    Yes, he father explicitly stated it. That it was the right thing to do and there is another person who was born for her and waiting somewhere, to which she replies tearfully that it was vinay. It’s just that she isn’t destined to have him!!

    When Ann Augustine’s character, Nalini, comes to the rehab, the doctor tells her that though she won’t tell that Vinay is a bad man, he is still a ‘man’, implying that his attraction to Neena is natural(boys will be boys) but is momentary and he will ultimately return to her, which he does.


    • It sounds like a reassuring fantasy that parents of non-normative children can tell themselves “just wait until he/she grows up, just wait until he/she falls in love”. And fantasy is always popular, which would explain why films keep repeating it.

      It also sounds like part of the general Indian idea of children being able to do anything, but responsibility and social roles coming with age? In this film, it is running around with and dressing like a boy. But in another movie, it could be wanting to be an actress, or wanting a career instead of marriage or all sorts of other things. The fantasy would still be “wait until they grow up/fall in love, everything will be fine then, let them have their childhood fun while they can.”

      On Sat, Jul 14, 2018 at 2:32 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • Hi, hi falling in love is still not acceptable unless your sexuality is the matter of concern(as in Chantupottu). Most parents won’t be happy with their children falling in love.

        Expectations about acquiring responsibility as you grow up is of course a part of normal life, for both girls and boys. ‘Prayamaya pennu'(Malayalam)/ ‘Vayatuvantha ponnu'(Tamil) i.e., a girl who had come of age is supposed to confirm to certain norms which can change according to the general attitude in their area. Anyway it involves wearing modest clothes and distancing oneself from men. ‘Kalyanaprayamaya pennu’ i.e a girl old enough to get married is a more severe version of this. She is expected to know how to run a household efficiently. Though boys too have similar responsibilities, it is perfectly alright for them to be Mama’s boys who won’t wash their own underwear 😤

        Another version of this, which is thankfully not popular now is ‘Kalyanam kazhiyumbol ellam shariyavum’ i.e., hope that everything will get alright with marriage. Many irresponsible, lazy, alcoholic and abusive people were married off in such hopes. Not to mention mentality retarted, insane ones. Often this is done without revealing the truth. Some people, especially lazy and irresponsible ones mend their ways but one more innocent person will suffer in other cases. But such incidents are rare now.


        • There was a terrible Jayaprada movie I saw that was kind of like the last one, a boy who just dreamed of marriage so his parents got him married, thinking everything would sort out after.

          On Sun, Jul 15, 2018 at 5:12 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  6. “Meanwhile, Ann Augustine barely has a plot.”

    The most significant scene is her interaction with the domestic help. When her servant reveals about her husband’s affair and says that she is going to leave him, she enquirs many things.

    Is he a drunkard or has any substance abuse?


    Is he abusive?

    No. He is so loving and allowed to work as a servant only to give good education to their children.

    Is he repentant?

    Yes, he is. Even when the servant left the house for work, he was crying and pleading , seeking forgivance.

    Then Nalini puts forth the question. Why should she leave him? Her husband is her own, why should she ‘free’ him and give him to some other woman? Nalini advices that she should love him, suffocate him with love that he should regert his actions. That would be a psychological punishment for him and she won’t lose her husband, to which her security and standing in the society is tied to.

    This scene is used to show Nalini’s attitude which she follows in her own life too. In another scene, Nalini’s college friend tells her husband that she was quite a fire brand in college. When he is surprised, Nalini brushes it off, dismissing that he really doesn’t know her and there many unexplored facets to her personality.

    We are supposed to believe that this is one of them. Nalini is the ‘strong women’. She might be a housewife(whereas Neena is working and earning) , feminine and traditional with long hair, big bindi,heavily koode eyes, jhumkas and always wears sari or neriyath except during nighttime(whereas Neena wears pants). She is resilient and patiently waited for things to unfold and resolve in due course of time rather than restoring to theatrics like Neena. Ultimately she is the winner as the trophy, ‘her man’, returned to her. Whereas modern, westernised Neena sheds some of her ‘masculinity’ and runs away to a frozen farwaway country and wanders around like a lost soul.


    • So the lesson is that female strength is good, but only within certain circumscribed roles? A “strong wife” is one who will put up with things and ultimately “win” her man. That makes sense, thank you, I missed those two scenes.

      On Sat, Jul 14, 2018 at 2:58 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • Exactly. I think that character appealed to many women. Nalini had proved her ‘inner strength’, ‘dignity’ and ‘fortitude’.
        Women like Nalini are not unheard of in society. She is shown as a very perceptive woman, the kind who smiles coyly, pretends to be submissive and strokes the ego of her man at the right places but ultimately wears the pants at home.

        Neena is a toned down version of the westernised vamp(sans the sexuality). She is just a disturbance, an inconvenience for Nalini.

        Had Vinay chosen Neena, what would have general audience desired?

        30-20 years ago, most people would have wanted Nalini to go and beg to Neena and make Vinay come back by convincing him her love and faithfulness. I must admit that the audience had progressed slightly. Probably it would have been like:

        Vinay and Nalini gets a divorce- Nalini starts working/starts some establishment with the help of her friend-Vinay is haunted by guilt and he misses Nalini and his son-Neena is not the ideal woman he is used to and Vinay sino longer the suave, confident man Neena is used to and hence they fight a lot …

        Ultimately, from the beginning itself it is obvious that with or without her husband, in life or death, the winner will be Nalini, the archetype of the ideal Indian woman.


  7. * not “heavily koode eyes,” but heavily kholed eyes”.

    Also if you have noticed my email id , it has ‘ormayude vilaku maram’ in it. I love the title song of the movie and the email id was inspired by it. The song is like “I remember you like a light house…”. “Ormayude vilaku maram” means ‘the lighthouse of memories’ 😊.


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