Have legs, will flaunt: How Kerala actors are fighting patriarchy

Gayatri Vinayak
·6-min read

The hashtag #womenhavelegs has been trending ever since 18-year-old Malayali actor Anaswara Rajan was trolled and bullied for posting a picture on Instagram wearing shorts. Rajan, who has appeared in the Malayalam film Thaneer Mathan Dinangal and Tamil film Adhyarathri, hit back at the trolls, putting up another picture and captioning it: "Don't worry about what I'm doing. Worry about why you're worried about what I'm doing."

The post and sexist comments have further awakened an industry that has been fighting its demons of misogyny and prejudice. The campaign #womenhavelegs, launched by actor Rima Kallingal, an outspoken critic of the patriarchy that is ingrained in the Malayalam film industry, triggered a viral movement with others including actor and producer Nazriya Nazim and young actor Ahaana Krishna, posting their own pictures in protest of the constant sexualisation of a women’s body.

M for Misogyny

Kerala, and the Malayalam industry, is not new to misogyny and moral policing. In an industry that has made some of the most progressive films in India such as the highly acclaimed1965 Chemmeen, the 1977 Kanchana Seeta, the 1986 Amma Ariyan, and the more recent Thira and Uyare, which tackles the topic of toxic masculinity and acid attacks - sexism, both subtle and direct, is rampant.

For, it has produced some highly regressive films as well, revolving around macho heroes who take patriarchy to a different level. These films have further felled the culture of prejudice in a state which still sees menstruating women as impure, as is seen from the whole backlash that the Sabarimala Temple entry movement and #happytobleed campaign faced.

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Women have legs!

A post shared by Fahadh Faasil (@fahadhfaassil) on Sep 15, 2020 at 7:17am PDT

Leading superstars of Malayalam including Mohanlal, Dileep and Mammootty have time and again mouthed dialogues which clearly reek of sexism, domination and violence against women. And these films have been lapped up by the audience without any thought being given to the effect that such dialogues would have on people. A classic case is the 1995 film, The Cop, which has Mammootty end his lecture to his subordinate by informing her that she is a woman, “a mere woman,” amidst applause.

In another even more disturbing scene from the 2016 film Kasaba, Mammootty playing a roguish policeman, grabs a woman IPS officer who is senior to him in rank, by the belt, holds her against him and delivers a disgusting dialogue about how he could make her ‘miss her monthly periods’. Both these films drive home the fact that regardless of how much a woman may have achieved, she is ultimately perceived as the subservient, lesser being.

Three pieces of fish: Feminachis speak up

The recent few years have seen women speak up and shake a state that has been complacent to its inherent sexism. The abduction and sexual harassment of a leading Malayali female actor in 2017 can be called an unfortunate catalyst that led to this change. The survivor took the courageous step of filing a police complaint despite the fact that the assailants had threatened her of releasing some videos they had taken. While the actual perpetrators were her former driver and associates, investigations soon pointed towards actor Dileep and his alleged hand in masterminding the whole crime. While much public outrage ensued, there were also mudslinging within the film industry and the political circles.

The attack against the actor prompted the women members of the industry to speak up against harassment and the chauvinistic attitude that is prevalent. Female actors and technicians, including prominent names such as actor, director Revathy, actors Parvathy Thiruvoth and Padmapriya, director Anjali Menon and film editor and curator Beena Paul, got together to form the Women In Cinema Collective (WCC) to fight against the injustice that the survivor and many others in the industry face.

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Posting a really nice picture of me wearing a tiny dress , showing most of my legs to take attendance of the number of creeps who will line up in attention in my comment box to post third-rate comments :) 2 things. Firstly , what I wear isn't your business. What anybody wears isn't your business. Your business is just your business. Probably you don't have enough of it , so you try and poke your nose into other people's business. I will wear Shorts , Sari , Shirt or a Swim-suit .. it's not your license to question my character. Neither is it my oppurtunity to prove my own character. So , WATCH YOUR THOUGHTS , NOT MY CLOTHES 🤷 Secondly , as far as I know .. legs , stomach , hands etc .. they are all the same, be it in the body of a man or a woman. I can't see any difference that is so important that it justifies the difference between the kind of comments that make it to the comment box of a man in little clothes and that of a girl. If a man shows his well toned body , it's Inspiring , Mass and Frickin' Hot. When a girl does the same , she looks like she's ready for Sex? She's Shameless? She’s an Attention Seeker? She's trying to turn people on for work? Pick up this flamboyant display of patriarchy and discard it in the first dust-bin you can find around you. Me posting a picture in a super short dress has only 1 meaning - I like that picture and I felt like sharing it on my own social media profile. Any other meaning that you derive out of it is nothing but a reflection of the unfortunate situation of your life and the things you lack in it. Gross mindsets might not change way too much. But the license to publicly speak out one's gross mindset can be shut down. Call out slut-shamers. Call out dirty patriarchy. And stop giving a damn about what a random person has to comment on your clothes. Do these 3 things and slowly but surely , creeps who want to say creepy things will be so scared to spit out the poison that they will learn to keep it within themselves. I'd like to sum up this slightly long post with a quote I read recently on Social Media - " Oh my favourite season will be the Fall of Patriarchy 🍁 " Image shot by @rexphotography.in 💫

A post shared by Ahaana Krishna (@ahaana_krishna) on Sep 14, 2020 at 11:39pm PDT

The case continues, and over the years many witnesses have turned hostile - a clear indication of the powerful clout that Dileep has in the film and political circles.

But, women are no longer taking it quietly. In a TEDx talk, Kallingal spoke about how a fish fry stirred the feminist in her. Sitting at the dinner table, she saw her mother serve three pieces of fried fish to the eldest in the family and the men. When, deeply hurt, the 12-year-old asked why she was not considered for a piece of fish, her mother was flabbergasted that such a question was even posed. “But then that’s how my journey of questions began,” she says.

While many supported her, the video and her thoughts on how those three pieces of fish awakened the feminist in her, were also belittled by many who did not understand the correlation. They commented that she should just eat those three pieces of fish and get over with it, without understanding that this is a concern that is relevant in many Indian households today. The woman ends up eating last after ensuring the bulk of the food goes to her family, often left with very little.

The year 2017 also saw the coining of a word, which became both an insult towards feminism and an embrace of it – Feminichi. Originally created to denote a woman who claims to be a feminist, but is a misandrist, the term was aimed at and embraced by actor Parvathy, who had spoken out against the sexism that the film Kasaba portrayed. She faced brutal backlash which included death and rape threats from Mammootty’s fans. However, she literally wore the badge as she got a handbag with the word embroidered on it.

With patriarchy and power play resonating in film industries across the country, and the world, it is heartening to see women stand up against biased treatment being meted out. Kerala, a state whose social indicators rival those of developed countries, is known for its high female literacy rate and has had progressive practises such as ensuring women equal rights to inheritance, since long, should show the beacon to the rest of the country when it comes to gender parity. For this to happen, however, mindsets and deep-rooted prejudice needs to change. It is high time that more women embrace the feminici in them and show their legs at patriarchy.