Does anyone remember Annie from our chequered history of female roles in Malayalam cinema? That pious, simple, charming Christian girl with bewitching eyes who is pitilessly mauled by life? Did director Bhadran conceive her a little too before her time had come? Were she to arrive today, she would have stoked our gender debates and ethical arguments in highly volatile ways. A graphic memory that has endured since the release of Changatham in 1983 has been that of the stoic face of a Madhavi (who plays Annie) clad in the austere habit of a nun, her eyes burning with a sad rage, holding out her hands to be manacled by the police officer.
Much before Tessa of 22 Female Kottayam was Annie of Changatham. I’m not sure if Changatham (Friendship) was seriously discussed by the Kerala society as a woman-centered film. Tessa and Annie have more in common than their steadfast piety. They don’t wish to be defined by the violence done to them. As a teenage viewer of that film, I was deeply disturbed by the questions it raised, explicitly and implicitly. Starring heavyweights like Mammootty and Mohanlal alongside Madhavi in the crucial roles, it’s quite possible that it was publicized through its male performers. But it’s a film that we as a society need to revisit specially in these highly vexing times. In these contexts when rape as an expression of power, vengeance and violence, has ceased to shock, and an even more shocking apathy is slowly setting in. There was a time when rape was seen and heard perhaps more on screen and less in the dailies. Today, you are deluged by the news and a kind of ethical emaciation threatens to seize us.
Annie hasn’t marked herself in our collective memories like Kallichellamma, Clara or Ganga, but we could very well take a second look at the way popular cinema weaves a plot with all its formulaic elements around a harrowing experience in a young woman's life. Annie, like Tessa, is a devout lower middle class Christian girl with a very simple aspiration to be financially independent. Camera zooms in tellingly on the cross hugging her neck. The entire setting is unmistakably Christian with the climax unfolding within a Christian monastery. The film opens on a jubilant note with Annie bagging a job as a receptionist-cum-typist and dressing up for her first day in office. What is engaging is the way the camera lingers on her self-adornment - draping the saree, applying kohl to her charming eyes, applying lipstick -- an act which is usually accentuated to depict a nayika readying to meet her lover. Even more curious from today’s differently informed perspective is the playful banter between Annie and her close friend Usha with a lot of erotic play on words and gestures.
As the initial half of the film revolves around Annie's tryst with her lecherous boss Daniel (livened up by Mohanlal with a natural ease) and the budding romance with his professional associate Tony (Mammooty), the second half plunges into dark moods of disillusionment, betrayal, rape and murder followed by a series of fraudulent activities and police chase. The film blends in elements of romance, thriller and crime. The enviable couple turns into fugitives very soon, and you have several ‘bunty-babli’ moments where they make a living out of conning people. It must’ve been unconventional to have a hero offering words of solace to a violated wife saying that they must live on and fight this life out even as all the forces in the world are conspiring against them. Annie, like Tessa, is a survivor who is shred into pieces one moment, but picks up her scattered bits and gets on with her life the very next minute.
The most chilling moment in 22 Female Kottayam was when Cyril hugging a trusting Tessa who has barely recovered from the first assault, messages his boss that ‘she is ready’! It’s that moment of betrayal of trust and faith that shatters us the most. Because it readies the viewer too for the ordeal to follow. Though not exactly identical, I’ve always felt deeply troubled by similar ethical questions made possible by Changatham.
Who is the real deceiver/villain in the film? Is it the passionate lover who deludes her into marriage with pretty lies and prettier wooing or the lewd boss who makes no bones of his intentions from the very first ‘hello’? A boss whose attempts to seduce her soon after her marriage come as no big surprise. Tony Francis, the husband, is given a back story of a deprived, orphaned, abused childhood to legitimize his fraud. While the boss is projected as an embodiment of evil and villainy without any reason, the hero gets a Deewar like narrative to win the viewer’s/wife’s sympathy. And the rape becomes a narrative device to heighten the dramatic tension in the plot and to bring out the desperate bravado in the hero. Annie’s righteous feelings of indignation are slowly subordinated to the commercial exigencies of a male-centered plot. Her agency is subsumed within the dominant demands of a popular film’s success formula. Instead of becoming a candid exploration into the politics of rape and survival, the film makes it a ground to demonstrate male generosity and heroism. But despite the sensibility of the day, the film does make a bold move as Annie refuses to cow down before rape and decides to go back to office although it’s still at Tony’s insistence. And it must’ve been a novelty to see a Tony whose love for her doesn’t abate and he does assure her that it’s not for her to feel guilty. Rape is followed by the accidental murder of the boss by the wronged husband. And very soon they are on the run with the police hot on their heels.
Usha appears at crucial moments to witness the slow breakdown of a young confident soft girl into a hard, bitter person. I remembered the film as a hard hitting bitter concoction, but revisiting the flick alerted me to some interesting revelations about the film. The first night scene was widely publicized in the film magazines of the day like Nana for their sensual appeal. What is even more surprising is the subtle gender bending the director revels in as Tony demonstrates how a nubile bride should enter the nuptial bedroom with the customary milk. He has to perform his notion of ideal bashful femininity to an Annie who literally runs in with a cup of milk like an “errand boy in small tea shop” as the husband puts it. They exchange roles in that gender play with Annie leaning back with folded hands in masculine grandeur while Tony pretends to be pushed into the maniyara with bowed head and quivering lips.
The script sounds jaded and jarringly theatrical in many places, but startlingly sensitive and contemporary in many others. Workplace harassment was still a ‘problem without a name’ in the early eighties and was accepted as a fait accompli. The state and religion are caricatured and critiqued at the same time. Captain Raju who dons the role of a buffoonish police officer is clever in cracking the case but is stupid enough to miss the big picture.
From Annie to Tessa we have travelled a long way or else 22 FK’s poster couldn’t have announced that male chauvinists will hate the film. In Changatham it’s Tony who leads the narrative of revenge. But in 22 FK, it’s Tessa herself who owns the responsibility for her narrative. Changatham ends with Annie in jail while Tessa re-enters society from the jail to seek new pastures. Debates and arguments around gender rights in the last two decades have had their impact on our representations. The heroine seems to have evolved, but have we as citizens of a responsible polity?
(This is the ninth article in a series that aims to remind readers about some important Malayalam films.)