Warrior Woman to Wily Seductress: How Two Films Created & Killed An Icon

Janaky Sreedharan
29/04/2016

She was the icon of a generation. Our own warrior woman who became a household name, a symbol of cultural pride, dignity, courage and beauty -- thanks to the magic of cinema. In the afterglow of a newly won freedom, the nation seemed all set to celebrate the free spirit and noble fire in its women. Movie halls were crucial spaces to create such idols. And Malayalam cinema found it in Unniyarcha to start with.

Films like Mother India have always been upheld as the signs of the golden age of women in Indian popular cinema. Regional cinema took the folk route to its own myths and legends. That's how the Udaya studios steered by Kunchakko begins its tryst with the vadakkan ballads by zeroing in on this unique woman's story as the first among the many to unfold on the silver screen in 1961. Penned by Sharangapani (who went onto write many more screenplays based on vadakkanpattukal,) the blockbuster Unniyarcha was a multi-starrer with the delectable actor/dancer Ragini as Unniyarcha, brilliant Sathyan as Aromal, the ever romantic Prem Nazir as Kunhiraman and not a very impressive Kottayam Chellappan as Chandu. The songs brought to life by P. Bhaskaran and K. Raghavan melded into the narrative like a choric chant.Thus "Aadaam paadaam Aromal Chekavar than ankam vettiya kathakal" was a kind of Kerala anthem in praise of female honor, martial ethics and personal values. We were consolidating our ideals of family, friendship and man-woman relationships.

Malayalam cinema was in sync with the mood of an infant state slowly making its baby steps toward its own identity. Its teething pains are visible in the way the films negotiated a transition from a colonial society to an independent polity. Cinema was constructing the cultural memory of a collectivity through a revival of these songs. Filmic renditions of this oral tradition illuminate interesting interweaving of orature and modern visual cultures in the formation of a new sensibility. Cinema, orality and politics converge to project a future bred on optimism and nostalgia, which was consciously created for a uniform cultural past of which we were not sure of. Because as we can see now, the tale of Unniyarcha is shrouded in many conjectures which only add to her mystique.

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Many who belong to that generation aver that they had no firsthand knowledge of these ballads and if Malayalam cinema had not stepped in so imaginatively, we would still be in the dark. A devoted brother, a loyal husband and a deceitful lover are the crucial elements in the tale of this legendary fighter. Her thirst to avenge her brother's death at the hands of the devious Chandu accentuates her charm and enigma. It's interesting to note how the history of cinema is also a document of our emotional history. We see the vestiges of a matrilineal society where brother-sister relationship is even more sacred than a marital bond, where sisters die for their brothers and how the family legacy of war and expectations is passed on from uncle to nephew rather than from father to son.

We also see an Archa waxing eloquent about her love for her brother Aromel. Husband Kunhiraman occupies lesser space in her emotional and ethical universe. It is an Archa who defies her husband to go to the Allimalarkkavu to see a dance performance and takes on the robber barons on her own. She flashes her urumi (a weapon she is famed for) and cowes down her enemies. The dialogues written by Sharangapani imagined an Unniyarcha fighting for women to move about in public spaces fearlessly. They are the purple patches in the script and are aflame with the revolutionary and progressive zeal of the scriptwriter who was himself a comrade and activist in the Punnapra Vayalar struggle. He conceived an Archa who fights her own battles. Perhaps this is the only film where a female avenger chases the villain Chandu on horseback after his heinous act of treachery. An epic spin is given to the imaging of revenge by Unniyarcha, who lets loose her hair and vows not to tie it up unless her brother is avenged. There couldn't be a more telling evocation of Draupadi. And you have the spectacular vision of a woman on horseback with her waist length dark tresses flowing behind her and sword held high in hot pursuit.

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And we thought Chandu was forever doomed to be the progenitor of the art of deception. Till some time toward the end of the tricky eighties, the tide shifted, Archa was ruthlessly demolished and Aromal became a mere shadow. From the debris emerged a Chandu with renewed vigor, brawn and words. Under the watchful pen of M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Chandu became the symbol of an embittered masculinity and legitimized a misogynist indignation and spite as he burst out in Valluvanadan Malayalam "nee adakkamulla pennvargam chirichu kondu chathikkum." Applause filled the air, and since then we have had a spate of macho heroes marking the demonic rise of the male superstar. From a miserable loser, Chandu/Mammootty grew kingsize with the halo of a tragic hero woven around his anguish. I am sure many of us felt a personal loss when we lost Archa, the one and only emblem of female potential Keralites had for a long time. True, Chandu like a Bhima or Karna must have his say on a narrative that has been unfair to him and his image. Through him, the writer was trying to retrieve many a suppressed, brutalized and defamed voice. But did we have to rehabilitate him at the expense of Archa? Or is that the unfair equation we are left with? Should the rise of the man always be at the expense of a female hero?

Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha was cunningly worded as to diminish the martial skills of Archa. All her skills and famed bravado were contained within Chandu's rhetoric. And the panan or the balladeer, who sang out his dependency on Puthooramveedu in the form of paeans to his lady Archa, was also shown up for his strategic loyalty. An athletic Madhavi in the 1989 film held the sword only in love play or performance. She was never to be seen with the serpentine, deadly urumi. She was just a wily seductress who used her charms to further her purpose. Of late, I came to hear of her being a trophy captive in Tipu's harem. Looks like Archa lived many more lives than we have imagined for her.

Now that we are done with celebration and demonization, could we have a more complex and nuanced portrait of this woman who birthed many cycles of stories? Just to tell ourselves that no story is ever fully finished.

(Photo credits: www.oldmalayalamcinema.wordpress.com and www.malayalasangeetham.info)

This is the third in a series that aims to remind readers about some important Malayalam films that are worth revisiting.