The 2010’s have given us a lot. Filmmaking that has begun to cater to the female gaze is certainly one of them. Not just catering, but presenting women in a light that they never have before; either as leads, or with pivotal storylines that actively shape the arc of the film. Why is this important? Because not only does it begin to represent variation in female character types, but it also puts a mirror to society to showcase its unspoken heroes. The Bechdel-Wallace test hence displays what we’ve consistently seen lacking in Indian cinema-simple, mundane conversation between two women.
Look, theoretically, it’s really not that difficult to be able to pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test. It tests whether not a piece of fiction ensures the following 3 conditions are met:
- There are at least 2 women (preferably named characters)
- These two engage in a conversation.
- The conversation has nothing to do with a man.
Shockingly simple, right?
But in our cinematic culture, which largely reflects society’s love for patriarchal institutions, it’s also more difficult than we’d imagine. Think of the various fertility associated celebrations in the South-when a girl reaches puberty; when she’s pregnant, and of course, marriage. It indicates a demarcation of sorts, instilling an inflated importance to the biological abilities of a woman’s body. Of course, from a male lens, we celebrate display that a girl is now ready to beget progeny.
In this kind of situation, the Bechdel-Wallace test struggles to hold any ground. Like when entire films are made about a woman’s journey from being a young “kunwari” (unmarried girl) to widowhood. We tie a woman’s entire worth as being synonymous to her journey as it parallels that of being a man’s consort.
But as we journey into a new decade, with better quality cinema, we can expect cinema that highlights female trailblazers, both seen and unseen in common media.
So without further ado, here are 3 female-centric films from the South that pass the Bechdel-Wallace test.
Disclaimer: This list does not contain many, many wonderful films I have not included. Some notable entrants include Khadamma (2011), Helen (2019), Irudhi Suttru (2016), Take Off (2017) and Biriyani (2020). Secondly, I have not included any Kannada films as I humbly admit I haven’t seen enough to be able to find films that pass this test.
Uyare is a critically acclaimed Malayalam film, following the story of an aviation student that survives an acid attack, at the loss of her career. Parvathy Thiruvothu carries the incredible role of Pallavi Raveendran with her expressive eyes and ability to internalise the pain of loss of self.
She is accompanied by Asif Ali as her abusive boyfriend Govind, who remarkably plays the role of the antagonist with shades of grey. The film also highlights her relationship with two other men in her life: Tovino Thomas as her boss and supporter Vishal, Siddique as her father Raveendran. Both men are positive influences on Pallavi-one helping her find new avenues and encouraging her, the other being her silent backbone to all her dreams. Lest we ignore the importance of Anarkali Mariker as her friend Sariya, who also plays the role of an important support system for Pallavi.
The film is as much about a father’s relationship with his ambitious daughter and her dreams, a healthy relationship between a two colleagues, and displaying the subtle toxicity that exists within relationships. Most importantly, its Pallavi’s journey- her metamorphosis from someone who had her dreams shattered, to rising above it.
How Old Are You (2014)/36 Vayadhinile (2015)
HOAY/36V follows a disillusioned government employee that’s lost her zest for life, and her journey in reclaiming self worth. First made in Malayalam starring Manju Warrier, then in Tamil starring Jyothika- it is the return of two legendary actresses after an extended sabbatical.
A chance conversation with the President of India turned into a turning point for the lead. The lead had been a constant source of goof-ups and embarrassment to her husband and daughter. She faces a crisis when her family move away, as she realises she had devoted her entire life to them. After an unfortunate conversation and reconnecting with an old college friend, the protagonist is reminded of her fiery potential; hence seizing the opportunity to make distinct change in her community without being shackled by familial expectations formerly imposed on her.
Both films were well received for their message about following your dreams. It did so, without either a gendered or ageist lens. It wasn’t just a win for female representation, but also in the hearts of movie watchers- both Jyothika and Manju Warrier were living that role fully.
Mahanati is a critically and commercially acclaimed biopic of yesteryear superstar Savitri, portrayed by National Award Winner Keerthy Suresh. It charts Savitri’s life from a young age; her rise to superstardom, marriage to Gemini Ganesan, and her fall from grace. Keerthy Suresh elegantly portrays her with grace and charm, breathing life into the role without making a caricature of her. Employing Dulquer Salmaan’s disarming smile and stellar acting chops prove him an effective Gemini-garu. With Samantha and Vijay Devarakonda supporting as journalists, the film is largely portrayed in a narrative sense.
The film is praised for its honest portrayal of someone who struggled a lot, both early on and later in life. There is a very subtle glorification of Savitri’s persona, but it shows her Savitri’s life’s struggles as humanely as possible. There were a myriad of issues- lack of money, a rocky marriage and alcoholism. But its exactly these facets that made her human.
Mahanati became the highest-grossing South Indian film that starred a woman as the primary character.
To conclude, it’s vastly important to have appropriately represented women in cinema, detailing powerful lives, or the impact of powerful actions. The Bechdel-Wallace test is one of the simplest, most baseline metrics that filmmakers may consider when making “female centric” cinema. Here’s hoping for many more wonderful films that showcase strong, powerful women.