In recent years, Malayalam films have been receiving attention for dealing with a variety of issues. They have been noteworthy for their nuanced portrayal of characters from different walks of life. However, there still remains a lacuna in the representation of queer characters.
Sanccharram (2004), is a sapphic romance set against the green, lush background of a village in Kerala. The dialogues in Malayalam, may it be the proclamations of love between the leads, or the homophobic taunts of the angry relatives, opens our eyes to how representation in regional films is crucial in giving a voice to queer people in specific cultural contexts.
Another factor that set the movie apart was the authenticity that was clearly lent by the hands of a female filmmaker; surely the movie was made by a Malayali lesbian woman. In a film industry that prides itself on the portrayal of true-to-life narratives, accurate renderings of queer characters are necessary for a well-rounded representation of the Kerala and Malayalis. The lack of such representation is indicative of an assumption that queer people exist only in the fringes of society.
Adequate and nuanced depictions of queer characters are also important in making a wider section of the audience feel heard and seen. The Malayali queer audience might not have all aspects of their identity represented by cishet characters in Malayalam movies, nor the predominantly white queer characters seen in Western media.
Affirming portrayals help bring about the conversation around gender and sexual minorities to everyday life and thus work against the othering of LGBTQ+ people by the predominantly cisheteronormative society. Such portrayals also help the youth see examples of themselves on screen and help them feel less alone. While we do have numerous Western films with queer characters, they do not capture the intricacies that queer youth often search for when they consume queer media; most are essentially searching for characters who look and speak like them.
Drop the tropes: Queer representation and Malayalam cinema
Thus far, the sparse representation of queer characters in the industry has been informed largely by tropes and stereotypes.
Sancharram has had its share of predecessors. The first Malayalam movie credited with the portrayal of a sapphic relationship is Randu Penkuttikal (1978), with a cast of mainstream actors, a surprising outlier for its times. Deshadanakili Karayarilla (1986) is another example, a well-made movie that explored the relationship between two schoolgirls that is hinted to have romantic undertones.
The movie portrays the sapphic-coded relationship in a sympathetic light uncharacteristic for its time. The lack of clarity in the nature of the leads’ relationship probably helped the movie fly under the radar at the time. Unfortunately, this movie’s climax falls prey to the seemingly inescapable bury your gays trope, a theme that is prevalent across queer media inside and outside the Malayalam industry.
The bury your gays trope persists in Hollywood as a vestige of the Hay’s Code era. In other regional films, it is employed either as a way to “punish” the queer characters for their transgression or to make the audience sympathise with the queer character. This is seen in critically acclaimed movies like My Life Partner (2014) and Moothon (2019).
The first time a queer-coded protagonist entered the Malayalam mainstream, however, was through Chanthupottu (2005). This movie chronicles the life of the effeminate Radha, who is ridiculed by the people in his coastal village. Initially, Radha is seen ignoring the taunts and living life as he wishes, but his character arc is “completed” by him adapting to more traditionally masculine mannerisms.
The movie ends with him vowing to raise his baby assigned male at birth “as a boy” by dramatically ripping off the ribbon on his tiny ponytail and throwing it into the ocean waves. This movie gave the mainstream Malayali audience a whole new slur to address their queer peers by; even today, almost a decade later, the movie’s title is used as a derogatory term to ridicule femme AMAB people.
As queer Malayali voices started taking up space in social media, many queer activists began speaking up about the lasting damage the movie has caused to femme queer people. In response, the filmmaker Lal Jose doubled down and refused to apologise. This shows the lack of accountability exhibited by mainstream filmmakers when they are called out on the misrepresentation of queer people in their works.
Using effeminate AMAB people with ambiguous sexuality and gender expression as comic relief is a tale as old as comedy in cinema itself. This is also seen in Malayalam cinema in minor characters portrayed in movies like Punyalan Agarbatti (2013), Two Countries (2015), and Action Hero Biju (2016), to list a few recent examples, characters who could have easily been done away with without making much of a dent in the plot of the movies.
Another dangerous trope queer representation in the industry falls prey to is the sissy villain trope. One notable example is Mumbai Police (2013). At the time of its release, the movie was lauded for its suspense element. However, this suspense element hinges on the lead of the movie being revealed as the murderer of his own best friend, a crime the former committed to hide his sexuality which the latter discovered unwittingly. While one can claim that the movie isn’t homophobic since it takes a neutral stance on the queer character, it is questionable that one of the first portrayals of a gay man in an industry with barely any queer representation is in a negative light.
Another movie that employs this trope is Ritu (2009), where one gay man is portrayed as someone who isn’t hesitant to betray a long-term friend, and his comeuppance is being baited and outed by another gay character. In yet another instance, the 2014 movie My Life Partner, won Sudev Nair the Kerala State Film Award for Best Actor for portraying a gay man who suggests to his partner to marry a woman to have a baby and then kill the mother to “get rid of her”.
The movie, unsurprisingly, ends with Sudev’s character dying by suicide. Another illustration of this trope is seen in the character Peter in the 2022 action movie Bheeshma Parvam. These movies villainised and/or pathologised their gay characters simply to drive plot points, without taking a step back to look at the impact they have in a society where queer people are othered to begin with.
Reliance on such tropes tends to drive prevalent harmful stereotypes further into the minds of the mainstream cishet audience. Many filmmakers misrepresent queer characters with inadequate research, often presenting these perspectives as factual. In a society where cinema often acts as a purveyor of morality, such portrayals could be actively harmful.
The diamonds in the rough
Malayalam cinema has had its fair share of decent, if not perfect, instances of queer characters. One of the earliest instances is Deshadanakili Karayarilla, which portrays a sapphic-coded relationship in a sympathetic light.
Ardhanari (2012), which was marketed as the first-ever Malayalam movie based on the transgender community, did a surprisingly good job of portraying the cultural practices and social structure within the community. Njan Marykutty (2018) portrays the life of the titular character and shows the perils of making a place for oneself in mainstream society as a trans woman. Both movies though applauded for their sensitive portrayals of trans women, cast cis male actors to play trans women, a phenomenon that has been criticised in recent years for perpetrating misconceptions about trans women and robbing aspiring trans actors of their opportunities.
Another remarkable example is Geetu Mohandas’ Moothon (2019) which featured a cast of familiar faces and drew attention in its international film festival circuit. The film saw two mainstream actors playing queer men in love. Though applauded for its daringly tender portrayal of queer intimacy, two of the queer characters meet unfortunate demises, and a trans-coded character is seen wallowing in self-hatred.
Recently, B 32 Muthal 44 Vare (2023) garnered attention for the portrayal of the character Ziya, a trans man; he was yet again played by a cis actor. In the 2013 movie Thira, trans actor Savita plays Basu, who runs a computer centre and is a close acquaintance of the protagonist. Such characters, despite having minor roles without extensive arcs, show the possibility for casual representation of queer characters that posits them as a part of everyday life.
Queer representation: The probable future
Today, through active discourses on social media, queer Malayalis are more vocal than ever about the representation of their community in mainstream media. Some queer Malayalis who are creators themselves have taken the task upon themselves, as seen in the slow rise in popularity of music videos and short films with queer protagonists, often starring actors who are queer themselves.
Common players in the industry being cast to play queer characters is also a sign of progress since it opens up the possibility for mainstream production which might have more than limited theatrical and film festival releases. The rise in popularity of OTT platforms provides an avenue for releasing movies that filmmakers might find daunting to release theatrically.
However, there are also several ways in which increased demand for a better portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters can receive superficial responses from mainstream filmmakers. These include but are not limited to tokenism and queer-baiting.
In a recent instance, the first look poster of Arun D Jose’s upcoming movie Journey of Love 18+ featured two young male actors posing with garlands around their necks and bouquets in their hands in front of a sub-registrar office in Kerala, which attracted a lot of attention. However, the official trailer teased what appears to be a run-of-the-mill heterosexual teen romance.
It goes without saying that quality over quantity is also key. Mainstream filmmakers should be careful to listen to inputs from the queer community/audience. Even better would be to work with sensitivity, with readers from the community being represented.