In an interview to a vernacular fortnightly coinciding with the release of her film, Sagar Alias Jackie: Reloaded, when the scribe wanted details about her character, Shobana said— “I play an important character in the film, but I am not Mohanlal’s heroine. She needs to be 20 something I guess.” For an actor who has had some memorable associations with Mohanlal on screen, this not-so-casual admission underscores the shelf-life reality of female actors in Malayalam cinema. Ironically as Mohanlal and Mammootty started getting older, the average screen age of their heroines dropped at an alarming rate. And Shobana recognising this abject stereotyping of 30 and 40 plus women in Malayalam cinema, kept away from the marquee, giving her time and passion to a profession that gave her the space to explore and seek the artist in her. Unless of course, she was lured by a filmmaker who was prepared to disrupt stereotypes. The 2020 film directed by Anoop Sathyan, Varane Avashyamundu was one such lure, that had her playing a 50 plus single mother who defied the labels crafted for celluloid women of that age bracket and lived life on her own terms and conditions. Neena wasn’t afraid to give love another chance, despite being a survivor of an abusive marriage. Even when her daughter couldn’t dodge the trap of putting her mother on a pedestal, Neena preferred to do what her heart desired.
But in sharp contrast Shobana’s peers like Revathy and Urvashi graduated far too quickly to an age bracket that stereotyped (though there were interesting characters) them as mothers and sisters. True Urvashi recently headlined her 700th film, the fact remains that interesting characters are far and fewer in between for the powerhouse performer in her. "Mammootty and Mohanlal have maintained themselves well. They can easily pull off characters younger than them but look at me, you can't expect me to be a young actor's lover. I need to work hard for it otherwise," was how Urvashi tried to rationalise the shelf life of heroines of her age in a recent interview.
By that respect Manju Warrier who made her comeback after a gap of 13/14 years post-marriage seems to be faring rather well in Malayalam cinema. Not only is she getting the cream of roles, but is also commanding her space in Superstar vehicles, thereby striking a balance between the actor and star in her. Some of my favourites would be--How old are you which had a 36-year-old woman married to a toxic spouse, shrivelling in domesticity and a dreary job, rediscovering herself, Udhaharanam Sujatha that had the actor acing the struggles of a single mother working as a domestic help to educate her child, the daughter of an influential politician who harbours hatred for her step brother in Lucifer, and the single woman who wages a battle against her molester in Prathi Poovankozhi. But having said that, Manju’s selection in the last few films have come under the scanner. While I can understand why she agreed to do an author-backed role in the middling Ayesha that had the actor occupying every scene in the film, some of her other choices have been baffling. KP Sunanda, who is at odds with her sibling (Soubin Shahir) over their contrasting political ideology in Vellari Pattanam was perhaps an idea that sounded intriguing on paper but got squandered while adapting on screen. Not only is the character weakly etched, but Manju with her newly spruced up image further caricatures Sunanda, with even her otherwise great comic timing going off pitch. Of late one is unable to see traces of the once fine actor in her, and her choices are also not landing well (Lalitham Sundaram, Meri Awaz Suno, Jack N Jill).
In her second innings, Navya Nair might not be bagging too many films, but her comeback film in Malayalam, VK Prakash’s Oruthee showcased an actor who had immensely worked on her craft during the interim. Gone was the dramatic dialogue delivery and theatrical body language, which were replaced by a studied, subtle, fluid performer. She plays a wife and mother who works as a boat jetty purser, with a husband who is employed at the Gulf. Her life takes an unexpected turn when a famous jewellery chain tries to swindle her. Oruthee chronicles Radhamani’s quest riddled with self-doubt and helplessness to get justice. Navya internalises the complexities and turmoils of Radhamani’s predicament with an impeccable control over her voice tonality and body language. A year later, though she tries to salvage the feebly sketched Janaki who deals with anxiety disorder in Janaki Jaane, the shallow writing gives her away.
Bhavana’s last Malayalam film, Adam Joan, was in 2017, in which she played Prithviraj Sukumaran’s sister-in-law. Five years later, despite her comeback film, Ntikkakkoru Premandayirunnu, not creating a flutter at the box, Bhavana the actor seemed to have finetuned herself over time. In this rom-com in which she played Nithya, a single mother and a survivor of an abusive marriage, her screen presence is a revelation, and a reminder to filmmakers and writers of the possibilities she can offer.
Though her filmography says she hasn’t really taken a sabbatical, except after 2018, Meera Jasmine never gained that striking momentum which was there in the initial years of her career during the second half of her innings. The last few years especially saw her appearing in middling films, essaying characters that hardly paid deference to her talent. And the recent Sathyan Anthikad film, Makal, in which the actor played mother to a teenager offered her nothing to chew on as an actor.
Samvratha Sunil’s comeback film, Sathyam Paranjal Viswasikkumo sank without a trace.
Recently Rima Kallingal admitted that marriage really affected her career, with people assuming that she is either not interested or would work only in her husband Aashiq Abu’s production.
They call it the golden period in Malayalam cinema and yet when it comes to female actors, apart from scarcity of well-rounded characters for women of all age brackets, there is also the issue of longevity. The cut off age for a female actor continues to be the late 20s/mid 30s in Malayalam cinema. Thankfully OTT platforms have pushed the female characters out of the binaries, and they are getting opportunities to explore their craft in a way cinema never allowed them to.
Recently Malayalam content made its debut on OTT with a web series and even in there you could witness some intriguingly placed female characters. OTT is where female actors will get an opportunity to flex their craft, dodging the pitfalls of box office numbers or stereotypes. I would love to see Manju Warrier do what a Shefali Shah or Tillotama Shome is doing on OTT. Or better still a collaboration with Konkana Sen Sharma may be? So much cross-border talent swapping is possible thanks to the boom of OTT.