There are so many articles out there about strong and iconic female characters in cinema. The kind of women we celebrate and look up to. There is no denying that these are some super strong females. A while ago, I was researching to write about the women who excelled in comedy in Malayalam cinema. I noticed that quite a few characters portrayed by Kalpana seemed way ahead of their time. Sure, her characters did not get revenge by chopping off a man’s genitals or overcome bombings in Iraq. But in small subtle ways, Kalpana did contribute significantly to the portrayal of female empowerment in Malayalam cinema. The issues addressed by her characters were smaller in comparison but much closer to home.
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UDC Kumari – Dr. Pashupathy
Undoubtedly one of her most loved performances, UDC Kumari is one character who I wish had an entire movie based on her. Pokkenemkodde is a kunju grama pradhesham. Kumari, one of the most stylish women in this village and the only Upper Division Clerk in the Panchayat, is the epitome of an independent working woman.
She dresses differently from the other women in the village. And in a realistic scenario, that is enough to get tongues wagging and a whole lot of shaming. But UDC owns her signature look. In her bright chiffon saree paired with sleeveless blouses, oversized sunglasses, and matching accessories, and umbrella, she strides confidently down the dusty path of the village, leaving a line of villagers ogling at her.
It’s surprising that during an era that often typecast women who dress in modern clothes as the pongachakaari or worse, as a “feminist” (or the 90’s perception of what a feminist is), UDC was a sweet, soft-spoken, and kind-hearted woman loved by all.
One of the things that I noticed about most of her movies is that her character is often the direct opposite of the leading lady. Towards the climax, both Ammukutty (Parvathy), the heroine and UDC are stuck in a similar dilemma – having to marry someone they do not love. While an entire village fights for Ammukutty’s cause, UDC single-handedly deals with her dilemma with tact.
I could go on and on about UDC Kumari when the fact of the matter is, she was definitely more than just a pretty face.
Vasasntha Kokilla (Vala) – Porutham
I don’t know how famous this movie was during the time. I watched the whole movie after coming across the comedy clips on YouTube and came to the conclusion that the only good thing about this shogam movie is the comedy track between Kalpana and Jagathy.
A newly married woman, Vasantha Kokila is a woman with progressive chinthagathi evident from her conversations with her patriarchal husband. She is appalled when the husband calls her “nee”, suggests that he helps her out in the kitchen if he wants his food on time, and lives by the principle that household chores are the shared responsibility of both the husband and wife. Again a stark contrast from the lead actress of the movie who says, “Anungal adukalle kerunnadh enik isshtamala.” when her husband offers to help her out in the kitchen. Ugh!
The movie sympathises with Jagathy as the pavam husband tormented by the modern chinthakathi wife. Her progressive nature is summed up in a line by Jagathy – “Oru bharthaav manobhavam aan avalke” a typical reaction to a woman who is assertive and refuses to oblige to the rules laid down by her husband.
When her husband fully loses his shit after Vala cuts her long hair, calling her various derogatory words, she does not cry or cower in the corner. Vala counters each of her husband’s misogynist comments with logic and quick wit.
“Ende mudi murikkaan aaredengilm anuvaadham veno? Alla pinne!”
She’s also in no hurry to birth a child either, wanting to take the time to enjoy her newly married life – a choice that her husband once again criticises her for. In a society that is still riddled with Kalippanmar and Angalamars who believe they have the right to tell a woman how she should live her life, I feel that Kalpana’s portrayal of Vasantha Kokilla should be celebrated.
Mary – Kaliveed
Anyone who knows me knows my very strong feelings towards this movie. The tone-deafness of Jayaram’s character who we are apparently supposed to sympathise with … urrrg.. I can’t, just thinking about it pisses me off. In spite of being a staunch Manju Warrier fan, I believe the only good thing about this movie is Mary, Kalpana’s character.
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Mary is a prospective bride for Dr. Gonzales (Kochin Haneefa), a psychiatrist whose only criteria is that the woman he marries should be a pure, untouched virgin who has had zero premarital relationships. A common demand that many unmarried men in Kerala hold to this day. He ensures the fact by hypnotizing his prospects in order to get them to reveal the truth about their past. He marries Mary once he is fully satisfied that she has not been kalangapeddaled. On their wedding night, she turns the table on him by hypnotizing him to find that he himself has had various relationships in his past.
“Swantham thettukal marach pidichitaan kalangapettilathe oru pennukuttye vivaham kazhinune nyingal vaashi pidichadhe”
She then goes on to reveal a string of relationships she has had over the years. At a time when even widowed/divorced heroines in Malayalam cinema are always magically found to be virgins, Mary casually listing her past romantic conquests was quite refreshing to watch. And the best part is, she was mature enough to let bygones be bygones and embrace a fresh start with her husband.
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Shantha (Kuttan’s Amma) – Bangalore Days
Over the years, we’ve seen so many mother characters. The ever-loving yet helpless mother from the Kaviyoor Ponnama school of acting. Or the evil, conniving mothers ala Meenama/ Philomena category. In any case, the course of action that is expected to be taken by a newly widowed mother is always the same. Cry a lot, be helpless, talk about bhadhyadhagal and cry some more. I understand Shantha was not widowed but abandoned by her husband. But in any case, she chose not to go down the helpless shogam mother route.
A woman who’d been denied of so many simple pleasures in life, when the opportunity arose, she chose to seize the moment instead and live the life she’d always wanted. The scene where she openly beseeches her son to not take away this opportunity to escape her monotonous life is such a rare instance in Malayalam cinema – A mother, who is caring and loving enough, yet chooses herself and her desires over everyone else’s expectations of how she should lead her life. As she settles herself into a life that she’d envisioned for herself, Kuttan’s displeasure is evident. But like most of Kalpana’s characters, she pays no heed to the chauvinistic male character, never letting him hinder her from chasing her dreams, all the way to America.
What’s disheartening is that in a movie that is so far from the ’90s, we are yet again made to sympathise with the male character who is affected by the sudden progressiveness of the female. Even though Kuttan is shown to eventually accept the changes in his mother, Kalpana, the underlying level of puchcham in his tone towards her modernisation is evident throughout.
Razia Bheevi – Thanichalla Nyan
To be honest, I came to know about the existence of this movie very recently. Based on a true story, Thanichella Nyan tells the story of Chellamma (KPAC Lalitha) and Razia Beevi (Kalpana). Chellama, a middle aged Brahmin woman who decides to end her life is rescued by Razia, a Muslim social worker. Disregarding caste, religion and any other political issues, Razia opens up her home to Chellamma and an inseparable bond forms between the two women.
Within this household, Chellama was free to live on her own terms, follow her own traditions with Razia’s wholehearted support. Razia creating a small Thulasi Madam and preparing a Vishu Kani for her friend are simply heart-warming to watch. Saying that this movie and its theme is one that is so very relevant to the current scene that our nation is facing would be an understatement. Kalpana, who bagged her first National Award for the role, did complete justice to the character, beautifully portraying a relationship that transcends religious and cultural differences.
There are undoubtedly many more remarkable roles by Kalpana. At the time they seemed to be there just for comic relief. But upon closer examination, I realise that a good number of Kalpana’s characters were strong women who were not likely to take any shit from anyone. She put forth many more memorable performances like the shrewd SI Mariyamma from Ishtam on the prowl for poovalanmaar, or the sophisticated Chef Clara from CID Unnikrishnnan who took such pride in her profession and knew how to keep the amorous gardener Ummen at bay, or even the fiercely independent and outspoken Ponnama from Pidakozhi Kuvunna Nootaandu. The brand of Kalpana, that of the empowered women peppered with quick wit, a sharp tongue, and an undefeatable spirit definitely belongs in the hall of fame of iconic women in Malayalam cinema.
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