Amma Ariyathe is a Malayalam serial that camouflages itself as a ‘more-power-to-women’ flick. Still, insists on portraying women beneath men wherever it counts. The protagonist Aleena is a ‘strong’ woman who does not believe in male superiority. But she is also convinced that after marriage, women ought to be subservient to their husbands. It seems that the writers want so many things at once. They want the younger women audience to root for Aleena’s independence and courage. They also don’t want to alienate older viewers. So they make sure Aleena is not so alpha as to upend the male superiority in a traditional marriage.
What Amma Ariyathe does to make Aleena strong
Amma Ariyathe tries way too hard to portray Aleena as a strong woman. (Here is a little background info to make the context clear. Aleena Peter is a troubled young woman who is out to take revenge on the men who abused her mother). She has great punchlines. She successfully blackmails three powerful men, in a manner reminiscent of the infamous Saritha Nair case.
But the viewers are just supposed to accept the fact that even though she is strong and intelligent (did I mention she is a professor AND a lawyer because being a strong woman means having multiple high profile jobs), she is unable to protect herself. Although she has some heavy lines, this ‘pensimham’ is still a damsel in distress, waiting to get rescued by her big, strong boyfriend.
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What is wrong with Aleena?
Aleena is a flawed character, and not in a good way. For all her ‘strength’, Aleena’s relationships with the other women in her story suffer. An example is her relationship with her half-sister, a 19-year-old girl. Aleena pushes her to marry TWICE over the course of the show. She also gives her sister some very uncharacteristic advice. “After marriage, a woman belongs to her husband”. “He should decide if she should continue to study”. “A woman should be happy in her husband’s home and wait for their permission to go somewhere”.
Aleena herself is unmarried at the ‘ripe old age’ of 26. The show makes it clear that this aberration is alright only because she is on a quest for revenge. Aleena compensates for this by getting her sister married, whether she wants it or not. It doesn’t matter to her that her sister is still a child who has not even completed college. And sure, it shouldn’t be a problem, since her husband would probably permit her to continue to study. If he doesn’t, well, that is not really Aleena’s problem as a wife belongs to the husband after marriage.
Who exactly is a ‘strong’ woman according to Amma Ariyathe?
Aleena is often advertised as the poster girl for strong women. Yet, she endorses the idea that women need permission from the male partner and his family to live their lives. Her character encourages the view that strong women are defined by their high profile, white-collar jobs. Aleena’s character plays into the popular trope that strong women are exceptions forged exclusively by terrible situations. But worry not, they are traditional where it counts. She can’t be the good guy if she is not at least a little traditional.
At this point, I wouldn’t be very surprised if the show ends up giving Aleena an IPS along with her boyfriend who dreams of the top police job. A majority of Asianet’s ‘strong’ women have an IPS. Want examples? Take Deepthi Sooraj IPS from Parasparam, another popular serial that ran on Asianet. Deepthi’s journey started as revenge for her parents’ murders. Or take the lead character of Asianet’s newest serial Thooval Sparsham, Shreya Nandini IPS. Her story is marked by childhood trauma, a murdered mother, and a lost sister. See where this goes yet?
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Sure, Aleena Peter is a strong woman, her choices are her own, as flawed as they are. With such a complex, nuanced female character, one would expect Amma Ariyathe to have a feministic undertone. The only thing in the show that meets this expectation is a bunch of characters like Aleena. However, it undermines this saving grace by stressing way too much on how trauma is the only thing that made these women strong. Another character in the show, Rajni Murthy, an officer who has some excellent views on women’s rights has an abysmal family life. Her husband is terrified of her. By doing this, the story plays into the stereotype that men married to ‘strong’ feministic women are beaten into becoming cowards.
The similarities between Amma Ariyathe and Oru Indian Pranayakadha
Let’s compare the portrayal of the character Aleena with Irene Gardner, the female lead of the movie, Oru Indian Pranayakadha. Irene’s story is not as tragic, but it starts the same way Aleena’s does. Just like Aleena, Irene is an adopted child born out of wedlock. Irene has a less tumultuous past, but like Aleena, she had a happy childhood around loving parents. Both Irene and Aleena learn about their past as adults. Both of them come into the story in search of their parents. In both cases, the parents are living blissful lives where the past is long forgotten. Also, both of them have male sidekicks to help them in their quests.
Why Irene Gardner is better and more relatable
Where Irene differs, in a good way, is in the way her character is presented. Irene is just an ordinary girl looking for closure. She does not have twenty different degrees. Irene makes many mistakes that the story does not try to justify. She is vulnerable, and more importantly, she is not aggressive or violent. Irene’s strength is not in punchlines or blackmail-based influence. She does not commit crimes against innocent people for revenge. The story does not justify these actions with her troubled past. Irene’s strength does not lie in her anger.
Irene’s story SHOWS her strength. Aleena’s story TELLS her strength in a thousand different ways. Yet, it still fails to make her as good a character as Irene. While Aleena’s boyfriend Ambadi is lauded as her knight in shining armour, Irene’s guy Sidharthan is just a good friend-in-need. Both their stories tend towards romance. Even so, both of them have different approaches to it. Irene makes a gentle choice to give Sidharthan the space he needs to grow into a mature man. Whereas Aleena practically declares that she will make Ambadi an IPS officer as a part of her revenge quest.
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We can make arguments for the relevance of Aleena’s character, especially if one were to focus solely on her story. This is similar to a 2012 Malayalam movie Fathers Day, whose only highlight was a cameo by Rasool Pookutty. The hero is motivated by the same reasons that send Aleena on her quest: revenge on the men that abused his mother. Both these stories are tolerable, but not unique. Like Father’s Day, Amma Ariyathe could have done better with its characters.
The real problem is Amma Ariyathe’s hypocrisy
Aleena is the patriarchal society’s idea of a strong woman. She is a product of the benevolent sexism that is at the core of this show. Amma Ariyathe goes out of its way to portray Aleena as not-meek, not-traditional. But it also tries to sneak in some patriarchal influence into Aleena’s relationships: a little stereotyping here, a little old-timer advice there. A woman with several degrees, a thug boyfriend, and a convoluted, overly dramatic revenge plot is not the ideal strong woman.
The ideal strong woman is not confined by any definition. She may be meek in her lifestyle, but can still be strong in the choices she makes to be an individual. Amma Ariyathe fails to portray ideal women. The show’s ‘strong’ women characters accept patriarchy in all the places they shouldn’t. The show repeats time and again that if Aleena’s circumstances had been any less tragic, she would have been happy to be the meek family woman she advises her sister to be. Irene Gardner, on the other hand, is as relatable as the next person in terms of attitude if not backstory. She is strong not because of her rage, but because of her resolve. Her resolve is not the product of tragedy. Rather it stems from her personality. While Aleena is strong despite being a woman, Irene is strong because she is a good person irrespective of gender.
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It is easy to dismiss Amma Ariyathe as a silly, overdramatic TV serial. There is no reason why anyone should be so concerned about the wrong messages it sends. Not when there is so much choice in the entertainment sector today. But as the third most-watched serial on Malayalam TV, Amma Ariyathe is well placed to dispel the common man’s stereotypes about feminism. With a character like Aleena, they wouldn’t have to go out of their way to do that. It is disappointing to notice that all the show does now is reinforce all the stereotypes.
Oru Indian Pranayakadha does the opposite of that. It pushes against the stereotypes that confine women, especially against the ones that define their relationships. Still, the discussion around what an ideal woman ought to be is a personal one. There is no single way to be a strong woman. It is something a woman has to decide for herself.
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