After a year and a half of online class, a friend added me to a private Whatsapp group chat with three of my other classmates. Essentially, I became a part of a group. Guess what? I truly underestimated the power of what female friendships could offer, despite having so many female friends. I needed quarantine, a million video calls and post-midnight conversations to address how valuable they are to me.
Here, I had a place to talk about everything, be it sex or masturbation or fantasies or emotional conflict or relationship drama or just random memes we found on the internet. We were a group of Gen Z women, struggling to thrive in college, flawed and tired and happy and scared, but who could understand us better than we understood each other?
Malayalam diction has a few words for female friendships. Kutukkari, Thozhi, Snehitha etc. are the most common usages, but somehow, it lacks emotions. Kuttukari will not suffice as a powerful and evocative enough term to address your best friend. That is a relationship that transcends boundaries, it is a sisterhood, a partnership and a friendship at the same time. How can I call my best friend and this group of women who make me cry with laughter every day just my kootukaarikal?
This is where it started. The idea for this article and the inherent problem in Malayalam culture and cinema where female friendships are erased, manipulated and appropriated to make women seem one dimensional. They take a sacred bond, break it apart and then rebuild it for the drama the film could offer or sacrifice it for a male romantic partner.
Let’s look at some common female friendship tropes prevalent in Malayalam cinema and how it portrays women.
The Rowdy Girl Squad Without a Purpose
Malayalam cinema of the late nineties and the early twenties love this trope. It often contains the female protagonist who is accompanied by a ‘girl squad’ which they lead. Do they have a purpose? Most probably not, other than pretend to be the sounding board for the quirks of the protagonist.
These representations of female friendships are toxic and promote the view that women are dramatic and vile for no particular reason. It often shifts the narrative towards the men in the film and portrays them as the victim. Think about movies like Lollipop or Ente Suryaputhri, does any of those women have a purpose besides being mean, dramatic and functioning as a convenient entourage for the female lead?
The ‘Boys Have No Drama’ Friendships
This is a special class of women who do not associate with other women because men are obviously cooler and have no ‘drama’. Not only do these women stereotypically supply their fair share of drama, but ironically, make fun of themselves in the process too.
Films that support this narrative actively get away with silent and subtle misogyny while also using their one female character as their own version of a manic pixie dream girl. The public love these ‘single women’ amongst male characters whose only purpose is to either reform them, fall in love with them or succumb to tragedy thus giving the men a character arc. Robin Hood and B.Tech are perfect examples of ‘boys have no drama’ friendships.
‘Forced For the Sake of It’ Friendships
This is what happens when male writers decide to write female friendships without consulting women. Sure, there is a group of women and they are best friends. But, why are they, friends? Nobody knows. Maybe their names start with the same letter or they work in the same company or maybe they are students in the same school.
Despite these similarities, their personalities don’t match, they have no conflicts, no emotions, no love or understanding amongst each other. They exist so that the filmmakers can check-mark a requirement so that the audience does not cancel them.
Female friendships are marked by emotional depth, women are more open to their friends as compared to their potential partners or family members or authority figures. This makes these on-screen friendships highly unrelatable and superficial. Examine the female friendships in Anandam, Minnaminikuttam and Om Shanti Oshana as examples of these.
‘We’ve Got Each Others’ Backs’ Relationships
Although they are scattered and rare, when done well, these are my favourite representations of female friendships. Consider the examples of Notebook and 2 Penkuttikal, the girls in these films show up for each other regardless of their personal convictions, values and morals.
Our local media often demonise female friendships and reduce them to the level of personal and misogynistic drama. The culmination of which is women realising how valuable their lovers or other relationships are. We need to stop promoting this view of friendships. Instead, what we need is what Notebook and 2 Penkuttikal propose – Girls and women evolving together, growing up as flawed individuals in a world that is otherwise not designed or catered for them.
‘What Female Friendships Are Actually Like’ Relationships
Have you ever left a film feeling exhilarated by the representation you felt through it? I have, especially when I watched, not one, but three films – June, Uyare and Salt & Pepper. The representation of female friendships in these films took the front seat over the plot for me. Let’s consider an example.
Sure, June is a coming-of-age film about June experimenting with relationships and life choices. It is about the men she falls in love with the decisions she makes, but if it weren’t for Mottachi, her best friend, the story would have fallen down the drain.
This is what friendships realistically look like. They are not exotic specimens to be looked at through a microscope or inane relationships based on group hierarchy. Instead, they are mundane relationships filled with arguments and love and most often, reality checks.
Women are conventionally described as complicated. That’s probably a value judgement. But, female friendships have depth and complexity which Malayalam cinema has left unexplored.
Are there any other types of female friendships you can think of? Are there pairs or groups of friends from popular culture that inspire you or you see yourself in?