TV serials in Kerala follow the tradition of Western soap operas. One of the first soap operas to be telecast, All My Children (1970), by visionary writer/radio actor Irna Phillips, ran for over 41 years. Malayalam TV serials have shorter lifespans but the premise is basically the same – small world, household drama targeting women viewers. It was changing gender norms and a decrease in the number of housewives that caused soap operas to become obsolete in the West. Yet, in Kerala, it thrives. Perhaps it is because our society is yet to change its norms on women. Or, it could be because our women are still able to relate to characters facing marital abuse.
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Why should we be concerned, you may ask. We now have progressive films, Netflix, Prime Video; all big windows into the world of entertainment. However, we should care, because what we watch influences us. Serials are great opportunities and can be used for much more than random product placement. Whether we like it or not, serials are greatly popular in Malayali households. It is watched by women, who make homes and influence generations.
Yet, the only time we discuss the potential of serials is when someone trolls it. Like the movie Thinkal Muthal Velli Vare proved, the most interest mainstream has towards a serial is when they make fun of it. You may say, we are not interested because of the cringe-worthy content. It is true that the content can be nauseating at times, but it is not going to change if there is no criticism. Mere trolling does not amount to criticism. If you aren’t particularly interested in changing it, there is no point in making fun of it. It becomes yet another joke without heart.
With the hope that reviewing can spark a change in the culture of toxic content, here is a review of the serial with the highest TRP among Malayalam TV channels: Kudumbavilakku. Kudumbavilakku is the remake of Sreemoyee, a Bengali TV series written by Leena Gangopadhyay. The story is similar to movies like English Vinglish and How Old Are You. A traditional female protagonist, who is taken for granted by her ‘modern’ family goes through a period of stress that causes her to reevaluate herself and become independent without the help of her family. The lead in Kudumbavilakku, Sumithra is played by Meera Vasudevan, who returned to Malayalam television after a span of 13 years. Movie buffs might remember her as Lekha from the Mohanlal starrer, Thanmathra. Sumithra is a homemaker who struggles with her unhappy marriage and thankless family. The story deals with her transformation into an independent woman and the evolution of her relationships.
Like most Malayalam serials, Kudumbavilikku has distinct good and evil characters. Sumithra and those who support Sumithra in her endeavours come in the ‘good’ category. Everyone else is on the ‘evil’ list. There are no in-betweens. As a result, the antagonists have little to no humanity. The characters get grossly exaggerated to suit this good-bad distinction. An example of such exaggeration can be seen in the character of the antagonist, Vedhika, who is in a barely concealed illicit relationship with Sumithra’s husband.
When the serial began in January 2020, Vedhika was a woman with morals, who had a guilty conscience and wasn’t interested in any revenge towards Sumithra. Later on, as Sumithra gathered the sympathy of the viewers, the character of Vedhika began to get vilified. She became a petty woman with a new backstory – of having hit her ex-mother-in-law on the head. She became a scheming stereotypical villain who wished nothing but the total destruction of the ‘pure’ heroine. This good-evil dichotomy can also be seen in a recent promo where the entire situation is described as a battle between good and evil.
If an existing bad character needs to become good for the purpose of the story or vice versa, there won’t be any personality development in doing that, they just switch from one category to the other. When they are bad, they are rotten all the way through. When they are good, they are suddenly divine, as if their personality till the episode where they made the switch didn’t matter anymore. An example of this is Sumithra’s sister-in-law, who herself had a good marriage and was supportive of Sumithra. However, as the serial progressed, the makers must’ve felt that Sumithra was not being besieged enough. Enter Sumithra’s American friend and ex-girlfriend of her sister-in-law’s husband. Suddenly, the woman who had been secure in her marriage till then becomes jealous, and as a consequence, she becomes evil and tries to sabotage our lead for no particular reason other than being her rival’s friend.
Another character who had such a personality jump was Sumithra’s daughter Sheetal. Initially, Sheetal is shown as a modern high schooler who dislikes and disrespects her mother. She even tried to have her father’s paramour stand in as her mother at a school function just so she could avoid the embarrassment that was her mother. Remember Lekshmi of How Old Are You and Sapna of English Vinglish? Sheetal is both of them copied and more. One of her brothers is also a copy of the supportive son from English Vinglish. In recent episodes, Sheetal gets a bad wake up call in the form of the newly devilish Vedhika, who refuses to spoil her the way Sumithra did. After that, Sheetal suddenly realises how good her mother is and becomes a model child. The storyline of her being spoilt is immediately dropped. Despite being right, Vedhika’s comments on Sumithra’s bad parenting go in the bin because it comes from a ‘bad’ character. Sumithra’s actions on the other hand are hailed as divine, even though her parenting has turned two of her children into absolute brats. All of Sumithra’s children talk back to her, like everybody else in the family.
Another unacceptable thing about Kudumbavilakku is its normalisation of marital abuse. Particularly ‘the slaps’ that men dole out to set their wives right and to remind them who’s boss. Sumithra’s father-in-law slaps her mother-in-law for mistreating ‘poor’ Sumithra. And later Vedhika gets slapped by her lover. The viewers all clap because evil just got slapped in the face, but nothing about that is right. It propagates the message that men have the right to slap their wives or discipline them. This treatment of women as children whose opinions can be changed by physical force is a character of our patriarchal society that abuses and victim shames. It is something the media and entertainment sector must try to stop, like the awareness given in that exceptional movie Thappad, unlike our serials that positively reinforce this feature of patriarchal privilege.
However, these fallacies are not unique to Kudumbavilakku. Almost all Malayalam serials indulge in and profit from them. Kudumbavilakku is unique in many other ways.
For one, the female lead is a middle-aged woman with three adult children. That is quite a rare concept in Malayalam entertainment, that a middle-aged woman can hold down her own story and engage her viewers. Surprisingly Kudumbavilakku does that and more. It is constantly on the top of TRP charts, showing how much the audience relates to it. Despite its flaws and generic name, Kudumbavilakku is a story that empowers women. For all her stereotypical traits, the lead Sumithra is a strong woman who does not bend under pressure. Her character has been dealt with really well. She started off as a traditional homemaker, afraid to venture out of the bounds of her house. She goes through several trials and gets a divorce from her cheating husband. She took control of her life, started her own textile shop and is doing quite well, both emotionally and financially. In certain ways, her personality overshadows everyone else’s, she is proficient in singing, cooking and sewing, and I can’t help but note that all of these are stereotypically female skills. For all the development Sumithra’s character gets, the others suffer. Most of them have been reduced to stereotypes, here’s an example: the mother-in-law, like in every other serial, is a petty woman while the father-in-law is benevolent.
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Another good thing about Kudumbavilakku is its treatment of divorce. Unlike other serials that urge women to reconcile with husbands that cheat on them or mistreat them, Kudumbavilakku grants Sumithra a divorce. Granted that it was her husband who divorced her and the show still seems intent on reconciling Sumithra with her husband, but giving the lead character a divorce, especially at her age, is a new concept. Maybe, it might even evolve into something that viewers might benefit from. While we are talking about divorces, let’s take the antagonist’s divorce. It was an ugly one, like everything else related to her. The most striking thing about Vedhika’s divorce as shown in the serial is how the court grants her husband custody rights just because Vedhika had plans to remarry. Is that really how custody battles work?
Let’s talk about costumes next. Kudumbavilakku is not as ostentatious as some of its contemporaries in dressing its characters. Most clothes shown in the serial fit into the circumstance, except maybe the mother-in-law’s. However, one thing to note about clothing in this serial is how it is used to divide the ‘modern’ from the ‘traditional’. The clothes in this serial are heavily stereotypical.
Sumithra is, of course, traditional and wears clothes to suit. She also does not speak English. Vedhika on the other hand is shown as a modern woman, who wears sleeveless blouses and straightened hair. She speaks English fluently. Suddenly this modern-traditional divide gets another meaning, one that mirrors the good-evil dichotomy in the serial. As usual, all the children in the serial are modern. Another stereotype Kudumbavilakku adheres to is the rich is modern, poor is the traditional outlook. This governs the look and talk of several characters in the serial. Guess what Sumithra’s American friend looks like.
Another plus point Kudumbavilakku gets is in its treatment of Sumithra’s second son, Pratheesh. He is in the ‘good’ category and is supportive of Sumithra to no end. However, the most striking aspect of this character is his profession. He is constantly under fire from everyone except Sumithra for not choosing to become a doctor, like his older brother. He has rather followed his passion and is a budding musician. The fact that Pratheesh is a good character means that the makers want the audience to relate to him more than his doctor brother. This effort to try and put a foot in the door in dealing with the commercialisation of education and career is commendable. However, Kudumbavilakku kind of loses this point with how it treats the eldest son, Anirudh, the doctor. He treats his mother like trash and is thus in the bad category. His character is extremely exaggerated. And hence, is extremely unrelatable.
What is the best part of the serial? Undoubtedly, it is Sumithra herself. She gets the most character development and is thus the most relatable. She has her strengths and weaknesses, but she is clearly conscious of her self worth and seldom allows her circumstances to push her down. Sumithra is not a silent endurer and that makes this serial an entertaining watch. She has a ringing answer to each and every accusation thrown at her. Another great thing about Sumithra’s character is the goodness of the friends she has. They support her every step of the way and makes us feel that with great friends, no boundary is too hard to push. Sumithra and co. make a great effort to break patriarchal stereotypes, including the traditional division of labour among men and women. It also addresses the issue of the male ego and resolves it in the case of Sumithra’s son Anirudh, who had been jealous of his wife getting a job before him.
We can’t help but be happy for Sumithra as she breaks every single chain that holds her back and flies from success to success. It is Sumithra who makes this serial the success it is and I ardently hope that Sumithra’s personality strikes at the heart of every single viewer and would motivate them to break their own chains.