Have you ever watched a movie and thought, what purpose does the woman character serve? In 1975, Laura Mulvey did, and she published the outstanding essay – “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. The article brought in the concept of the “Male Gaze,” which spoke of how men engage with the idea of ‘gaze’ in visual media. In simpler terms, the cinematic world makes vayinottam easy.
In many movies, directors and writers play around with this idea of placing a woman to please the ‘male gaze’. Somewhat on the same lines as the “Sexy Lamp Test”, where even if you replaced the female character with a sexy lamp, it wouldn’t affect the plot in any way. The best example of the male gaze in Malayalam cinema is the role of actress Namitha in one of South India’s highest-grossing movies – Pulimurugan.
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Did she serve any purpose in the plot? No.
Would it matter if we replaced her with a sexy-looking puli? No.
Why did she have to be brought into the plot, then? To please the heterosexual male gaze.
Disclaimer: Malayalam movies have come a long way and set great examples. This is simply an attempt to explore the theory through examples taken from Malayalam cinema.
Male Gaze = Shortcut To Mass Entertainers
I found some Honey Rose’s videos while randomly scrolling through my feed. Baaki parayandallo? It was only after I read the caption did I understand that it was her because the cameraperson skilfully zoomed onto everything except her face. Just, eppudraa?
This is the basic idea of what the male gaze is. And here are examples from Malayalam cinema that casually entertained the male gaze.
For many Malayalam movies, entertaining the male gaze is crucial to building a mass entertainer. Oru kadhayum illatha padathil polum, they found success by selling ‘glamour’. Makers often invoke this sexual politics of the gaze and reduce women as plot objects to be ‘looked at’. While we claim to be living in progressive times, the male gaze continues to exist in subtle forms (and sometimes not so subtle). An example is almost every Vyshakh directorial, from Pokkiri Raja to Monster.
These movies bring in a woman to be looked at and add some innuendos that can be shared on Whatsapp later. Take Sunny Leone in Madhura Raja, for example. The moviemakers bring in her item song to raise their probability of success. They then write puke-worthy jabs on the “Me Too” movement by comparing Sunny Leone to a house with open gates. That offensive comment got giggles from every corner of the theatre and an estimated 100 crores at the box office. So, in the end, it worked out well for them.
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Understanding Voyeurism and Scopophilia
Voyeurism is gaining sexual pleasure from watching others naked or engaged in some form of sexual activity. In visual media, the idea of male voyeurism tends to sexualise women for the male viewer. Women are considered the ‘spectacle’, while men are ‘the bearer of the look’. This idea can be spotted in almost every other 90s movie. Filmmakers at the time used close-ups and slow-motion shots of a woman from head to toe to force the viewer to stare at the woman.
Movies like Vandanam and Pattabhishekam humour the voyeuristic character of their protagonists. In both films, Mohanlal and Jayaram can be seen hiding under the bed while the actress changes their clothes in the room. The camera shows the viewer the POV of the male actor, who watches the legs of the actress as each piece of clothing keeps falling.
Athe pole, there are the kuli-scene voyeurs seen in a disturbingly wide range of movies. Mr Butler had Innocent engage in such voyeuristic acts every 5 minutes of his screen time as a humour element. In one scene, he can be seen hiding and enjoying watching women taking a bath. When the women see him and yell at him to leave, he mocks them, saying, “Oh, oru pathivratha.”
Another example is how the heroes creepily watch women through binoculars in Puthukkottayile Puthumanavalan and again in Vandanam. In such shots, the camera ensures that it gives a POV that feeds the sexual interest or agenda of the male characters along with that of the viewers. The camera repeatedly lingers and zooms onto the women, placing them as mere eye candy.
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Value Of Woman Decided By Men’s Eyes
Another thing this theory conveys is how women are reduced to nothing more than an ‘object’ of sexual desire. Their feelings, thoughts and sexual drives are not any more important than the role framed for them by their male counterpart.
This is best explainable through a scene from King Liar. In the scene where there is a weird rip-off of a pageant, Balu Varghese’s character can be seen commenting about a model, “Ithenth kuthiraya?”. And says that he would never marry a woman like that. The model’s confidence was viewed as a threat to the sidekick, who then placed her on the marriageability scale. The male gaze takes many forms but can be identified easily through such situations where female characters are controlled by and mainly exist in terms of what they represent to the male.
During the 1950s, Budd Boetticher, a director of classic Westerns, put it this way –
“What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.”
The woman character’s agency is reduced to that of an erotic or supporting object that appeals to the male viewer and does not threaten the stereotypical male perspective – like how Balu Varghese’s character is terrified to marry a woman with agency.
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“But it’s just a joke? Learn to take a joke.”
One of the things that picked my annoyance is how none of these acts is even remotely funny. Let me give you a picture.
Think of TG Ravi, the typecasted rapist of Malayalam movies. Now place him in the role of all the male characters I’ve mentioned above. What would it be like if TG Ravi was sneakily watching the actress from under the bed or through the binoculars? Now suddenly, it’s not that funny. Athre okke only.
Change the background music. Place a character who doesn’t have the conventional hero’s looks. Now, all these acts become textbook creepy.
No longer will it feel okay to watch Dileep watching a sleeping Kavya Madhavan and saying, “kedakkuna kedappil oru rape ang vech thanna undallo” (Meesha Madhavan) or Mohanlal saying, “kallu nirthiyath nannayi, allengi nyan ninne balaalsangam cheythenne” to his ex-wife who’s happily married to someone else (Spirit).
And for those who still brush aside rape jokes as harmless jokes, here’s the Rape Culture Pyramid for your reference (and if you think this is being blown out of proportion, there is a good chance you’re part of the problem).
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To give an insight into how normalised rape was at a time in Malayalam cinema: in the late ’70s and ’80s, a rape scene was a staple in every mainstream movie. Almost equivalent to how Bollywood keeps throwing an item song into the plot for no reason. The plots utilised rape scenes to show heroes turning into vigilantes against the rapists. It was about power play, humiliation, chastity, and raping the woman to make a point about the hero’s heroism.
I had come across an article in The News Minute which made this alarming observation. It said that Director Joshiy and IV Sasi, for the longest time, never made a movie without a molestation scene. The pattern did not change for the better over the years. Instead, it took forms of grotesque violence accompanied by terrifying BGM, helpless women, and obnoxiously sniggering men. There have been movies made by said directors where women characters were subjected to rape at every given point of their life. That’s how movies normalised the crime against women and turned rapes into a “harmless joke.”
These harmless jokes placed women as objects for the male to watch, conquer and possess.
These harmless jokes, over time, insistently reduced women to their “look-ability” and capacity to entertain the male gaze.
These harmless jokes normalised multiple violations and crimes against women.
These jokes, when cracked against someone you know, won’t be funny anymore.
Ending the crash course on Male Gaze, here’s a request to not come at me with the koppile “pennungal kaanikyunathil kozhapam illa, nammal nokkiyaal kozhapam” dialogue. Saying that dialogue would lead to another crash course on consent, agency, and How Not To Be Creepy For Dummies.
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