We all know actress Vani Viswanath as the “Action Queen” of Malayalam cinema. She was a leading actress in the 1990s and early 2000s. In most movies, she was cast in the role of a police officer, IPS officer, advocate or politician. In our patriarchal society, these professions are male-dominated. So even in our society, we have little or no female representation in these fields. Thus, it was unconventional when she played such roles in movies. She is trained in fighting and martial arts which helped her to also have more action scenes. That said, here is why Vani Viswanath characters could have been more.
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Strong Characters or Caricatures?
Even when we appreciate the stereotypes that she broke, her characters were problematic. They adhere to the patriarchal idea of strong women. In the male gaze, strong women are only those who work in unconventional professions. They wear modern clothes, speak English, are arrogant and working to bring men down. It is with such ideas in mind that most of her characters were written (albeit poorly). It is also important that there is another female character who is a ‘kulastree’. If Vani’s characters did not transform or get tamed by the hero, then the second female will win the hero. The message is loud and clear – strong women are not accepted until they bow to the patriarchy.
Let us look at some of the iconic Vani Viswanath characters where she is part of the state police, IPS or a lawyer.
SP Meena Nambiar IPS in The Truth (1998)
IPS Meena Nambiar, one of the most popular Vani Viswanath characters, heads a team that is investigating a high-profile political murder. During a team discussion, they discover some clues. She conveys this to the media immediately as she wants to prove her worth as a female officer. But her subordinates are not happy as they think that she is stealing their credit. This incident sets the context for her character in the movie.
These qualities when present in a male officer of her stature, would receive praise. The next step to villainise her is to show her arrogance. She misbehaves with suspects and beats them. Once again, these are glorified in male police characters. A great instance is Action Hero Biju, where the hero takes pride in his violent methods. Next, it is proved that she is inefficient and incapable of solving the case. Now, it is easy to bring the male protagonist as a saviour.
In this case, it is Mammooty as Bharath Patteri IPS, the Director of a Special Investigation Team. Meena expresses her frustration and the discrimination that she has faced before. When they first meet in an elevator, Meena does not recognise Bharath. She expresses her displeasure about taking the case away from her. She also mocks the SIT for the infrastructure provided to them which her team did not receive. These scenes were only to justify Bharath’s rude and sexist behaviour later in the movie. They continue to have tiffs regarding the case document handover. Bharath now uses intimidation to get it from Meena. He also alleges her of being intellectually inferior and sexist. According to him, she is a hypocrite and does not deserve equality.
He also has some doubts about her taking sides with the criminals. His team and he raid her house, but they are unable to find any evidence. He blames her for her behaviour and arrogance which made him suspicious. In the next scene, he once again insults her and dismisses her as immature. Bharath solves the case and in the last scene, he apologises to Meena. But, Meena is now in awe and says that it is her who needs to apologise to him. She is, thus, turned into the ‘kulastree’ that the moviemakers wanted and she is now happy.
Police Commissioner Varsha Varma in Ustaad (1999)
Varsha’s car comes face to face with Ustaad’s (Mohanlal) vehicle. where both are trapped in a narrow road and refuse to make adjustments. This is where we are introduced to Varsha’s character to make sure that she is portrayed as arrogant. Ustaad’s friend in the vehicle is already calling her names. Ustaad does not forget to make an inappropriate joke as she is a woman. He behaves politely while talking to her but wants to teach her a lesson. He slams his vehicle on hers on the pretext of a compromise. We shouldn’t miss the subtle hint here that she is put into her place by Ustaad.
When she arrests Ustaad on the night before his sister’s wedding, he thinks she is taking revenge. This scene makes sure that we are on Ustaad’s side (though he is a goon) and makes Varsha the negative character. She is simply carrying out her duty in accordance with the law and the evidence that she has. She also arrests his brother-in-law for another case. Now, she has to understand that Ustaad has a heart made of gold and become indebted to him. This is where she comes to know from her mother that he had saved her mother from her father’s murderers. She is overcome with gratitude and apologises to him for performing her duty. She assures him that she will catch the real criminals. Once again, Ustaad has to win so she confidently dismisses the idea and claims that only he will be able to do it. The movie plays right into the regressive ideas related to strong female characters.
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Advocate Aswathy Menon in The Godman (1999)
We are shown Aswathy’s goodness of heart and her ability to stand up for the right thing right from the beginning. She confronts Home Minister Abdul Rahim and asks him to be proactive in his duty. She also adopts a child orphaned by communal violence. CI M. Amarnath (Mammootty) and Aswathy were schoolmates. He reveals about her relationship with Abdul that almost ended in marriage. From their conversation, we feel that she is supporting some criminals. A few police officers misuse their power and sexually assault some women. Aswathy accuses Amarnath of being aware of this and not stopping them. But she later finds out that he was unaware. The language she uses to describe the sexual assault is deplorable. She is still concerned about the ‘honour’ of the women and their families which will now have to be avenged.
Aswathy and Abdul lock horns again when he takes some unethical decisions and she calls him out. She organises a protest against him which turns violent. It is later revealed in a conversation with Amarnath that she had helped a criminal walk free. She gets murdered at her home one night. Thus, we can see how her character was killed because there was no scope for any transformation for her. And like many women who have spoken up, she is also killed. This would also ensure that it wouldn’t hamper the final spotlight on the feats of the hero.
IPS Officer Dayana IPS in James Bond (1999)
This movie is a remake of the 1994 Hollywood film Baby’s Day Out. Throughout the movie, Dayana is undercover as a mentally unstable woman. One night, she barges into the hiding spot of the five friends and the baby. We can see how Diana’s character is merely a caretaker for the baby. All the men are unable to take care of the baby and as expected, Dayana works her magic on the baby as she is a woman. The makers of the movie also did not forget to add a song in the rain which was completely unnecessary in the movie.
Even in the end, when the kidnappers take the baby, Dayana behaves in a juvenile manner. It is unbelievable that a trained police officer waits to be saved by other untrained men. The big reveal happens at the end and we are left to wonder about its significance. She did not put any of her official powers or skills to use.
The Male Gaze
We can see how the male gaze reduced such powerful female characters to mere props. They were tools for establishing the superiority of the male leads. She was a token character for powerful female leads who had to be tamed by the hero. Thus, her great potential was underutilised by the industry.