Auteur KG George was an iconoclast, a filmmaker who broke templates that dominated Malayalam cinema in the 60s and early 70s. Walking ahead of his time, the nine-time winner of the Kerala State Film Award explored subjects, themes, characters and narratives that were new to Indian cinema. However, what made his films a class apart was his astonishing range of female characters.
His on-screen women were flawed. But, like the Japanese art form of Kintsugi that believes a repaired pot is stronger and increases in value, the women in George’s films emerge stronger and more resilient as a result of their traumas and experiences. Their flaws make them raw, real, relatable and memorable, immortalising them in the hearts of cineastes. Broken, manipulated and dominated by a chauvinistic, patriarchal world, the women gaining strength and agency is a powerful expression in many of his movies.
Beginning of an era
Adaminte Vaariyellu (Adam’s Rib, 1984), one of the best in his oeuvre, explores the psyche of three women from different socio-economic backgrounds. What binds the three women — Alice, Vasanthi and Ammini — is the oppression they are subjected to in a chauvinistic society. Whether it be the defiant Alice (Sreevidya), the dutiful Vasanthi (Suhasini) struggling hard to juggle her work at home and office, or the sexually exploited Ammini (Surya), all three are manipulated and abused by the men in their lives. It is only Ammini who seems to rebel and rise against the oppressive structure. Was he hinting at an uprising that is triggered by the impoverished masses who are not bound by the mores of middle-class morality and niceties?
Vasanthi’s drudgery in the kitchen and at home was a first for Malayalam cinema, which still romanticises the gendered politics in the kitchen and the home. George turned his lens to reflect the mindless grind that women had to go through at home, no matter how accomplished they were.
This theme of the home as a domestic haven was busted by George in several films. Mattoral (1988) stands out for its unfiltered view of the suffocating ambience and ennui in a typical middle-class home. Kaimal (Karamana Janardhanan) is the quintessential provider. His home is the typical middle-class universe where his wife Susheela is a dutiful homemaker, looking after her husband and their two children, all at the cost of her dreams and desires. The sheer boredom and silence in the marriage persuade viewers to look at the idealised home through a critical lens. Matters come to a head when Susheela elopes with Giri, a mechanic.
George, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 77, has given Indian cinema some of the most complex, intriguing women drawn from different strata in society. His cinematic world was filled with women with needs – emotional, physical, psychological and sexual. Not afraid to vocalise their needs or seek those outside the conventional societal norms of marriage and family, the women led the way for latter-day directors and scenarists to invest in reel women.
For instance, Annie (Sreevidya) in Irakal (1985), the only daughter in a harsh, feudal family in Central Kerala, is a deviant who seeks sexual favours from the men she fancies. Annie is neither apologetic nor embarrassed about her adventures. In fact, she exemplifies the selfish, rapacious family she belongs to. The dark psychological thriller about a cold-blooded killer in the family has spawned many clones but none could match the brooding fear and suspense of the original that also became a metaphor for the dark days of the Emergency.
Yavanika (1982), another jewel in George’s filmography, is a work that is anchored on the abuse of a woman and its aftermath. Considered one of the finest investigative thrillers in Malayalam, the film’s female lead Rohini (Jalaja) is as much celebrated as the galaxy of thespians such as Tabalist Ayyappan (Bharath Gopi), Balagopalan (Nedumudi Venu), Vavachan (Thilakan), Varunan (Jagathy Sreekumar) and Jacob Eeraly (Mammootty).
From his early films, George, as a provocateur, created women who overthrew the stereotypical leading ladies of the time. Here was a director who did not sit on judgment on women who were not willing to be deified by a patriarchal society. George’s strength was his ability to delve into the character’s psyche and sensitively trace the ties of human bondage. The complexities of marriage, family, society and life itself intrigued him and he explored it in many of his works without ever repeating a theme.
Perhaps that is why the characters remain alive even 25 years after the auteur made his last film, Elavamkodu Desam (1998). But George did not weave his movies around his women characters for films such as Adaminte Vaariyellu, Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback (1983) and Ee Kanni Koodi (1990). Many of his films featured powerful male protagonists, but the women were never marginalised. They strode the centre stage, moving the narrative forward with their decisions and choices.
George, a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, opened his account as a director with Swapnadanam (1976), a finely crafted psychological story of his protagonist Dr Gopinathan Nair’s descent into insanity. Gopinathan’s demanding wife Sumithra, played by a radiant Rani Chandra, is no saint but she is never made the scapegoat. Instead, he subtly depicts her loneliness, her anger and disappointment as her husband fails her as a companion.
Sumitra was the first of the many angry women that George created on screen. The arid arena of the marital bedroom became a space that George explored in some of his subsequent films such as Mela, Irakal, Adaminte Variyellu, Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback, etc. Ulkkadal (1978), one of the first campus films in Malayalam, featured Reena (Shobha) and Susanna (Jalaja), far removed from the narcissistic Sumithra. The constructs of religion did not influence their decisions when it came to falling in love.
In the case of Sharada (Anjali Naidu) in Mela (1980), it is her attraction for Vijayan (Mammootty), a stunt biker, that tarnishes her marriage with Govindankutty (Raghu), a dwarf working as a clown in the circus. Body shaming and societal conventions of looks and physique subtly come into the picture but Sharada is never vilified. That was George acting as the perfect raconteur, letting his viewers take positions of right and wrong.
However, in Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback, believed to be loosely inspired by the death of actor Shoba (incidentally, the heroine in Ulkkadal), the director shows up close the exploitation of women in tinsel town, and the murky deals and heartbreak behind the glitz and glitter. Both men and women play the game for money and fame.
It is the same thirst for money and name that fuels the corruption and one-upmanship in the delightful satire, Panchavadi Palam (1984), a masterpiece of the auteur. The men and women in the film are guilty of graft and chicanery.
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places,” wrote Ernest Hemingway. That is also the story of the women in the late director’s filmography. Forged in the crucible of life, George’s women of steel immortalise the director too.