A Peep into the Soft Porn Film Industry of Keralam

 

Anilkumar PV

The setting of the last millennium saw the rise of a new star in the horizon of Malayalam film industry: Shakeela. It was in the year 2000 that her first Malayalam movie Kinnara Thumbikal was released. This low-budget movie, with a credits lacking in credible names, came out very strongly and went onto become a phenomenal success. The moment is a watershed in the history of Malayalam movies in that it turned out to be a new marker, blurring the very oppositional phrases that essential Malayali has hitherto taken for granted, and taken pride in his or her positive involvement in the positive phrases.

shakeela

In physical appearance this Chennai born actress is no competition to the slim and wheatish actresses of Bollywood who occasionally figure in Malayalam film (with their contribution confined to C-grade acting and creation of yet another flop) or the innocent beauties of the Valluvanadan variety of Keralam. Her acting talents have never come to the arena of serious discussions. But with her wide hips and heavy breast, she has managed to pull the crowds back to the movie theatres from where earlier they had gone away bleeding with the kicks and punches received from the superstars. In 2001, she starred or co-starred in almost 45 percent of the total Malayalam films that produced a maximum of just over 80 films. Within a year, with four films in the inaugural year, she has become the first female super star of Malayalam films, although the moralist media has not conferred the title upon her formally.

How does the image of Shakeela function in Malayalam film? Is it just a question of a second wave of soft porn movies in Keralam almost after a decade? Does the second wave differ from the first one in any fundamental manner other than in its temporal dimension? The fact that questions like these cannot occur in a vacuum itself provides a broad framework with which we can operate much freely, a framework that attests to the reality of the discrepancies we experience in different temporal terrains. More precisely, Shakeela's image functions differently than her predecessors' simply because she occupies a different temporal terrain than them.

At the outset it must be admitted that it is not just a question of a new wave of soft porn Malayalam movies. It is all about the politics of marketing of new responsiveness, of rejecting the conditioned framework, mental as well as structural, of bringing out into open that conservative and neurotic creature known as Malayali, of questioning the strength of Malayali dick epitomized in the figure of Mammootty. Tragically, it is also its own other—a remasculization with a vengeance. It ends as another market. It creates its own hard and fast aesthetic rules. It is neurosis at its best.

Shakeela's body rejected two prominent Indian concepts of beauty: one constructed by the multi-national aestheticians and the other by the local filmmakers. If in the former variety what is desired is the standardized size of body tuned to perfection in accordance with multi-national geometry, in the latter the desire has its object in the Malayaliness of Valluvanadu, the so-called innocent face, slim but not skinny body, with slightly bigger breast and hips than that of the multinational variety, long, jet-blackish and silky hair, wide and fluttering black eyes, and a fair body matching the color of Chamba flower. Here lies the originality of this historical moment. The most famous seductive appearance in Malayalam movie, Silk Smitha, too cannot be fitted into this binary schema of multi-national and Valluvanadu. She had her Shakeelaness. I do not say the reverse even though historically Smitha is Shakeela's predecessor. It is only through Shakeela that we can reflect upon Smitha's bodily difference with her contemporary mainstream actresses. But then Smitha's body functioned differently than that of Shakeela's. How?

Let me ask a naïve question: What is the originary moment of this image that abounds in bodily substance? In the sixties and seventies Malayalam film industry had a number of heavenly bodies with big hips and heavy breast. The big names of that era, Sheela, Jaya Bharathi, Vidhu Bala, Vijaya Sree, had all given sleepless nights to its youth with the administration of an occasional dose of their thighs and navels. But they were neither Smithas nor Shakeelas. They were mainstream actresses, and left their mark on the industry with their acting talent as well as histrionics. In other words, they were ladies of real substance; not just the ladies of outer substance like Smitha or Shakeela, but the ladies having the inner substance of a Malayali girl, that Valuuvanadan spiritual element. To put it bluntly, they were not only the object of masturbatory pleasure but also of family bliss. They were a curious amalgam of the material and the spiritual. With the luxury of hindsight, we can safely say that they were the product of their own era, an era in which Malayali did not bother to differentiate between the spiritual and sensual.

Let us make a brief inroad to the political and social economy of Keralam to clarify my use of the terms spiritual and material. Up to 1980 Kerala was still an agrarian economy, with little social mobility for the historically marginalized. The so-called revolutionary 'land reform bill' of the Left Government a decade ago did not bring much cheer to the really needy, considering that the real beneficiaries of the bill were the tenants of the land rather than the agricultural laborers. To put it in caste terms, through the reform bill Dalits and Adivasis were asked to continue sweating on the field, while the Marxist extended the fold of feudal glory and asked the middle castes to participate and enjoy in it. Even after the land reform the land remained largely feudal with caste equations held intact. In this context spiritual is a code word that invites decoding, using the proper historical materials. A historic contextualization of the word in the oriental world and the Hindu scriptural topography has only one meaning: the brutalization of social economy with minimum repressive expenditure. More precisely, Indian spiritualism operates at the domain of domination and exploitation rather than in the secluded world of philanthropy, by reproducing the exact mental relations that is suitable for running one of the most inhuman social relations the world has ever seen: casteism. Marxist with spiritual leanings enjoying the power and marginalized Dalits lured by the promises of democracy sweating on the field, from the spiritual perspective, are part of a large scheme of a spiritual cosmogony. Due to this divine knowledge, Brahminized Marxist was able to cheat their mass base, the Dalits, without an iota of guilt. This absence of a guilt consciousness is the one of the many things that they share with their feudal forefathers. The old rulers made history in the form of farce by not allowing the Dalit women to cover their breasts and the modern rulers recreated history in the form of tragedy by not allowing the Dalits their legitimate share of lands.

It was all spiritual—the landscape in which the radicals lived, with a political and social space sending the ancient Indian philosophical wisdom 'thou art that'. This letter 'thou are that', posted into the national political unconscious a thousand years ago, then too invariably reached its addressee in the true Lacanian style—thou art that, thou art Dalit, thou art uncivilized, thou art demon, thou art that, thou art incapable, thou art meritless, and thou art Dalit. When the Dalits get the message, ideology as false consciousness loses its grip. No Dalit could be born into ideology, into the false consciousness that she could be a ruler herself. She was also taught to be spiritual. From this perspective, it could be argued that Elippathayam, rather than being the representation of paranoiac in the midst of dying feudal glory, was the paranoiac reaction of a film maker to a world he privately imagined and brought into existence. The Malayalis who dismiss the film festival filmmaker for having failed to make interconnectedness between the image and history must be given due applause, because they were able to see the world around them better than him. They knew feudalism was not dying. They could not see any possibility of the emergence of the Adoorian paranoiac amputated of his feudal clutches.

While spiritualism was consolidating its position in the political economy of Keralam with the help of the reformist measures of the erstwhile radicals of the Marxist school, Keralam was witnessing a silent revolution in the form of an influx of foreign money that radically challenged the spiritual dimension of Kerala. The foreign remittance, pumped in from the Middle East by the unskilled and semi skilled workers of Muslim and Ezhava origin who worked in unMarxist exploitive ambience, triggered a consumer boom in the 80s. Its radical consequence was the emergences of an articulate middle class from the lower-middle castes much before than the emergence of its national counterpart. The rise of middleclass ensured that the spiritualist in the Nair-Namboothiri-Christian fold share the power with the culturally backward and illiterate Muslims and Ezhavas.

This was the starting date of that great split of the political unconscious into the spiritual and material. This split of the spiritual and material was not a new phenomenon, rather we know that the entire discourse of Indian nationalist thought was based on the split of Oriental spiritualism and Occidental materialism, with the former having been prioritized over the latter. That superiority of the spiritual was itself the justification for the cultural nationalism of almost all schools of nationalism represented by the Hindu nationalists, from the moderate to the radical. The interesting element in the 1980 split brought forward by the consumer boom of Keralam is that it was for the first time the people belonging to the subaltern segment were accused of being naughty on account of his decision to leave a life set by spiritual cosmogony and pursue a life of material excesses. Now Keralam had its own Westerners, madly running after a few crumbs of bread falling from the capitalist market. The result: Keralam had to imagine double, needed two figures.

shobhana

Now, the woman of Malayalam film had no choice but to shed her earlier romantic unity of the spiritual and the material. She could not continue simultaneously her earlier twin roles as the ultimate dreaming object of grihastashrama and the fantasy stuff of masturbatory jerks. She had to split, like the political unconscious. Now she was excess and absence. While the body of the material girl was a surplus in its physical content and sexuality, they were remarkably restrained in the spiritual girl of the Valluvanadan laboratory. This absence of the material dimension in the latter is compensated by an excess in the spiritual in the inner side, which the material with her seductive appearance terribly lacks. Thus, for the first time in the film industry of Keralam, Malayaliness of women was defined through the inner qualities of the self that put a remarkable restraint upon bodily and sexual excesses. This process of skinning the body and strengthening the spiritual dimension of the inner self started with the grace of the archetypal Dukhaputri (literally, poignant-daughter) of Malayalam cinema, Jalaja, in the closing years of the 70s. From there the baton of Malayaliness has been successfully passed through the young Shobhana, Monisha, and Manju Warrier, onto the present heroines like Navya Nair and Samyuktha Varma. The most pathological element of their inner self in its Valluvanadan variety is a xenophobia that is directly pointed at the subaltern and at times the Western. They all share one collective dream for the social consequence of the bygone organic unity of the spiritual and material supremely exemplified in the golden era of feudalism; its typical conservative value system; its anti-subaltern content; its censure of the Western that it found detrimental to its own feudal fabric.

Now, what about its corollary, the material girl, the promiscuous woman from the subaltern fold? As the well known song in Avalude Ravukal suggests, her mind and body have become desert, but the huge success of this movie released in 1978 tells that the metaphor of barrenness of the body was lost on the Malayali psyche that preferred to find in the thinly clad thick woman a short circuit to pleasure. Remember the poster of this film—the heroine, Seema, wearing only a shirt and looking at her own wound just above her knee. Rather than being an apt image of the wound inflicted by the patriarchal society upon an orphan girl and the helpless gaze of the victim upon that wound, this very image gave countless sleepless nights to her male audience. From here onwards Malayalam soft porn movie had a field day for quite some time. It was Seema who for the first time prepared to take the risk of being the other side of the split. It is said that the director of the film approached this erstwhile cabaret dancer as a last resort, as all the mainstream actresses, known as well as less known, of the period refused to act in this risky venture 

A cursory glance at the soft porn movies of the 80s will reveal how much they are obsessed with big boobs and hips, a trope that is tragically epitomized in the figure of the most known soft porn actress of the period, Silk Smitha. Apart from these bodily similarities, most of the actresses are trapped in almost similar situations. They are aged 25 or above but yet to reach midlife, that is, they are at the zenith of their bodily flows, and they are in need of hard fucking if she is openly portrayed as subaltern (a maid servant, or a worker in arrack-shop, a married woman in the lower class neighborhood, etc.) and soft, emotional fucking if she is a high society lady. This class/caste difference in the degree of fucking is unified in their desire for the dick-thing, which is further intensified at another point of convergence, namely their experience in the art of lovemaking. Their sole object is to seduce and seduce. The seduction has also its class difference: while the subaltern seduction is unsublimated—she exposes herself directly and pursues the man— the high class seduction is sublimated—she exposes, but not openly, and lets the man do the chasing. Unlike the spiritual girl, both of them do not have a world beyond the dick-thing. Their world stops at the dick-thing: they want neither the coziness of familial life nor a mutual understanding at an emotional level that is the core of an ideal Indian friendship. All they want is dick and more dick. After all, they know from the very beginning that their desire operates not in the secure terrain of the law but in its outside, beyond the border of acceptability—a mature woman desiring her teenager cousin, a gentle man caressing his maid servant, all these are signs of deviations that have no space in the moral world of the Law. The final message is clear: the material girl is outside Law. She is the antithesis of the commonsense. She is evil per se. She does not belong to this world. She belongs to that world yonder. No wonder the most celebrated figure of the soft porn movies of the eighties, Silk Smitha, had to surrender to that word of the Law. She committed suicide in 1996, a tragic death that encapsulates the self-destruction that soft porn movie wrought at the growing spiritualization of public sphere and its own inability to counter the Law.

The split between the thin and thick or the difference in the figures has an additional connotation. One particular feature of the Malayaliness is that it is confined within a particular stage of development. If one wants to belong to this elite lineage then she must not only qualify the rigid physical prescriptions set by the Malayali aesthetics but also be somewhere in the neighborhood of 20, most preferably in her late teens. Actresses, who got the maximum mileage for the constructed indignity, from Shobhana to Manju Warrier, started out their acting career in their mid or late teens. As they got on, they were either showed the door or asked to continue in more demanding ventures that were not exactly the hunting grounds of the Valluvanadan girls.

One name that readily comes to mind is that of Shobhana. By the time she got her first national award for the best actress in Manichithra Thazhu in 1993 for acting the role of woman suffering from the mental illness known as dissociative identity disorder, she was 28, that is, well above the maximum age limit set by the local aestheticians. Nobody has accused her of being the archetypical Malayali girl, although the ambience is full of such dangerous potentials, especially when she is conscious of her primary identity—house reminiscent of feudal grandeur, reading out a poem on ultimate loss and endless waiting, etc. Even after her primary identity is hammered home through an apt metaphor of Malayaliness, that is, through a compromise package of medical science and Kerala occultism that negates the foundation of medical science and whose primary aim is to kill the other within—the subaltern and her wild unconscious impulses—she does not seem to be the woman fit for Malayali aesthetic. Her exact location is not within the scope of the present work.

However, I will try to point out the direction I am moving. In the climatic scene, as mentioned above, homecoming is forced upon her—she is back from the wild land of subalternity, of 18th century prostitution, of Tamil, to the perfect land of the hegemonic where the leitmotivs are the bliss of wifehood and delicacies of Malayali culture. Naively speaking, this antagonism between Tamil and Malayalam on language front cannot be pushed beyond a certain limits since the originary roots of these languages are the same. That is not our point. The modern conception of dissociative identity disorder speaks the obvious. Right now there is a consensus among the psychiatrists that the disorder is not the result of many personalities living in one body, but rather it is the failure of the individual to integrate various aspects of identity into a unified personality. In this sense, the patients do not suffer from an abundance of personalities. They suffer from a lack—a lack of a unified personality, that is, they have less than one personality. From this perspective, the Malayali package of science and occultism is construed to be an act of imparting a unified personality from the various aspects of identity rather than erasing all the identities except the primary one.

This act of imparting a unified personality from the various aspects of identity has no local association, but rather moves along with a national tide: this is exactly what the Hindutva forces achieved in the same year of the release of the film. By razing the Muslim mosque at Ayodhya they imparted a Hindu identity to a vast section of people, whose relation to Hinduism up to the point had been ambivalent, since they had had other aspects of identities that resisted the formation of a predominantly Indian—read Hindu—psyche, varying from the sub-national identities based on language (Tamil, Assamese, etc.), race (various tribal organizations in the North-East demanding for greater autonomy and the Nagas who even demand a separate national identity) and caste. What emerges after the psycho-occultist treatment is a post-Mandal, post-liberal woman with the metropolis background (having had her post-metric education in Kolkata) whose entire relation to her subaltern past is amnesiac. As the concluding scene loudly proclaims, here the victim is to be taught about her traumatic past, about her pain; she cannot talk about it for herself because she cannot retrieve her traumatic past. This is what the savarna intellectual of the larger Hindu family, the right as well as the left do, teaching the Dalits what has been their experience rather than hearing the Dalits talk it out for themselves.

There was another form of intrusion into the mainstream films' productivist aesthetics. The soft porn films of Malayalam reverse the framework of hero and heroine. Mainstream films, whether in its Hollywood, Bollywood or Mollywood form, need the structuring centre of the hero for the satellite called heroine to wander around. In porn movies the whole idea of hero is dispensable. In porn movies it is the heroine who holds the centre and insignificant male actors revolve around her. Julie Rage, one of the porndom's current queens, articulates this phenomenon in the most mundane fashion: "Guys buy the tapes to see us...... Wherein Hollywood the powerhouses are the guy actors. There's (sic) a few really good women actresses, but mostly when you go to see a movie it's because of the guy. In adult you go to watch the pretty girl get naked and nasty." Moreover, "it's the only industry out there, mainstream or adult, that the women make more than the men", as Jenna Jameson, the twentieth century super star of hard-core movie puts it. This is not a Hayakian celebration of the revolutionary potential of porn industry, but it is simply to note that even an industry which is infamous for objectifying woman in the crudest terms, there are realms where woman can play boss which is absent in other less objectifying terrains. And to Jameson's boasting that she makes more money than anyone else in the industry, when the interviewer reminds her that a lot of women do not hold the power and do it for mere living, she answers in a way that reminds us that her position is radical: "I think that just comes from ignorance. They don't know that they hold the power to call the shots. When you walk into the producer's office, they talk down to you, and a lot of times when girls are getting into the industry, they're eighteen years old, and they have no idea of their worth. That's why I've gone so public with saying if you're going to do it, do it on your own terms, and nobody else's" (my emphasis). The phrases "power to hold the shots" and "do it on your own terms" radiate with a differing sense of freedom. In other words, if you are "an incredibly strong person", you can celebrate your body as a work of art in porn movies which radically negates the framework of mainstream films.

The point will become clear if we consider the career of Manju Warrier, the most talented actress to have emerged in the Malayalam film industry of the nineties. Her career that started off with the conventional formula type roles, mostly the angel in the house hold, became more unconventional and aggressive in films like Pathram and Kanmadam; still this unconventionality loses its meaning when we consider the fact that in such films too she had to play it safe, submerging under the towering presence of the male superstar. It was with Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu that this mob puller in her own right could breathe some space for herself, dispensing the mighty actions of the hero. And it was in this very film she got the unique privilege of becoming an exhibitionist: she had to expose the contours of her body in front of the outspoken voyeur that is camera. This poses a puzzling contradiction to the very question of women's emancipation in general, especially in the arena of filmic representation. The more you get objectified on the screen the more powerful you become, and the more you get idealized, the more impotent you become.

Shakeela invades the mainstream in a third way, being the absolute other of Malayalam cinema. She occupies that space which is structurally impossible for a porn actress to occupy. As the protagonist she showcases herself as the child-seducer, the murderer, the pimp, the whore and the accomplice of the criminal. Her characters are perfect evils from the perspective of the social-ideological justice. In other words, she occupies the space of protagonist by violently rewriting the aesthetic rules that reserves the space of protagonist for certain sublime species. The conventional logic of poetic justice, of punishing the evil and restoring the absolute state and of rewarding the perfect, does not have a field day in Shakkeela's film. Or more precisely, the soft porn movies of Kerala, in general, do not seem to offer a conflict-free zone that is the result of a smooth retrieval of the status quo through various strategies of negotiation. In fact, it is not the lack of this conflict-free zone at the end of the film that posits the trouble but the redundancy of a structuring process that demands a smooth retrieval of the happy garden of illusion. Without any avant-garde aspiration (of a Breton, I am tempted to say) of reversing the power structure, one can make an entire film of Shakkeela in a bathroom and successfully push it into the consumption band. Shakkeela's films have none of the avant-garde pretensions and dreams. They operate within the parameters set by the culture industry. Yet, her films differ from the mainstream film, powerful enough to put the Malayalam mainstream film industry into a crisis, in a way that is beyond the capabilities radical-business films of the film festival directors. 

This is an excerpt from the author's forthcoming book. Please don't reproduce without permission.

 

~~~

 

Anilkumar Payyappilly Vijayan is Assistant Professor of English at Government Victoria College, Palakkad, Kerala. He has a PhD in English from Kannur University. His doctoral dissertation titled "Untouchability of the Unconscious: Containment and Disfigurement of Dalit Identity in Malayalam Cinema" makes, with the help of Lacanian psychoanalysis, a methodological inquiry into the logical aspects of the construction of Dalit identity in Malayalam cinema.

 Photos courtesy: The Internet

 

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