Commercial Malayalam cinema has for a while now been dominated by an ugly, toxic masculinity, with storytelling that normalises domestic violence, packs casual misogyny into comedies, portrays men as omniscient, omnipotent beings and glorifies male aggression. Kamal's Aami in 2018 was a rare mainstream film that expressed discomfort with a man's selfishness in his marital bed, but it avoided outrightly condemning him. In a less mainstream space, last year's direct-to-online release Ottamuri Velicham (The Light In A Single Room) had no such qualms - while telling the story of a woman being brutalised by her husband, director Rahul Riji Nair made no bones about his belief that his hero's sense of sexual entitlement towards his wife amounted to rape.
Kettiyollaanu Ente Maalakha (My Wife Is My Angel) examines another aspect of this social malaise. When a male child is brought up to treat women as lesser beings, it is not hard to imagine how his mindset will be shaped by an India where sex education still remains largely taboo, where very few families have open discussions on sex, and where many boys get their earliest lessons on the subject from other (twisted or equally ignorant?) boys and/or the exaggerations of pornography. Kettiyollaanu Ente Maalakha is about the effect our society has on another kind of man: a fellow who has been raised to respect women but whose interactions have been limited almost entirely to the mother and four sisters he loves.
Asif Ali plays that young man, Sleevachan, a busy 35-year-old farmer in a mountain village in Kerala who has long avoided marriage. When he decides to get himself a wife one fine day, it is not for himself at all but because he does not want his ageing mother to be alone at home while he is out at work. Sleeva is a hard-working chap and well-liked in the community. He soon finds a bride and thence arises his trauma. Having volunteered to walk down the aisle with Rincy (Veena Nandhakumar), he panics because he is clueless about physical intimacy with a woman and overcome by a debilitating shyness.
When Sleeva confides in a priest, he is told that once he and Rincy get close he will instinctively know what to do. Errm, but what about the...uh...mechanics of intercourse? This conservative rural community follows a don't-ask-don't-tell policy on sex. The crude misinformation from Sleeva's misogynistic drinking companion serves no educational purpose though it is the most graphic that anyone gets with him.
In many ways, Kettiyollaanu Ente Maalakha is pathbreaking. It deals with a grave theme but has a light touch, features a mainstream male star and does not disguise its mainstream commercial aspirations. In a country where most people have warped ideas about consent even between strangers, and the general assumption is that marriage grants a man a life-long licence for sex with his wife whenever, wherever and in whichever way he wants it, her wishes be damned, director Nisam Basheer and writer Aji Peter Thankam have the vision to deal with the issue of a woman's consent within marriage.
(Spoiler alert for this paragraph) Kettiyollaanu Ente Maalakha goes a step further and underlines the point that consent must be given at every instance - just because a wife is well disposed to her husband and has initiated physical contact with him on previous occasions, does not at all mean that he is allowed to force himself on her. When such force is shown to be used in the film, it is clearly called "rape". >(Spoiler alert ends)
When it starts out, Kettiyollaanu Ente Maalakha does not offer any indication that it will take such a serious turn. It is at first gently amusing and endearingly real as Basheer establishes the close bond Sleeva shares with his large extended family and the bonhomie among the villagers. When the going gets grim, the director ensures that the narrative does not trivialise the issues at hand. The reins do slip from his hands a couple of times - both instances involve a comically nosy old woman: such people of course exist in real life and such circumstances are likely to arise, but the point is the presentation itself in both cases is jarring in comparison with the sensitive tonal balance maintained in the rest of the film. That said, these shifts in tone pass off in seconds and it is clear they are not intentional.
The significance of Kettiyollaanu Ente Maalakha lies in its position on prevalent social notions of consent in perpetuity in the matter of sexual relations, the acknowledgement that marital rape is common in our society and the sight, however improbable it may be, of almost an entire community being opposed to it. Improbable the latter certainly is, but not impossible, and I will take a suspension of disbelief any day over the poisonous misogyny that big-budget men-centric Malayalam cinema has thrust on us for too long now. Remember that just weeks back the repeated impregnation of an unwilling wife by her husband in Aadya Rathri was brushed aside jokingly as a mark of his love for her rather than what it is: marital rape.
Sleevachan's innocence does take some time to sink in because even if his friends were unusually reticent, it requires a stretch of the imagination to believe that the couple of jerks who he also hangs out with never volunteered details of their sexual encounters. Improbable, but again not impossible. There is more ignorance out there than we realise. Look around your own social circle and ask how many seemingly knowledgeable, sexually active men are aware that condoms and birth control pills are not 100 per cent effective, ask how many couples think having unprotected sex "just once" cannot result in a pregnancy. It happens even in more sexually permissive societies than ours. A Sleevachan could, therefore, exist.
(Spoiler alert for this paragraph) The episode that requires some consideration is the one in which Sleeva behaves uncharacteristically with Rincy. Is such a dramatic momentary lapse possible? Yes, if you take into account the "manaprayasam" he spoke of to his priest, the combined weight of social expectations, peer pressure and wrong guidance. >(Spoiler alert ends)
Kettiyollaanu Ente Maalakha is not perfect. At one point there is talk of counselling for Sleevachan, but no sessions are shown and the screenplay seems to take the line that human instincts ultimately were indeed all that was needed. Given the circumstances, the film also opts for the safest possible ending. And it is important to point out that though its choice of theme is commendable, Kettiyollaanu too is a man-centric take on what is intrinsically a man-woman issue. The woman here is not marginalised, but she is certainly secondary. Nothing illustrates this better than the scene in which Sleevachan sits before Rincy finally confiding in her about his confusions, and the camera focuses on him while showing her from only the forearms down. Really? Expected better from you, Team Kettiyollaanu.
Despite this, the film remains path-breaking because it takes a stand against behaviour that Indian cinema at large and Malayalam in particular usually ignores or trivialises. Kettiyollaanu Ente Maalakha's courage and humanity are what recommend it most, though its naturalism, bird's eye view of local customs and top-notch acting come close.
Ali is off the charts with his interpretation of a rustic, romantically awkward youngster. After Uyare, this is his career best performance. What an exceptional year for an actor who too often has wasted himself on generic, largely uninspiring films.
Nandhakumar is phenomenal too as a new wife whose confusion over her husband's initial oddness belies a quiet confidence.
My pick of the credible supporting cast is the beautifully dignified Manohari Joy who plays Sleevachan's mother.
William Francis' music is a bonus, smoothly kneaded as it is into the narrative. That folksy number about Sleevachan's marriage is lovely.
DoP Abilash Sankar, whose neglect of a woman in one scene I just mentioned, plays a crucial role elsewhere in the delicate, non-exploitative handling of sexual violence. This is why Kettiyollaanu Ente Maalakha is so important - because male behaviour that is considered commonplace in our society is treated here as exactly what it is: a crime. In doing so, Basheer and Thankam have contributed to an essential conversation in a non-esoteric fashion, however debatable certain aspects of their storyline maybe.