Malayalam Cinema has long been lauded for its raw storytelling and a brilliant array of artists. Discussing topics that have remained taboo in society has always been a characteristic feature of Malayalam Cinema. Yet the portrayal of queerness remains still an area with little exploration.
Queerness in Malayalam Cinema
Aside from using queer characters as cheap comic relief, authentic representation is scarce in Indian Cinema. Queerness in Malayalam Cinema was first portrayed in the 1978 Randu Penkuttitkal. It is the first Indian film to portray lesbian romance on the silver screen.
Literally meaning “two girls”, the film is based on Malayalam writer V T Nandakumar’s 1974 novel of the same name. Kokila, a senior in high school, is seen in the movie falling head over heels for her gorgeous dancer junior, Girija. She showers the latter with presents, and she even makes it apparent what type of relationship she wants. Despite being impressed, Girija is uninterested and instead finds herself being seduced by a handsome photographer (a male). When Kokila tries all in her power to ensure that men avoid her love by spreading untrue tales about her, it portrays her as this insane possessive person.
The film can be seen as a commentary on how lesbian representation in film typically ends with a character realising her errors of judgement and having her “indiscretions” explained away as a “phase” during her teenage years, and that getting married to a man is the wise choice.
There have been other films since, which have attempted to portray LGBTQIA+ relationships, like Sancharam(2004), My Life Partner(2014), and most recently, Moothon(2019). But perhaps the most popular and commercially successful of them all is the 1986 hit called ‘Deshadanakkili Karayarilla’.
Subtleties of Queer Love
This Premrajan directorial is loaded with subtext and subtleties telling a story of queer relationships and teenage life. In true Premrajan fashion, the movie deals with topics way ahead of its time and his art of nuanced storytelling shines throughout the film.
Deshadanakkili Karayarilla focuses on two teen girls named Nirmala (Karthika) and Sally (Shari) who feel unwelcome at home and at school. The two flee during their school trip in order to relieve their sense of confinement and live freely in the city by themselves.
They encounter Harishankar (Mohanlal), who gets close to Nirmala and makes her think he is interested in her romantically. Sally cautions her and expresses her disapproval of her love for him. It is subtly hinted that Sally was in love with Nirmala, who is oblivious to it.
The girls battle against a system and culture that aggressively attempts to subdue their brains, bodies, and sexualities in order to assert their agency throughout the whole story. Sally is a strong person who is passionate to find her place in life. However, despite her emotional vulnerability, Nirmala also refuses to accept the life her father would have forced upon her.
Deshadanakil Karayarilla strikes a balance between emotional vulnerability, individual freedom, and feminine agency by putting such diametrically opposed personalities together in a setting of friendship and affection. The relationship between Nirmala and Sally is strong and serves as a symbol for lesbian politics, female solidarity, and gender politics that are abundant throughout the story.
Deshadanakil Karayarilla does not ignore Sally, even as Nirmala starts to fall in love with Harishankar, in order to depict the subtleties of gay affinities. Sally occasionally restrains herself from overpowering Nirmala in an effort to respect her decision to pursue a relationship with Hari. However, as they continue to search for their “safe haven,” a place where they can simply be, their close bond continues to flourish.
At a period when queerness was stigmatised socially and ethically, Padmarajan examines the issue of homosexuality and the ambiguity surrounding it. One of the earliest Malayalam films to explore portraying female sexuality and lesbianism was Deshadanakili Karayarilla.