How the 2019 Malayalam film Ishq showed a middle finger to toxic masculinity
The Interval Scene of Ishq (2019):
“I am a man, I need to know”
“Oh, I didn’t see any of this manliness yesterday”
This conversation between the lovers at exactly the half-way mark points to the change in the direction of the film’s story. Ishq, the Malayalam drama-thriller directed by Anuraj Manohar and written by Ratheesh Ravi, is one of the rarest mainstream films in India that succeeded in consistently confusing the audience by questioning the validity of their reactions every now and then.
An ambulance driver Alwin (Shine Tom Chacko) posing as a cop intrudes into the privacy of the young, unmarried lovers, Sachi (an excellent Shane Nigam) and Vasudha (Ann Sheetal) who try to snatch a moment for themselves inside a car at night. Alwin finds out that both of them have been pursuing each other without the knowledge of their parents and decides to moral-police them i.e harass them out of their wits. For more than an hour, he keeps hounding them on the desolate streets of Kochi and even tries to sexually exploit Vasudha in the absence of her boyfriend.
When Alwin, at last, frees the couple much to our relief, we are shocked to find that a new problem has come up between the lovers – Sachi now badly wants to know whether Vasudha allowed herself to be sexually exploited at the hands of the intruder or not. He doesn’t seem concerned even a bit about things like how she survived the ordeal or how she shall get over the trauma and move back to normalcy going forward. The only thing that has loomed paramount in front of his mind is the question – is Vasudha is still ‘pure’ or not?
Won’t men like us too behave this way if something of the same kind happened in our lives? Haven’t we been taught to expect women to remain paragons of virtue and holiness regardless of the situations they had been thrust into during their lives? If women of our families too, get molested or sexually victimized somehow, haven’t many of us been programmed instinctively only to countenance first, the minor possibility of our woman’s own ‘culpability’ in the act?
Sachi too, needless to say, behaves pretty much like us. He desperately wants to know the status of his girl’s ‘purity’. He won’t rest until then. He undergoes a huge mental turmoil and decides to unearth the all-too-important truth for himself.
Related to Ishq (2019) – The 20 Best Indian Movies of 2019
Sachi soon discovers the truth that Alwin was not a cop but an ambulance driver who lives with a wife and a small girl-child in an ordinary, middle-class household. Sachi is ashamed to ask him directly the question that has been rankling his mind. He is also terribly hurt at the stinging words of his lover, “I didn’t see any of this manliness yesterday” who just won’t give him the consoling answer he badly needs.
So Sachi finds that he has two big missions in front of him. One – to know the ‘truth’ about what happened the night before. Two – to prove to Vasudha, his manliness by taking revenge on Alwin.
He somehow finds Alwin’s residence and runs into his unsuspecting wife Maria (Leona Lishoy). Maria welcomes him home assuming he is the friend of her husband and even offers something to drink. But Sachi begins his revenge, by intruding into the privacy of the house unceremoniously and when Alwin arrives, he gives him back in full what he got the night before.
But there is one crucial difference, in Sachi’s method of ‘revenge’. He settles the score only by physically and mentally harassing Alwin’s wife Maria, threatening his girl-child and only at the last, after extracting the most wanted piece of information from Alwin’s mouth, proceeds to physically assault him.
The very next morning, a happy Sachi bundles Alwin’s sidekick Mukundan into his car’s dickie and makes him apologize to Vasudha for what happened that night, by forcing him to touch her feet.
Ishq throws two questions in front of us. One, when a woman gets sexually assaulted, how much do men like us think is the woman’s complicity in the ‘act’? Secondly when that woman happens to be part of our household, how exactly are men like us supposed to plot our vengeance on the offender? To put the second question a bit more differently, under such trying conditions what does it take to be ‘a real man’?
These are extremely difficult questions in a still-culturally feudal India and most men among us may not be mentally equipped to handle situations such as these. But we will try to think our answers aloud here.
Most men of our generation are trained to test our masculine abilities not in closed rooms among men ourselves, but in wide arenas filled up by good-looking women cheering for us. During our college days, we practiced wheeling our bikes and engaged in arm-wrestling with our classmates. But without a women audience to watch and applaud, did any of these acts of bravura and machismo make any real sense to us? So here we arrive at a crucial conclusion in our analysis. ‘Masculinity’ in its crudest form cannot exist in a vacuum. It needs women to exist and thrive just like fire needs something like oxygen to burn.
That is precisely why Sachi exacts his revenge the way he does. He doesn’t take on Alwin the next day in broad day-light on the streets and show him his place in an intensely-fought brawl. He chooses a proper time for his revenge, ensures all his acts of revenge are captured properly on the minds of Alwin’s wife and child, uses her body primarily as a weapon against Alwin and when he decides to fully unleash his anger by physically assaulting him, he waits till a loud procession on the road drowns all the noise inside, in order to escape from the place unnoticed. Thus, by worshipping ‘masculinity’ in all its glory through the ‘heroic’ revenge of Sachi, Ishq only slaps men like us silly into surrendering all our claims to it.
Sachi is now fully convinced about two crucial things now. Vasudha as confirmed by Alwin himself, is if anything, still ‘sufficiently pure’ to get himself married to her. Two, he has re-established himself as a man in front of Vasudha’s eyes and the events that happened the night before shall adequately testify to that. So in conclusion, there is no reason now for his girl-friend to turn him down. So he has bought an expensive ring for her and opens it to propose marriage to her, in the very same car.
She looks at him weirdly and when he is preparing himself for a sweet nod with flushed cheeks and downcast eyes from her, she extends something else from her left-hand which he initially assumes is the finger for the ring. But to his shock, something else has come out. Oh, it is her middle-finger!
So Ishq has given us the answer for our first question- on that of a woman’s complicity in sexual crimes meted out against her. If someone like us get infected by say, today’s corona-virus, how much responsibility do we think, are we for it? Or if any of us get bitten by a rabid dog on the street at night and come home in our torn jeans, are our mothers at home supposed to treat us immediately or grill us first on how we let it happen to us?
And now to answer the second one, Vasudha rejected Sachi not because he was not ‘man enough’ to stand up to Alwin on the day of their ordeal. She certainly didn’t reject him on account of his lack of ‘masculinity’ nor is she impressed greatly by his attempts to re-establish it in front of her. All she expected from him is not ‘masculinity’ or some heroic trait passed on generations down from our battle-scarred medieval ancestors. She needed only ’empathy’ from Sachi and literally nothing else.