Amma bought me my first bra like all mothers should. It was a short, intimate moment. She squeezed this new addition to my body and her cups deflated over my chest. She said it was about time and I needed to take more care of the boys now. I felt new, even though my chest hidden under three layers of cotton looked strangely unattractive. I slowly navigated life under Amma’s mothering prowess, guiding me through the battle of thickening breasts and slow hair eruption. We have grown up together as one world in the same house under the provocation of the same men. She didn’t know that I had grown up a little too fast and continued to fall in love with women, even though she only warned me about boys. I want to date Amma, but neither can I. It’s still an itch on my back, like the ones we can’t reach properly.
Now how do you treat an itch? I decided to push it a bit and my weapon of choice was an 80s movie that Amma and I watched together. Deshadanakilli Karayarilla (translation: Migratory Birds Don’t cry) is an Indian Malayalam movie by P. Padmarajan and also the first queer movie that my Gen Z itself watched in the language I speak. The film features Nimmy and Sally, two best friends who set off on a school picnic to find all the odds in the world and to find what Sally calls a “safe place.” I wanted to ask Amma if she thought Sally, who was chewing green-eyed gum, was a lesbian? Or if Sally and Nimmi had a little more than friendship? I wanted to know how she would react if I pushed and pushed her about same-sex relationships, to see if the “safe place” Sally was looking for was right in front of me.
Read also : Deshadanakili Karayarilla: a 1986 Malayalam film that attempted to portray queer teenage life
Thematically, the film explores desire, but not particularly queer desire or erotic desire. Perhaps the lack of sex or explicit desire in the film is the reason many deny that the film has any weird intentions. Deshadanakilli Karayarilla explores desire under the guise of safety, an important element that we hope to give anyone who comes out of the closet to friends, family or the world.
What P Padmarajan does through the film is construct a closet metaphor. It creates a landscape for two schoolgirls, unmistakably in love, fleeing from adults who persistently arbitrate their attempts to find a safe space to hang out with each other. In another sense, the film is not about queer love, but about denied queer love.
The on-screen portrayal of homosexuality in Malayalam cinema was not prominent until the 1990s. New Age films explore homosexuality more truthfully, but lack nuances of queer love such as friendship, heartbreak and acceptance. That’s why I had to dig up this 1980s gem, not just because it deserves credit, but because it functions as a buried time capsule that could fill the queer sense over two generations. Sally and Nimmy, although portrayed as best friends, are placed in the same context as Malayalam movie lovers. Falling in love usually follows a song, the camera only focuses on the two lovers as the world around them begins to fall apart for the viewer.
The song ‘Vaanampaadi Etho‘written by ON V and sung by KJ Yesudas does, but instead of the expected heterosexual couple we get a montage of Sally and Nimmi working against the world like a thick globe. This is when the film becomes threatening. P Padmarajan assures that actors Shari and Karthika who play Sally and Nimmi have the potential to become typography lovers and thus destroy the Malayalee palace for the men and women who fall in love again and again on screen. One viewer is hoping to see them again in the same way again, and that thirst to see queer love onscreen is why Deshadanakilli Karayarilla is an itch in the back, a method of separating society’s appetite for forced heterosexual romance.
Sally and Nimmi live like hiding places, take refuge in a hostel under different names, change their appearance, and do odd jobs in antique stores. Their school is looking for them but it is easy enough for two strange girls to become ambiguous in the waves of the port of Cochin, India. Sally is tormented by the fear of being followed, which is not irrational as strange men seem to follow them relentlessly. Two men roam around them the first day on their own. The women speak in English to avoid being understood, pretend to belong, and escape by autorickshaw to town.
In town, they are again followed by a policeman who is suspicious of two girls who circulate at the end of the evening without a man accompanying them. Quick-witted Sally tells him that they are sisters and that they need a car that he helps organize for them. He also unnecessarily accompanies them to the inn at their fictional friend’s convent, for the thought of two girls alone at night is a space that right-thinking men like him like to invade.
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Perhaps it is the men’s constant intrusion into their personal space that prompts Nimmy to trust Harishankar, a character played by Mohanlal, who, despite knowing the girls are hiding their identities, never reports them to the police. . Nimmy, like many women I know, takes refuge with one man to escape the prowling of many others and that’s how she falls in love. When Sally realizes that Nimmy has fallen in love with Hari, she assures Nimmy that being loved and loving is one of the greatest blessings in the world. That’s when Sally turns out to be the best lover, the one who bends her rules for an imaginary safe space that she hasn’t found yet but is ready to provide it to Nimmy.
If I think more about my own queer relationships, coming out is a repeated event and the request to date is always dissolved into the safety of the one you’re in love with. Sally is denied an exit from the closet and she voluntarily avoids it, to ensure Nimmy’s safety. If Sally had come to Nimmy fearing Hari’s imminent threat, she would have either lost Nimmy or taken away something from him that Nimmy deeply wanted. Sally is denied her identity by forces like her conservative school, her family, and men like Harishankar and Professor Devika. Her agitation is expressed when she attacks her teacher, calling her a “bitch” for trying to take Nimmy away from her. Sally and Nimmy are two locked up teens and Deshadanakilli Karayarilla possibly the first queer film in the Malayalam language.
Two generations have watched and re-watched this film and only recent developments have drawn attention to its weird undertones for the observant Malayalee. Yet the film is denied its bizarre intentions due to the lack of open disclosure about homosexuality or sexual innuendos between Nimmy and Sally. As I pointed out before, the movie is a time capsule that locked-in gay people can find today, one that opens the conversation to a parent who grew up in the 1980s and knows only the lack of homosexual relations. The question, “Amma, do you think Sally is a better lover than Hari?” “ followed by a sudden gasp of ” eh ? What are you saying?” is good enough to know where your safe place is, far away or perhaps right here.
Sharon (she / she) graduated in Literature from Hyderabad University and is currently working on her research proposal, although a long gap with academics will do her good. But, she never listens to her own advice and spends most of her time being anxious. Her life is full of queerplatonic relationships and she keeps writing about love and loss. In her spare time, she reads photographs and writes long emails. You can find her on Instagram and WordPress.
Featured Image Source: IFFK