Women’s Tales from Kerala

in 28th International Film Festival of Kerala

by Melis Behlil

At the 28th International Film Festival of Kerala, the FIPRESCI Jury awarded Shruthi Sharanyam’s B 32 to 44 as the best debut film in the Malayalam Cinema Today section. The title of the film is likely to be understood more easily by those readers in possession of breasts (or boobs, to cite a core moment in the film), as it refers to bra sizes. I deliberately refrain from saying “female readers,” as this is precisely the point B 32 to 44 is trying to make. Through the six intertwining stories of five women and a trans man, the film takes a humorous, provocative, and at times touching look at the relationship people have with their (and with others’) bodies.

While this is Sharanyam’s debut feature film as a fiction filmmaker, she has extensive experience in working as a producer and director for television, which is evident in the visual language of the film. B 32 to 44 does not have a groundbreaking style and uses a fairly safe and conventional filmic language. But considering the complexity of the issues it tackles, as well as the challenge of telling multiple parallel stories, this has been the wise choice to make. Shifting effortlessly between the characters and the sometimes-intertwining storylines, the film keeps its audiences engaged and wondering throughout.

The film has been supported by Kerala State Film Development Corporation as part of its “Films Directed by Women” program. While not all films directed by women tell women’s stories or even have a female gaze, B 32 to 44 clearly does. Starting with its amusing credits sequence, we are frequently reminded of how deeply rooted gender roles and expectations are in society, as well as of the traditional binary view of gender itself, and how these factors shape our daily lives. The lyrics of the song accompanying the credits firmly positions the film as a feminist tale, a standpoint later supported by the strong female characters, as well as the film’s hopeful ending.

The six characters all have widely differing issues with their breasts. They are each introduced separately, with their names and bra sizes announced in titles. While Ziya (Anarkali Marikar) is transitioning to a male body and his breasts are a burden, Iman (Zarin Shihab) is trying to find ways to enlarge hers, as she is considered “not attractive enough” by her superior to advance in her career in hotel management. Malini is a cancer survivor who has just had a mastectomy and is experiencing troubles in her marriage. Nidhi (Raina Radhakrishnan) is a high school student who has recently given birth, a fact that is hidden from everyone by her parents, but this secrecy cannot change the fact that she is lactating. Rachael (Krisha Kurup) wants to be an actress and stands up for herself when she is sexually assaulted by a filmmaker known to make “feminist” films. And Jaya (Ashwathy B), the most socio-economically disadvantaged of the group, finds herself forced to accept a modeling job for a lingerie company, since her husband is unable to work due to health reasons. Men take a back seat in this narrative.

The crossovers between the stories and how the characters relate to one another might seem a little far-fetched at times, but the performances and the rapport among the cast makes the film believable. Particularly Zarin Shihab, who also has a leading role in Anand Ekarshi’s The Play (the Netpac-award winner at IFFK), shines as Iman. It’s a relatively young cast that holds a lot of promise for the future of Malayalam cinema. B 32 to 44 is a film with a lot of promise, not only as a directorial debut, but also as a daring way of addressing women and their problems in India and across the world. Unlike the predator Rachel faces in the film, Sharanyam is indeed a feminist filmmaker.

Melis Behlil
Edited by Savina Petkova