As Parvathy Thiruvothu talks about the “visual grammar of glorification” in Kabir Singh/Arjun Reddy and how it gets people to engage with violence in a massive, mob-like manner, it is interesting to see the other top women on the panel during the conversation hosted by Film Companion. Alia Bhatt is fidgeting with her nails with extreme interest, Deepika Padukone is absorbed in ensuring lipstick isn’t staining her teeth. Vijay Devarakonda, who played Arjun Reddy, is seething silently. And the other men, Ayushmann Khurrana and Ranveer Singh, are either staring at the ground or into the beyond. Parvathy caps it by saying: “I, as an actor, cannot stop a director from doing (such a movie), but I can choose not to be a part of it.”
The moment pretty much captures what is unique about the 31-year-old actress who has done some fine work primarily in Malayalam movies. Neither a cookie-cutter cutie, nor a “papa ki pari”, Parvathy stands out for her habit of speaking truth to power as well as choosing meaningful roles in movies across languages.
And the quality of her work is only getting better. Her performance in Virus this year, won her many plaudits, with critics calling it a “brilliantly minimalistic” performance in a superbly crafted thriller. All Parvathy needs—like most other working women—is a better work environment.
As she put it recently: “If you want better sex education in your institutions, you have to demand it. Don’t be ok with films and content which propagate wrong ideas about sex and sexuality, don’t accept ‘locker room’ talk.”
To be an actor and speak up in the South Indian movie industry, which is as patriarchal as Bollywood, if not more, takes spine. It is an industry that lies prostrate before the male superstar. Where fans flaunt their dangerous obsession with heroes.
Parvathy is what we had hoped Bollywood actresses will be — mindful, outspoken, breaking the wheel.
Who’s that woman?
Whether it is praising a movie that doesn’t even star her or supporting climate activists, Parvathy is quick on the Twitter trigger. She quotes Maya Angelou and posts pictures of the LGBTQ pride flag. But she is also more than an armchair activist, standing up for #MeToo accusers despite media apathy.
When she called out the misogynist dialogues in Kasaba (2016), superstar Mammootty’s fans sent her rape and death threats.
No wonder then that she is part of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) founded in 2017 to protect the cause of women in Malayalam cinema. She takes her role seriously, says co-founder, director Bina Paul. “The profile of the women who are entering the film industry is changing, they are more educated, and don’t necessarily belong to film families. They are actively choosing acting as a profession. They are aware of their rights and have seen the world. The formation of the WCC has also helped in an environment where speaking up is not the norm,” Paul says. Especially against powerful men in the industry such as actor Dileep. When he said his resignation was not an expulsion and that he had been vilified, Parvathy’s one-word comment summed up the collective outrage of women.
— Parvathy Thiruvothu (@parvatweets) October 23, 2018
This spunk and sass is evident in her work as well. In Uyare (2019), for instance, she plays an aspiring pilot who survives an acid attack. In Take Off (2017), she plays a nurse caught up in Tikrit in 2012, and in her latest movie, Virus, based on the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala, she is a doctor. These are real women, the kind we all are, the kind we see around us.
This is what made Tanuja Chandra cast her in Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017) opposite Irrfan Khan in 2017. Chandra told ThePrint: “Parvathy is very real. Plus, what a privilege as well as a pleasure it was for me to be able to cast someone with a real body type. And how lovely she looked — one doesn’t have to be reed-thin to be beautiful. She is a very good actor and without that, it would have been impossible for me to cast her, I needed a strong performer.”
After Qarib Qarib Singlle released, one common response from Hindi movie audiences Chandra got was — “Irrfan is fantastic as usual, but who’s that girl?” Parvathy, she says, has great presence on screen. “She performs straight from the heart. She pretends very little and feels a lot. In my book, that is a supreme ability for an actor to have. She is also very hardworking, learns her lines and comes on time,” adds Chandra.
Fiercely independent, Parvathy is a feminist and a liberal. She calls herself the ‘F-word’ at a time when other actresses in India treat it like their kryptonite.
She admirably speaks up for women’s rights and for equality. Regardless of the trolls online and the critics offline, she carries on—sometimes at the cost of work and sometimes with rape and death threats.
As film critic Sudhir Srinivasan told ThePrint: “The star-crazed fans come hard at her every time she refuses to flinch from addressing a problem head-on, be it with her comments on the misogyny in Mammooty’s Kasaba or more recently in Arjun Reddy (2017). I find it special that during an age of diplomacy and self-preservation, she has shown a tendency to register her lucid, important opinions in public. She has a keenness to constantly improve herself, like when her casual use of bipolar condition came in for some criticism, she admitted to her folly and promised to do better. We have some actors who are as good as her, but very few who are as outspoken and sensible.”
And people react to her honest, blunt and articulate opinions in the age of Glossy Superficialities and Glib Nothings that build brands.
She also stands out for her love of good cinema. Bejoy Nambiar, director of Solo (2017) and Shaitan (2011), who has been trying to work with her for the longest time, says he and his wife Sheetal Menon recently spent some time together watching movies at MAMI. “She’s part of this young generation of actors who are complementary to each other and are trying to raise the standard of cinema. They come from different languages and different territories. and their movies, even if small, are being discovered through streaming platforms. Good films are finding their way to cinephiles and actors are secure in their body of work,” he told The Print.
To get rid of the several demons in the Indian film industry, we will need many Parvathys.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.