Released on Amazon Prime, Sara’S is a Malayalam movie scripted by Dr Akshay Haresh, directed by Jude Anthony Joseph, produced by PK Murali Dharan and Santha Murali, and starring Anna Ben and Sunny Wayne. The film has a ‘feel good’ sense and has been criticised for this. It also brings to focus a textbook-style understanding of gender norms and stereotypes, and sexual and reproductive rights and has been critiqued for these too. Precisely for this reason, we review this film using a gender and sexual and reproductive rights lens.
Sara’S is a film about Sara (played by Anna Ben), a 25-year-old Associate Director from a relatively privileged background who dreams of directing a film. It focuses on her choices, be it those regarding boyfriends, profession, partner, and pregnancy, and in doing so, puts the spotlight on challenging gender norms, exercising sexual and reproductive agency, and rights of women, in particular. It also subtly and systematically subverts gender stereotypes regarding choice of profession and domestic roles,.
Challenging gender norms
Sara is the sort of a woman society judges – she has had many boyfriends before marrying the hero, Jeevan (played by Sunny Wayne). She wears what she wants, drinks alcohol, and believes in sharing household chores with her husband. She does not want to become pregnant and deliver a baby, instead she wants to achieve other things in life that are important to her. Sara is the opposite of the unambitious and self-sacrificing women that mainstream Indian films and serials depict.
The film features Sara’s finding out about her accidental pregnancy right when she gets an opportunity to direct her first film. Both demand nine months of her time, but that is not the crux of the film. Sara consistently has been shown to not want to have children, and neither does her partner. It seems that this is one of the things that brought them together.
Sara’s character seems like a ‘real’ person and not an ideal woman within a heteropatriarchal framework. Sara’s husband understands what she is going through both with respect to the profession she is in as well as with regard to the unwanted pregnancy. He is shown to struggle with his choices even as Sara makes hers. He had, on a whim, opted to not have children, based on his experiences babysitting for his older sister. But following his marriage and promotion, he is not too sure of the choice he made earlier. He is not the ‘villain’ in Sara’s life, but a man grappling with the pressures of patriarchal expectations of masculinity, which have been depicted very well by the director.
The film is simplistic in its depiction of Sara at different stages of her possible futures if she were to accept the prescribed gender roles using different women characters in the film. There is Jeevan’s sister Sandhya, a single mother working in forensic medicine, trying to juggle work and her two children. We also meet Jeevan’s mother, a woman who lived her life only for her children. Yet her own daughter does not want her in her life except as a child-minder. Sara forthrightly challenges Jeevan’s mother, who is pressurising her to continue the pregnancy, with “What have you achieved?” In another scene, Sara goes to meet a retired woman actor she wants to cast in her film. This actor’s husband laughs at his wife and says, “Give her a role, otherwise people will think that I am not giving her the permission to act”. Sara staysquiet in front of the husband but mutters to herself, “Who says she needs your permission?” The film very subtly demonstrates how the yesteryear actor herself is complicit in the patriarchal ‘choreography’ of life.
This film’s primary focus is on women being expected to become mothers and how that marginalises women or couples who choose to not have children. For such people, the men are questioned about their masculinity – equated with the ability to ‘impregnate’ and women are challenged about their femininity – equated with fertility.
Sexual and reproductive choices and rights
The absence of an understanding of privacy in our cultural context is how family and friends come to know of Sara’s pregnancy. Seeing Jeevan and Sara coming out of a gynaecologist’s cabin, friends convey the information to Jeevan and Sara’s family members with no regard fore their privacy.
The film talks about abortion from a sexual and reproductive rights- and choice-based perspective. Talking about abortion access for women within the framework of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act and explaining the legal status of abortion in the country is a remarkable contribution of this film. There are hardly any mainstream films that portray abortion in a non-judgemental way. In the film, a male gynaecologist is willing to perform an abortion for Saraafter counselling (as is required by the law) . He mentions that it needs to be ‘Sara’s choice’ more than it is Jeevan’s as she would be the one to carry the pregnancy for nine months. He refers to contraceptive failure and the consequence as an ‘accident’. He emphasises parenthood as a commitment and tells Sara the decision is more hers than anyone else’s.
The fate of Sara’s character in the story is a rare one. The film didn’t expect her to juggle her career against what the family wants from her – motherhood. She is a person with dreams, who thankfully, is able to choose what she wants. In the film she goes on to having an abortion and making her film, surrounded by her family, who have come to terms with her choices.
Subverting Gender Stereotypes
The film breaks many stereotypes shown in mainstream Malayalam movies, one such example being that Sara wants to direct a thriller movie, not a rom-com which is presented as a more ‘feminine’ genre. The well-meaning producer of the film casually suggests that a heavy genre like a thriller would need an experienced male ‘Director’ and Sara asks him how much more experience one would need, listing her work.
Jeevan’s sister is a forensic expert. In most parts of India, forensic medicine is not a ‘woman’s profession’, and most experts in this field are men. However, in Kerala, we do find women forensic experts more than we do elsewhere in India, as seen in the listing of life members of the Indian Academy of Forensic Medicine (12.5% in Kerala as compared to 9% in the rest of India). The film demonstrates positive stereotypes of women, subtly hinting at the role of a woman forensic expert in the infamous Koodathayi cyanide murders. The supportive gynaecologist is a Muslim man, subverting yet another negative stereotype regarding access to reproductive services.
In the film, Sara is a privileged woman from an upper-class family and has a supportive father and husband. So, when she stands firm in her decisions that do not conform to the heteropatriarchal ideal, she does not face much opposition. The film contrasts Sara’s situation with the lack of equal access to reproductive rights with that of a woman in the gynaecologist’s waiting room who is pregnant with her fourth child.
If this film had been released twenty years ago, Sara might have been shown to be judged as being selfish and making an ‘unnatural’ choice. But today, this film carefully steers clear of judgement with respect to the abortion that Sara seeks. The film supports feminism in a quiet way and stands for sexual and reproductive health and rights firmly. By empathising with Sara in a matter-of-fact way, and not positioning arguments for and against, the film draws us into the complicated debate on reproductive rights. Sara’S is a bold film that has the potential to make some people rethink their opinions. That mainstream cinema is handling issues relating to sexual and reproductive rights and choices indeed gives hope.
Cover Image: Poster of the film