Food

View: Helen on the Rocks, Food for Thaw

Synopsis

Formulaic vigilante-revenge films use this frozen woman, but so do more nuanced stories. A recent example from The Crown: old Winston Churchill has a personal epiphany — leading to a policy shift — during the Great Smog of 1952 as he regards the fate of his secretary Venetia (a character created and killed off just for the show).

When is a woman in a refrigerator more than just a woman in a refrigerator? The answer can vary with perspective. But the reference is to a term coined by the comic-book writer Gail Simone. Also known as ‘fridging,’ it describes this literary trope: an imperilled, murdered or generally non-functional woman character becomes the pretext for the emotional development (or the plot-furthering emotional devastation) of a man.

In many such cases, a token effort is made to create empathy for the victim. But she’s basically a cipher, and it’s all about the fellow’s journey. (Comatose or dead, women are particularly useful. They can’t even complain that a man is man-spreading his way across the narrative.)

Formulaic vigilante-revenge films use this frozen woman, but so do more nuanced stories. A recent example from The Crown: old Winston Churchill has a personal epiphany — leading to a policy shift — during the Great Smog of 1952 as he regards the fate of his secretary Venetia (a character created and killed off just for the show).

Venetia is laid out on ice in the morgue in that scene, but fridging doesn’t have to involve an actual fridge or ice slab. Even a sensitive film like October, written by Juhi Chaturvedi, a woman, can fit the theme for those who like to use such lenses. After all, the story is about a young woman having a terrible accident and a young man coming of age because he feels responsible for her in her vegetative state.

Which means one can argue endlessly about what constitutes fridging, whether it is done well (following a story’s internal logic), or cynically — and whether it should even be required for a victim, woman or man, to have ‘agency’ in such a narrative, given that this is often not the case in real life. (Or in faraway galaxies: remember Han Solo frozen in carbonite, his mouth open as if someone yelled ‘Statue!’ when he was mid-wisecrack?)

But one of the wittiest takes on fridging that I have seen is in the 2019 film, Helen. This is among many recent Malayalam films that do intriguing things with their narrative arcs. Just when you think a film is about to settle into a predictable (if engrossing) story ‘type,’ the screenplay takes an unnerving right turn, a new character or complication is introduced — and somehow, this is done without altering the basic grounded tone.

It’s hard to discuss such films in spoiler-free terms, but I’ll try. For reasons you’ll understand when you watch Helen, the protagonist (played by the very likable Anna Ben), a Christian with a Muslim boyfriend, ends up as a refrigerated woman 45 minutes into the story. Alive, more or less functional, but in trouble. What happens to Helen can be viewed in symbolic terms: thanks to a run-in with police earlier, she is already in a tight spot, feeling trapped. Her father is giving her the cold shoulder (or putting the freeze on her).

But what happens is also presented realistically, with a plausible build-up — involving our familiarity with the nature of Helen’s work, the equations between her colleagues, the workplace routine. The circumstances both facilitate the incident and hinder attempts to rescue her.

However, Helen turns out to be the antithesis of the fridged woman as defined by Gail Simone. Though many men, including her despairing father and boyfriend, are involved — all primed to become male heroes — she gets the most screen time, and her survival is as much a matter of her own resourcefulness and personality.

The result is both a slice-of-life story about regular people and an unusual survival thriller. It’s also a rare example — at a time when too many films wear their social consciousness or political correctness on their sleeve — of a movie that subverts an old motif without coming across as forced or laboured in its progressiveness. It makes one want to tell the more overtly ‘woke’ filmmakers to take a chill-pill. Or, to go sit in an icebox for a bit.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)

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