Disclaimer – This is not meant to be a comprehensive thesis. I just wanted to record a few thoughts on this topic. Your inputs and reactions are most welcome.
The characterization of Shalini (played by Amala Paul) in the recently released Velaiyilla Pattadhari-2 has drawn much flak. This is in part due to its director (Soundarya Rajinikanth) being a woman. But in all fairness, I think people, especially women, may not have been enamored with the role even otherwise. Shalini, the adorable girlfriend from part-1, is now a nagging homemaker. The dulcet voice from the earlier movie has been replaced with a shrill. Dhanush, playing the husband, even breaks into a mock sobbing bout when Kajol asks an innocuous question, “Are you married?” We are supposed to understand that he is henpecked! Dhanush’s writing, which was quite a revelation in the Revathy-Raj Kiran portions of Power Paandi, exhibits nary a bit of that delicacy here. The track is just played for easy laughs. But probably owing to Dhanush’s genial screen persona these days and its stark contrast to the crudeness of some of his early day characters (like Thiruda Thirudi) I did not find the husband-wife interactions particularly offensive.
Despite being the butt of her husband’s jokes, Shalini is very much her own individual, who decides when to work and when not to. Living in the same house with her father-in-law, husband and brother-in-law, she might be the one preparing food (even in a makeshift kitchen on the terrace amidst floods) but she tells them what to wear, what groceries to buy, etc. I do not mean to make all of this sound like the signs of deep women empowerment. But in the male dominated world of Tamil cinema, I suppose that I feel the need to pick my battles. And VIP-2 didn’t feel like one worth losing sleep over. Even in the climactic portion, Dhanush’s words to Kajol about the equality of men and women did not sound condescending to me. Rather, it felt quite genuine. One could argue that in this day and age, even such a line is redundant. But show me one modern day Tamil hero worth his salt that gives you the vibe that the heroine is on equal footing with them. After watching the concluding portions of VIP-2, I was actually left with quite a pleasant feeling that even the seemingly villainous Kajol character was not shown as being ‘tamed.’ Instead, there was a bonding that happened in the most unexpected fashion. Whether the writing of this segment was solid is a moot point but it felt like the writer’s heart was in the right place.
As I reflected on the portrayals of women that have impressed me over the years, it was hard to shake off a rather strong feeling. And that was that anything that I deemed better than the status quo of the day had impressed me sufficiently that I did tend to give the filmmakers brownie points for at least striving to make something different, something more mature. My oft-repeated example is Rhythm and movies of that ilk like Keladi Kanmani, Sigaram, etc. I have been enormously impressed by the decency that is exhibited towards the women in these movies. The women are portrayed as strong-willed individuals, with myriad shades, warts and all. The characters are treated with immense dignity by the hero (by extension, the filmmaker, I feel). But the one fault that is laid at the feet of directors like Vasanth is that the remarrying heroine is a virgin. While I am not going to debate that, my own reaction to these movies has been largely positive just because I don’t get to see such cultured interactions in the average Tamil movie where the hero is deified and the heroine is objectified. Of course, Tamil cinema has moved to an era where filmmakers like Gautham Menon have pushed boundaries, in the right direction I might add. To me, the Ajith-Trisha interactions were easily the highlight of Yennai Arindhal. The fact that Trisha had a child was exquisitely handled. (“Isha unakulla irundhu vandhava” was a particularly poignant line.) In essence, respect shown to women in the movies should not come as a surprise to us. It should be a given. But until that happens in a movie industry that is, with reason, accused of glorifying stalking and reducing women to objects of male fantasies, let me savor the rare maturely handled movie, with all its virtues and flaws.
Having grown up on a staple diet of Mani Ratnam movies, I thought of how the typical Ratnam heroine has rarely, if ever, been a pushover. Even a Meera Jasmine who is treated like dirt at several places by the Madhavan character in Aaytha Ezhuthu, has nerves of steel. She is the most fascinating character in that movie. She continually forgives Madhavan for his impulsiveness and his explosive temper. But when, in her estimation, he crosses the line of conscientiousness, she gets an abortion done without telling him. Whatever one’s opinion of that decision may be, it is hard to refute the fact that she is not a one-note character. Where Madhavan explodes, she implodes. While he might have a short fuse, her anger may be more measured but is every bit as intense as his. All this is to say that when I sense that effort has been put into writing a well-rounded character for an actress, I walk away not only impressed but also a tad relieved. That relief comes from the fact that human dramas will rarely seem balanced and realistic if only the male character comes across as well-written.
Whenever films like Magalir Mattum and Valla Desam (both unseen by me) with a female lead get released, there is always cause for cheer just by virtue of their difference from the norm. As part of the promotions for these movies, we invariably also hear mentions of the rarity of women filmmakers. (For the record, both these films were directed by men.) It is a perfectly valid lament. For commercial considerations, an aversion to risk, the fear of being crushed by the male star juggernaut, an inherent male chauvinism or just plain ignorance, the majority of movies made by male directors do leave little for women to do. Filmmakers like Karthik Subburaj (Iraivi), Seenu Ramasamy (Dharmadurai) and Ram (Taramani) have all attempted to showcase their heroines in varied shades. Opinions have been polarized. While a group of people (that I belong to) admire their guts to try something different and even admire the outputs for the most part, there have also been clarion calls for more sensitivity and depth (especially in the case of Taramani). All these discussions remind me of how even a filmmaker of repute like Ratnam once admitted to having certain blind spots as a guy. He cited the example of the second half of Roja, which had a scene where Madhubala (whose husband has been kidnapped by terrorists) is shown wearing bangles. Ratnam recounted a conversation with a female friend of his who told him that a suffering woman would never have the motivation to wear bangles!
While it is a small screen teleseries, Suhasini’s Penn is one of the rare works of a female filmmaker that shows us the kind of outputs that we will get with women at the helm. Each of her characters, be it the mother and daughter (so marvelously acted by Srividya and Revathy), the recalcitrant daughter (played by Bhanupriya), the cheated woman (Geetha) and the most memorable, the Radhika character (who loses her husband in an accident) are all splendidly written, three-dimensional characters. While the influence of Mani Ratnam in her direction is quite obvious, the writing by Suhasini is of high order. Especially given that she had a little less than 25 minutes for each episode, her portrayals of these women are a joy to behold. In my tribute to the late actress Srividya, I wrote that it is portrayals such as these that make me respect the women in my own life, to value their sacrifices, to treasure the lessons that they have taught me and to never hesitate to put them on their deserving pedestals. I do think that it takes either a female filmmaker or a male with amazing depth of perception of women to evoke such a strong reaction.
No write-up on women in Tamil movies will be complete without a mention of K Balachander. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, he made several films with women as the protagonist, the fulcrum around which the plot levers turned. Especially the second half of the 70s was a period when he had strong talents like Kamal Hassan play second fiddle to the women in his movies, a case in point being the memorable AvargaL. To me, KB’s works were qualified successes. I admired the different path that he took. I even admired the guts and gumption displayed by some of his female characters. But save Nizhal Nijamagiradhu, I found the latter portions of several of his movies to bend under the weight of the heavy themes and the portrayal of women as mouthpieces for empowerment. A strong exception to this is Agni Saatchi, which I regard as the finest work of his long, illustrious career. The female character in that movie undergoes unspeakable hardships. But KB does something quite wonderful with the Sivakumar character. He has the actor drop anchor while Saritha walks away with the movie. But in having Sivakumar shower immense love on the Saritha character and support her through her psychological trauma, KB ‘says’ a lot of what there is to be said about the responsibility of men towards women. A classic case of 'show, don’t tell,' Agni Saatchi is a must-see (even if a difficult watch) for lovers of meaningful cinema. In Agni Saatchi, one scene that bothered me was how Sivakumar resists from divorcing Saritha only after he gets to know of her pregnancy. His character toes his parents’ line a little too blindly in the sequence leading to this. But I then tell myself that KB portrayed the Sivakumar character too as a human with his flaws, not as a cardboard cut-out for supportive men. As Baradwaj Rangan pointed out recently in a discussion on KB, “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater." Very true, for KB charted his own path that even modern day filmmakers rarely have the ability or willingness to take.
It is impossible to deny the responsibility that filmmakers have. While it is unfair to target them and attribute all societal evils to what is put out on the silver screen, it is true that cinema is a pervasive, influential medium that has been used in Tamil Nadu for everything from a political platform to a mindless entertainment medium. As critics like Rangan point out, the primary duty of a filmmaker is to tell a story powerfully, utilizing all the tools and techniques that this audio visual medium affords them. But the ‘audio’ portions are things people hear, the visual parts are things that people see and retain. A display of a basic level of respect doesn’t translate into portraying anyone as an angel. As author Adam Grant once said, acknowledgement is the truest form of empathy. To have filmmakers acknowledge the depth and complexity of women would be a meaningful augury for the future of this medium. Even more so than the average book, images and sounds from a film do make an impact on the human psyche. To the extent to which directors can tell stories without taking either gender for granted, not just cinema but also our society at large, will be richer for that.
I didn't get to mention this in my write-up but this is one of my favorite scenes from Aasai. The Suvalakshmi character sparkles here.