Tuesday, November 20, 2018

‘Men’mai – Thoughts on the portrayal of men in Tamil Cinema

“How far do Tamil films accurately portray men as well-rounded personalities with real challenges, goals or needs other than getting laid?”  This was a question posed on Twitter by Iswarya V, one of the most outspoken activists on the perils of stalking and its glorification in Tamil cinema.  It’s a very loaded, thought provoking question.  Loaded, because the question I also pose to myself while watching films is, a particular character might be truly representative of some of the realities of our society.  But is it necessary to show everything as is?  Sure, a filmmaker might consider his primary responsibility to bring a story authentically to screen and not always have societal consciousness as his primary goal.  But isn’t it also the case that in a film culture like the one in Tamil Nadu where heroes and heroines are adored, worshiped and imitated, that at the very least a filmmaker should not come across as blithely irresponsible?  Having grown up in an urban milieu, I might not be able to instantly relate to characters from say, a slum or a rural setting.  But it is a filmmaker’s conviction and his ability to use all the tools at his disposal to tell a story, that could transport me to a setting, a way of life and understand why the characters do what they do. 

Back to Iswarya’s question – Tamil films in the last few years have gotten truly diverse in terms of content, quality and taste.  This heterogeneity extends to the representation of male characters.  On the one hand, we have filmmakers like Hari, Lingusamy and their ilk make commercial cinema with larger-than-life heroes projected in scarcely believable scenarios.  The men sometimes get well-written characters (I liked Madhavan in “Vaettai” a lot) but for the most part, their job is to vanquish a cartoonish villain, be adored by a clueless heroine to whom they would invariably direct casually misogynistic remarks while simultaneously extolling the virtues of womanhood!  Since the masala template is set up for these men to emerge victorious on every front, there is not much of an opportunity for nuance of any kind. 

The other prototype of a male character that became hugely famous in the wake of Ameer’s spectacular debut “Paruthiveeran” was the uncouth aggressor.  While these characters are not the kind that I might encounter in my everyday life – I thank the heavens, stars and every surface in space for that! – they certainly are more multi-dimensional than the types you see in masala films.  The most famous of these characters, of course, is Parthiban’s unforgettable character in his debut feature, “Pudhiya Paadhai.”  In choosing to focus an entire half of his movie to the detestable sides of the lead character, Parthiban took a mighty gamble.  But to me, the redemption in the second half is what makes the movie shine brightly to this day, nearly thirty years after its release.  Whether a rapist deserves such benevolence is a moot point.  Whether “Pudhiya Paadhai” is a socially responsible film can be debated for hours.  But to me, this film is powerful in a number of ways.  Firstly, the protagonist realizes that he has been an incorrigible beast to a very undeserving, innocent woman.  Even though his orphan status is mentioned repeatedly as a reason why he turned out the way he did, it is not brushed aside as an excuse.  The character is made to realize the error of his ways and genuinely turns over a new leaf in the second half.  The arc of this character is complete in a touching scene where he falls at the feet of his wife who reformed him.  Many films have followed the style of characterizations written by the likes of Parthiban, Bala and Ameer.  But to their detriment, many fail to realize that the humanization of a flawed character is a tightrope walk that requires tremendous thought to be put into the writing. 

By the end of a film, if we the viewer do not sense a certain level of respect afforded to the women characters, then these male characters are going to unfortunately leave a negative impression on viewers, especially young minds.  If we walk away with the sense that the negative sides of a character are portrayed in an exploitative manner, then that is going to overshadow any attempts – sincere or otherwise – at showcasing the positive facets of the character.  This is especially true in films about youth or adolescent characters.  “Boys” didn’t work at all because Shankar’s camera seemed to gleefully focus on the escapades of the irresponsible youth while the attempts at realization and repentance in the second half barely registered.  There was no conviction in the scenes where the Siddharth character pays for his past mistakes.  The ‘playful’ scene outside the court was just about the worst possible finish to an already wobbly script.  On the other end of responsibility spectrum are the films of writer-directors like Cheran and Samudrakani - well-intentioned but preachy.  Their intentions and sincerity of purpose are laudable.  But the male protagonists invariably come across as mouthpieces for the directors than flesh-and-blood human beings.  Somewhere in the middle is a film like “7/G rainbow colony” – it does have scenes where the son calls his father names, in a drunken state.  It does have scenes of the hero stalking and harassing the heroine.  But there is something matter-of-fact in the sure handed writing and film making of Selvaraghavan that suggests that what is onscreen is life as is.  The director shows, but doesn’t celebrate or even condone the negative sides of the rudderless youth.  The couple's exchange after the lovemaking scene and the conversation the next morning just didn’t work for me.  The lines came across as completely phony.  But I could at least sense that the director was striving to have the audience understand his male lead, who was making a transition from boy to man in the most painful manner possible- painful for him and for those around him. 

The kind of writing though that appeals instantly to me is one that attempts to portray the male protagonist as inherently responsible, warts and all.  These men are not angels.  They make mistakes, take missteps and don’t always ‘get’ the people around them.  But they want to do right by the people around them, especially the women.  They rightfully treat their women as their equals or, in some cases, put them on a pedestal that they deserve.  Filmmakers like Mani Ratnam (Alai Paayuthey), Vasanth (Keladi Kanmani, Rhythm), Gowtham Menon (Yennai Arindhal), Radha Mohan (Mozhi), Karthik Subburaj (Iraivi) and most recently C Prem Kumar (’96) have created fascinating, well-rounded, urban - and in some cases, urbane - characters that have made an abiding impact on me.  

I smiled at the way Madhavan barked at Shalini in a heated argument about visiting her ailing Dad (who had previously slapped him in public) only to tell her first thing next morning that they should call on him.  I like the way Vasanth’s male characters, even the younger ones like Ramesh Aravind in “Rhythm”, usually address women as “neenga.”  I find it incredibly poignant that in "Keladi Kanmani," SPB refers to Radhika's parents as "...enakum avanga thaan Appa Amma."  I applaud the way in "Mozhi," Prithviraj says that he wants to “share his life” with the mute, hearing-impaired Jyothika and is not “granting” her a life.  I find it sweet that in ’96, the only time Vijay Sethupathi touches Trisha in the entire movie is when he stops her from hurting herself in the bathroom.  I teared up in the scene where Ajith refers to Trisha’s daughter (in “Yennai Arindhal”) as “unakulla irundhu vandhava.”  Even in an intensely disturbing movie like “Iraivi” – that polarized public opinion greatly – the SJ Suryah character delivers several unforgettable lines in the climax on the innate weaknesses of men.  Regardless of whether the writing truly worked in these movies, it is heartening to me to see the male protagonists treat women with empathy and respect without having any inflated opinions about themselves.  Isn’t genuine menmai the mark of a true man than superficial notions of aaNmai?  Isn’t everyday heroism, the heroism of the deepest kind?  I only wish that more writers and directors follow the path of these trailblazers.  That way, we have films that appeal to and resonate with a wide audience, regardless of gender.  That way, Iswarya will happily admit that her question to me has become completely redundant!


Zola said...

Ram : I think the unukkulla irukkara Marketing professional was relishing the title while you were composing it :):)

Brilliantly written and nuanced ! ( unlike a majority of our movies and TV serials )

I know how a garden variety movie mogul would respond to your first para . "Movie with a Message ???!!! Don't you know Messages are for Western Union !!??"

But that second para really drew the battle lines.

I'm afraid your precious Kamalahasan has been as guilty as the rest in his caveman attitude to women in most of his movies of the eighties. I think he got off lightly since Iswarya V wasn't born then.

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this, Ram! Very insightful and nuanced. Rather than the whole character arc (which can quickly become tiresomely saintly), I like it that you chose to isolate certain scenes for appreciation. Great read.

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker - thank you for your usual, prompt and thoughtful response. I actually am not in favor of 'requiring' movies to come with messages. I am just suggesting that as much as directors should have creative license and freedom, they should have a healthy amount of concern for any possible negative impact that their works have on society.

Iswarya - I am glad that the write-up resonated with you. After all, you ignited the spark for this article. So, thank you.

Anu Warrier said...

Good one, Ram. I agree with you that having a sense of responsibility towards establishing characters - both men and women - will go a long way in bringing about social change.

Again, I have no issues with cinema reflecting society - so show us the misogynistic men, the ones who believe that treating women as property is the macho thing to do; the ones who believe that stalking = romance, and damn the woman if she doesn't reciprocate. Show us the women who buy into these tropes, the doormats who believe that their men are 'kan kanda daivam'. Show them, because they exist. Only - for the love of all that is holy - don't glorify these traits as something to be emulated.

Since I really liked your article, it pains me to point out my pet peeve: (you knew this was coming, did you not? :) )

This line: or, in some cases, put them on a pedestal that they deserve.

No. Just no. Please don't put women up on pedestals. I'm sick of the deification of women - that's as much a trap as painting us as whores if we dare step out of the prescribed limits of 'respectable' behaviour. It is the same as the kan kanda daivam trope where we deify men.

We are neither goddesses (or statues on pedestals) nor whores. We are living, breathing, humans of the female gender. Just treat us the same way, as equals. Believe me, that's all we want.

/end mini rant. :)

Ram Murali said...

Ha ha, of course, I saw that coming, Anu. :)
Firstly, thank you for your detailed, thought provoking response.
The line you quoted, I wrote, "...in some cases..." Because I sincerely believe that a few women - characters in movies that remind me of ones I have seen in real life - deserve a pedestal. Not that I would use that as a ruse to expect angelic behavior but really an acknowledgement that I consider them 'superior' in every way. My Aunt is a case in point. She was so nice to me and did things she didn't have to, that it's hard for me to not put her on an elevated plane. When I see characters like that, say Srividya in a number of fine movies, they hold personal resonance.
Having said that, I fully see your logic, that that kind of deification may not always come with sincere intent and can be as odious as insensitive, disrespectful portrayals.

Rahini David said...

I do like “Pudhiya Paadhai” a lot. The movie only uses the rapist angle to setup a certain "beauty and the beast" situation. His mellowing is very believable in the movie. It is just that the first half drops the ball big time. The best way to see the movie is to avoid the after-rape conversation and see only the second half. Many ship-wreck romances are like that. Just forget about why 2 individuals have to be in the desolate island. Now just see if they truly care about each other.

Keladi Kanmani's SPB-Radhika romance is still the numero-uno romance in my mind in Tamil cinema. By a very wide margin. It is not just that he is ok with Radhika's parents living with them post-marriage. He genuinely did not ever think in any other way. "Is my house too small or my mind too small? Why would your parents be alone post-marriage? I always thought they'd also move in" is what he says. Also SPB sells it as a man who genuinely thought that way all along. You can see that he always thought that the marriage meant that he and Radhika will find soul-mates and Anju and Poornam Viswanathan and Srividya will also acquire instant extended families.

Ram Murali said...

Rahini - GREAT comment on two of my favorite films. Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

Zola said...

Great reading your comments Rahini. Especially on Keladi Kanmani.

That's almost the core of a movie review

Anu Warrier said...

Rahini, I second your comment about Keladi Kanmani; to me, that was a film so ahead of its time, and so progressive in its thought process without beating us over the head over just how progressive it was.

I remember being totally in love with the film.

With Pudhiya Paadhai, I hated, hated the raped woman reforming the rapist trope. No, damn it, you don't get redemption by being saved by your victim! No, please, that's no way to rehabilitate rape victims.

To me, that film glorified rape and I was appalled when it won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil (or something). It is also the reason that many rapists are ordered to marry their victims as if that is some sort of punishment for them!

Ram Murali said...

Anu - you are right. Parthiban won the National award for Pudhiya Paadhai :)
He also won a Nat'l award for Housefull, which featured Vikram in a nice role. I loved that movie. Parthiban was brilliant as Aiyya, the owner of a theater that is housefull on a day someone plants a bomb inside, unbeknownst to the audience.

Zola said...

'Men'mai indeed. Ha Ha Ram you old rapscallion , you.....(Tin Tin Captain Haddock style)