The global percentage of women in the human population, and in India, is close to 50 percent. However, if you look at our cinema, often thought to be a reflection of our society, you rarely get this impression. The Token Female TM, also referred to as The Smurfette Principle, is one of entertainment’s most common tropes. It is when a lone woman is included in an otherwise entirely male ensemble. It’s a trope quite common in Hollywood. If you exclude love interests and women villains, this Token Female is ubiquitous in action films, from The Avengers to Inception. This slowly gave way to the ‘Two Girls in the Team’ trope in which creators seem more ‘equal’. There’s representation, but the content is carefully tailored so as not to look like it’s just for women (An all-male cast though is considered perfectly unisex).
“You know, had that been my bandaid, you would have asked me to shut up and fix it myself,” says Mare to her mother Helen, in the HBO series, Mare of Easttown (streaming on Disney Hotstar). “Oh, is that something you talk about in therapy?” Helen asks, with a small smile, before acknowledging that she had indeed used her daughter as a vent for her anger. “Your father wasn’t the man I thought he was, I couldn’t fix him. I was so angry, and I took that on you.” When Mare forgives her, Helen says, “Good, because I forgave myself long ago”, before breaking down into tears. And then comes the clincher. “You need to forgive yourself too, Mare… for Kevin. It is not your fault,” she says. (For context, Kevin is Mare’s drug-addict son, who dies of suicide.)
During an interview with me, director Sudha Kongara, speaking about her Netflix short, Thangam (in the anthology, Paava Kathaigal), mentioned speaking to several transwomen for the film, and added that she was most disturbed by how they narrated their trauma in a matter-of-fact tone. Sudha’s voice dripped with anguish, as she said that they spoke about trauma, as we would, the weather. We often think of anger as a negative quality, but does it also not hold the spark of rebellion? It is when you are angry that you question… you fight. But what happens when you get too used to it? Do you get numb?
My friend and I chopped our hair recently, and we chatted about all the time and effort such a decision saves. A few minutes of shampooing and drying, and you are ready! The decision was all about convenience. But if you look at the women in our films…
In popular culture and cinema, haircuts often come with bad press, and are shown to be a result of dark, sinister events. Hollywood, for example, notoriously showed women cutting their hair in a frenzy, as a means to establish that they were about to break down. In Tamil cinema, the reasons were more diverse and also culturally entwined.
“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.” Jim Morrison’s words ring in the head as you watch Geeli Puchhi, Neeraj Ghaywan’s short in Ajeeb Dastaans. It is incredibly hard to slot the film because it is gloriously messy, much like reality. Caste, class, gender, sexuality — our identity is often a melting pot of these aspects. However, we rarely see narratives that explore intersectionality in such impressive detail, let alone make for an effective commentary on social power and its hierarchy.
You know the White Saviour Trope in Hollywood—when a white male swoops in to protect people of colour while achieving an epiphany? In the Indian context, we have our parallel to the ‘male saviour’ trope. We have seen this so many times, across formats. Even if a woman character were skilled, a man always steps in to ‘save the day’ at the same thing she is more equipped in. Remember when Vijay steps beside Andrea in Master to fire an arrow? Or Chakra, where despite being a police officer herself, Gayathri (Shraddha Srinath) needs Chandru (Vishal) to ‘save her’?
March is usually a chaotic month for women, one in which the world, around Women’s Day, seems to awaken from its slumber to acknowledge once again that women exist. Mostly, it is for our purchasing power, with a barrage of campaigns targeting women with money. For this single day, women are celebrated, and their problems, recognised. Social media gets a decorative makeover. And then, we go back to regular programming. We are expected to keep our heads low and shrink away from visibility. Rape threats and harassment occur because we are ‘asking for it’. When we are assertive, we are ‘bossy’; when we ask questions, we are being ‘difficult’.
A few days ago, I stumbled upon a Twitter hot-take on why young men resist feminism. The post reasoned that men, especially younger men, tend to be anti-feminist because they have grown up thinking that they would get to enjoy the ‘perks of patriarchy’ in their prime: that ‘they would have a submissive wife they can control’. But women are retaliating, even dismissing this idea completely. This ‘gap’ is crucial because it often ends up defining the male gaze that sets the standards for what a woman should aspire to, how she should love, or even merely exist.
Valentine’s Day is just over, and love is still in the air. For Tamil cinema, that means bringing back the romance on-screen. And this is one genre that cannot exist without its women. As a female Tamil actor recently observed, women do not get meaty roles unless it is a romcom or a romantic drama. It might be a reflection of the limited roles and spaces we want to see women in, especially on-screen; nevertheless, the genre is crucial when speaking about women’s portrayal. Sure, it has its pitfalls. But, this genre has given us some terrific women characters and has done so more consistently than others. That said, as with every genre, romance also has its share of stereotypes. Kutty Story — the love anthology from Gautham Vasudev Menon, Nalan Kumarasamy, Venkat Prabhu, and Vijay — attempts to break a few of these.
As a young girl, I often hung out with my mother in the kitchen. Whenever there was a gathering, the women always grouped in the kitchen while the men sat down in the drawing rooms, waiting to be served. Later, I was baffled to learn that most chefs at restaurants were men. Men are cooks at hotels, but rarely step into the kitchen at home? This paradox was an early thread I pulled at to understand patriarchy. The back-breaking labour women engage in has always been invisible—it’s almost like they are magic elves who disappear when the shoemaker comes. The Great Indian Kitchen (TGIK) takes off this invisibility cloak off women in the house.