“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’?
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.
A new year is usually considered to be the harbinger of new beginnings. Tamil cinema, however, has returned to some old traditions. The theatres are open and full again, and we have brand new releases. But along with the festive cheer, two of the Pongal releases also brought back perhaps the most popular version of woman in Tamil cinema: the Loosu Ponnu™. Save for an errant occurrence here and there (the heroine from Dagaalty comes to mind), this woman seemed to have bid goodbye. This isn’t to say that women roles have always been written with diligence, but at least, they weren’t manic pixie dream girls. Sadly, Bhoomi and Eeswaran bring back this woman back. More strangely, both roles were played by the same actor.
Paava Kadhaigal (stories of sin in English) is quite the appropriate name for the new Netflix anthology, helmed by Sudha Kongara (Thangam), Vignesh Shivan (Love Panna Uttranum), Gautham Menon (Vaanmagal), and Vetri Maaran (Orr Iravu). In all of them, sin is at the centre, with the characters placing honour above love, family, and humanity. Another similarity here is that the victims are all women or those who identify as women. Honour and honour killings are usually associated with casteism, but I found Paava Kadhaigal to interpret honour in a different, more inclusive manner. It touches upon the complicated relationship women have with ‘honour’, and this goes beyond caste. The patriarchal society has saddled women with the responsibility of ‘honour’ for centuries, censoring their lives and choices. Ironically, Paavam is also an expression of sympathy in Tamil. There’s another layer then to this title, about stories that reflect the unfair universe that our women are bundled into.
Mainstream language tells us, ‘Men are generic, women are special.’ Men are thought to be the ‘default form of humanity’, while women are a specific subcategory. Mankind, for example, refers to all of humanity, but womankind is just women. There are several manifestations of this around us, but in cinema, there’s one in particular. It’s how when a character isn’t defined by their gender, by default, the character turns out to be male.
I have been thinking a lot about Bommi, since catching Soorarai Pottru on Amazon Prime Video. To be honest, we all have. There’s a lot to appreciate in the final, sure. But the lead woman, Bommi, takes the cake, quite literally. Intelligent and feisty, Bommi aka Sundari is probably one of the best heroines we have seen recently in the Tamil mainstream. It feels heartening to see such a character get as much love. If nothing else, it is a sign that people do appreciate representation that is closer to the truth. There are no more excuses really. (We have never had an acceptable rationale anyway.) A woman of strength and sense can exist anywhere with dignity if we let her. And now, we have another example to show for it.
Last night, I visited Manderley again… because Netflix decided to remake the classic, Rebecca. The story originally written by Daphne du Maurier is one of a young woman dazzled by a rich, broody widower, Maxim De Winter, she meets in Monte Carlo. She rushes into a marriage with him only to realise that he is still living in the past, haunted by the memory of ex-wife Rebecca. My first experience with Rebecca was Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning 1940 film adaptation of the same name. Swooped into Manderley, the new wife finds it hard to shake off the evocative presence of Rebecca; she struggles to bear the weight of Rebecca’s legacy which lives on, thanks to the efforts of Mrs. Danvers, the faithful housekeeper.