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.
What do our children watch? It’s something that has been running in my mind for quite some time. Mainstream cinema in our country rarely caters to children and young adults. Sometimes, even films or series about them cannot be watched by them: like the controversial French film, Migonnes (Cuties in English), or Sex Education which is set in high school but has an 18+ rating. What are we offering our young adults in the form of mainstream entertainment? The children are missing in it, and so are sensitive narratives around them. As director Megha Ramaswamy asked, “The new mainstream is brimming with dystopia and men writing about bodies of women, the same old heartland, etc… What are children watching?”
The quote, ‘Desire in men is a hunger, while for women, it is an appetite’, is true of how our women characters are shown onscreen. Our songs always highlight certain traits of women. A man is mostly shown to desire a woman’s beauty, but the vice-versa can rarely be said to be true in our cinema. The female lead falls in love with the male lead simply because he is the protagonist. What else would she need?
Sitting at a beauty parlour, one day, I saw a young girl, barely 12-13 years old, walk in to get her perfectly natural eyebrows threaded. The beautician asked if she had come alone, and she showed that she had the money for the service. The beautician refused and asked the girl to return with her mother. This incident, though overtly harmless, disturbed me. I kept seeing variations of this incident everywhere: on social media, where tweens and teens pretend to be an adult and pose in grown-up clothes and make-up; on reality shows where children trudge through grown-up routines; and in life itself.