Ms. Representation: Danger in disguise

In his paper, ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development’, BR Ambedkar says that subjugation of women is inherent in the process of caste formation. “Man—as a maker of injunctions—is most often above them all,” says Ambedkar, as he formulates the genesis of caste. Endogamy is the essence of the caste system, and so, women who marry and reproduce become important for the caste system to flourish. Intercaste marriages are ‘allowed’ as ‘natural order’, when a man from a higher caste marries a woman from a lower caste (described in Manusmriti as anuloma).

However, an upper-caste woman marrying a man from the lower castes (called pratiloma) is banned. It’s thought ‘unnatural’ and worthy of ‘punishment’. That’s why we see devastating crimes occur around such developments. Furthermore, women are to be ‘taken by her father, then her husband, and later her son’. Woman, as an unwitting instrument in caste politics, is controlled, often by the violent suppression of sexual liberties. In speaking of caste, we must notice intersectionality and acknowledge the deep gender factor.

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Ms Representation: A journey through time to denigrate women

A clip from Santhanam’s latest Zee5 release Dikkiloona made waves on social media (no, it’s not Anagha dancing to Per Vechalum). In this trending clip, Mani (Santhanam) criticises a woman for wearing a little black dress. “Freedom is not living as per your wishes but living in a manner that’s acceptable to society,” says Mani, who probably graduated in freedom at the Whatsapp University. The clincher comes next. He says, “Konjam izhutha avundhrum, idhu suthanthiram”. The first question is, why should someone tug on her dress? Let’s bypass that for a moment though. Mani is wearing a veshti in the said scene. Is he saying his ‘virtuous’ veshti would not come off were someone to tug at it?

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Ms. Representation: When life is war

What does ‘being girly’ mean to you? The colour pink might pop up. You also think candy and candy floss? Or perhaps prancing sensuously in satin clothes with matching ribbons in the hair? Pillow fights, sure. Voices in shrill pitches with generous amounts of giggling? Lots of mascara-lined eye batting too, maybe. At least this is what men believe ‘girly’ to mean. What does the term actually mean though? It is holding your keys like you would a weapon. It is sharing your live location when you come home late. It is having your bag in front of you, so you don’t get groped. It is taking a longer route because it is safer. It is mapping exit routes, as soon as you enter a place.

The male gaze has been criticised in several films, but it’s perhaps never been as weaponised as in Promising Young Woman that got released recently in India. Cassie (a terrific Carrey Mulligan) is a med-school dropout who works at a coffee shop. Once a week, she dresses up and pretends to be too drunk to stand at a bar, waiting for a ‘nice man’ to help her. This ‘help’ usually means that he is going to exploit her state. Unless…

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Ms. Representation: Terminator: Judgment Day

Abortion is the Voldemort of Indian cinema: it must not be named. For years, unplanned pregnancies have been used as miracles that fix pretty much every problem. Relationship troubles? Extra-marital affair? Toxic partner? Problems with parents or in-laws? “Oru kuzhandhai porandha ellam seri aagidum.” Sure, it may not be everyone’s preference, but why is it never shown to be an option? Even worse, this perfectly legal procedure is often equated to ‘murder’ or ‘sin’, like films like Puppy, or AL Vijay’s short in Kutty Story. The latter even dubs abortion illegal, while the former guilt-shames a woman into being a mother.

It has been 50 years since the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971, legalised a woman’s right to terminate pregnancy within 20 weeks (24 in special cases with legal and medical permission). And yet, there is SO much misinformation around the subject and the procedure. So, when a character in the recently released Netrikann claims that she didn’t know that abortions were legal, it’s perfectly understandable. 

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Ms Representation: The Perfect Wife Syndrome

It has been close to 20 days since the release of Pa Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai, a film there’s so much to like about. But this column isn’t about that. Ever since its premiere on Amazon Prime Video, social media has been rife with hot takes. The most curious of all is all the men who proclaim their undying love for Mariyamma, Kabilan’s feisty wife who sticks around through his alcoholism and indifference, and turns out to be his ‘pillar of strength’ who motivates him to success. Men, it seems, want wives like Mariyamma.

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Ms Representation: No place for a woman

“Brahmins, Thakur, Shudras… These castes are to categorise men. Women are different. They are beneath them all.”

These lines from Sonchiriya stayed with me as I watched Leena Manimekalai’s Maadathy. A haunting story of societal injustice, there’s a lot to unpack in this film. First, the gender. The free-spirited protagonist, Yosana, is an adolescent girl firmly held by the chains of patriarchy. Then there’s caste. The film’s narrative emerges from the collective experiences of the Puthirai Vannar community from Tirunelveli. They are often referred to as the ‘Dalits of the Dalits’ and thought ‘unseeable’. This means Yosana is at the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy ladder. Maadathy is important on several counts: one, it documents and platforms the pain in these hitherto ‘invisible’ stories. And second, it once again reminds us why feminism is incomplete without intersectionality.

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Ms. Representation: The lone tigress

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).

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Ms. Representation: Our mothers need to be saved

“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.)

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Ms Representation on Biriyaani: Why it’s important to fight numbness

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?

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Ms Representation: The stressful matter of tresses

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.

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