Can’t a woman be the hero of her own crusade?

By me. Published on June 16, 2017, The Hindu Thread.

Much of film criticism about roles written for women in Tamil films revolves around the weakness of their characters and their purpose in the narrative. While this is warranted in most cases, it is unfair to the few strong characters who are meted out greater injustice. Automatically dismissing heroines in Tamil cinema as token adornment is to be blind to the rise of a new crop of brave women who have a crusade of their own.

In this essay, I write about Malarvizhi of Bairavaa (2017), Kadambari of Naanum Rowdy Thaan (2015), Leela of Acham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada (2016) and other female protagonists and their crusades.

Beyond shaming her into submission — the female antagonist narrative

By me. Published on March 29, 2017, The Hindu Thread.

When I pitched this essay about female antagonists, my editor replied with, “Great, lead with the unrepentant Neelambari!” Eighteen years on, Neelambari of Padayappa (1999) appears to be the most remembered ‘villi’ (colloquial for villainess) in Tamil cinema. With good reason. Neelambari is classic Tamil film villi — a stock character and a shrew — angry, rich, ‘modern’ (typically meaning westernised), impulsive, single/separated, hen-pecking, having an unreasonable hatred for a man or men in general.

And then something changed. Rudra of Kodi, Vasundhara of Adhe Kangal and Rajalakshmi of Achamindri came along and broke the mould. I write about a film’s central conflict not revolving around the gender of the antagonist, but her ambition, for the Hindu Thread here.

Why do angry young Tamil heroes love to cross-dress so much?

By me. Published on February 28, 2017, The Ladies Finger

This line of thought — an actor’s credentials depending on his ability to play a woman — is a Tamil film staple, a residue of Tamil cinema’s history in stage-drama. Since then, even the most riotous of heroes have worn female clothing and acted as women. What role does this play in their careers?

More pertinently, what role does it play in our understanding of gender and sexuality? I write for The Ladies Finger here.

Beyond shaming her into submission — the female antagonist narrative

When I pitched this essay about female antagonists, my editor replied with, “Great, lead with the unrepentant Neelambari!” Eighteen years on, Neelambari of Padayappa (1999) appears to be the most remembered ‘villi’ (colloquial for villainess) in Tamil cinema. With good reason. Neelambari is classic Tamil film villi — a stock character and a shrew — angry, rich, ‘modern’ (typically meaning westernised), impulsive, single/separated, hen-pecking, having an unreasonable hatred for a man or men in general.

And then something changed. Rudra of Kodi, Vasundhara of Adhe Kangal and Rajalakshmi of Achamindri came along and broke the mould. I write about a film’s central conflict not revolving around the gender of the antagonist, but her ambition, for the Hindu Thread here.

Soodhu Kavvum

So, after a good while, I got myself to watch a film at a theatre – importantly, one I made the mind to write about. I’ll start with the nice things I have to say and then to some things that are nagging me. No, don’t jump to the nagging part and leave rude comments. Read fully now!

Soodhu Kavvum is refreshing – does not revolve around two people falling in love or a hero stealing millions of dollars or good v. evil. It does not show what film makers have been long alleging what viewers want to watch. It is a collection of ‘incidents’ that in the end (sort of) make sense.

The rather startling (almost absurdist) nature of the incidents in the film – much of it a near-real reflection of the life around us – sets the pace for the film we are waiting to watch. Das is a simpleton, lives by rules, drinks more than many people would like to see, has a heart of gold (in spite of being a kidnapper) and is largely risk averse.

The three lead actors (Pagalavan, Kesavan and Shekar) look and talk like any Tamil lad you’d know (of course you can see beyond the TamBhrams, can’t you?). Pagalavan runs away from Trichy (after having carved a Nayantara sculpture) to his friends house in Chennai – one that has TR posters all over the house. Kesavan gets fired from work (after rejecting a girl’s advances about which she complains to the authorities, his manager reprimands him and he yells back in frustration for which he is eventually fired and blacklisted). Sekhar, who used to be a valet, also loses his job in his greed for driving a luxurious car. With no means for their next meal (or say next month’s meals), they get down to drinking!

The three of them, happy-go-lucky – no worry about any distant future, little respect for the law, no love interests to pursue, no families to keep, clever with their language – definitely do not make for deep and well-rounded characters. But it doesn’t stand out as a sore thumb because everything you need to know not to hate them is there for you to see. Everything else is tactfully hidden away or submerged in more absurdity.

The TASMAC scene where the spiral of noise develops into a physical fight, ends in the three lead actors continuing their drinking at Das’s house. In a strange sense of calm (after escaping arrest or at least some treat from the Lathi), they change their location and drink away in peace.

The scene that follows is one of my favourites – the scene where Shalu really gets “introduced”. Das speaks (listens to and often gets distracted by) this young girl he calls Shalu, one the audience can see on the screen. So, after clues that are easy to miss until this point, we learn that Shalu exists only in Das’s imagination. When told he must see a doctor about his hallucination, Das rather nonchalantly says he’s done that and taken medication that made her go away but missed her when she wasn’t around; therefore stopped taking medication.

After this, we see her as Das’s imagination. She sits on his laps, talks to him and he yells back to the utter dismay of the others on the scene, runs around in merry and even dies mid way. In an interesting scene, she enters skimpily clad (what’s called swimwear by Das). We the audience don’t really flip because we know she is imaginary (wouldn’t have been much different if she came there naked either) and we reconcile with her being Das’s. But Das flips and asks her to change her clothes, leaving the other men in the room merely distracted.

For reasons I cannot fathom myself, I am reminded of the imaginary wife SPB’s character has in manadhil urudhi vendum. In a vastly different context, Das (a lonely criminal with a heart) imagines a companion for himself – the easiest way for him not to burdened by interventions but still have company when *he* chooses. If I may dare go one step ahead, the film almost reinforces that Das will perhaps never be able to find for himself a girl like Shalu (fair, modern-dress clad, no frills and supportive of his lifestyle) which is why he goes ahead and makes her up. I’ve a little bit more about her, per se, but I’ll come to that in a bit.

Oh, there is a politics angle to this, one that Das had sworn never to enter into. A wife-beating honest politician with a crook for a son, a CM who eats pizza from the carton, other politicians and secretaries of politicians who look down upon uncorrupted politics – the film rubs in your face the sorry state of political affairs we are in the middle of. These are sequences you should weep about, but you don’t because while watching the film, it doesn’t sink in yet. It’s mostly funny.

Talking of funny, what keeps the film going is it’s repeated questioning of ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’. Nobody seems to care about anything. They lose their jobs, but drink about it. They kidnap people but walk/ drive about as free men. He imagines a woman but lives on with it. Arumai Pragaasam (the politician’s son they kidnap) goes away with the money, they deal with it. A deadly policeman comes looking for them and they surrender themselves. That chase scene where Bramma, the deadly policeman, looks to the boys for a light and they drives themselves to the dead-end is a exemplary. They knot together all things we take too seriously in our lives and make fun of it, in turn make fun of us.

It’s in the making fun of us part that I want to bring the women in. There are two and a quarter women in the story. The first is of course Shalu. She disturbs me and leaves me undecided. The girl, whose clothing is very modern and speech unaffected, could easily have been written as a property in a mass villain’s armour (a la the Billa, Mangatha ‘babes’). But he is no mass villain and she is no property. She encourages him, helps him, advises him and entertains him. She is just there for Das and of course for the audience.

It would have been very easy to take offence to this and rant about how women are used as imaginary entertainers – but is that the point? That the film is taking one for the team of film makers who do so? That it is indeed a satirical poke at treating women like that? Or that if you want women that way, you can only imagine them?

Then there is the woman in Kesavan’s office who gets him fired and blacklisted: pretty much a modern day soorpanaka, only she ends up cutting Kesavan’s hand in the process. Arumai Nayagam’s mother plays an important role in pushing the narrative forward – the mother who is often beaten by her husband, who cooks and feeds her son, falls for his ploy, and is easily swayed. She seems to use her brain only when she has to save her wayward son from his captors. It’s rather interesting how she is repeatedly seen as the one that can be ‘used’ to complete the task – a pawn, a vulnerability.

With that, I am convinced that Shalu characterisation is far from clever. It would be easier to believe she is eye candy, convenient glamour quotient. So are all the women who danced for Kaasu Panam Dhuddu Money Money.

Soodhu Kavvum is a very smart film. It does break ways in several ways. It takes story telling to a parallel plane and speaks a language hardly spoken before. Ten years from today, (academic) writers will look into Soodhu Kavvum (and similar films) as a movement worth writing about. Today, fans will clap and laugh in the theatre and leave content. But I will find something amiss. And you will call me names for saying that!

My feminism

I got called a female chauvinist last evening (actually my writing was called a female equivalent of chauvinism – the assumption that chauvinism is male by default was curious). While I do not respond to all accusations/ name-calling towards me, this one gave the final nudge publish the post I’ve left lying in my drafts for so long.

What is my feminism?

A good friend once asked me why feminists fight so much among themselves. For one who has been following any kind of –ism, it’s natural to know that definitions are subjective and open to interpretations. Feminism is no different. For this reason, there is no consensus about what feminism should mean (if at all it should mean the same thing to all).

As someone who appreciates subjective opinion (and debate of objectionable opinions), I venture here to define what feminism means to me. Feminism is the pursuit of equality: equality of rights, fair treatment, reasonable expectations, unequivocal respect and due share of voice. My feminism is about pointing out the bias in the status quo and debate for positive change. It is about challenging patriarchy and seeking a more gender-neutral public (and private) space.

Why is it important?

I’ve been told several times that feminism is no more relevant – women can vote, pilot flights and marry the man of their choice –  therefore, we must all drop the feminist hullabaloo and go on with our business. Another argument from the feminism-is-no-more-needed brigade is that women are equal to men now and talking feminism creates a wrong impression that there is indeed inequality.

Let me explain this with anecdotal evidence. Someone I worked for, a man I had immense respect for as a professional, went to a conference once. He was totally underwhelmed at the discussions that happened there and was complaining about all the speakers and their incompetence. However, when he spoke about a lady, who happens to be the CMO of a major corporation, he said “I don’t know who she had to fu(k to become the CMO. She has nothing else going for her”. If that isn’t enough reason for you to believe there is still bias that needs to be challenged, I can go on with the anecdotes. Or would you rather I point you in the direction of some research?

Then why rant about religion, caste etc.?

Because they are all equally important. None of us are fools to think all women have the same difficulties or the same privileges. Dalit women, homos3xua! women, urban (/rural) women, Muslim women, obese women have all their own set of issues that need to be spoken about and dealt with. Perhaps, the reason why one feminist has an entirely different point of view about a certain issue from another is that there are very many layers that need to be taken care of.

While white, middle class feminists in the Europe are worried about how feminist is high heels, there are a group of them fighting to be able to compete at the Olympics. The reasons priorities change are various – but almost always comprise of religion, caste, culture, history, sexual orientation and the like.

Writing a feminist account arising from being a woman alone (if that is even possible) would be half-baked and useless.

Why do I do movie reviews?

If you haven’t already read the disclaimer on my blog, let me explain this to you. I do not treat myself as the sole authority on goodness/ badness of films, in fact the technicalities are sometimes irrelevant to me.

As the blog header points, the only thing that is of concern to me is the representation of women (femininity, female perspectives etc.). We’ve all read enough research to show that films go beyond entertainment and help shape the cultural and political leanings of the society. I believe I have a point of view that arises from education and experience, is legitimate and is meant to begin a healthy debate. I don’t give scores to films, I don’t rank them on any scale, I don’t even ask you not to watch a film. If at all, I only ask you to watch a few films I’ve found interesting – from my (by now sufficiently disclosed) ideological perspective.

So what makes me right?

My point of view – derived from observation, reading, and debate. While I always argue for equality and fair representation, never once have I argued that women are better than men at anything or must be held higher. That, is in fact, the opposite of what I endeavor to argue.

Now that you’ve heard me out about my feminism, if you still want to debate, bring it on, I say!