Every few years, Tamil cinema heroines change moulds. In its
early days, there were certain stereotypes—the princess who falls for the
pauper; the daughter of the soil, as dutiful a wife as Kannagi but as
formidable a wronged woman as Kannagi. Then, came the Modern Woman, ushered in
by the likes of K. Balachander and Balu Mahendra. Soon after, Bharathirajaa
introduced the Village Belle who would suddenly mature into a symbol of social
crusade. The phrase “Bubbly Girl” began to be associated with fair,
pretty—usually North Indian—heroines who giggled and flirted and flounced and
fumed in their high-pitched—and usually dubbed—voices, in the late Nineties and
early 2000s; ironically, though, it might have been Mani Ratnam who sculpted
the prototype of the Bubbly Girl, with his Divya, played by Revathi in Mouna
Ragam (1986) and Anjali, played by Amala in Agni Natchathiram (1988).
Mani Ratnam also gave Tamil cinema the concept of the “heroine introduction song”, where his leading ladies typically acted thirty going on fourteen and got wet in the rain. The Bubbly Girl overstayed her welcome, and it was to everyone’s relief that she gave way to the Complex Woman. The Complex Woman is fiercely feminist (and we know this because she says it several times in each film), fond of questioning everything that’s wrong with Society as if composing a live Twitter thread, unafraid to acknowledge that sex is a physical need that can be distinct from love and is rarely aimed at procreation, too alluring to be maternal even if she happens to be a mother, and not above monetising her appeal to men. This feminocentric trend is winning both critical praise and returns at the box office, but the fact that most of its makers are men adds another dimension to the Complex Woman—she reflects not just how men see women, but also how men would like to be perceived as seeing women. It is interesting to study these characters in both the contemporary and historical contexts of women created by men in Indian cinema and world cinema.
To suggest that a work of art has emerged from the prism of its creator’s gendered worldview is to suggest that biology is, in some ways, destiny. Can we divide creators into Men and Women, or should we also take into account their class, caste, ideological, religious, and linguistic backgrounds? If we do, will gender privilege trump other privileges, or do we have a hierarchy of privileges that have to be factored into analysis of a creative work? Male writers, poets, playwrights, and filmmakers have made key contributions to each wave of feminism. It would need a blinkered perspective to conclude that a story that is not a lived experience is appropriation. However, there is a difference between male and female creators writing about female experience that cannot be ignored—in the case of women writing about women, one can assume it is authentic to at least one lived experience; in the case of men writing about women, it can be authentic—at best—to witnessed or perceived experience. The problem with audiences is that they often assume one woman is the Voice of Women, and that a man provides not a necessary perspective, but a prejudiced one. This is compounded by the pressure on people who consider themselves progressive to make films that are not just reflective, but prescriptive.
n recent times, both men and women have made regional films that raise questions about the filmmaker’s “message”. The Malayalam short film Memories of a Machine (2016), by Bengaluru-based director Shailaja Padindala, was alleged by some to condone child abuse. At several forums, Padindala spoke about how she is against child abuse, and that the film is based on real experiences, both hers and others’, and that it is an exploration of how children view sexual pleasure. Padindala’s responses, particularly her reference to personal experience, made me wonder whether a man would have been able to make the same film without repercussions. The discussion around the film on social networks resulted in cases being filed against men who spoke about paedophilia as an orientation.
One gets the impression at times that men who make films about women must emphasise that they are empowered. This could be why the Complex Woman speaks so often about feminism, and why she usually has at least one monologue which borders on diatribe. Often, she is also turned into a vigilante, who resorts to violence and deception in order to exact her revenge on society, or men, or a group of men, or one man. However despicable her means to the end, it is all forgiven because she is a woman, and the director must prove that not just she, but he too, is a “feminist”.
Rathna Kumar’s Aadai (2019) starring Amala Paul made headlines before it was released because the teaser featured a woman who is reported missing suddenly waking up in an empty office, entirely unclothed. The trailer hinted that the film is about a feisty woman being kidnapped when she is too drunk to defend herself. The film’s “first-look” poster was of a bleeding woman wrapped in tissue paper and wielding an improvised weapon. Amala Paul said in several interviews that she had chosen not to wear modesty patches because she trusted the director and the script. This raises troubling questions about how far actresses believe they must go in their pursuit of professionalism, particularly at a time when clothing can be digitally removed if necessary.
One gets the impression at times that men who make films about women must emphasise that they are empowered.
In the wake of Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, several actresses have spoken about having been pressured into nudity, especially early in their careers. The stars of the Palme D’Or-winning Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos—who shared Cannes’ highest honour with their director Abdellatif Kechiche, in a first—later accused him of having mistreated them on the sets. They said Kechiche would not let them simulate blows during a violent scene, which resulted in one of the actresses cutting herself on glass and bleeding. They also said a 10-minute long sex scene was shot over ten days, during which they had to be naked. Adèle Exarchopoulos told media she felt so miserable watching the scene in the theatre with her family that she closed her eyes and imagined she was on an island far away to try and escape. Léa Seydoux described her experience as “horrible”. The author of the 2010 graphic novel on which the film was based, Julie Maroh, called the sex scenes “ridiculous” and dismissed the film as pornographic and titillating.
Leena Yadav’s Parched (2015) hit the headlines after a sex scene featuring Radhika Apte and Adil Hussain was leaked online. Apte was interviewed on several news channels during their prime time shows, and spoke of how she is comfortable with nudity, and even finds it liberating. Anurag Kashyap’s Netflix series Sacred Games has Kubbra Sait doing a full-frontal nude scene. When Seema Biswas went unclothed for Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1996), it created uproar. The film was heavily censored, and Phoolan Devi—the woman on whom the film is based—tried to get it banned in India.
The fact that there are so many avenues that do not need the censor board’s certification has given filmmakers various liberties, not just with regard to nudity, but also profanity and references to religion or caste. Their scripts no longer need the approval of producers, financiers, marketable actors, and the censor board before an audience even gets to judge the film.When the subject is about women and their choices, actresses often speak of feeling empowered by choosing “bold roles”, a problematic and inaccurate euphemism for nude or intimate scenes. It implies that one is being cowardly if one turns down a role which involves full or partial nudity.
In the same way that several actresses make the disclaimer that they are not feminists—particularly right before the release of a big-budget feminocentric film in which they star—many others feel compelled to say they will take on “bold roles” and usually add “if the script demands it”. The script could demand suicide. But no film that intends to have a legal release is going to actually kill off its leads. The issue of “bold roles” and the possibility that the choice is an illusion raises the question—are actresses being objectified in the very films that they believe speak against objectification, in an act of metaphysical irony?
These preoccupations hover in the background in C. Rudhraiya’s directorial debut Aval Appadithaan (1978). The film became a sensation when it was released not just because it had a female protagonist, Manju (Sripriya) despite featuring two of Tamil cinema’s biggest stars, Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth, but also because it was shot in arthouse style. It is largely hailed as a “feminist” film. The first lines in the film are spoken by a cabaret dancer:
“They enjoy my dancing like they’re watching a captive animal. When I think of this, it makes me want to throw up. This is certainly not art. It’s a way to live. I’m subject to hunger. The people who watch me are subject to a different kind of hunger. To strip them of their money, I strip myself. That’s all. If only I’d known when I was born that I’d eventually have to dance half-naked, I’d have died right then.”
Ironically, it is Manju who makes the first reference to “maanam”—a word that translates roughly into “honour” or “dignity”—in the film. Manju, an art director at an advertising agency run by Thyagu (Rajinikanth) asks a model to take off her sari and wear a towel. The model is hesitant. Her mother will object, she says. The advertisement is to appear in a newspaper, and people will see it. “O-ho,” Manju says, “So it’s okay to do anything as long as no one will see it? I’ll give you a day’s time. Go ask your mother if this is how you must safeguard your maanam. Remember, you’ll get a lot of money.”
It has been forty years since that film was made. It was radical at the time to object to workplace harassment, and Manju is deemed aggressive for her no-nonsense behaviour. Perhaps the director believed the audience would need an explanation for a woman to be as independent as Manju, and gave her a back-story about a broken home. Given the way the world has changed for women since then, one doesn’t expect the director to have the same concerns in a film made today. However, Aadai leaves one rather bewildered. Its protagonist Kamini is headstrong, daring, selfish and often cruel. She races strangers on her motorbike, while her terrified pillion-rider boyfriend clings to her for safety.
She makes a bet with a friend that she will strip as she reads the news. But when she wakes up alone and naked, her primary concern is getting back home without being seen naked. “I’ll come back, Amma,” she thinks aloud to her mother, as she plots an escape, “I’ll come back with my maanam intact.” As it happens, it is not a man but another woman who has trapped her, to avenge a prank. This other woman is a civil services aspirant from a tribal village near Ooty. “I thought you’d be the kind who would walk out naked and ask for help,” she says, “But I’m impressed that you have some maanam.”
f the likes of Aadai and Aruvi pass for feminist cinema, they are not without precedent. K. Balachander has long been considered a champion of women’s rights and women’s roles. Two of his early films, Arangetram (1973) and Aval Oru Thodarkathai (1974) had storylines very similar to each other, and also to Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960)—of a woman striving to support a large family of ingrates at the cost of her own happiness. In Arangetram, Lalitha (Prameela) stumbles into prostitution and is shunned by her family; she ends up marrying an old flame from whom her family once tried to separate her, with the implication that she has been “granted a life” by his broadmindedness. In Aval Oru Thodarkathai, Kavitha (Sujatha) gives up several suitors to her sisters, including in the climax.
One of the reasons Meghe Dhaka Tara is so different from other films whose lead female characters give up their happiness for their families is that we know how angry and unhappy Khuki (Supriya Choudhury) is. She does not think it is her duty. She is aware that she has, and has had, no choice. In the climactic scene, having lost her lover, job, and health, she screams to her brother, who comes to take care of her when she’s dying, “Dada, aami baanchte chayi (Brother, I want to live)!” She has drawn no pleasure from her sacrifices. Her weakness was putting her family before herself, and she knew throughout that it was a mistake.
When she gives up her fiancé to her sister, one gets the impression it is not an act of generosity so much as one of disgust. Her resentment against her brother is never vocalised, but it is palpable. It hangs in the air when she screams that she wants to live, and he looks at her in despair. The sense of fraternal betrayal is too sacrilegious to articulate, but she seems to feel it. We do not like her any the less for it. We feel her pain keenly.
Balachander’s Lalitha and Kavitha, on the other hand, appeal a little less to us because they seem to be moved by their own suffering. It is almost as if they script the augmentation of this suffering so they can wear a halo around their heads, and feel noble about their sacrifices. Was it how Balachander saw women? Was it how he thought society liked them to be? Or was it how women at the time liked to see themselves? If Ghatak was “ahead of his time”, the film would not have been as successful as it was.
Ghatak’s contemporary Satyajit Ray made several films that deal with women exploring their freedoms. Three of these are based on existing literary works—Charulata (1964) was adapted from Rabindranath Tagore’s Nastanirh, Ghare Bhaire (1984) from Tagore’s story of the same name, and Mahanagar (1963) from Narendranath Mitra’s Abataranika. Perhaps one should credit—or blame—Tagore for it, but Charulata and Ghare Bhaire seem more preoccupied with the magnanimous husbands of the leading ladies than the women themselves, though the latter have far more screen time.
They recognise that their wives are intelligent women who are bored to death, and encourage their interaction with intellectuals, only to have them fall in love with a trusted houseguest, played in both films by Soumitra Chatterjee. Mahanagar is a far more nuanced film, where a woman is initially encouraged to work by her husband, and later resented by him and his father because her financial contribution to the household make them feel emasculated. In the end, the woman quits her job on principle, standing up for a friend who was unfairly terminated. It is a rare instance of a woman putting herself before her family, and refusing to compromise on her ideals even at the cost of their only source of income.
Ray’s Kanchenjungha (1962) was his first original screenplay; at first watch, the film appears to stand for the independence of the young woman, who rejects a suitor her father has chosen and is drawn to a rebellious young man who has turned down a job offer from her father. The moment of attraction to this rebel appears to be after a monologue in which he berates her for the comfortable life she leads. She seems impressed that she is being treated as an equal despite the difference in their economic circumstances. About half a century later, the term “negging” would be coined by pickup artists—the manipulation of a woman who seems out of one’s league by insulting her or being snide in a manner that undermines her self-confidence and makes her want the approval of the “negger”. What happens in Kanchenjungha is not dissimilar to this. Why would a woman assert herself by rejecting a perfectly solicitous and polite man in favour of a “negger”, simply because her father hopes she will marry the former?
“Negging” is not an uncommon occurrence in Balachander’s films either. In a role reversal of the Snooty Princess who eventually becomes the goddess of the Righteous Pauper’s hearth, many of his men are geniuses who know they’re geniuses. But they’re not “set right” by their women in quite the same manner. Their women take a lot of crap from these geniuses, because they too know they’re geniuses; they’re the cause of his fall from grace, and they make up for it by being his crutch as he walks the red carpet, and applauding quietly from the sidelines when he’s on stage. This happens almost literally in Sindhu Bhairavi (1985), a film about a famous singer, his tone-deaf wife, and his paramour. In his Kalki (1996), the singing genius is a childless woman (played by Geeta); she is mistreated by her husband for her childlessness and eventually gets a divorce. She makes a young friend in the eponymous Kalki (Shruti), who sets out to teach the abusive ex-husband (who has now married a submissive woman) a lesson by becoming his mistress and having his child, which she then leaves with his ex-wife.
His Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu (1980) was rather different; the woman, played by Sridevi, has no genius in her life and isn’t one herself. She endures a humiliating career on stage to earn for her parasitic father, and eventually keeps house in an abandoned van for a crusader against capitalism.
Strangely for a man who claims to embrace women’s liberation, several of Balachander’s films ride on the “thaali (nuptial chain) sentiment”, a much-mocked trope in Tamil cinema. In both Apoorva Raagangal (1975) and Sagara Sangamam/Salangai Oli (1983), the women fall in love after being abandoned by their husbands, but ditch their beloveds the moment their quite worthless husbands make a re-entry into their lives. This is particularly bizarre in Apoorva Raagangal: the husband dies within about a minute of their reunion. The wife slashes at her vermillion and announces that she is a widow, which somehow makes her ineligible for marriage with her lover.
Later in his life, Balachander made television series, most of which featured his brand of Bold Woman. One of these, Premi (1996), a massive hit when it was aired, has the titular character pretending in the finale that she is in love with a musical genius who was once obsessed with her and later despises her for not reciprocating his affections, because in order to regain his confidence, he must be given a chance to reject her cruelly. One of his earliest television series, Rail Sneham (1987), is about a girl discovering through her dead mother’s diaries that the man she thinks is her father was, in fact, a stranger who met her pregnant mother when she was on the verge of suicide. He stops her from killing herself, promises to look after her, and brings her to his office accommodation, lying that she is his sister. They fall in love while living a platonic life together. The daughter falls at his feet and kisses them after she reads the diaries, saying he is a god for accepting her mother “as she was”.
Balachander was at the vanguard of Tamil cinema’s changing portrayal of a woman’s desires. He quickly earned the tag of “feminist” director. He believed he was pushing the envelope throughout his career. But when one’s women behave similarly over three decades, they stop being edgy. At some point in the director’s life, these women become the norm, and at a later point, they become outdated. They might even be seen as warped; as rebels without a cause.
One sometimes gets the impression that Balachander bought so much into his own legend that he became oblivious to the fact that the world around him was changing, and that his themes would have to evolve, as would his women. Unfortunately, the Tamil audience too tends to buy into legends—and this was even truer of an era before digital platforms allowed free access to new directors, when cliques controlled who became stars and which directors’ films would stay in the cinemas—and Balachander is still considered avant-garde.
His almost-contemporary, Balu Mahendra, was a cinematographer-turned-filmmaker who made commercial films that were packaged as arthouse films. One of his most memorable works, Marupadiyum (1993), is a remake of Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth (1982). Widely believed to be based on Bhatt’s own extramarital affair with Parveen Babi, it is about a film director leaving his devoted wife for his leading lady. The philanderer is a recurring character in Balu Mahendra’s films—Kokila (1977), Rettai Vaal Kuruvi (1987) and Olangal (1982) all dealt with children from extramarital affairs. The comedy Sathi Leelavathi (1995) has Sathi (Kamal Haasan) and Leelavathi (Kalpana) plotting to bring her husband (Ramesh Arvind) back to her after he starts an affair with a younger woman. Leelavathi also asks the woman’s stalker, who has never worked up the courage to actually ask her out, if he will “accept” her after she has lived with another man, and considers him magnanimous for agreeing to do so.
What is the difference between Leelavathi and Thulasi of Marupadiyum? Why is one woman desperate to win her husband back, while the other rejects him? Is it the fact that Leelavathi has biological children? And why must Thulasi remain single if she is to be an adoptive mother?
For a long time, Tamil films have believed single mothers must choose between their children and their love lives. This may have been the prevailing notion at the start, or even towards the middle, of Balachander’s and Balu Mahendra’s careers. Perhaps it is understandable for even “progressive” filmmakers from their generations to suggest that a woman’s only partner must be the father of her child, or a man noble enough to pretend to be the father. But the trope hasn’t changed much in the decades between these films and Taramani (2017), the second film by director Ram, whose Katradhu Thamizh (2007) was well-received despite its cringe-inducing anti-women dialogue. The central character in Taramani is a woman who is single because her ex-husband realises belatedly that he is gay. She gets engaged to a man whose track record with girlfriends raises several red flags—rage issues, commitment phobia, a propensity for emotional abuse—and eventually leaves him so that she can “be a mother”.
And this is where the Complex Woman fails through the ages—she is alluring, she is a mother, but before the film ends, she must choose between the two.
The Balu Mahendra film that troubles me most is Moondram Pirai (1982), remade the next year in Hindi as Sadma. Sridevi plays a woman who has “retrograde amnesia” and believes she is a six-year-old child after sustaining a head injury in a car crash. Cheenu (Kamal Haasan), her rescuer, falls in love with her even while parenting her. The film was acclaimed in both languages, and won several National Awards. Kamal Haasan’s acting in the climactic scene is considered one of his best performances. It doesn’t seem to have disturbed many critics that the woman in the film is quite literally infantilised—she is a sexual object, while being oblivious to the notion of a sexual object. Cheenu falls for a six-year-old brain in a nubile body.
he trope of sexuality mixed with innocence has been popular in cinema for a long time. Bernardo Bertolucci—who, to be fair, cannot be accused of feminism—made most of his heroines in this vein; it was also among Woody Allen’s several female prototypes. In Bertolucci’s case, his young, sexy heroines were often drawn to dominating older men, sometimes in incestuous relationships. The abuse, it seems, is inseparable from the impassioned nature of the relationship.
Bertolucci will always be winner of the first Honorary Palme D’Or (Cannes, 2011) and the maker of The Last Emperor (1987), the first Western film to be shot inside Beijing’s Forbidden City, and winner of the Academy Award for each of the nine categories in which it was nominated. But, since shortly before his death, he became infamous for his confession that he and Marlon Brando conspired to humiliate Maria Schneider, then 19, while filming Last Tango in Paris (1972). In 2007, Schneider had said she was suicidal after the film’s release, and “felt a little raped” during a scene. The scene is one of the film’s most iconic, and involves Brando’s character Paul anally raping Schneider’s Jeanne. Before penetrating her, Paul asks Jeanne to bring him some butter, which he then uses as a lubricant. Schneider said she had known about the rape scene, but the butter was a surprise. It was only after her death in 2011 that Bertolucci acknowledged she had told the truth.
Speaking at a master class in the film archive Cinemathèque Française in 2013, he said he and Brando had exchanged a look while having baguettes with butter for breakfast, and known what they must do to make the scene more “convincing”. He justified his decision not to tell Schneider about the use of butter in that scene, with: “I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated.” He had no regrets, he said, because a filmmaker has to be “completely free”. Schneider had never acted before, and he took it upon himself to ensure she would act well. Brando wrote in his autobiography that Bertolucci had also wanted them to actually have sex throughout the film, but that it was eventually simulated.
Almost as an in-joke, Last Tango in Paris includes scenes where Jeanne is telling her boyfriend, a film director who’s making a movie about their own lives, that she is quitting the project because he has been taking advantage of her and forcing her to do things at his whim. She even screams, “I’m tired of being raped!”
The film released to fawning reviews from the progressives, with Pauline Kael calling it “the most important cultural event” since Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and severe sanctions from the Right, with Bertolucci losing his civil rights for five years when an Italian court ruled that the film was pornographic. Brando and Bertolucci were nominated for Oscars. Schneider went on a downward spiral of depression. She continues to be remembered as Jeanne, a role which she said drove her to years of drug abuse. In several interviews, she would blame herself for not stopping the shot and calling her agent and lawyer to the set when she was being assaulted during filming. She spent much of her later life fighting for women’s rights in the film industry, while Bertolucci added to his collection of awards.
He would make big-budget epics on the one hand, while shooting intimate films with limited characters exploring sexual relationships as they speak of their political leanings on the other. Humiliation, both sexual and emotional, of women would become a motif in these films, and his female characters appear to crave such humiliation.
Stealing Beauty (1996), centred on the sexual awakening of an American teenager (Liv Tyler) at an artists’ retreat in Tuscany, has the minor exposing her breast to a man whom we understand is her biological father. The Dreamers (2003) has Eva Green losing her virginity as part of a game, to a house guest in her twin brother’s presence. The twins sleep entwined in the nude, and the house guest joins a complicated love triangle, to which the Paris student riots of 1968 form the backdrop.
Bertolucci is among very few European directors who have combined critical acclaim with commercial success. In life, he had strong political opinions against fascism and keenly questioned both Catholicism and Marxism; but he was also extremely arrogant and treated his actors, particularly his women, as subservient to his ambitions. In one of his final screen appearances, he was interviewed for the documentary/mockumentary Seduced and Abandoned (2013), by James Toback (who would later be accused of sexual harassment by 38 women). Toback plays himself, a film director trying to convince investors to back a film called Last Tango in Tikrit, with Alec Baldwin playing Alec-Baldwin-who-wants-to-play-Marlon-Brando. Right to the end of his life, Bertolucci was considered a genius with a single blemish—the “detail of the butter” as he himself put it. His genius has been further immortalised by death.
One suspects that is precisely the fate that awaits Woody Allen, another writer-director who won critical acclaim and commercial success, another man who went into raptures over young, sometimes very young, female beauty and celebrated it in most of his films.
Until his daughter Dylan Farrow accused him of sexual abuse, Woody Allen was most infamous for marrying his ex-wife’s adopted daughter. Female actresses loved to work with him. Several of the leading ladies in his films had been his lovers and muses, most of them were much younger than he, many had co-starred with Allen playing a fictionalised version of himself, and eight had won Academy Awards, with six others being nominated.
Allen is legendary both for his one-film-a-year rate, and the roles he writes for his women. Diane Keaton won the Best Actress Academy Award for Annie Hall (1977), a part written for, and at least partially based on, her. Cate Blanchett would win the same honour for Blue Jasmine (2013), and laugh about how Allen told her on the first day of shoot, “It’s awful, you’re awful”, thereby motivating her to work harder.
Let’s leave Allen’s personal life aside. Let’s leave his behaviour on set aside. Analysing him as a writer alone, one finds that his women fall into certain types—the Perfect Woman drawn to rich and powerful men who are also selfish and sadistic; the Eccentric Beauty who neurotically mumbles to herself and would alienate most people if she were not so beautiful and original; the Dilettante who falls for Allen-playing-Allen; or all of the above. Yes, there have been exceptions, such as Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) in Another Woman (1988). But even these characters are forced to see themselves in an ugly light, often because of other women. From Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) to Blue Jasmine, sisters have been at each other’s throats, undermining each other, stealing each other’s husbands, accusing each other, being jealous of each other, while also loving and supporting each other.
Allen’s women are seen through male eyes not just in the writing, but also in the story. Sometimes, as in Annie Hall and Another Woman, there is an actual narrator. In other cases, the men lose patience and point out the women’s idiosyncrasies—either to the women or their sisters, and sometimes to both—provoking their epiphanies.
His men, too, are helplessly “male”, sometimes helplessly Allen. They bumble through their lives, having affairs with older women when they’re dating younger women and vice versa; they’re nearly as neurotic as their women, but less clever and manipulative, and therefore more lovable.
The likes of Allen are perhaps more dangerous as potential influences than the likes of Bertolucci. The latter might have achieved global fame, but his films are not as widely-watched as Allen’s. The filmmakers who may have been inspired by him would also have been exposed to films by women like Agnès Varda and Marguerite Duras, whose work was rooted in their politics and whose engagement with the portrayal of women lasted all their lives. There have been far fewer female directors in Hollywood as well as in India, and their works are often seen as genre films, particularly when they deal with women’s issues. Indian-origin filmmakers like Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta and Gurinder Chadha tend to explore the diaspora’s concerns rather than women’s concerns, even in films like Bend It Like Beckham. Popular Indian filmmakers like Farah Khan have chosen not to make feminocentric films.
hile Indian commercial cinema glorifies the Macho Man, refusing to let the Salman Khans and Rajinikanths age on screen, its more intelligent exponents explore Allen’s trope of men who are Helplessly Male, though hardly lovable. It is the abiding characteristic of all the heroes director Selvaraghavan has written, with their long-suffering wives paying the price and enduring their abuse, losing their self-esteem and sometimes their foetuses. Yet, his 7/G Rainbow Colony (2005) and Mayakkam Enna (2011) have inspired poetic tributes from (male) film critics. Nearly a decade after the latter’s release, Selvaraghavan apologised for the lyrics of one of its songs, “Adidaa Avale (Hit her, da)”. But his latest offering NGK (2019) also has a benevolent wife whose servility passes for fortitude, who allows herself to be taken for granted, degraded, and abused by a husband who—like most of Selvaraghavan’s heroes—is working for a larger cause. The woman redeems herself only by redeeming her husband; her weakness becomes her strength when he understands how much she has endured and will endure. Somehow, this disturbing aspect of Selvaraghavan’s storytelling appears to escape most male viewers.
The Helpless Maleness of the men was articulated by one of the characters in Karthik Subbaraj’s Iraivi (2016), which was marketed as a feminist film. The title means “Goddess”; the women in the film are goddesses, the men are devils. The film’s men are a band of brothers from various mothers, who test the patience of their wives and lovers, women who can neither stay with them nor leave them. Every time their lives threaten to become smooth, the men screw it up. In the climax, Arul (S J Surya)—who has just ensured he will be sent to jail for a long, long time—smiles and says men will always mess up, because they’re men.
Both the audience and the makers of such films are caught in a bind. The woman has to emerge victorious. She has to be a certain kind of liberated woman. She has to say and do the right things, not according to Society but according to her. She must be Different, but she must also be One of Us.
Such reductive reasoning undermines the entire narrative of a film. If men are wired to mess up, it stands to reason that the female characters cannot be too layered. They’re reduced to feeling frustrated and angry. The authenticity of the Complex Woman in Tamil cinema depends on who her Pygmalion is. The reason the Complex Woman is so important in this particular industry is that, for the most part, there has been no real distinction between mainstream cinema and “parallel” cinema. This is best exemplified by Bharathirajaa, whose films are shot almost entirely on location, feature songs performed by entire orchestras and populated by armies of extras, and always contain “social messages”, sometimes hammered in with a final voiceover and sometimes subtly woven into the storyline. Mani Ratnam, too, had a distinct socially-driven theme for each of his films, but drew the crowds by choosing stars over actors and choreographing grand song-and-dance sequences to some of Ilayaraja’s and A R Rahman’s best musical scores.
In other industries, there has been a clear divide between commercial and art films. Rituparno Ghosh, for instance, has made brilliant films featuring exceptionally rounded women and men; but he was hardly a “mainstream” director. His films won prestigious awards, and had limited releases.
Nearly a generation before Ghosh, Shyam Benegal had made Ankur (1974), which dealt beautifully with the hypocrisy of a certain class and the unexpected assertiveness of a woman who is financially dependent on the hypocrite. Commercial Hindi cinema at the time was only interested in women as props for Amitabh Bachchan’s Angry Young Man, Rajesh Khanna’s rake, and Dharmendra’s rogue.
his has changed in recent times, with a spate of films featuring female protagonists. Vidya Balan and Kangana Ranaut have been leading the credits in their films for a long time now. Some of these films seem to set out to make a statement, with the heroine pulling off quite improbable wins, rather like the mass hero of commercial films. A case in point is Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012), whose plot twists could have put Charles Dickens to shame, and the climax of which has Vidya Balan playing an avenging goddess to the backdrop of the Durga Puja procession. Another such film is NH10 (2015), written by Sudip Sharma and directed by Navdeep Singh, which almost turns into a video game towards the end. This begs the question: why must a woman empower herself by turning violent? The protagonists of Kahaani and NH10, in a role-reversal of the age-old trope, are women avenging the murders of their husbands. Untrained in combat, and with no indication that they have acquired special skills for their murderous missions, they pull off impossible stunts as only mass heroes in commercial films have. But the intelligentsia feels obliged to applaud the film because it is “progressive”.
Both the audience and the makers of such films are caught in a bind. The woman has to emerge victorious. She has to be a certain kind of liberated woman. She has to say and do the right things, not according to Society but according to her. She must be Different, but she must also be One of Us. Just as the extreme left and the extreme right have begun to sound almost alike, with different targets, but are received very differently, feminocentric films sometimes veer very close to the mass hero film, only the hero is a woman. A weird kind of reverse-censorship is creeping into the arts. Playwrights and novelists are expected to embrace causes and promote those through their creative work. The objectivity of journalists must be relative.
It is this rather hypocritical lens which brought films like Pink (2016) and Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019) some criticism for making men come to the rescue of female protagonists. If one were to leave political correctness aside, one would likely conclude that this is far more pragmatic in the contexts in which the stories are set than pandering to the notion that feminocentric films must feature only women helping themselves or each other.
It is interesting in this context to compare Gulabi Gang (2012), a documentary made by Nishtha Jain, which follows Sampat Pal Devi and her pink sari brigade as they go about meting out their brand of justice in Bundelkhand, and Gulaab Gang (2014), Soumik Sen’s fictional film starring Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla. Sen refused to comment on whether the film was based on Sampat Pal. Dixit’s character is called Rajjo. Dixit and Chawla play powerful women, but are clearly delineated as Good and Evil. Rajjo gets violent, but the violence is rationalised. This vigilante wants to make sure the little girls in her village have a better life than she did, and so the Warrior Woman is also the Mother Figure. Jain’s documentary allows us to see various shades of Sampat Pal, including her leniency in cases of abuse involving her family. Perhaps it can be argued that reportage is matured activism, and perhaps that is the maturity for which our cinema should aim.
When Pink was remade in Tamil this year as Nerkonda Paarvai, starring Ajith, it made sure it starred him. He has several fight sequences that aren’t quite congruent with a lawyer’s lifestyle. Ajith, like Vijay, is a “mass hero” and certain elements must be incorporated into his films to keep his fans happy. But it is of some significance that Ajith chose to work in a film about consent. It is also illustrative of the fact that “women’s issues” are not a genre of cinema by themselves anymore.
This is why the Complex Woman in Tamil cinema is so important. How she is handled by directors determines the career graphs of all women in the industry. The feminocentric storylines of their time were the reason actresses like Revathi and Radhika became successful. And it says something about the industry that a comedy like Magalir Mattum (1994) dealt with the issue of workplace harassment a quarter century before #MeToo.
One must not delude oneself into thinking the Tamil film industry is a progressive space. The only Rajinikanth film in which his “second heroine” outshone him might be Padayappa (1999). Director K S Ravikumar made the mistake of casting the supremely talented Ramya Krishnan as Neelambari; her performance transcended the scope of the character and eclipsed everyone else. It would be her last significant film for a while, most likely because heroes, directors and producers were afraid she would steal their thunder again. Ramya Krishnan even managed to claim space for herself in the Baahubali franchise, a feat neither Anushka Shetty nor Tamannah Bhatia—both of whom played female warriors—could achieve. This leads one to a related point: is it the actress who makes the character, and is the failure of a character also the failure of an actress? If so, how much of this failure can be attributed to lack of talent, and how much to the fear of offending the men in the film, who could be key to the actress’ progress in the industry?
It is a crucial time for women’s roles in film. With platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and various Indian digital channels commissioning original work and casting both new talent and established stars, there is tremendous scope for writers and actors to push their boundaries. There are more female directors now, and male directors are more conscious of their portrayal of women.
The Complex Woman in Tamil cinema has found some interesting Pygmalions of late. Ashwin Saravanan’s Game Over (2019) is bold in its casting—unlike most Tamil films, its only mainstream actor was the lead, Taapsee Pannu. Sharing screen time almost equally is Vinodhini Vaidynathan as her live-in help Kalamma, in one of her most prominent film roles. Three of the supporting actors are women. But this is hardly hammered in, and the fact that so many women live alone or with each other seems quite natural to the storyline. The film does lose its way in the second half, caught somewhere between psychological thriller, supernatural horror, action, and exploration of sexual trauma. However, it stands out for its treatment of women and for the roles given to each female actor.
Another recent film which made an impression and won praise from across the board was Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe (2019). The director’s second feature after his cult hit Aaranya Kaandam (2010), it has four intersecting storylines, each of which features a Complex Woman. One of them is a transwoman, Shilpa, played by Vijay Sethupathi, currently one of the most sought-after leading men of Tamil cinema. Super Deluxe was not marketed as a film that had anything to do with women’s rights or the perception of women. The women and their lives are as incidental to the film as the men and their lives, and in that way, the film does reflect the real world. In adding a layer of tragicomedy and absurdity to itself, the film achieves two things: it good-naturedly parodies several of its predecessors, and it cleverly makes the audience think seriously about subjects that it treats with humour. These subjects include objectification, cuckolding, and gender identity, but they are never expressly articulated in the dialogue. Kumararaja himself didn’t handle his female character with as much subtlety in his debut, the end of which struck me as painfully contrived.
When the consecutive films of a director show a jump in nuance, one feels a sense of excitement about the industry itself. If this is indicative of a trend in Tamil cinema, it is a welcome one. And if the trend is indicative of a societal change in the perception of women as normal humans—flawed, strong, weak, delusional, upright, contradictory, pliable, and stubborn at different times, just as men are—it can’t have arrived too early.