Ms Representation: The golden girl
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week it is Easwari Rao's character, Selvi, in the Rajinikanth-starrer Kaala
What a revelation the actor Easwari Rao as Selvi has been in Kaala. And this is, of course, not a singular observation. Her name has been in the news ever since the film was released, with almost all the pieces on the film giving kudos to Ranjith for thinking up a romance as charming as the one between her and Rajini’s Kaala. A broad smile was plastered across my face, as if I were myself the fool in love, every time she came on screen. She reminded me of a certain kind of matriarch, the sort of woman one reads about in epic novels spanning generations. The one that makes the house, the one that holds its life together. The maker of the home. Ranjith seems to have truly relished writing her, and it was refreshing to see a fully formed woman character through his eyes. Of course he then had to go and (spoiler alert) fridge her. Sigh.
The Selvi-Kaala romance was reminiscent of the romance that was condensed to a song-length (Maya Nadhi) in Kabali, when Kabali meets Kumudhavalli after years of separation. Pannaiyar and Chellamma in Pannaiyarum-Padminiyumwere a similar duo with a sparkle in their eyes that put a smile on my face. As did Prakash Raj and Leela Samson in O Kadhal Kanmani. In the commercial Tamil cinema world that struggles with establishing meet-cutes between its leads and ends up showing the hero as a stalker ‘looking’ at the heroine, these mature romances are breezy and seem almost effortless.
The mature romance also humanises both the man and the woman on the frame, as well as creates a more or less equal plane, as opposed to the kind of inequity commercial cinema’s romance tracks often carry. Even in showing unrequited love with Zareena (Huma Qureshi), Pa Ranjith shows great restraint and dignity in a film-verse that is often itching to use the exact same opportunity for an alcohol-fueled misogynistic rant song. He instead subverts this alcohol-induced track to have Kaala declare his love for Selvi. Vaadi yen thanga sela (Come my golden statue) he sings, while calling himself a ten-headed Raavana. If Rama had to marry a golden statue in the Ramayana, in this retelling of the epic, Raavana is married to a woman as beautiful as a thanga sela.
Easwari as Selvi exudes something that is almost palpable. As if, if you reached over, you could just touch her. She stands tall, quite literally as well as figuratively and towers over everyone, including Rajinikanth, in the scenes that she appears in. Her energy bouncing off the screen, and off of all those around her. Even when she has to stand in a corner of the frame, Ranjith gives her something important to do – like show her daughters-in-law how small Hari dada actually is for not drinking the water she brought for him. The banter between her and Vaaliyappan (Samuthirakani in his career best) is simply marvellous as the two play word ping-pong with each other, and just as in any sport, sometimes she wins, and sometimes he does.
Manja poosi nee munnadi vanda kannu koosumadi, Kaala sings to Selvi in the song. It is true, Easwari’s Selvi sparkles, an ethereal presence in this epic retelling.