Ms. Representation: The wrong kind of art
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author talks about director Vijay's take on abortion in Diya
I am going to go right ahead and say it, spoilers be damned: Vijay’s aim through his film Diya is to demonise the idea of abortion. He announces it at the end of his film with a card and all, so I am not drawing this conclusion from his film; he says as much. If Vijay had made this a one-off story, just another horror film exploiting the hapless girl back as a ghost to wreak havoc trope, it could have passed muster. But he doesn’t. And his ‘message’ is emphasised over and over again through flashbacks in this film.
Sai Pallavi, (a doctor in real life as well as in this film), may have seen this is an ideal first Tamil film. After all she is at the forefront of the script and on the screen. In an interview she’s said that her mother read the script and convinced her to act in this film. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but to Sai Pallavi who played a darling Malar in Premam and an amazing Bhanumati in Fidaa, I have a request: ‘Please don’t do a film like this again.’ Diya is a wrong film. It uses the guise of ‘good technique’ to send a wrong message. Indeed pamphleteering is even more dangerous when it reaches the hands of half-decent storytellers. Diya is wily, because it wantonly confuses a variety of themes under the topic ‘abortion’ and seeks to guilt trip you.
Diya begins without any fuss to tell us that Thulasi and Krishna, all of 19, are in trouble. Thulasi is pregnant. Not for too long though. In a film that was originally titled Karu and whose credits demonise the instruments used by doctors to perform abortions, what else can one expect? It was always going to be a ‘karu’thu (message) padam. Five years pass and this couple gets married. On the honeymoon Thulasi weakly confronts Krishna. She tells him that she hasn’t been able to get over an abortion that wasn’t her decision. If Thulasi carries the weight of a forced abortion and the trauma of it with her for five whole years, neither Sai Pallavi nor the director Vijay seem to understand it. She wears it too lightly. Almost nonchalantly.
Why did she marry him without discussing this? How does she so quickly get over her anger, when all he does is say, we’ll have kids again? It is of course very wrong when a major is forced to have an abortion when she doesn’t want one, and unethical for a doctor to perform it on her after clearly stating that she’s a major. I found that scene a bit confusing, but could imagine it perhaps happening in this world of fiction. At no point is this ‘female protagonist’ of Vijay’s driving the story or taking charge. She just exists as things happen to her, around her. She is forced into an abortion she doesn’t want. She marries the man, despite being angry with him for not doing anything, five whole years later. She’s dismissed by him as needing psychiatric help when she says the ghost is out to kill him… In which universe are they a match or equals? The ghost of the unborn child, the karu, killing those who wanted it killed is kind of queasy yet okay the first time it kills. But after that it’s a bit of a drag.
Here are the issues Vijay muddies up in this film in order to make his pro-life spiel. Especially with that karuthu at the end of the film where they rattle off some statistics about the number of abortions aka unborn babies ‘killed’ by demon mothers via a horrible procedure called abortion, of which a huge percentage are unsafe, and how they could have gone on to become Indira Gandhi… Ding, ding, ding… Three-in-one. Vijay hits the propaganda jackpot.
Let’s take the three issues he focuses on – first being just plain abortions. It is not as if Vijay doesn’t know that many women opt for it because it is their bodies and their prerogative to choose. Something our constitution respects and recognises, despite whatever the moral police within Vijay might say. Second, about unsafe abortions. Why do unsafe abortions take place? Because of social pressure and taboo women have to face despite the law being on their side. But Vijay manipulates you into thinking abortions are unsafe for women. And I am not even going into the topic of rape and its consequences here. Finally, of those aborted who could have gone on to become Indira Gandhi… here’s where his insincerity shocks me.
For the film would have been very different had it chosen to focus on the politics of sex selective abortions and female foeticide and infanticide. I would have been first in line to cheer him on then. But it does not engage with a topic as urgent and as necessary in our country and culture as this at all. Instead it chooses to paint all abortions as if they are a sin. This is disappointing and outrageous.
So far as its karuthu is concerned Vijay's film is no Karuthamma.