Ms. Representation: Ladies Special
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week we take a look at the women in Magalir Mattum
Ask anyone trying to break into the Tamil film industry as a director today, and they’ll tell you what helps them land offers – appeal to all three centers, a separate comedy track, and of course, the usual masala elements. In a milieu that rewards these films with backing as well as box office success, that a Magalir Mattum was made is in itself something to rejoice. A film that has women occupying the screen throughout, is of course the kind of stuff dreams are made for, for those of demanding better representation for women on screen in our cinema.
Remember that feeling you would get, while waiting in the bus stop on those busy mornings, dreading a packed bus, when suddenly a Ladies Special bus came your way? That sigh of relief, one where your tense muscles would just relax? That’s what the first Magalir Mattum, a remake of the film 9 to 5, did back in 1994 to watchers. And that’s what this film does. As a woman watching commercial cinema, you are always defensive because writing convincing women is one of those things commercial filmmakers fail at miserably, more often than not. And for a change, when a movie like this comes along, you can say, I know so many women who will relate to this film. Just the sheer number of women of a certain age that I don’t see regularly at night shows, but were there at this film’s screening should tell producers, if you represent them right, they will come to cinemas. And how.
Magalir Mattum begins with a song written by Uma Devi: Adi Vaadi Thimira (Come with audacity). And the words of song, defiant, strong, subversive, set the tone for the film. Tying the movie together is Jyotika’s Prabhavati, a documentary filmmaker. Allow me to gush a little about Prabhavati. Adi Vaadi Thimira is also subversive in the way it introduces Prabhavti’s many facets to the audience. If in a masala film the hero introduction features things that he is capable of doing because of his superhuman abilities (saving various people, doing too many things etc) – here she is making movies, is a social justice advocate, wears black and conducts a Self-Respect marriage, etc. The video is a melange of things that you don’t see women caring for in movies. Against a swach bharat campaign painting, a man enters a septic sewage tank to clean it and Prabhavati is filming that. Throughout this film, Jyotika walks and talks with an air of confidence unseen in Tamil cinema for a long, long time. Sripriya in Aval Appadithan comes to mind for many reasons. Of course, the film itself feels like a tribute to Aval Appadithan and there are also references to other gems – like a reference to that immortal ‘Phataphat’ from Aval Oru Thodargadhai.
After all this rich writing, you’d expect this movie to be about Prabhavati, while others prop her up. It is not. At all. Such is director Bramma’s craft. It is about three women, who meet after decades of being separated from each other. A fabulous Urvashi as Goms (aka Gomata), a radiant and convincing Bhanupriya as Rani, and a superb Saranya as Subbulakshmi. Urvashi’s spot on comic timing aside, the film helps us see so many different aspects to her acting.
Prabhavati is Gomata’s to-be daughter-in-law and her son is away abroad. Gomata reconnects with her childhood best friends, Rani and Subbulakshmi. Rani lives in Agra in the midst of a family that has forgotten to see the person that she is. Her politician husband calls her, ‘Ey’ and wants to prop her up as a dummy ‘woman’ candidate. Subbu, a beautician, lives with an alcoholic husband and a bedridden mother-in-law, whose bitterness towards her would be unbelievable if you didn’t know just how bitter people can be, towards women in their own families. Subbu’s reaction to it all, which is to pretend that none of it is happening, and go on with life with a straight face is moving. And original. The lack of too much sentimentality marks a fresh departure in terms of writing for women.
The three women re-connect and embark on a road trip – from Agra to Jhansi and beyond, through picturesque places, as the film oscillates to tell us about their lives in the past and now. From thwarted plans and separation from friends, after landing tickets to Aval Appadithan, to first love and a very original scene of a calf being born… the film is filled with gems. The casting of younger women who look strikingly like Urvashi, Bhanumati and Saranya shows just how committed the film is to its cause. The film’s biggest success is in humanizing the holy cow (or Gomata) that is ‘Amma’ in Tamil cinema. These women are filled with righteous rage, just as they were busy plotting escape routes from patriarchy in their youth, only to be slammed hard. They too fell in love and had their hearts broken…
One of the best punches in the film went to Rani’s granddaughter. She picks up her call and asks her if she has gone ‘thappichi’ (escaped) from the house. The women in the theatre broke into loud laughter.