Ms.Representation: A brief history of fridging in Tamil Cinema
The writer talks about the women making movies in our cinema, and their body of work
In 1999 a website called Women in Refrigerators was born, thanks to feminists who also happened to love comic books. They set up the website to look at the 'disproportionate' number of female characters (superheroes) that were 'either de-powered, raped, or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator', and asked the all-important question of 'why they were thrown in the wood chipper in the first place'. The name for the site is based on what had happened to Green Lantern (he comes home to a refrigerator stuffed with his dead girlfriend).
What does fridging really represent? At its core is the realisation that women are used as plot devices. Not fully formed independent beings, but things whose loss propel the hero towards greatness while avenging the loss or sexual violence or threat of sexual violence against the women around him. Fridging has been in the news recently with Deadpool 2 using the death of a woman to further its plot.
Of course, our films too have used this element and continue to do so unquestioned. Starting from as early as the great Parasakthi, the body count and the attempts at molestation and rape of women in our cinema is pretty gorily high. Most Tamil cop movies are centred on this device, and amma sentiment and thangachi sentiment films often have to do with fridging. Remember that scene from Baasha where the villain having pushed Manickam’s sister looks at his mother and says "Vanakkam ma" to mean that he will bring 'harm' her way? That's when Manickam finally explodes. This inheritance of the karpu (chastity) angle as being central to women’s character and their arc in our films is from our earlier cinema and is, indeed, inspired from heroines of epics. And it continues to dominate the idea of what women can do to a plot even today.
However, it is not just the mainstay of purely commercial cinema in Tamil. They may be guilty of exploiting that sentiment for myth-making using fight sequences subtly (by Tamil cinema standards) like in Baasha, or overtly like in Velyaudham, where you the woman screams, "Dei enga annan Velayudham vandhutaar da" (our brother Velayudham is here), and then spits and asks the villains to show their manliness to Vijay. But some of our filmmakers most guilty of using this device in a chilling manner are those that are hailed for being 'different', 'refreshing', 'modern' or 'smart'. The aestheticisation of violence (sexual or otherwise) against the women in a film in order to drive the plot further is a crime many of our celebrated filmmakers are guilty of, for they take the trope further and make it look like art. Like great cinema.
Consider Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan, the scene where Neela (a brilliant Saranya) is shot to death – in slow motion as the bullets rip into her, while the helpless Nayakan (Kamal Hassan) watches on and then how her body just limply falls off as he is left with her saree in his hands. Even as a dead woman she has one last job of gory titillation. The death of Aparna in Kamal Hassan’s Hey Ram, the abduction, rape and trafficking of Kaveri (that loaded name), Krishnaswamy’s daughter in Mahandhi… And in all of those cop films of Gautham Menon -- from Kaakha Kaakha, Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu to Yennai Arindhal and Acham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada -- he takes the fridging trope to the 'next level'. The trope, now expected of all his cop films, also has an addition of the woman about to face her death being extremely well turned out. Her clothes, makeup and hair are all paid a lot of attention to. Only so she can die later.
In two recent films that propelled the heroines to greater heights in Tamil cinema, the fridging trope has now been used to make larger-than-life stars out of women leads too. Both, Dora starring Nayanthara and Naachiyaar starring Jyotika (both directed by men) use the rape of young women and the ensuing revenge by the female lead to create superhero-esque moments for the film.
An earlier Jyoktika-starrer Snegithiye is a precursor to this phenomenon, and though it reverses the trope briefly – stowing a man’s body in an AC duct – it comes back neatly to the rape and paralysis of a woman in the end. Though I appreciated the appearance of women in the centre of the plot, as well as the adoration the women received, I was distressed by these films’ use of rape and or killing of minor girls as a device. It was bittersweet. Just didn’t feel like victory. And it reminded me that the trope is far from being put to sleep.