Ms Representation: Shrews, tamed and untamed
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author talks about the 'Taming the shrew' trope
If there’s a thing Tamil cinema heroes love doing on screen, it is teaching women their rightful place. Telling them what it is to be a senthamizh naatu tamilachi (in case you were wondering, it is not roaming around in swimwear that ‘only’ your husband can see you in). In Tamizh Padam 2 when the heroine mocks the hero in the song Evada Unna Petha, about giving lectures on karpu and culture while being so horrible himself, I rubbed my hands together in unabashed glee and replayed that line at least a few times.
How did this happen? How did men get to teach women how to be women, to grand applause on Tamil screens? (This also reminds me of a meme I saw which thanked the director of 96 because women finally wore dupattas thanks to Trisha’s look in the film, apparently.) It all boils down to The Taming of the Shrew of course. From an actual adaptation, Arivaali, starring Sivaji Ganesan and Bhanumati from 1963, to the upgraded disco version, Sakalakala Vallavan, and later, Singaravelan, where an independent, boisterous Sumathi (Khushboo) is fat-shamed and humiliated into thinking she’s not woman enough until she dresses the way Velan thinks is appropriate for his future wife (with bindi, flowers, saree, etc)… And who can even forget Mannan, with the slapping of Shanti (Vijayashanthi) by Krishnan (Rajinikanth) repeatedly, with a communist angle to boot, that goes above and beyond taming, to brute violence! Clearly, Krishnan is no Petruchio who does not strike Katherina in the Shakespearean play because he is a 'gentleman'. But, Krishnan does follow Petruchio’s line of thinking. He does not hit her in public, while she slaps him for lifting her (she does not know that he is trying to save her life), but hits her multiple times in private.
In our films, in a bid to justify the taming, and to receive the acknowledgment of protectors of cultural honour, the shrew is often located in a rich, urban setting while the tamer is seen as a representative of the rural or the proletariat. Making it a conflict of culture and values, or rich (panakkara thimir of the heroine) vs poor (salt of the earth male hero), instead of portraying it as what it actually is – one of submission and control, which is what makes the shrew a primary target of patriarchy. At best, our romance films are Stockholm syndrome, at worst shining examples of domestic violence.
My interest for this particular column though lies in the taming of another kind of woman, the kind who does not wish to submit to the hero’s ego. Ever. The unlikeable one, written as the arrogant and the hopeless, even outright bad woman. The literal bad cop to the good cop that women are expected to play in scripts all the time. Most recently, there was the woman who was annoyed by a new officer refusing to listen to her and trying to one-up her (is it because he’s really good or is it because she’s a woman boss? I could almost hear her think it…) in Ratsasan. She is just there, presenting the hero with obstacles, an almost half-villain (someone calls her a ratchasi--demoness--too in the film). He does his best to outwit her, and she hers to stop him on his tracks. Here’s a woman who wields power over a man, within a system that requires those at the bottom, yes, even men, to ‘obey’ the orders of those at the top. She cannot be tamed, the regular way. She may not be shamed into shedding her trousers and shirt for a saree and flowers. She even asks him to go get her a pack of cigarettes as he looks at her in shock. Tamed she is, though, eventually. Not by the hero, but a man, a junior in rank but senior in age, at that, who serves as the proxy for the audience, the one who calls her a ratchasi. He handcuffs her as he literally binds her into submission, against her will.
The bad female cop or politician is a villain doubly hate-worthy because here is a woman who wields more power than the hero, while also being on the ‘wrong side’ and on top it, she is often unfeminine. She’s a woman in a man’s world, an anomaly, which makes it further easy to single her out as the target of audience’s (and the people in the film’s) displeasure. Like the woman cop who beats up the hero in Kadhalan or makes him eat cockroach-infested rice and has his own father beat him up, in custody. Or the woman cop who sides with a rich rapist as opposed to (Jyotika’s) Naachiyaar. These are women who confound, and even get away with their ‘bad behaviour’ on screen, because they seem to have found a way to game patriarchy–instead of submitting to it or opposing it, while also being ‘different’ or ‘bad’. Some of them though, it seems, are not written at all to be tamed, but for the ‘shock-value’ they provide. Which is why all these years later, when I think back on that Kadhalan police station scene, I can almost hear and see the cop, call the hero, “Pirabhu”. I doubt if a male cop in that scene would have had that kind of impact.