Ms Representation: Mahendran's Metti - A rare film that lets women be women
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author writes about Mahendran's Metti
Metti (1982) is an underrated tragedy directed by the late Mahendran. It is melodramatic, long-drawn, tragic, and yet undeniably an important work in the maker’s oeuvre. Starring Vadivukkarasi (as Sulekha) and Radikaa (as Preetha) as sisters, it features the former in a role seldom offered to an actress whose screen presence is the stuff of legends. Vadivukkarasi is tall, gorgeous and fills every frame she’s in, in this film, with delightful grace. Radikaa plays a role that seems to have been written for her in every right. She’s independent, and yet very much a woman of her times and circumstances. There’s a song in which her Preetha describes the kind of wedding she wants that seeks to demolish the norms of our marriages. There are, in fact, casual throwaway remarks by everyone in this film that question social mores without being self-righteous or smug. The characters seem vexed, angered and even defeated by them.
CR Vijayakumari plays the sisters’ poignant and dignified mother, Kalyani. The movie begins with the sounds of a metti – the toe ring – Kalyani wears resounding across the home – and after the titles roll, the song Metti oli katrodu comes on. Mahendran showcases the three women and their relationship in the presence of nature, the beautiful outdoors that he was so fond of capturing in film (Ashok Kumar’s cinematography and Ilaiyarajaa’s music add great character to the film).
The relationship between the women is delightful as is the filming of the opening song, where all three are playful and the two sisters are physically mock-hurting each other, and playing the fool. It is unlike any opening song for women in our cinema, even to this day.
Metti too is a product of its times and feels like a Jane Austen-meets-Balachander’s Aval Oru Thodarkathai-meets the aesthetic of Mahendran’s sepia-toned frames, dusky women and their big, round, red bindis. Pattabhi (Sarath Babu) comes looking for a house to stay in, in a new town, only to end up at his father’s second wife’s home. She was thrown out by his father, while she was pregnant with Preetha and while Sulekha was a little girl. Pattabhi’s father’s childhood friend, a Gujarati man offers Kalyani a home, but this leads to the neighbourhood gossiping about the two, and spreading rumours that Preetha is actually the Gujarati friend’s daughter. Preetha is even advised by a neighbour to wear her saree the Gujarati way, which she does unmindful of what people will think even after she finds out why.
Kalyani is a very rooted yet strong-in-her-way character. She tells her daughters that there is no point in trying to run from rumours. You should live your life the way you want, as long as you know the truth. The daughters too defend their mother in a brave manner as their neighbour makes cruel insinuations. But there’s only so much bravado they are able to muster. The two sisters ask their mother to leave this home so they can go elsewhere, escaping the rumours. Unable to handle her daughters’ anger, Kalyani dies. Pattabhi is left to care for his sisters, even as further tragedies unfold.
What I like the most about this film is the fact that its women show a range of emotions that our films often don’t have. Anger, the ability to reject men, be rude, let loose, make mistakes, and wallow in their tragedies for long periods of time, instead of as minor distractions from the real plot. Of course, today, the plot feels melodramatic (perhaps because we no longer make complete tragedies any more). But it does capture a particular type of tragedy that seems to come uninvited into the lives of some people and tightens its grip on them.