Ms Representation: Better late than never
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author talks about the representation of the female lead in Viswasam
Through all its flaws, Viswasam begins, hopefully, a better portrayal of leading women in a genre otherwise infested with highly forgettable, often badly-written female roles. The biggest problem with Viswasam is, of course, the fact that the hero, Ajith’s Thooku Durai is infallible. Everyone around him worships him as something of a demigod. Thankfully though, Nayanthara’s Niranjana is not so much in awe of him. This is exactly the kind of power Nayanthara’s rise over the last few years has brought her. You can no longer cast her as that sidekick who is around to build the main man up or be your typical damsel in distress, like that abominably written role in Chandramukhi. If you want to cast her, you need to write her up too, and Siva seems to have truly understood this.
What has changed? In a typical masala film of this genre, you would have a small romance angle and then the hero will move on to avenge the villain, while rescuing the women around him too, of course. But Viswasam flips the elements around, precisely because Nayanthara’s power and her fandom demands that she has an equal role. So here, the villain and his antics are actually small elements, mere excuses for the hero to prove himself to his wife and daughter (there’s a believably good actor in Anikha who plays this latter role).
The other clichés Siva avoids in writing the women is important to study. It shows us the difference just a bit of effort can make in the portrayal of women that usually falls woefully short and disappoints, something I am only too familiar with as someone who regularly watches these films.
Thooku Durai likes Niranjana but realizes that they belong in different worlds. He never acts on it and there is no drama around that either. If she likes him, she reveals it only when she lands up with her father to ask for his hand in marriage. That’s right, she comes with her father to ask for his hand.
Niranjana is a career-woman, but is never reviled for it. When it comes to choosing between going to the US for a prestigious stint and having a child (she also finds out she’s pregnant in the same scene), she chooses the child and does this without any drama. She takes the call and never mentions it again. There is no guilt-tripping or demonizing of anyone. The plot simply does not dwell on it. Instead, Siva uses it as a stepping stone to show us just how important this child is to her.
When Niranjana is mad at Thooku Durai, she is just that. Nobody vilifies her. Instead, Durai’s grandmother tells him something I have heard older women say many times in real life. There is no equivalent for the term ‘vittu kuduthal’ in English, the closest is perhaps ‘compromise’ or ‘adjust’ or ‘allow the other person to win’. No one asks this of Niranjana.
The fight between the hero and the villain is not over your regular toxic stuff either. It is because Gautham (Jagapathi Babu) expects his daughter to win at everything and Durai’s daughter is in the way of this. Both fathers are fighting over making something of their daughters.
Yes, it is a regular masala film with the usual problems of exaggeration, hero worship, really basic comedy, fights and songs randomly strewn across the script. But something is changing with Viswasam. It is important to record this. Especially when the other Pongal release, Petta held a lot of promise and fell short of delivering decent roles for Simran and Trisha, who were both utterly incidental to the plot.