Ms. Representation: Silver linings
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author writes about Mahanadhi, Kadhalan, and Karuthamma
Three Tamil movies that turn 25 this year have three very interesting takes on women. Mahanadhi, Kadhalan, and Karuthamma were all released in 1994 — what a great year for our cinema that was. I saw these films at various stages of my life and not when they released. They have had a different but definite influence on me.
Mahanadhi, was an instant classic, that grappled with many issues with grace and poise, and had some wonderful female actors playing their part — the wonderful matriarch (the dependable SN Lakshmi), the strong, silent lover, Yamuna (a superb Sukanya), and a promising, bright young daughter Kaveri (Shobana, who is still famous for this powerful role). The scenes that see Kamal Haasan’s Krishnaswamy rescue his teen daughter (played by Sangeetha) and bring her back from the ‘red light area’ were shocking and powerful when they first came out. This rescue wasn’t like the usual revenge-movie sequence that sees a father play out his superhero self, and Krishnaswamy was no Liam Neeson from Taken. His vulnerability and the grace of the other women help him bring his daughter back. I did have a grievance with the film as I grew up (having first watched it as a young girl). Its portrayal of a young woman getting her first period is simply ridiculous — she’s in the kitchen and you hear her scream. Why? In a film that is so subtle this little anomaly was grating.
Kadhalan, which too released that year, gave voice to the modern, urban, and rooted Madras ‘youth’. Nagma who ruled the screens in the 90s with her unapologetic presence, played a young Shruthi. What made Shruthi and Prabhu’s (Prabhudheva) story so special (apart from Rahman’s superb music and Prabhudheva’s dance)? Was it perhaps because Shruti wasn’t a one-note character? Her entire backstory had been thought through. The sort of thing that continues to be a rarity even today. We knew so much about her. She had interests (dance), she was caged in as the daughter of the Governor (late Girish Karnad as Kakarla was a believable smiling assassin), she is Telugu, and she has grandparents back in the village that dote on her. And all of these inform and move the plot along. Of course, who can even forget that frightful (female) cop who beats ‘Pirabhu’ up?
From the buzz of the city to the silence of our hinterlands. Karuthamma was an affecting portrayal of female infanticide in rural Tamil Nadu. The stellar women who inhabited the screen, as well as the message at the heart of the film, and the way the story was told, make this a masterpiece worth several revisits. The dry, arid, desert-like landscape that the people of the story live in and the cactus that then becomes a metaphor for death, the matter-of-factness with which Mokkaiyan (a sublime Periyar Dasan) speaks of killing his two just born daughters in the opening sequence, the shock that then gives way to an understanding of a different way of life, the social pressures on men and women… all come together in an act of formidable storytelling.
At the heart Bharatiraja’s Karuthamma are the women: Karuthamma (Rajashree), Dr Rosy (Maheswari in perhaps the most memorable debut of that decade), Saranya Ponvannan as the exasperated first daughter (Ponnatha), the stellar SN Lakshmi as a midwife who hands the death sentence unwillingly to the unfortunate daughters of the village and Vadivukkarasi as the menacing agent of patriarchy, Kaliamma. The film builds up slowly, inflicting Karuthamma with deep cuts and grand insults. Her finally revenge, as she takes the ulakkai (large wooden pestle used to grind flour), to hit her brother-in-law, Thavasi (Ponvannan), as she lists her grievances against him is the perfect example of art’s delightful collision with meaning. The scene is inter-cut several times with shots of the kalli plant whose ‘milk’ is used to kill female infants in the film and in reality. Whether intended as catharsis, or as a rousing call to women to hit back at patriarchy, Karuthamma’s refusal to be a passive observer of the injustice around her, and her taking control of her life, even if to a tragic consequence, makes this film powerful and memorable.