Ms Representation: Unshackling the woman on screen
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author talks about the Oviyaa-starrer 90ml
When the trailer of 90ml came out, as an honorary member of Oviyaa Army, I was a bit confused, to be honest. I just wasn’t sure what the film had in store for women. Now that I’ve seen the film, I must say, the director of 90ml, who uses an interesting moniker, Azhagiya Asura (Anita Udeep) has surpassed all expectations I had from a commercial Tamil film about female desire, as well as from Oviyaa following her incredible climb to fame in Bigg Boss.
This film has singlehandedly unshackled our on-screen woman who’s been unimaginatively relegated to exhausting clichés. Our cinema’s male gaze is yet to get over the saint or sinner trope for women -- there is simply no nuance, forget about boldness. Even films purportedly about women use broad strokes that are terribly unsatisfying. And that Anita does this in an irreverent film that doesn’t even pretend to pander to the audience, instead provokes, teases and shocks them into reconciling with its women, is the icing.
It is interesting that both Raiza Wilson and Oviyaa who’ve come to Tamil screens with immense popularity following their very successful stint in the Bigg Boss Tamil Season 1, have played parts that have pushed the woman onscreen outside the usual boundaries. Both Raiza’s Sindhuja in Pyaar Prema Kaadhal and Oviyaa’s Rita (who, in what looks like a hat tip to Revolver Reeta, literally wields a gun at one point in this film) in 90 ML are living in with their boyfriends and reject the idea of marriage.
I watched the film in a hall filled with college students. Of course, a lot of the men were passing loud comments, but there were also a lot of young women who had come in groups and their laughter rang through the halls, and spilled over to the corridors of the cinema hall even after the film. That was satisfying.
At one point in 90 ml I wondered though, why even the intimate scenes in this film weren’t made with craft, but then I realised that’s not what the director wants. She doesn’t want to comfort you with soft lighting or even titillate. She’s looking to confront you and your idea of what the woman on screen can do. You could draw up a list of the things women shouldn’t do in Tamil cinema and you have it. The women of 90 ML.
Rita moves into an apartment and quickly becomes friends with Thamarai, Kajal, Paru and Suganya. Each of them has a problem in their love life and even the seemingly perfect Rita and Venky have their share of disagreements. The most revolutionary thing about 90 ML is not the fact that its women drink, smoke, have fun, go on a road trip, just enjoy the company of each other and express their sexuality; it is not even the fact that just before the film breaks for interval Tamil cinema gets (I think) its first official on-screen lesbian kiss or that it showcases a lesbian romance in all its physicality. What is revolutionary is that this is a film about five women – and the camera remains, faithfully, focused on them. And the story is told steadfastly through their eyes.
Anita challenges what Tamil cinema can be for women. Much of the outrage about culture being ruined with this film has come obviously from men – with some exceptions. What it means is that they are unable to reconcile the ‘Tamilness’ of the woman on screen. Our ecosystem is so used to othering anything outside of the ridiculous regular heroines that our men concoct, that they have decided that this one film and its women are why kalacharam will go through apocalypse. But why hold Tamil culture ransom to the boring, often ridiculous imagination of the male gaze?
Policing women’s sexuality by calling a film about it the 'death of culture or craft' is another tired cliché. 90 ML is not the first film to be received like this either. Remember the short film Lakshmi from 2017? The hypocrisy of a milieu that requires item songs (even in the films of ‘auteurs’), that has lewd jokes in the garb of comedy tracks, in which the male gaze humiliates, objectifies, makes fun of or passes jokes of sexual nature about the woman, who is expected to passively allow these things to happen to her on screen, rising up in arms about women who are assertive and vocal about their own bodies and desires is indeed mind-numbing.
Though a lot of noise has been generated against the director and the actors in this film by the outrage factories, it looks like a young, new generation of audience that is growing up on streaming content and Tik Tok videos is more than happy to see something fun and irreverent. I for one was happy to not be bombarded with ‘karuthu’ (message) or just watch men take themselves too seriously. I say, it’s a bloody good beginning. The floodgates have been thrown open. It can only get better from here, right?