Ms Representation: This Bigil sounds only for the hero
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author writes about the female empowerment angle in Bigil
When the trailer for Bigil dropped, quite interestingly, it carried a dedication card for women. Usually, dedications find a place at the very front, before the story begins. But in the trailer, the ‘dedicated to all women’ card is placed right in the middle after Vijay and the others get introduced. Nayanthara, despite her superstar status, doesn’t get acknowledged in this trailer. I couldn't help but see these as indications of what the film's priorities are. Bigil is a Vijay film and it remains that way. Had they promoted the film in the same way, maybe it would have been easier to accept what they were selling. In one of his speeches, Atlee had said that every film of his has women at the centre. If Theri and Mersal are indications, Bigil is no surprise. But to position Bigil as a women empowerment film, to say it has been dedicated to women, and then reduce it to a mere prop reflecting the saviour’s glory, is quite painful.
To begin with, the first half of this ‘empowering film’ barely gives any time to its women characters. The only character who does get some time is Angel (Nayanthara), and we are introduced to her as the one who always says no at the altar. There’s a flashback, one where she is shown to be hitting someone; she uses Michael’s (Vijay) cup for it as well. And guess how Michael and Angel get together? Because Michael says Cup vena apprama kudu, but ippo company kudu. That’s all that takes for Angel to fall head over heels in love with him. To add to this, there’s a character that says it’s Angel who has ‘ushar pannfied’ Michael. Leave empowerment, can we begin with writing sensible female characters? Later, when Angel gets a rousing monologue where she talks about how the individuality of women gets lost in marriage, we are supposed to forget everything from before. On cue, the women in the room drop exactly one tear. I appreciate the well-intentioned monologue, I truly do. But I couldn’t stop wondering what individuality of Angel did we see, in the first place? Was there a single scene where she didn't have Michael around?
In the second half, because there's no other choice, we get to the other ‘Singappen’ of the film -- the football players who Michael/Bigil is coaching. Looking at them, it feels like Atlee had a checklist. Acid attack survivor? Check. Married women from a conservative, orthodox family? Check. A heavy woman who is body shamed? Check. Forget liberation, they aren’t even shown to strategise their goals. Every assist, every kick, is micromanaged by Michael from the sidelines. And these women become mere puppets, who act under Bigil’s directions. No wonder, they all end up wearing Bigil jerseys at the end. So much for individuality.
It isn't just their on-ground actions that Michael decides. Gayathri (Varsha Bollamma) is found to be pregnant during the tournament. Who decides if she should play? Michael, not Gayathri. Ironically, this comes after Angel gives another inspiring speech to Gayathri on how pregnancy or motherhood has not hindered sportswomen like Serena Williams. But when Michael decides, as a 'brother', that she shouldn't play, there's no protest. Not even from Angel. What about what Gayathri wants? Not important. Michael 'allows' her to play only when Gayathri says en karuvum kalaiyadhu, kanavum kalayadhu. I guess Michael knows more about her physical condition than Gayathri herself. (Stray thought: Motherhood shouldn't be glorified as the single defining trait of a woman.)
Anitha, the acid attack survivor’s story, fares a tad better on the scale. Of course, Michael is willing to save her as well. Nee enna pananum nu sollu ma, naa panren he says. She decides to face it on her own though. Is the scene realistic? Not really. The kind of trauma survivors face is unimaginable and it’s something that one can’t undo with a single monologue. But the moment IS powerful. She throws away her mask and the song ‘Singapenney’ starts. It feels okay. But where does the high point of the song lie? When Atlee and Rahman decide to make an appearance. As a music video, I would have appreciated the idea better. But as part of the film in a song dedicated to these women? Where’s the focus?
The film’s gravest error is to use body-shaming as an ‘inspiration technique’. I am not sure how this is supposed to work. How does shaming someone for who they are, help them to be better at what they do? Hypothetically, let’s buy this argument for just one second. But did the film treat Pandiamma any better before that? Didn’t we get the ground-shaking effects anyway? So how is the film treating that character with any sensitivity?
As a film with a big star, I do understand the restrictions that directors face in packaging a film. But this is where another film, earlier this year, scored big time. Nerkonda Paarvai had Ajith in it, but we saw the struggle of three women who were fighting patriarchy. He was helping them, not saving them. Of course, there was a fight and an additional song. But we knew these women and their pain intimately. It was a man helping those women win their battle. But Bigil, on the other hand, was about a man fulfilling his father’s ambition using the victory of a women’s team. Can you not see which film has its women at the centre?