Ms. Representation: Men and women, not men versus women
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author writes about the objectionable portrayal of a female character in Mission Mangal and Nerkonda Paarvai
What connects Akshay Kumar’s Mission Mangal and Ajith’s Nerkonda Paarvai? Both stories are about women but told and headlined by a man. Both films were criticised for the same, for the film’s posters prominently showcasing Ajith and Akshay more than the women the films were about. Mission Mangal, in fact, had Vidya Balan, Taapsee, Sonakshi Sinha, Nithya Menen, and Kirti Kulhari, and yet, was branded an Akshay Kumar film. Taapsee had an interesting response to this. In a recent interview, she asked whether the audience would be willing to pay as much for these female actors, as they did for an Akshay Kumar film?
It is this that leads to films like Mission Mangal and Nerkonda Paarvai, films that are stories about women, but told by men. Why can’t a woman headline such a project, you ask. Well, the budgets would get tighter, so would the distribution. As Jyotika mentioned in a recent interview, it is hard to get experienced technicians on board for such projects. By and large, women-centric films are still perceived as risky experiments. This is probably why even a smaller film like Kennedy Club, which was about women's kabbadi, had Sasikumar and Bharathiraja featuring prominently and handholding the women. Kanaa, another such example, was promoted using Sivakarthikeyan’s name; nobody called it an ‘Aishwarya Rajesh film.’
In an industry that has been male-dominated for generations, to achieve similar financial clout for women, in just a few years, looks to be practically difficult. While the wheels of change are being oiled, I am just glad that for the moment, such stories, regardless of whether they are well-done or not, are being told. Would Nerkonda Paarvai have reached screens on the scale it did, had it not been for Ajith? I think it is okay for a man to tell a woman’s story, as long as the spotlight remains trained on her journey, as long as she’s not merely used as a background prop. This is a tightrope that few films manage to walk with grace. Nerkonda Paarvai might have had Ajith, but whose story did you see more? Whose journey did you experience on screen? Whose perspective was being shown? The answers to these questions determine who the film is actually about, and whether a man has wrested control.
There continues to be a huge gap in the representation of women and men on screen—both in terms of quantity and quality. Men taking up women's stories could help bridge this gap, atleast in terms of quantity. So, I find it heartening that a lot of men are coming up with stories that are about women. I wish they involved more women in the process of filmmaking, as it shows an improvement in quality when it is not all just at the mercy of one man’s perspective. While promoting Game Over, director Ashwin Saravanan said that working with a female writer (Kaavya Ramkumar) helped break certain assumptions he had had about how female characters responded. Let us stop making it a binary argument where we pit women versus men—a healthy balance helps bring more women characters on screen… and off-screen too. It’s this kind of inclusivity we should all be aiming for.