Ms Representation: The danger of a single story
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author cites Sivappu Manjal Pachai, Magamuni, Zombie to discuss dangers of unidimensional portrayal of women
In 2009, the famous Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, spoke about the ‘danger of a single story’. Her evocative TED talk poignantly illustrates that hearing a unilateral story about a place or a people could only create stereotypes. It isn't that stereotypes are always untrue, she says, but they are woefully incomplete. They rob people of their vibrancy, stealing them of alternative identities they possess.
The more I watch women characters in Tamil cinema, Adichie's warning of a single story rings louder. Most of our onscreen women are glaringly unidimensional. Rarely do we get to see them beyond the tags — the mother, the lover, the sister, the friend — and the respective deep trenches we have built for each one of those. Whenever any of us talk about women representation, it is dynamism, in terms of representation and creation, that we yearn to see.
Surprisingly, the past two weeks have given me several women characters to think and write about. Sivappu Manjal Pachai is quite interesting in this aspect. The film might explore the mama-machan dynamics between Rajasekar (Siddharth) and Madhan (GV Prakash), but this relationship wouldn’t exist if not for Raji (Lijomol Jose). Director Sasi ensures that she isn’t reduced to a mere prop that fuels the ego clashes of the men. Yes, she is a doting sister and a loving wife as well but there's more to her. She makes her choices, no matter how difficult they are. I found it cute that her nickname is poonai while she is afraid of cats. While Raji might not be novel, Lijomol brings a certain earthiness to Raji that is girl-next-door.
It was heartening to see even the smaller female characters also have their moments in the film. The conversation between Rajasekar and his mother where the latter calls out his inherent sexism deserves a special mention. Rajasekar makes Madhan wear women’s clothes as a way to humiliate him. “You believe that wearing women’s clothes is an insult. Isn’t that why you made him do it?” Rajasekar's mother asks. Such smaller details push a character away from being a mere sketch, and closer to being an actual person.
Last week threw another pleasant surprise in the form of Magamuni, which had two very interesting characters. We have Deepa, a progressive, decisive, bold, independent, strong journalism student, played by an effective Mahima Nambiar (I hope she gets a film of her own). Deepa is the kind of woman who chooses to look beyond her privilege and believes in questioning the status quo. Her story would make for quite an interesting film by itself. But the writing behind the other female lead fascinated me even more. Viji (Indhuja) is quite the antithesis to Deepa. She is extremely dependent, unrealistically demanding and dramatic to a fault. She is dangerously close to the 'loosu ponnu' template, but what makes her different is that her clinginess isn’t romanticised to be ‘cute or bubbly’. Viji buys a saree that is beyond her means because she wants to, and is written to be that kind of a person. There is integrity in the writing that illustrates who she is and why she does what she does. Santhakumar walks a tightrope successfully in creating a character that isn’t ideal but well-etched nonetheless, making her more fascinating.
This integrity is what is lacking in Zombie, the most trying watch of the lot. Aishwarya (Yashika Aannand) is a medical student but walks around in a revealing spaghetti top and shorts. Now, I am not saying that a med student needs to only dress a certain way — it is a free world. But does she play a character that is established to be so? Absolutely not. Aishwarya wears skimpy clothes because it becomes convenient for the filmmaker to objectify her body. It is even more ridiculous that they further cover her up using CGI, probably to get that U/A certificate. The only interesting idea she gives is for men to dress up in women’s clothes (the sequence gave me nightmares, to be honest) to escape from the zombies when there isn’t any need to.
I bring up the dangers of a single story because our films predominantly only normalise Aishwaryas even when there is scope to write Vijis, forget the Rajis or Deepas. Women characters are rarely given an identity or a calling card for their selves. And that’s something one should be constantly wary of. It becomes necessary for us to not settle, not say 'what did you expect' every time we are sold a single caricature. For cinema is not just a medium of entertainment but also one of influence and documentation. To borrow Adichie’s words, “When we reject a single story, when we realise that there is never a single story, we regain a paradise."