Ms. Representation: The problem with those who problematised Ponmagal Vandhal
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author discusses Jyotika's Ponmagal Vandhal
How do you judge a film? Do you judge based on what it says, or based on how it says it? The good old Content vs Form debate—one cinephiles know all too well. Subscribers to the latter will argue that having a good story doesn’t automatically make it a good film. However, people who subscribe to the former would ask you what the point of a well-wrapped box is, if it holds nothing? This debate has influenced our film criticism and consumption for long. And don’t get me wrong, I am not here to pick sides. In an extension of my previous column, I merely want to talk about how inconsistent criticism is when it comes to women-centric cinema. (By women-centric, I mean films that have a female protagonist.) And I am going to try to do this with the help of Jyotika’s Ponmagal Vandhaal.
One of the most common ‘problems’ that people seem to have is that the film is a ‘message film’, with Jyotika playing a ‘crusader’ once again. Well, why shouldn’t she? Isn’t that what our top male stars do most of the time, be a ‘reformer’ of sorts, and give out political messages left and right and centre, even when it isn’t relevant to the film? But that’s ‘mass’, we are told. It becomes a ‘commercial requirement for the fans’ when their favourite male star does it; there’s suddenly no talk of form there. When a woman does it though, it is called preachy. Quite ironically, Ponmagal Vandhaal has a line that observes this bias: “Naanga enga prachanaya sonna, adhu drama... Enga vali ku pinnadi irukkara unmai en eppovume ungalukku poi-a theriyudhu?” (Also, if craft were everything, Aadai last year was top-notch in that department. But we had issues with that film too, right?)
This brings us back to the ‘message’ part. We have had several films that have centered on rape. But how have the survivors been portrayed? Earlier, marrying their rapist was the ‘justice’ offered. Or in some cases, it was shown to indicate the end of life for the survivor. This slowly evolved to finding a guardian angel in the hero, who protects her ‘maanam and vaazhkai’. Rape, in these films, gets used as a prop to show the star’s heroism. Ponmagal Vandhaal is a survivor owning her story (I can think of only one other recent example, Game Over). It is important to articulate, and stress upon how important this narrative is, given the resistance to ‘women-centric’ cinema. While women are so used to seeing stories about men, the men apparently aren’t. This seems to manifest in their criticism. Even JJ Fredrick, the director of Ponmagal Vandhal, went on to say that the film isn’t ‘female-centric’ in a recent interview. Why, because the men wouldn’t watch it then?
Is this all to suggest that we shouldn’t criticise badly-made films? Not at all. I was quite disappointed with Ponmagal Vandhaal because the story and Jyotika’s terrific performance deserved better craft. A huge blot of blood on a child’s clothes isn’t the most sophisticated way to show rape. The final act of the film is especially weak, with gaping loopholes. The film’s chaotic climax, where a judge rules without evidence, puts women beyond the constructs of law, logic, and evidence. That’s flawed representation as well. A better filmmaker would have found a more convincing way to show the glaring issues in our way to retribution.
Just as it is with law, women shouldn't be exempt from criticism as well. Criticism, when constructive, is a catalyst of evolution. But it is imperative to ensure that we are fair, and judge them by the same scales we reserve for our male actors. We must be holistic and sensitive, placing the work in the context of the work’s time and acknowledging what it contributes to the social fabric. Several people consider the 2015 film, Maya, as the spark for the rise of women-centric films. It is an important point for sure, but we tend to forget that Jyotika’s 36 Vayathinile came out a few months before Maya did. Jyotika is important because she, and the stories she picks, represent middle-aged women like no other film does. Having said that, here’s to wishing that she gets to work with better filmmakers in the future.