Ms. Represention: Are women-centric films the new fad?
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author discusses the new trend of 'female-centric' films
Tamil cinema is no stranger to new trends. The success of Raghava Lawrence’s Muni sparked the horror-comedy genre, with many franchises spawning out of it. And then, there was the adult comedy bubble, sparked off by the inexplicable success of Santhosh P Jayakumar’s Hara Hara Mahadevaki. And then, came the sports film bug with films like Kanaa, Natpe Thunai, Bigil, Kennedy Club... The question now is, are the women-centric films we are now seeing a ‘trend’?
It is quite an odd comparison, I admit, given that the other trends are all genre-based. This question arose when I read that the first draft of the recent Keerthy Suresh-starrer Penguin was written in 18 days. Director Easvar Karthic had also mentioned that he had been scouting for directorial opportunities for three years. This made me dig deeper. Most directors usually shy away from owning the ‘women-centric’ tag. In an interview to Firstpost, Raatchasi director Gowthamraj says that he had Jyotika in mind even when he was writing the script, and yet in the same interview, he goes on to say that actors who had worked on the film had told him that the script was apt for a hero. “My lead character is the hero of the film; their gender doesn’t matter,” he says. Director JJ Fredrick, who too says that Jyotika was his first choice, goes to great pains to say Ponmagal Vandhaal isn’t female-centric. A few of these women-centric films were also originally conceived with male leads—like Imaikka Nodigal or Penguin. The director of the latter admits the film was first a police procedural, and later, the mother’s POV came in, as it was thought ‘novel’.
Were scripts being written for women? I dug through responses of more than 60 top assistant directors interviewed by Cinema Express, who were asked about the dream cast for their debut film. Of the 52 who shared names, 47 had picked male actors. In addition, almost all of them said that they would prefer to compromise on the cast, rather than the story and crew. These aren’t conclusive numbers, but it makes you wonder. It also makes sense that most of these women-centric films are made by fledgeling filmmakers. Women actors are thought to be more approachable and more eager to take risks. So, here’s the question. Are we getting more female-centric films because of an interest in stories about women—or is it just easier to land opportunities this way? Are scripts being written for women—or are women a last-ditch modification?
Even if it were just a trend filmmakers are capitalising on, it isn’t at all bad. While women-centric films have been around for a long time, the late 90s and 2000s saw a particular dip in the representation of women, with rampant sexism, misogyny, mansplaining... and not to mention, women getting reduced to arm candy. Today, however, we have more than 15 films with female leads in various stages of production. With younger actors like Amala Paul, Aishwarya Rajesh, and Andrea Jeremiah taking the plunge into such cinema, the question is, are male protagonists being 'replaced' by women protagonists? Well, if so, so what? Anything to break stereotypical gender norms and offer diverse portrayal for women.
But let’s be cautious too. It’s a bubble now, and being fuelled by creators and producers seeing potential in a market they had long ignored. It is the start of a market that hopefully will provide commercial validation to stories that we should be hearing and seeing. This ‘market’ will flourish with quality—which will come only if stories get written with women protagonists in mind (Game Over, and Aruvi come to mind.) It isn’t enough that stories are told, they have to be told well with good craft and nuance.
When this happens more, women-centric cinema will truly become a force to reckon with. And that will bring the bigger directors into the trend. Let’s remember that directors like K Balachandar, Bharathiraja, Mahendran, and Singeetham Srinivasa Rao made films with women actors like Sujatha, Sridevi, Saritha, Revathy, Radha and many more, even while delivering hits with Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. I can’t wait for this to start happening.