Ms Representation: The curious case of Jessie
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author discusses Gautham Menon’s Karthik Dial Seidha Yenn
Relationships that fall outside the realm of marriage/traditional unions have always been a touchy spot for Tamil audiences. A couple of years back, a Tamil short film Lakshmi broke the internet because it showed an unhappily married woman choosing to have an affair. Today, another short film, Gautham Menon’s Karthik Dial Seidha Yenn, has kicked up a racket because Jessie, a married woman, chooses to have an emotionally vulnerable conversation with her ex, Karthik.
The new short film, an epilogue of sorts to the blockbuster Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, has received much hate on social media. The short was unveiled at night, a week back, and the memes haven’t stopped yet. And even though I wasn’t particularly bowled over by the short myself, the degree and nature of the hate surprised me. After all, I don’t remember memes and posts flooding my timelines across platforms when Kumaran (from NGK) decided to have an extra-marital affair; nor did it happen when Varadarajan (Arvind Swamy from Chekka Chivanatha Vaanam) did. Didn’t we see those decisions as a product of those characters? It definitely wasn’t considered ‘kaalachara seerazhivu’. Is it because this time, it’s a woman, who’s merely having a conversation with an ex?
The longer I thought about it, the more I wondered about how relationships happen in Tamil cinema. There’s always an eagerness to create equation within acceptable boxes. Friends can never be romantic partners, exes can never be friends... You see a glimpse of this in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya itself, where Karthik struggles with the concept: ‘Idhu love dhaana Jessie?’, ‘Unna love panren Jessie, how can I be just friends with you?’…
Jessie has always remained outside of this stereotype. She likes Karthik but is okay with declaring him as a 'brother' to her father. Or insisting that they are friends, much to Karthik's annoyance. Jessie reminds, especially in Karthik Dial Seidha Yenn, of a poem by Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.” Back then, that’s what she wanted from Karthik: to be just two people unboxed by the chains of determinants. Karthik’s persistence makes her doubt herself, pushing her down the spiral of indecisiveness. And right now, she realises that these few moments of escape are what Karthik wants, to speak a language once he owned; to be a window of escape.
This is why I personally liked how Jessie handles the call in Karthik Dial Seidha Yenn. Had it been the earlier Jessie, she would have pushed back into a zone of questions, guilt, and doubt. But Jessie wears time well. (So does Trisha, who hasn’t aged a day). She has always had a soft spot for Karthik, and now she knows how to handle it, how to control it for the world to let them be; for Karthik to understand her fondness for him as well. Had Jessie said she merely wanted to be friends with him again, he might probably go back to asking, ‘Idhu love thaane Jessie?’. The language might sound odd to us, but it’s the language of their equation. It has always been. None of this is ‘ideal’ for sure, but then, life rarely is. Much has been spoken about representation and glorification, and somehow this is a line we still seem to grapple with. Representation doesn’t mean to prison an amorphous being into a box.
I remember the day I watched Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, a sunny afternoon in Sathyam ten years back. A high school student, I remember walking out, unable to understand her. For me, her confusion was unfathomable. You could say I hated her back then, fuming about why she couldn’t just pick a side. But with Karthik Dial Seidha Yenn, I understand Jessie more now. I might not be a huge fan of the twelve-minute short, but with the history of Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, it paints a picture of an evolved woman who has made peace with her choices and is finally happy in the middle ground she has created between what the world wants of her, and what she wants. And I would be happy to see more women like her.