Ms. Representation: The woman with a voice
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses Soorarai Pottru's Bommi
I have been thinking a lot about Bommi, since catching Soorarai Pottru on Amazon Prime Video. To be honest, we all have. There’s a lot to appreciate in the final, sure. But the lead woman, Bommi, takes the cake, quite literally. Intelligent and feisty, Bommi aka Sundari is probably one of the best heroines we have seen recently in the Tamil mainstream. It feels heartening to see such a character get as much love. If nothing else, it is a sign that people do appreciate representation that is closer to the truth. There are no more excuses really. (We have never had an acceptable rationale anyway.) A woman of strength and sense can exist anywhere with dignity if we let her. And now, we have another example to show for it.
A familiar cinema trope is to show the hero as a saviour figure who swoops in to save the heroine. Most of our heroines fall in love after the hero saves them from random rowdies. In this film though, it is Bommi who saves Maara — more specifically, his dream. Her unflinching support on the ground allows Maara to chase his dreams in the sky. Her resolute support is for his dreams, even if not for all his actions. She understands the former, questions the latter when necessary, like a partner should. However, the film and its writing ensure that she isn’t a martyr. She too has desires and dreams supported by Maara. He lends her a hand with her business, takes her around with the bakery trays. Since this is Maara’s story, these become short snippets in a montage, but it is still a reflection of an equal relationship. All this makes Soorarai Pottru unique, as it questions the restrictive gender roles that also affect and burden men.
As Sudha Kongara recently observed in our interview, “The male fantasy is to see the ponnu as a ‘loosu’; my fantasy is to see equality. And equality is reality. So, show it,” she asserts. She talks about how, despite heavy resistance from the male writers in her writing room, she kept the scene where Maara asks her for money. We often say that we need more women voices in cinema and it is because they take decisions like these. It does not mean that men cannot make such decisions; it is just easier for them to choose not to.
The world is often unfair to women. But what makes Bommi fascinating is that she always gives back to every patriarchal thought thrown her way, right from the word go. She doesn’t let it slide when a random passenger tries to teach her about a woman’s place in the family. She questions her parents’ sexism. And she also questions Maara, whenever he slips. When Maara says that 20 men have rejected her, she retorts that 24 banks have rejected him. Or when Maara unloads her frustration on her, she gives it back in her own way: “I might have had you searching for me for another 50 miles if I weren’t pregnant.” The charm of her brazen spirit is enchanting, and her attitude is so refreshingly real. (It further helps that she actually looks like a woman-next-door, and Aparna Balamurali turns in a phenomenal performance.)
But even beyond these broad, obvious strengths, Soorarai Pottru keeps giving in terms of good representation. Take Boomi’s relationship with Pechi, Maara’s mother, played to excellence by Urvashi. It isn’t just Bommi who has been written with a lot of thought. When Bommi refuses Maara, Pechi says with a smile, “Un thimiruku eththa ponnu dhan (She’s quite the match for your arrogance).” During their wedding, it is Bommi who brings in Pechi to dance, giving her a black handkerchief in hand. And later, Pechi gives her jewellery, including her thaali for Bommi’s new bakery. She even tries her hand at baking a cake. It is these smaller gestures, smaller moments that truly touched my heart.
It is heartening to see all the admiration out there for Bommi—to see numerous social media posts profess love for Bommi, or admit that they want girlfriends like her. I just hope that the same people also step up and ask the right questions when films shy away from good representation. And no, being commercial and having a superstar are not reasons to shirk from it. If you want women like Bommi in your life, why is the screen any different?