Ms Representation: A new year, still some old issues

This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses women characters in Pongal releases 
Ms Representation: A new year, still some old issues
Ms Representation: A new year, still some old issues

A new year is usually considered to be the harbinger of new beginnings. Tamil cinema, however, has returned to some old traditions. The theatres are open and full again, and we have brand new releases. But along with the festive cheer, two of the Pongal releases also brought back perhaps the most popular version of woman in Tamil cinema: the Loosu Ponnu™. Save for an errant occurrence here and there (the heroine from Dagaalty comes to mind), this woman seemed to have bid goodbye. This isn’t to say that women roles have always been written with diligence, but at least, they weren’t manic pixie dream girls. Sadly, Bhoomi and Eeswaran bring back this woman back. More strangely, both roles were played by the same actor.

Eeswaran was particularly painful because it had two female leads. Eeswaran and Vasuki (Nanditha Swetha) fall in love and break up as Eeswaran refuses to leave the village. She marries someone else, but Vasuki’s sister Poongodi (Nidhhi Agerwal) brands this ‘cheating’, and decides to take ‘revenge’ by ‘loving Eeswaran’. So more than being arm candy, the film also uses one woman to ‘brand’ another, for no reason. Also, I couldn’t stop wondering why Vasuki gets an older look when she comes back to the village (spectacles, sarees, etc) while Eeswaran looks the same. Who knew marriage came with prescription glasses?

Bhoomi’s Shakthi reminded me a lot of 'Ha-ha Hasini' from Santhosh Subramaniam. (Also a Jayam Ravi movie. Coincidence?) Shakthi is scared of everything, it seems. But this ‘fact’ is completely forgotten in the film after she begins to love Bhoomi -- who is this guy who plucks his girlfriend’s hair ‘to know her feelings’ rather than talk to her? But the most interesting thing about Shakthi is how her wardrobe reflects Bhoomi’s state of mind. When Bhoomi is romantic, she wears Western outfits… shorts, mini skirts... When he does the inspirational stuff like farming, she switches to dhavanis and works with him on the fields. When he starts a company, she walks around in green t-shirts. The director's effort to remind us that Shakthi still exists is placing her in the crowd. 

In comparison, Lakshmi Menon's Pechi (from Pulikuthi Pandi) comes as a breath of fresh air. In a largely drab film, Pechi’s agency is a pleasant surprise. She lives by the rules of patriarchy, but the film understands that having agency and being a product of patriarchy aren’t mutually exclusive things. It is a trait that is shown in other women too in the film’s universe, especially in that whammy of a final act. Pulikuthi Pandi brings together a universe of high-octane violence. But it acknowledges that a knife/sickle/axe cuts, no matter who wields it. The film doesn’t make Pechi a mass heroine but structures a moment around her strengths. And even though it wasn’t done with spectacular finesse, the intent is heartwarming. My favourite moment is when Pechi is being chased by ruffians and sees Pandi on the way. By Kollywood logic, she would have hid behind Pandi, and watched him bash up the goons. But Pechi just merely looks at him, and continues to run, not waiting for Pandi to step in. Pandi does step in to help her, but it's clear Pechi is no damsel in distress. 

This was the nuance that I had hoped to see in Master, the biggest Pongal release. To be fair, Master does fare better than several other commercial biggies. It tries hard to make its women important and relevant, gives them some sort of an emotional arc. But it doesn’t go all the way. Chaaru (Malavika Mohanan) is shown to be a driven woman, the one who puts JD on his path to redemption. Would a sensible woman take no precaution to safeguard a crucial piece of evidence? Would she ask for a candlelight dinner when the need is to avenge the death of two children? When chased by thugs, Chaaru doesn’t even ask if she can hide in a shop herself -- JD does it for her over the phone! (Malavika’s performance doesn’t help as well). Then, there’s Andrea's Vanathi, who gets a cool Hawk Eye-like moment, shooting arrows at the lorries behind them. But she eventually falters, and JD helps her back up on her feet. In a normal world, Vanathi would continue to shoot arrows. But here, JD takes over. 

It almost feels like a bargain, a deal made on the writing table and this is disappointing because Lokesh’s earlier films set better standards, even if the women there weren't major characters. Maanagaram’s Regina spoke her mind. And one of my favourite moments from Kaithi is when Tamizh (Deepthi) uses safety pins to send a man down. It is a true-blue mass moment that is written with a woman’s sensibilities and strengths in mind. It would have been amazing to see a moment like that in Master. It made me wonder if it’s a side effect of Vijay’s superstar persona onscreen. Is saving women part of the writing for a superstar package? Will this always be the case? 

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