Ms Representation: Vakeel Saab, why ruin Pink?
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses Venu Sriram's Vakeel Saab
You know the White Saviour Trope in Hollywood—when a white male swoops in to protect people of colour while achieving an epiphany? In the Indian context, we have our parallel to the ‘male saviour’ trope. We have seen this so many times, across formats. Even if a woman character were skilled, a man always steps in to ‘save the day’ at the same thing she is more equipped in. Remember when Vijay steps beside Andrea in Master to fire an arrow? Or Chakra, where despite being a police officer herself, Gayathri (Shraddha Srinath) needs Chandru (Vishal) to ‘save her’?
This isn’t just Tamil cinema; it is Indian mainstream cinema’s favourite trope, given that it is still largely male-centric. It’s a trope used often when sexual harassment or rape is brought up on screen. A woman’s trauma gets used to show a man as a hero. How many times have seen a woman be disrobed by the villain, only for the hero to come in and retrieve her saree? The trauma of the heroine is never discussed after, as she goes on to fall in love and live happily ever after. Sure, the representation of sexual harassment and abuse has slowly become more sensitive. And to this end, Pink is an important film as it represents a survivor’s trauma and agency, while also questioning society’s skewed standards by baring open the victim shaming that often takes place in such cases. Consent is paramount; no buts or ifs. No means No.
When Pink and its Tamil remake, Nerkonda Paarvai got released, I remember the criticism from certain quarters that a man was still championing a woman’s cause. Well, you should see Vakeel Saab. Pawan Kalyan plays the searing lawyer/angry revolutionary who saves not only the women but… everyone? A Physics scholar, Sathyadev only studies law because a poor farmer dies by suicide after his land is taken over by the government for development. A significant chunk of the film is spent hyping Vakeel Saab. While in Pink and Nerkonda Paarvai, the male leads are supporters, in Vakeel Saab, the male lead is a saviour. Complete with five action sequences, Sathyadev smashes everyone, literally, every time he gets a chance. It is ridiculous that he sends tables flying during courtroom arguments. He fights goons everywhere—a metro station, a park, even a bathroom... The prosecution isn’t afraid about losing the case; they are ‘worried’ about the defense lawyer. Sathyadev is let off with an institutional warning because ’people need him.’ He is THE ultimate saviour. And as for women, they get the privilege of being saved by such men in such films. What's new?
In Vakeel Saab’s defense, it does retain the broader messaging—the irrelevance of virginity, clothing, and lifestyle choices when it comes to harassment. Consent is also established as paramount, but it is easier to do so here because Vakeel Saab’s women do not really challenge conservative conventions. There aren't women who make and laugh at adult jokes. Pallavi Vemula (Nivetha Thomas) is a software engineer sans the tattoos, unlike Pink’s Minal who is a dancer, a job considered more promiscuous. Zareena (Anjali) is in a relationship with a guy of the same age, while Falak Ali was in love with an older man, a divorcee with a child. Andrea, who is ‘judged’ and slut-shamed for her North-East ethnicity, is replaced by Ananya Nagalla, who plays a tribal girl. That initial party number from Nerkonda Paarvai gets replaced with a demure melody that has these women running around in a temple, in sarees.
Nevertheless, the debate remains. Having a mass hero helps take the film to all audiences and creates an opportunity for genuine conversation. But at what cost? Is the impact significant when patriarchy simply is one of many problems Vakeel Saab seems to take on? For all we know, there could be a Vakeel Saab 2, where he takes on a completely different set of issues. Don’t we have enough mass, commercial films where the hero plays the messiah already? Why ruin Pink?