Ms Representation: The grey shades of love
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses Kutty Story
Valentine’s Day is just over, and love is still in the air. For Tamil cinema, that means bringing back the romance on-screen. And this is one genre that cannot exist without its women. As a female Tamil actor recently observed, women do not get meaty roles unless it is a romcom or a romantic drama. It might be a reflection of the limited roles and spaces we want to see women in, especially on-screen; nevertheless, the genre is crucial when speaking about women's portrayal. Sure, it has its pitfalls. But, this genre has given us some terrific women characters and has done so more consistently than others. That said, as with every genre, romance also has its share of stereotypes. Kutty Story — the love anthology from Gautham Vasudev Menon, Nalan Kumarasamy, Venkat Prabhu, and Vijay — attempts to break a few of these.
Kutty Story is an anthology where the good, the bad, and the ugly co-exist. Let’s begin with the good, shall we? The most interesting premise of the lot belongs to Gautham Menon’s Edhirpaara Mutham which explores the much-feared ‘Friendzone’. Most men consider it to be figurative hell, a wasted opportunity. It is the reason why millennial slang such as ‘boy bestie’ and ’simp’ exist; the assumption is that a man cannot be nice unless there’s a sexual agenda behind it. I have always been baffled by this adulteration of a purely emotional connection. Aadhi (GVM) is friends with Mirunaalini (Amala Paul), but there’s a ‘what-if’ that constantly hangs above their heads. This is a chaotic space emotionally, where boundaries are infinitely personal and nuanced. It is the in-between that we have all experienced, but rarely talk about. Edhirpaara Mutham handles this largely in good taste, even if there's some intermittent awkwardness in execution. What I loved the best is that it acknowledges the romantic tension, but also treats the friendship with dignity and not as an inferior alternative. It valiantly defends the sanctity of their equation. And above everything, how refreshing it is to see a peck on the cheek treated just as a token of anbu and not kaadhal?
In the early minutes of Nalan Kumarasamy’s Aadal Paadal, there’s an evocatively lingering shot of Aditi Balan. She is in conversation with Vijay Sethupathi, and we are led to believe that she is the other woman. The camera crawls up, focusing on her bare legs, before it goes up to her face, as she murmurs sweet nothings into the phone. Usually a form of objectification, it is the kind of voyeuristic shot that unsettles me. But here, it turns out to be a ruse. Turns out she is the wife pretending to be the other woman, to catch her husband in the act. And after the ‘twist’, the camera treats the same sexy woman with indifference, even though she is wearing the same clothes. It is a lovely turning-the-tables moment because we assume a certain look to ‘the wife’ and ‘the other woman’: guess what, there’s none. And Nalan doesn’t stop there. He gently skewers the male ego and the normal man‘s definition of patriarchy. Vijay Sethupathi’s character abhors ‘feminine language’ like ‘sharing’, expects his wife to understand his adultery (“Midlife crisis ma”). But he cannot stand the possibility of the reverse happening. Shouldered by beautiful performances from Aditi and Sethupathi, the short has THE question of this anthology. (How is it that you want me to accept your mistakes, yet you cannot even accept the possibility of me making one?) Sure, the ending is rushed: forgiveness is given too quickly. And I wish the first few minutes could have been used to add more meat to the central conflict. But, the beats are relevant, and the humour revealing. Welcome back Nalan, we could do with more of you.
The other two shorts, meanwhile, do precious nothing. Venkat Prabhu’s Logam is another interesting premise -- sparks fly between two gamers in a video-game. But this idea is let down by sappy execution. Why does a woman have to be dying of stage-four cancer to be an avid gamer? This, however, is harmless when compared to Vijay’s Avanum Naanum, which takes ridiculously huge measures to push an anti-abortion campaign. It is incredible the lengths Vijay goes to to prevent his protagonist from considering an abortion — claim that a legal medical procedure is illegal, kill off her boyfriend, even give up the baby for adoption. It is infuriating to see such laziness and irresponsibility. I really wonder how this short ever got made. Forget sensitivity, can we please, at least, get the facts right?