Thamizh Talkies: Winds of change
The writer is a content producer and an art curator
There’s a lot that needs to change, a lot that has also changed over the years when it comes to ‘portrayal of women’ onscreen. Take, for example, the proverbial ‘falling in love’ scene from the 60s. The man walks behind a woman; she says, “Hey mister! You... why are you following me?” And then a conversation ensues and the night ends in a dream song, in which the heroine smiles, thinking of the hero (whose virtues she would have, by then, come to hear from other characters, turning the ‘stalker’ into a good soul). The hero was always the protector, the heroine, the damsel in distress. The only woman on screen in the late 50s and 60s who didn’t need a man to save her was TR Rajakumari who was the quintessential vamp men needed to be saved from!
This polarised portrayal found some midway with K Balachander’s middle-class working women in the late 70s and 80s. They were heroines who (mostly) veered away from the norm but paid the price for it. They were persecuted, and hence became sacrificing angels. In a way, that kind of portrayal brought in realistic respect to the role of a heroine. But Balachander’s women suffered a lot for being bold and independent. This is why, to my generation, Divya from Mouna Raagam stands tall. Mani Ratnam wrote a role for a woman who was adorable, yet flawed, one who nursed a heartbreak and yet found joy in her present life. More importantly, the man on screen was not chastising her for having had a boyfriend before marriage. Divya was the first woman on screen who questioned the ‘ponnu paakkara’ ritual on screen: “Yennakku idhu pidikkala, indha ponnu paakkardhu… sandhaila maatta paakkara maadhri irukku”. While the 1963 film, Iruvar Ullam, brought in the concept of marital consent, it was Divya in 1986, who asked her mother, about sending her away to an unknown man to have sex on the first night of marriage, just because she was now his wife. Divya’s willingness to be wife was prime focus.
A woman (or a man) is a mix of many emotions and characteristics, good and bad. Urban society in the 80s also leaned more towards women’s education and financial independence. The cinema of the 80s reflected that rise as filmmakers gave us stories from all spheres and spectrum. To a large extent, Mani Ratnam set the template of ‘equal space’ for a female protagonist, which became a cinematic trope, with the trend following in the millennium as well. The ‘masala film heroine’ template, however, remained (remains) unchanged. She is still arm candy, and if she does have a profession, it’s almost always an ancillary afterthought.
Cinema is a medium of storytelling and in that story, men and women play equal parts, like in life. The good and bad in their characters come and go like in life. It is key to have a filmmaker/writer bring that both on screen with authenticity! What is heartening to see is the rise in the number of women not just as heroines but behind the camera as well, which was a trend that started in the 90s (Mani Ratnam and PC Sriram were pioneers who had women associates in their teams) and today, Tamil cinema is seeing its fair share of women filmmakers, writers, technicians, producers and distributors who are making an impact. May our tribe increase.
Cut back to what we see onscreen: the most impactful climax scene which showed society’s disparity of men and women is Karthik Subburaj’s Iravi in which SJ Suryah claims how the tamil word “AAn” is a “nedil” and the word “peNN” is “kuril”. Iravi had women whose lives were wrecked by choices made by the men around them, like in reality. It also showed that when a woman wants to step out in the rain and experience freedom from the confines of four walls, she must, should and will do so. The world needs to merely step back and watch.