Ms. Representation: The Perfect Wife Syndrome
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses Sarpatta Parambarai, and a bit of Soorarai Pottru and Mayakkam Enna
It has been close to 20 days since the release of Pa Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai, a film there’s so much to like about. But this column isn’t about that. Ever since its premiere on Amazon Prime Video, social media has been rife with hot takes. The most curious of all is all the men who proclaim their undying love for Mariyamma, Kabilan's feisty wife who sticks around through his alcoholism and indifference, and turns out to be his ‘pillar of strength’ who motivates him to success. Men, it seems, want wives like Mariyamma.
It’s the Perfect Wife Syndrome ™, and I remember seeing it after the release of Mayakkam Enna when paeans were written for Yamini, the sort of wife men said they needed in order to succeed. Incidentally, what does she do in that film: suffers domestic violence from her alcoholic husband, who induces a miscarriage. After returning from the hospital, she cleans the stains of her miscarriage blood herself. She is originally in a relationship with Karthik’s best friend, realises her feelings for the former, but chooses not to end her current relationship at all until her boyfriend finds the truth about them. However, ‘posts of admiration’ don’t recognise such imperfections when making proclamations of the perfect wife.
Notice any similarities with how Mariyamma is being praised? It seems that the women that get celebrated are usually those who, to varying degrees, stomach patriarchy around them, and stand by their husbands, who have often treated them with indifference and cruelty. This is what is thought of as the ‘strength and success of femininity’. Independent women who side-step society-prescribed roles do not get praise. Remember seeing any love for Sara (from the Malayalam film Sara’s), Vidya (Sherni), or Mathivathani from Aramm? No? Me neither.
This isn’t to be critical of Mariyamma, a delightful woman. The character is from the 70s and belongs within the socio-political structure of the times. It is impossible to expect her to act according to the current socio-political situation. My question is to ‘fans’ who glorify her as the ‘ideal wife’. It is 2021, and you still want a woman from the 70s, with her share of servitude and docility? Representation of the past, no matter how nuanced, seems to thrill our men, who often go, ‘they don’t make women like that anymore'. Anything to keep patriarchy safe, it seems.
It makes me wonder if glorification happens only on-screen. Creators cannot be absolved of social responsibility, yes, but let’s also observe and acknowledge audience consumption patterns. Is there resistance to watching feminist content because it challenges their deep-seated beliefs? We want our male protagonists to be relatable, but our women to be ideal. Grey women characters are just beginning to be explored as experiments. And unless we observe and understand the role of the audiences, it is impossible to create long-term change. Most mainstream filmmakers, after all, want their films to sell.
The only possible exception to this trend is Bommi from Soorarai Pottru. She deals with patriarchy too, and she too is from the past. But the film and its protagonist acknowledge Bommi’s aspirations and ambitions. Maara helps her out in her bakery business and doesn’t shy away from helping out with her work. When he falters, Bommi makes him pay. Maara acknowledges his mistakes rather than deify Bommi for 'her strength'.
If men are glorified for their toxic masculinity, women are defied for their submission. In cinema, it is impossible for every character to meet the ideals of the modern world. Real people are not perfect, after all. So, there is a dire need to view characters in lieu of their socio-political context. We often demand that filmmakers not glorify patriarchy, but it seems sometimes, we are guilty of the same.