Ms. Representation: Are the parts worth more than the whole?
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses how director Sukumar-Allu Arjun’s recent release Pushpa sees its women
Did you know our brains see men as whole and women as parts? A 2012 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that our brains process the images of men and women differently. There are two ways -- global processing and local processing. Global processing is when your brain identifies objects as a whole. For example, faces. While we know and remember faces in their entirety, we don't always recognise noses or ears separately without the rest. Local processing focuses more on individual parts of an object. The study says that people (regardless of gender) process female images 'locally' (to identify body parts even when they are isolated) while male images were processed globally -- a sign of objectification. In a nutshell, men are people, and women are parts.
This is similar to how Director Sukumar-Allu Arjun’s recent release Pushpa sees its women. Every woman in Pushpa is, somehow, reduced to their bodies. Pushpa Raj’s mother is only spoken of as the mistress of a wealthy, affluent man. Datchayani’s (Anasuya Bharadwaj) saree is in constant danger of slipping off. And it does, when she is poised to kill someone in an important scene. I mean, it's obvious, isn't it? How is it possible to slit someone’s throat with the saree getting in the way?
But the prime victim would be Sri Valli (Rashmika Mandanna), who is an object of interest to both the hero Pushpa Raj (Allu Arjun) and one of the villains, Jolly Reddy. Jolly Reddy blackmails her to sleep with him by holding her father hostage. Pushpa Raj offers her money to kiss him; gets 'offended' when she refuses his physical advances. He decides to marry her only to get the kiss he 'paid for '. While their approaches may be different, but they are united in not seeing Sri Valli as a human.
The sad part is, Sri Valli herself doesn't believe she has more value than her sexual capacity. Remember Thenmozhi offering her body to Pugazhenthi in Mudhalvan? Sri Valli does something similar here. She goes to Pushpa and asks him to sleep with her just once before she goes to get harassed by Jolly Reddy. Now, there's a sentence I never thought I would write.
Mind you, this is not about Sri Valli’s sexual agency or her choice. This is about legitimising and normalising Pushpa and his actions. While Jolly Reddy is rightly villainised, Pushpa’s problematic behaviour is passed off as cute, or even worse, funny. Pushpa uses Sri Valli’s consent to iron out all the problematic kinks in their ‘romance.’ One might argue that Pushpa is a period film and that the claws of patriarchy were deeper then. But, the writing is so inconsistent. Unsurprisingly, the film offers no logic or reason for Sri Valli’s fascination towards Pushpa Raj, apart from him being the hero. Just like her complexion, her emotional decisions are also confusingly inconsistent.
One of the biggest draws for Pushpa pre-release was Samantha’s dance number Oo Antaava. (Oo Solriya in Tamil.) Dance numbers specialise in the commodification of the female body. They only have one job to do, to titillate the male audience. And they are unapologetic about it. There’s no pretence of being integral to the story -- you walk in, dance, and leave the film for good. Oo Solriya dropped when item songs were trite and thankfully in the past, at least for Tamil cinema. The song went viral because of its unvarnished lyrics that criticise the ever-objectifying male gaze, and the sass in Andrea Jeremiah’s singing.
But if you look at the song, you will see that it is no different from any other dance number -- complete with spotlights for Samantha’s washboard abs. Ironically, the visuals perform exactly what it supposedly critiques. Whenever a heroine agrees to a dance number, people commonly opine that she doesn't have enough film offers. I wonder our heroines accept to make themselves desirable to the male audiences because that is the only thing our mainstream films expect from our heroine?
At the core, Pushpa is essentially a film about identity. For all his life, Pushpa Raj has been ostracised for being born out of wedlock, mocked as a ‘brandless entity’. Pushpa- The Rise is a boy’s journey to create his own 'brand'. But the film makes it clear that only men can, bequeath and create identities. For a woman though, her only identity can be her body.