Ms. Representation: Sivaranjaniyum Inum Sila Pengalum- Dissent in the drawing room
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses director Vasanth’s Sivaranjaniyum Inum Sila Pengalum
“If I have seen further, it is because I am standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton’s iconic words have, for long, been used to symbolise progress. But watching Director Vasanth’s Sivaranjaniyum Inum Sila Pengalum (SISP) reminded me of all the battles our women have fought in their drawing rooms. Whatever modest progress we, women, have achieved, is because our female predecessors have fought tooth and nail for it. This isn’t always out of choice; in fact, they happen because there is no choice. When the space for a woman continues to shrink, at some point, she is forced to fight to reclaim it. Dissent becomes survival. SISP, an anthology, brings stories of three women and how they reclaim their space (all of them are stories adapted from short stories by Ashokamithran, Adhavan, and Jeyamohan respectively.)
A recent National Family Health Survey from 14 Indian states shows that 30 percent of women—Telangana and Andhra Pradesh with a shocking 84 percent—justify being victims of domestic violence. Common reasons given are household or child neglect, or ‘disrespect’ towards elders. You see the human side of this data in SISP’s women. You see the women hold on to toxic relationships because they are not sure they can survive the loss. Saraswathi stops her husband from beating her, but after his hostile, manipulative silence, she begs him to hit her. In Devaki’s case, despite having a comparatively liberal husband, friction still arises when she ‘disrespects’ him and his family. How? By having a diary and refusing to share private thoughts.
SISP’s women are from different periods. Saraswathi is from 1980, Devaki is from 1995, and we see Sivaranjani between 2007 and 2016. There’s a lot that has changed in these decades, including globalisation, development, modernisation... (Vasanth hints at this with a stray line about women wearing jeans in Devaki’s short.) But a lot hasn’t changed, like the familial apathy towards our women. The director makes an insightful case study of non-linearity in female empowerment. In the 80s, Saraswati is pushed to work after her abusive husband leaves her. In 95, Devaki is financially independent, and works out of choice. Yet, in 2007, we see Sivaranjani, a graduate, give up on her athletic dreams after marriage and pregnancy. These three stories signal women’s fights for life, livelihood, privacy, and agency over their bodies. But even in 2021, for all the ‘progress’, women from different social positions still wage these wars, sometimes all at once.
SISP is rich with lived experiences, like Vasanth’s films usually are. I particularly enjoyed the equation between Sivaranjani and her daughter Priya, who is more vocal in calling out the patriarchal attitudes of her father and her grandmother. When Ranjani’s husband refuses to let her go out of town because “Priya va yaaru paathupaa?”, Ranjani brings her daughter into the room, who confidently says, “Naane school ku poikaren. Oru naal dhaane? Amma pogatum. Paati paathupanga.” Ranjani wears a hint of a smile, as her husband scrambles to find another reason. When she returns, she leaves her bags and walks straight to the kitchen to begin her day. The anthology is filled with such real snapshots. Growing up, I don’t believe I have ever seen my mother rest. She would walk straight to the kitchen after returning from work. Set such standards, I struggled hard with the concept of rest. It made me feel lazy and subsequently guilty. It took both of us a lot of unlearning to feel comfortable about rest, to let go of that guilt. SISP’s women don’t rest. They catch their breaths only when they are alone, when they hide from the expectations of everyone around them.
SISP’s framing isn’t always unaffected, but it is glorious and pregnant with metaphorical meaning. He often places his women, and their drama in the background—a reflection of how society treats women. They speak little, and they don’t speak directly to their husbands. They move around in perfect sync around their husbands as if following an imaginary map, careful not to ‘disturb’ them. And the protagonists—Lakshmipriya, Parvathy, and Kalieaswari—play their roles with tremendous nuance. They wear the colour of fatigue and repetition with innate ease, using them as tools to communicate the unsaid exhaustion that patriarchy gifts.
Each short in SISP leaves us with striking images. Be it Saraswathi sitting on a chair like a queen on a throne, with a hot cup of tea, or be it Devaki in a tea shop with a glass of tea. The most memorable visual will perhaps be Sivarajani running in her 'nighty', carrying a tiffin box like a baton, towards a school bus that seems unreachable. That’s the image of a woman reassuring herself of her identity, of her skills that were deemed ‘useless’. She hasn’t forgotten. And neither will we.