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Book Excerpt: Women in Tamil Cinema

The evolution of women in Tamil cinema, from ideal to rebel to object.

Beyond Bollywood The Cinemas of South India comprises essays on the four main industries that produce numerous commercially successful and socially significant films every year. Edited by MK Raghavendra, the anthology contains essays by Raghavendra, Elavarthi Sathya Prakash, N Kalyan Raman and Meena T Pillai on Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam cinema respectively. In an edited excerpt from one of Raman’s essays, the acclaimed translator examines the evolution of women in Tamil cinema after the 1970s.

It was no longer possible to portray the ideal woman as someone who subordinated herself and sacrificed her well-being for the sake of her husband and family. Instead, film-makers had to deal with the aspiration of women to be treated as individuals in their own right, and the inevitable conflicts and struggles they experienced in trying to live with freedom and dignity.

K. Balachander, representing the vanguard of the middle class at the time, was among the earliest to respond to this shift. His Nootrukku Nooru (1970) dealt with alleged sexual harassment of a college student by her professor. In Arangetram (1973), a young woman from a poor Brahmin family is forced to resort to prostitution to support her family. Avargal (1977), Noolveli (1979) and Oru Veedu Iru Vasal (1992) are some of K. Balachander’s films that deal with the problems of women in difficult and/ or abusive marriages. While Balachander can be credited with bringing such problems to the screen in contemporary settings, the manner of their resolution usually involved compromise, resignation or, in extreme cases, suicide on the part of the affected women.

Oru Veedu Iru Vasal was an exception in that it affirmed the possibility of a woman rejecting her husband and forging a new life outside marriage. That the film was adapted from a story by Anuradha Ramanan, a writer who dealt sensitively with women’s problems, could have been a contributory factor. At any rate, none of K. Balachander’s films about women would have passed the Bechdel test – a check whether a work of fiction contains one or more sequences featuring a conversation between women that does not involve a man – because men were invariably the central problem in the lives of all his women characters and thoroughly dominated the proceedings.

The first film to focus exclusively and sympathetically on the predicament of a modern woman was Aval Appadithan (1978), directed by C. Rudhraiya. The film is about Manju, a young woman who works in an advertising company in Madras. As a result of an insecure childhood and early experience of betrayal in love, Manju is trying to fight her inner demons even as she seeks a meaningful relationship with a man. Through her workplace, she meets Arun, a sensitive young man who lends a sympathetic ear to her woes and nightmares, but the relationship comes to naught because she is incapable of trusting anyone. The film ends with Manju being forsaken at the threshold of her own lonely world. Co-written by Vannanilavan, one of the finest Tamil writers of the past fifty years, and realized beautifully on film by Rudhraiya, then a recent graduate of the Adyar Film Institute in Madras, Aval Appadithan enjoys the status of a cult classic, perhaps more out of nostalgia than active empathy.

The first two of P. Bharathiraja’s films, both of them superhits, dealt with a young girl’s situation in a rural setting. While 16 Vayathinile (1977) brings alive on screen the vulnerability of a teenage girl in a typical village setting, Kizhakke Pogum Rail (1978) portrays the love that blossoms between a low-caste poet-drifter and an innocent, almost childlike, teenager, and how it is viewed by the narrow-minded community of villagers around them.

Pasi (1979), directed by Durai, was another landmark film during the period dealing with the condition of women belonging to a city’s so-called underclass. The story revolves around Kuppamma, teenage daughter of Muniyandi who ekes out a living from his cycle-rickshaw. While on her rounds as a ragpicker, Kuppamma is seduced by a truck driver and becomes pregnant. Kuppamma’s mother is devastated by her daughter’s predicament and dies of a broken heart. To her shock and dismay, Kuppamma comes to learn that her lover is already married, with a family. She becomes reconciled to her situation but dies during childbirth. Pasi was special for its unsentimental portrayal of not only the pain and squalor in the lives of the urban underclass, but also of their fight to live a dignified life in spite of being poor and vulnerable to many kinds of exploitation. The film won a National Award each for the director and Shobha, the actress who played Kuppamma.

An inflection point in the trajectory of women-centred films was the arrival in 1978 of J. Mahendran, considered by many to be one of the finest film-makers in the history of Tamil cinema. A taut screenplay with a consistent internal logic, an approach to storytelling that did not raise its voice and a studied avoidance of baroque sentimentality were the hallmarks of Mahendran’s films.

Mullum Malarum (1979), his debut film, was a superb cinematic effort about the love between two orphaned siblings. The sister wants to marry a man of whom the overly macho brother doesn’t approve, but she finds a way to do this without hurting the brother’s pride. Mullum Malarum was based on a short story by veteran writer Uma Chandran.

Based on ‘Sitrannai’, a short story by the tallest icon of twentieth-century Tamil letters, Pudumaipithan, Uthiri Pookkal (1979) is considered a breakthrough in the visual narration of a complex psychological situation within a family and in the wider community of a village. It explores the atrocities inflicted by a sadistic man on the women in his family, and the community’s ineffective response. In this film, the visual medium is used to examine a culture that is being compelled to examine and revise its own conception of humanity. Two years later, Mahendran made Metti (1982) about a woman who has been abandoned by her husband, along with her two daughters. It presents the perspective of women who are relentlessly subjected to the unjust expectations and unequal arrangements of society.

All these ‘feminist’ narratives of that period in Tamil cinema suffered from the limitation that they were conceived and presented by men. To that extent, they did not interrogate the structure of patriarchal authority but merely depicted the sufferings of women under its brutal reign. The real contribution of Mahendran’s films was to show this stark reality using a rich visual language shorn of the artifice and staginess of conventional Tamil films. But women were still hostage to a male-dominated world, as much in Tamil cinema as in the real world.

It is not surprising, then, that the flowering of a new kind of cinema in the late 1970s and early ’80s did not transform itself into a movement. The sway of big-budget entertainers starring Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan took hold of the viewers from the mid-80s, and the conservatism – both political and social – inherent in mass-market entertainers with a lot of investment at stake pushed all dissent to the margin.

From the 1990s on, a woman with autonomy and a life of her own was a rare occurrence in Tamil films. Instead, open misogyny became an integral part of most popular films. From Chinna Thambi (1991) and Padayappa (1999) to 7G Rainbow Colony (2004) and Paruthiveeran (2007), the list of Tamil films in which women are humiliated and/or destroyed because of the caprice of men is endless.

Anyone would be puzzled as to why such a return to misogyny took place in a context of rising prosperity and increased educational opportunities. The answer could well lie in the rise of caste power on the political plane and the shift to market economics in everything, including public services, which established the brute power of money at all levels. The observation that the impact of all hegemonies is the greatest on the poor and the weak may not be far off the mark, after all. The position of women in contemporary society and on-screen will validate its truth.

Excerpted with permission from Beyond Bollywood The Cinemas of South India, HarperCollins India.

This excerpt from Beyond Bollywood: The Cinemas of South India (edited by MK Raghavendra, HaroerCollins India, 2017) was published in on September 1, 2017


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