The rise of the female star: Women in Kollywood in the last decade

From 'Kolamaavu Kokila' to 'Iraivi': Headlining ‘female-centric’ movies to achieving box-office success, Tamil cinema has seen significant developments in the way characters have been written for leading ladies in the 2010s

Updated - December 24, 2019 05:21 pm IST

Published - December 23, 2019 11:46 am IST

How has ‘female-centric’ movies fared in Tamil cinema in the last decade?

How has ‘female-centric’ movies fared in Tamil cinema in the last decade?

In August 2018, fans thronged outside several theatres in the State to catch an early morning show of Nayanthara’s Kolamaavu Kokila . The celebrations that marked the release of the film, which saw the actor essay the role of a young woman caught in the midst of a drug racket, were considered to be a departure from the norm, where such fanfare is generally reserved only for the male stars. Tamil film industry, in the last decade, saw a slew of ‘female-centric’ films that were shouldered by Nayanthara, Trisha, Jyothika and Amala Paul, among others.

Breaking the mould

Taking the lead, ‘Lady superstar’ Nayanthara starred in Maya , Dora , Aramm , Imaikkaa Nodigal among several other films, wherein she essayed the lead role. Her filmography, however, also features her in some of the biggest hits alongside top stars, in the last decade. Beginning with 36 Vayadhinile in 2015, Jyothika has headlined a mix of interesting films across genres — she has played a tough cop, a homemaker who moonlights as an RJ, and a no-nonsense principal. Jyothika, in the last five years, holds a place of significance in an industry, where it is often difficult for women artistes to have a successful comeback and continue to be in demand. Having been a part of the industry for over 17 years, Trisha too has a line-up of films, including Raangi , Garjanai and Paramapadham Vilayattu — all up for release. Samantha Akkineni, Anushka Shetty and Keerthy Suresh have also been shining in their respective films. Aishwarya Rajesh, on the other hand, bagged a pivotal role in Kanaa, a movie based on women’s cricket.

Meanwhile, the Amala Paul-starrer Aadai opened to critical acclaim for not just her performance, but for its well-written character, which became the point of contention on social media. Stating that the Tamil industry is slowly shifting its focus towards good content, Amala Paul observes that this has led to better roles and opportunities for women. “Nobody came to me with female-centric films when I was a newbie in the industry. With no guidance, many of us tend to follow a common path. It took me a while to realise that I am an actor as well and I need to be starring in films that should be of worth for everyone,” says Amala, who will next be seen in Adho Andha Paravai Pola .

Questioning norms

The evolving content that Amala Paul refers to, has been evident in films such as Oru Naal Koothu , Taramani , Iraivi and even a mainstream film like Pyaar Prema Kaadhal , where the heroines had strong roles. A young breed of filmmakers also made an attempt to tell stories about women — most notable among them being Arun Prabhu, who directed the critically and commercially successful Aruvi .

Director Madhumita believes that these movies celebrated women not for the sake of big screen. “Several digital platforms which have emerged over the last few years have given us a lot more channels to experiment with and tell good stories,” says the filmmaker, whose recent film KD came in for much appreciation.

These changes, however, did not mean that Tamil cinema was completely spared of tropes which have the dominant factor in the portrayal of women. Movies continued the practise of glorifying stalking and normalised body shaming.

“While movies by K Balachander and Balu Mahendra had author-backed roles, somewhere these characters disappeared and gave way to films that celebrated stalking and violence against women,” says actor-director Lakshmy Ramakrishnan. “We need more stories from the women’s perspective, mainly for the fact that our cinema now is largely restricted to either idolising or demeaning women. There is no middle ground. We need to see more stories about everyday women,” she points out.

Lack of female perspective

In a 2017 interview to The Hindu ahead of his film Taramani’s release, director Ram had pointed out that men struggle to understand the mind of an empowered woman. “Men are so expressive about what they desire on screen, so why can’t women talk about their needs in the same way,” asks Anita Udeep, who directed the Oviya-starrer 90 ML .

“Even when I was making the film, there was a certain level of shock that I had to deal with from my unit members. There’s this expectation that a women-centric film has to be serious, and for many, it was a revelation of sorts that women can just get together, speak about their needs and feel liberated,” she adds.

Anita acknowledges that there still exists the notion that women cannot make commercially viable films. Echoing her views, Madhumita says that producers might still be hesitant to back a project led by or starring a female lead, provided there is a well-known face.

While box-office collections for Tamil films often remain undisclosed, salaries of stars and directors are oft-speculated topic in Kollywood. Both Lakshmy Ramakrishnan and Madhumita acknowledge the wage gap in the industry. “Not just the wage gap, but there needs to be more discussion on the roles given to women on set. We need to make sure they participate in the filmmaking process,” says Lakshmy.

What has changed?

The arrival of #MeToo movement in 2018 changed the landscape of Tamil cinema. Members of the fraternity came under the scanner following allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power. There were, however, only a handful of men and women who spoke up and expressed solidarity to women who raised these allegations. “A lot of people had told me that I needn’t have to speak or share my concerns. As members of this industry, we have some responsibility and I feel strongly about it,” says Amala Paul, who was among the few who came out in support in 2018.

Despite the movement, members of the film fraternity have continued to make disparaging comments against women and even mocked #MeToo in films and events. A member of the Tamil film industry, who does not wish to be named, said that while there had been an increasing spotlight on film bodies and their elections, there needed to be more talk on the participation of women in them. “In a large committee, there are hardly a few women who are elected office-bearers. More representation and involvement in decision-making is the need of the hour,” she adds.

How does the future look like for actress in the industry? Amala Paul has one wish: good scripts free from clichés and stereotypes. “I would like to tell women who want to be filmmakers or are struggling, that while it might not be easy in films, they can be smart and choose to work with the right people. There are several outlets now, ranging from social media channels to OTT platforms and I want more women to feel encouraged to come out and tell stories,” the actor says.

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