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Having spotted a snake, a group of workers come running in fright towards an anthill, where Vasundhara (Soundarya) is praying to the serpent lord. Running further, the men stumble upon Neelambari’s (Ramya Krishnan’s) car and in a bout of anger, she orders them to kill the snake. Vasundhara pleads for them to not kill the snake, as it is a sacred animal. They cannot disobey Neelambari, they hesitate. This is when Aaru Padayappan (Rajinikanth) enters the scene.
He stops the men from killing the snake, puts his hand inside the anthill — where the snake is now hiding — gets it out, kisses it and puts it back, as intense ‘hero-music’ plays in the background.
Such is the entry of Rajinikanth’s character in the film Padayappa (1999), directed by K.S. Ravikumar, that completed 20 years this month. He enters as ‘the ideal man’ in a setting full of emasculated men.
The hegemonic male
Padayappa’s character is therefore that of the ‘hegemonic male’ — sociologist R.W. Connell defines hegemonic masculinity as the most favoured type of masculinity in a given society — at a time of decaying masculinity.
Now, who might a ‘hegemonic male’ be pitted against? This is where Neelambari comes in. One of the most powerful female villains of the time, Neelambari’s character was almost equal in prominence to that of Padayappa’s. Pitted against the hegemonic male, she a transgressor of gender norms. She is vengeful, arrogant and pure evil at times. But Padayappa rejects her for being less of a pombala or woman, sowing the seeds of their life-long conflict.
As she is about to slap Vasundhara, the maid at her bungalow, for spilling coffee on Padayappa, the latter stops her and lectures her on the Dos and Don’ts of being a woman. He concludes by saying, “In short, a woman should behave like a woman”. He is chastising her not so much for her arrogance as much as her failure to adhere to behavioral norms prescribed for women.
Again, in a scene where she admits her love for him, also in a very arrogant manner, saying: “From my dog to the man I marry, I want the best in everything. You are one among the best”, he rejects her and tells her, “You wish to marry a man, and I wish to marry a woman”, once again reinforcing patriarchy’s rules for women.
And to pinpoint exactly where Neelambari is failing as a woman, the film gives us Vasundhara, the ‘epitome of femininity’, the woman Padayappa falls in love with, the woman he chooses over Neelambari.
In his classification of women, Vasundhara falls in category 1 — Sathvikam . “You see her, and you want you to join your hands and bow your head in respect,” Padayappa tells his friends. Neelambari falls in category 3, Prachodakam , or someone you find sexually attractive. Neelambari openly lusts for Padayappa, and is a woman who is frank about her desires. In fact, the song ‘Minsara Poove’ is interspersed with Neelambari’s dream sequences. Her dreams are set in bedrooms and stables, and she’s the one taking charge, pushing Padayappa onto a bed or pulling him towards her. Had this trait been projected in a positive light, it would have been rather progressive for a mainstream mass entertainer of that period. As it stands, it is villainised.
The song is visualised as a song-dance challenge between the two leads. As Neelambari dances to match the tunes that Padayappa sings, it signifies a dire attempt by the hegemonic male to tame the transgressor. But, what does Neelambari do at the end?
She pulls Padayappa towards her (not in the dream sequence) and kisses him on the cheek in front of all the guests gathered for his sister’s engagement. The audience is stunned, some recoiling, ashamed even to look on.
The fact that the film was regressive in parts (its classification of women, for instance) is widely accepted. But Neelambari, the character, for all her might, was sadly villainised for the wrong reasons. Even more disappointing is the fact that she herself is attracted to Padayappa because of his ‘manliness’ — a situation where the superiority of the system is admitted by someone victimised by it.
All those times she plotted to murder Vasundhara, or the 18 years she spent in her room waiting for the right time to strike back, the film portrayed her as pure evil, as opposed to steadfastly determined. She is designated as Padayappa’s arch nemesis, despite the existence of film’s multiple other ‘bad guys’, because of one important reason: her very existence threatened a traditional system of patriarchy, something that Padayappa’s character represented and championed explicitly.
The last scene deepens the character of Neelambari by depicting her commitment to her individual agency — the older Neelambari’s bullets fail to kill Padayappa even as he saves her from a raging bull; refusing to live a life given in charity by him, she shoots herself dead. Sadly, a man equally headstrong and powerful also somehow said that a ‘Neelambari’ did not deserve the happiness a ‘Vasundhara’ did.