Can't a woman be the hero of her own crusade?

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Heroines in film are always portrayed playing second fiddle to the hero, either as an instrument of his heroism, or a foil. How worse a way to rob a woman of agency than by reducing her to a damsel in distress?

The heroine's right to fight her fight is none of the hero's business. She may not really need the help, nor want him to intervene and take the credit for the victory. | The Hindu

Much of film criticism about roles written for women in Tamil films revolves around the weakness of their characters and their purpose in the narrative. While this is warranted in most cases, it is unfair to the few strong characters who are meted out greater injustice. Automatically dismissing heroines in Tamil cinema as token adornment is to be blind to the rise of a new crop of brave women who have a crusade of their own.

In fact, Malarvizhi of Bairavaa (2017) gets her own “hero’s journey” — albeit a simplified one. She lives in an ordinary world with her loving family. She is talented — a high achiever in school — as well as altruistic, wants to “serve society”, and chooses a career in medicine to do so. She joins a private medical college.

But her college doesn't meet even basic standards — no building, no laboratory, no facilities, and no respect for paying students and their parents. She loses a friend — who is raped and murdered — at the hands of the villainous college chairman. She takes the perpetrators to court by herself with cursory investigative support from her police-inspector father. The father then gets murdered. Her sister separates from her crook of a husband. She herself is harassed and blackmailed. Yet, she keeps up her quest. She continues to collect evidence in support of her case to get justice for her friend.

 

She is on a righteous crusade with purpose and passion, she has the skills to complete her quest, she also has a proven track record of winning her battles by herself. Until, of course, the disruptive male enters — one that Tamil cinema insists is the actual hero!

Thus far, the director writes for Malarvizhi what is often written for a male ‘hero’ — a storyline that fits the hero’s journey from Campbell’s framework of the monomyth. From a peaceful status quo, she gets her call to adventure, she reluctantly answers it with help from a mentor and she passes through roads littered with trials. She is on her way to being Tamil cinema’s very own Katniss Everdeen until Bairavaa happens to her.

It is at this point that Malarvizhi joins the group of modern female protagonists who begin ambitious crusades only to have it appropriated by men — with or without their consent. Kadambari of Naanum Rowdy Thaan (2015) is a woman looking for her missing father, later seeking to avenge his death. Leela of Acham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada (2016) is an aspiring screenwriter seeking to protect the lives of her parents who are being brutally attacked by the villain’s forces. Avantika of Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) is a guerrilla warrior chosen for her skills and temperament to rescue their imprisoned queen, Devasena. Devasena herself — seen in Baahubali: The Conclusion (2017) — is a bow-wielding warrior-princess of the Kuntala kingdom seeking to protect her people from danger.

Each of these women have all the makings of a “hero”: She is on a righteous crusade with purpose and passion, she has the skills to complete her quest, she also has a proven track record of winning her battles by herself. Until, of course, the disruptive male enters — one that Tamil cinema insists is the actual hero! This hero, then, takes her crusade to (an often illogical) end.

It should appear bizarre that these men are unquestioningly accepted as “heroes” when until they hear of her quest, each is a wayward man-child. In the order of decreasing waywardness, Pandi of Naanum Rowdy Dhaan (2015) is an incompetent rowdy mediating fights among school boys; Rajnikanth (the character) of Acham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada is an unemployed youngster dreaming of a road-trip we don’t know who pays for; Mahendra Baahubali of the first Baahubali film is a six-packed curious romeo; Amarendra Baahubali of the sequel is the six-packed king-in-waiting disguised as a curious romeo. Yet, it is made to seem so natural that the quest becomes the man’s even if he has nothing to do with it.

It’s always the man’s narrative.

In most of these films, the central conflict is the woman’s quest, even if not one she actively chose for herself. Yet the films make her journey a mere stopover in his coming-of-age. The women get measly flashbacks and half-heartedly unravelling stories, while the men get extended bromantic comedy tracks and self-indulgent monologues. Sample this: Leela’s father is dying inside, while she is left to endure Rajnikanth’s proclamations of feeling “like a man”.

 

The film begins and ends with the man.

The only thing these men have, that the women don’t, is their predisposition to endure and inflict physical violence. Each story about a tragic occurrence in a woman’s life begins with a hero introduction extolling his prowess and readiness for violence. This ability to “fight” — as in win a physical altercation with a group of men — is what defines them as the hero. It is for this very reason that the women in these stories are not heroes.

This need for violent tendencies is further accentuated by the unimaginative and caricature-like characterisation of villains as men with a bottomless capacity for violence and cunning. As an adversary of her antagonist, Malarvizhi, who spends months painstakingly collecting evidence even as people drop dead around her, is presented to us as a failure. Her non-violent means and faith in the law fail her. But Bairavaa, who can wave anything from a cricket ball to a fruit-carving knife to ruthlessly murder tens of men in one afternoon, is shown as the right adversary.

In fact, Bairavaa does the exact opposite of what Malarvizhi intended her crusade to be — he manipulates the law enforcement into shooting the villain, through an elaborate web of lies. Make no mistake, Malarvizhi neither protests nor disapproves of Bairavaa’s methods. In fact, she is shown to be proud and relieved that someone else has come to take over from her. She herself is shown to believe that Bairavaa’s methods are the best way to handle this adversary, even if she hardly knows in advance what he intends to do.

 

Even as Devasena has proven to jump off her chariot and fend off evil forces with her hands, even as she has demonstrated her skills with the bow and arrow, the film would have us assume that she cannot command her own army or strategise her own battle. Heck, the film will even have us believe that she can’t even jump out of the way of a raging bull to protect herself.

In making physical violence the predominant means of interaction between a protagonist and an antagonist, these films — apart from casually disregarding law and humanity — place women at a chronic disadvantage. Within a popular film culture of this sort, women will hardly ever get roles in which they fight like the male heroes of today. As long as the climactic engagement between the hero and the villain is a “fight scene”, women will never get their place. As audiences internalise the violence in these films, as we don’t flinch at the bloodshed anymore, and as the fight scenes escalate in severity, women move further and further into obscurity.

This is not only true of Malarvizhi, who is sucked into a conflict she did not prepare for, but also for Devasena, who has the proclivity for warfare. Even as Devasena has proven to jump off her chariot and fend off evil forces with her hands, even as she has demonstrated her skills with the bow and arrow, the film would have us assume that she cannot command her own army or strategise her own battle. Heck, the film will even have us believe that she can’t even jump out of the way of a raging bull to protect herself.

We’ll need to accept that a lone warrior (and his “old-man” uncle) from a far-off land, staying as a guest, who has built no credibility with Devasena — in fact, only behaving immaturely and suspiciously —  has the power to motivate cowherds of her kingdom and her patently useless ‘mama’ into overcoming a guerilla attack in the middle of the night!

Can a qualified woman not be the hero in her own kingdom?

Even if I am willing to make peace with a woman not being a hero yet, I cannot come to terms with her being disenfranchised, disallowing her right to even making basic decisions about her life. Pandi of Naanum Rowdy Thaan cremates Kadambari’s father without so much as informing her of his death, for fear of hurting her “fragile female heart”, which has thus far handled the murder of her mother and the loss of her own hearing admirably.

And then, the infantilisation. Bairavaa yells ‘I love you’ to Malarvizhi in the middle of a violent fight after ordering her to accept his roses. She does as he says, half in shock. In Naanum Rowdy Thaan, Pandi and his friends plot an elaborate ruse of hiding her phone from her and impersonating her father, on the assumption that they know what’s best for her.

In the extreme case of Accham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada, a conflict revolving around Leela’s birth — and the death of her entire birth- and adoptive families — is resolved by sending her on exile to Kerala, while Rajnikanth becomes a police officer!

Some of these screenwriters do allow us small mercies by writing characters for women that have a purpose beyond merely supporting men. Devasena — unlike Avantika, Leela and Malarvizhi — fights alongside Amarendra for the most part. Kadambari refuses to listen to Pandi and sets off on her own, repeatedly through the film. But these mercies only last a fleeting moment.

 

These films also go out of their way to establish that these women’s journeys are dangerous for them and can not meet with success without the intervention of a man.

I dismiss the idea on two counts. I don’t accept that a protagonist needs to be able to fight to win a war. Neither do I accept that she can’t violently fight her own wars. If we are willing to accept that a male street thug can stand up to the powers of a corrupt state machinery with nothing more than brute force, would it be so difficult to see a woman do the same thing?

So, often, I end up doing to these films what I do to bad dreams — I rewrite the ending in my head. I imagine that during her exile screenwriter Leela weaved her horrid reality into a killer script for a film with herself as the lead hero.

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