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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’sjourney ” — albeit a simplifiedone. She lives in an ordinary world with her loving family. She is talented — ahigh achiever in school — as well as altruistic, wants to “serve society”, and choosesa career in medicine to do so. She joins a private medical college.
But her college doesn'tmeet even basic standards — no building, no laboratory, no facilities, and norespect for paying students and their parents. She loses a friend — who israped and murdered — at the hands of the villainous college chairman. She takesthe perpetrators to court by herself with cursory investigative support fromher police-inspector father. The father then gets murdered. Her sisterseparates 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 ofher case to get justice for her friend.
Thus far, the directorwrites for Malarvizhi what is often written for a male ‘hero’ — a storylinethat fits the hero’s journey from Campbell’sframework of the monomyth . From a peaceful status quo, she gets her call toadventure, she reluctantly answers it with help from a mentor and she passesthrough roads littered with trials. She is on her way to being Tamil cinema’s very ownKatniss Everdeen until Bairavaa happens to her.
It is at this point thatMalarvizhi joins the group of modern female protagonists who begin ambitiouscrusades only to have it appropriated by men — with or without their consent.Kadambari of Naanum Rowdy Thaan (2015) is a woman looking for her missingfather, later seeking to avenge his death. Leela of Acham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada (2016) is an aspiring screenwriter seeking to protect the lives of her parentswho are being brutally attacked by the villain’s forces. Avantika of Baahubali : TheBeginning (2015) is a guerrilla warrior chosen for her skills and temperamentto rescue their imprisoned queen, Devasena. Devasena herself — seen in Baahubali : The Conclusion (2017) — is a bow-wielding warrior-princess of theKuntala kingdom seeking to protect her people from danger.
Each of these women haveall the makings of a “hero”: She is on a righteous crusade with purpose andpassion, she has the skills to complete her quest, she also has a proven trackrecord of winning her battles by herself. Until, of course, the disruptive maleenters — one that Tamil cinema insists is the actual hero! This hero, then, takes hercrusade to (an often illogical) end.
It should appear bizarrethat these men are unquestioningly accepted as “heroes” when until they hear ofher quest, each is a wayward man-child. In the order of decreasing waywardness,Pandi of Naanum Rowdy Dhaan (2015) is an incompetent rowdy mediating fightsamong school boys; Rajnikanth (the character) of Acham YenbadhuMadamaiyada is an unemployed youngster dreaming of a road-trip we don’t know whopays for; Mahendra Baahubali of the first Baahubali film is a six-packed curiousromeo; Amarendra Baahubali of the sequel is the six-packed king-in-waitingdisguised as a curious romeo. Yet, it is made to seem so natural that the questbecomes the man’s even if he has nothing to do with it.
It’s always the man’snarrative.
In most of these films,the central conflict is the woman’s quest, even if not one she actively chosefor 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-indulgentmonologues. Sample this: Leela’s father is dying inside, while she is left toendure Rajnikanth’s proclamations of feeling “like a man”.
The film begins and endswith the man.
The only thing these menhave, that the women don’t, is their predisposition to endure and inflictphysical violence. Each story about a tragic occurrence in a woman’s lifebegins with a hero introduction extolling his prowess and readiness forviolence. This ability to “fight” — as in win a physical altercation with agroup of men — is what defines them as the hero. It is for this very reasonthat the women in these stories are not heroes.
This need for violenttendencies is further accentuated by the unimaginative and caricature-likecharacterisation of villains as men with a bottomless capacity for violence and cunning.As an adversary of her antagonist, Malarvizhi, who spends months painstakinglycollecting evidence even as people drop dead around her, is presented to us asa 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 toruthlessly murder tens of men in one afternoon, is shown as the right adversary.
In fact, Bairavaa doesthe exact opposite of what Malarvizhi intended her crusade to be — hemanipulates the law enforcement into shooting the villain, through an elaborateweb of lies. Make no mistake, Malarvizhi neither protests nor disapproves ofBairavaa’s methods. In fact, she is shown to be proud and relieved that someoneelse has come to take over from her. She herself is shown to believe thatBairavaa’s methods are the best way to handle this adversary, even if shehardly knows in advance what he intends to do.
In making physicalviolence the predominant means of interaction between a protagonist and anantagonist, these films — apart from casually disregarding law and humanity —place women at a chronic disadvantage. Within a popular film culture of thissort, women will hardly ever get roles in which they fight like the male heroesof today. As long as the climacticengagement between the hero and the villain is a “fight scene”, women willnever get their place. As audiences internalise the violence in these films, aswe don’t flinch at the bloodshed anymore, and as the fight scenes escalate inseverity, women move further and further into obscurity.
This is not only true ofMalarvizhi, who is sucked into a conflict she did not prepare for, but also forDevasena, who has the proclivity for warfare. Even as Devasena has proven tojump off her chariot and fend off evil forces with her hands, even as she hasdemonstrated her skills with the bow and arrow, the film would have us assumethat she cannot command her own army or strategise her own battle. Heck, thefilm will even have us believe that she can’t even jump out of the way of araging bull to protect herself.
We’ll need to acceptthat a lone warrior (and his “old-man” uncle) from a far-off land, staying as aguest, who has built no credibility with Devasena — in fact, only behavingimmaturely and suspiciously — has the power to motivate cowherds of herkingdom and her patently useless ‘mama’ into overcoming a guerilla attack inthe middle of the night!
Can a qualified woman not be the hero in her own kingdom?
Even if I am willing tomake peace with a woman not being a hero yet, I cannot come to terms with herbeing disenfranchised, disallowing her right to even making basic decisionsabout her life. Pandi of Naanum Rowdy Thaan cremates Kadambari’s father withoutso much as informing her of his death, for fear of hurting her “fragile femaleheart”, which has thus far handled the murder of her mother and the loss of herown hearing admirably.
And then, theinfantilisation. Bairavaa yells ‘I love you’ to Malarvizhi in the middle of aviolent fight after ordering her to accept his roses. She does as he says, halfin shock. In Naanum Rowdy Thaan , Pandi and his friends plot an elaborate ruseof hiding her phone from her and impersonating her father, on the assumptionthat they know what’s best for her.
In the extreme case of Accham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada , a conflict revolving around Leela’s birth — andthe death of her entire birth- and adoptive families — is resolved by sendingher on exile to Kerala, while Rajnikanth becomes a police officer!
Some of thesescreenwriters do allow us small mercies by writing characters for women thathave a purpose beyond merely supporting men. Devasena — unlike Avantika, Leelaand Malarvizhi — fights alongside Amarendra for the most part. Kadambarirefuses to listen to Pandi and sets off on her own, repeatedly through thefilm. But these mercies only last a fleeting moment.
These films also go out oftheir way to establish that these women’s journeys are dangerous for them and can notmeet with success without the intervention of a man.
I dismiss the idea ontwo 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 arewilling to accept that a male street thug can stand up to the powers of acorrupt state machinery with nothing more than brute force, would it be sodifficult to see a woman do the same thing?
So, often, I end updoing 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 realityinto a killer script for a film with herself as the lead hero.