Vamps that are evil by nature, not gender

Vasundhara, Rudra and Rajalakshmi belong to the school of cinema that can look beyond their gender as the central ground of conflict and shame as the most potent weapon.

March 29, 2017 06:38 pm | Updated March 30, 2017 06:20 pm IST

Once in a while, when it's tired of pushing patriarchy into antagonist narratives, Kollywood portrays vamps who are evil by nature, not gender.

Once in a while, when it's tired of pushing patriarchy into antagonist narratives, Kollywood portrays vamps who are evil by nature, not gender.

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[Spoiler alert]

When I pitched this essay about female antagonists, my editor replied with, “Great, lead with the unrepentant Neelambari!” Eighteen years on, Neelambari of Padayappa (1999) appears to be the most remembered 'villi' (colloquial for villainess) in Tamil cinema. With good reason. Neelambari is classic Tamil film villi — a stock character and a shrew — angry, rich, ‘modern’ (typically meaning westernised), impulsive, single/separated, hen-pecking, having an unreasonable hatred for a man or men in general.

The villainess's non-conformity is the central conflict between the hero and her. Resolution of this conflict comes by first highlighting her susceptibility to sexual attack as a natural result of the aforementioned non-conformity, and then introducing the hero as her only saviour.

 

Let’s consider Thimiru (2006) here. Eswari (the film's villi) shames Srimathy by forcibly tearing her sari off her. Enraged by this, Ganesh (the hero) intervenes to teach Eswari a lesson by tearing her half-saree off. An outraged Eswari vows that she will make Ganesh marry her as penance, and fixes a date. When Ganesh refuses her hand on the said date, she fights him. When that doesn't work, she kills herself.

The reason this motif is important (and disagreeable) is that it posits that a woman’s non-conformity leads to dishonour. In other words, these non-conforming villis are doomed to dishonour. In Tamirabharani , Bharani, the hero, threatens Sakunthaladevi that he will shame her by calling out “I like you” at her in public. THAT is all it takes!

Which is why when women break the shackles of honour/shame and take the hero on on their turf, it deserves applause. “Theeppori” Rudra of Kodi (2016) is of that kind. Up to eighty minutes into the film, she is a hero — even more admirable than Kodi (Dhanush’s titular character) and Anbu (Dhanush’s other character).

She grabs a snake by its neck, which Rajinikanth did to prove his manliness to Neelambari in Padayappa . She is self-made with no familial connections in politics, unlike Kodi whose father was once rather pally with the leader of the party. She has no leader looking out for her as the ‘child he named’. If anything, her leader is only interested in making her ‘ yaen aalu ’ (my woman), which we are told she gives no room for. He calls her a ‘figure’ he will work hard to get. She doesn't even have a sidekick like Kodi has Bhagat Singh. Yet, she stays one step ahead of Kodi till the very end. We are told that her sharp words and quick wit are all she needs, while Kodi himself needs to fight off hooligans on the streets.

In fact, Kodi also apparently adopts the tactics of all heroes before him, calling her “vaayaadi [chatterbox]" and “thimiru pidichava [arrogant woman]” in his public speeches. Rudra returns the insult, calling him uneducated, and warns him of consequences.

Rudra is ambitious to a fault. She proclaims that she has dreams and she’ll do anything to get there. Kodi (who is revealed to be her lover) asks where his place is in her dreams. She says, almost dismissively, “irukke, oru orama [you are in them, in some corner]".

 

Each of these characters has an arc that shows them as self-made, ruthless and ambitious. In pursuing their ambition, they choose a path that isn't righteous — yet it is an active choice that they exercise.

What defines Rudra for me is the scene where four top leaders of her political party invite her to their booze party and insult her. She is asked to bring ice for their drinks. As she walks to do so, they speak ill of her character and her mother’s, for good measure. She doesn't bite her fist and run away weeping; she perseveres and continues to listen for leverage. She grabs the first opportunity to use that leverage and take them down.

Imagine Bharani shouting, “I like you” to Rudra. My guess is, she wouldn't even blink. Rudra’s antagonism doesn't revolve around her gender; therefore, it is not possible to shame her into defeat.

Same is the case with Vasundhara of Adhe Kangal (2017). She is a con artist. Her performed femininity is the con. When she is herself (and not Priya or Ashwini or Deepa,the characters she portrays in her deceptions), she sheds her cloak of femininity, without ever mentioning it. She doesn't scream, "naan aambalaikki aambala dawww [I am a man for a man]" before she fights her enemies.

 

Unlike Rudra, Vasundhara is not a villi who crossed over to the evil side out of desperation. She is pure evil — meticulous, violent, ruthless and unrepentant with a history of living outside the law. In that sense, Vasundhara is equal parts Smitha of Pachaikili Muthucharam (2007) and Anitha of Aayirathil Oruvan (2010) — and then some.

In the climactic fight in Adhe Kangal , for instance, Vasundhara doesn't wave her henchmen in to fight the hero — partly because her singular henchman turns against her — but she launches into the physical fight on her own. She uses her hands, legs and any other weapon she finds in her car to kill the hero. They don't fight each other delicately either. The fight is devoid of any sexual tension, even though the hero was in love with her once. Vasundhara is just an antagonist, not a female one per se.

Same with Rajalakshmi, the school principal in Achamindri (2017), played by Sharanya Ponvannan who is known for her loving-mother roles. When she’s unveiled as the villi, she says, “namma vaazhanum-na, andha collector saaganum. unavu suzharchi madhiri [if we are to live, that collector needs to die. Like the food chain]”, commissioning a murder.

She is heartless in her casual dismissal of children dying under her watch. She is nonchalant about being pulled up by the State's minister. She doesn't even flinch as she hears there's a CBI docket in her name. She is cruel — she watches her henchmen kill a young woman on her table in her office. She is informed — she throws statistics at the judge in her court hearing. She’s self-assured — she displays no distress or remorse in court, where prosecution is building a case against her.

Even as she’s addressed as ‘kalvi thaai [mother of education]' in the film, the epithet doesn't naturally extend to her unsuitability of being a mother, just as ‘kalvi karumam’  (filth of education).

In fact, in an earlier scene, one of her students is upset about having to leave home to study in her school. To encourage him, she doesn't say I’ll be a mother to you, as might be expected of her. She simply says “the school is your family, I’d take care of you as your mother, father and sister would”. Nobody ever asks her, “nee oru pombalaiya? [are you a woman?]”.

 

A curious commonality among these films is that these women are not revealed as villis until very late in the film. One would hardly suspect these apparently fragile non-shrews would be able to cause any harm. They use this perceived harmlessness to their advantage. Like Subbu, who walks away with the stash of money after all the men have killed each other at the end of Aaranya Kaandam (2011).

This isn't to say the films are devoid of misogyny and its tactics. At the end of Adhe Kangal , the hero spouts advice — “indha madhiri ponnungala nambi yaemaaraadhe [don’t let girls of this kind con you]” as the camera pans to the ‘good woman’ of the film. Neither is this to argue that these films I talk about are progressive in their entirety — far from it.

I am suggesting that Rudra, Vasundhara and Rajalakshmi belong to the school of cinema that can look beyond their gender as the central ground of conflict. They are not always angry, rich or modern. They are not uncultured or man-haters.

The rivalry is professional, not romantic — there is no talk of taking off clothes in public to set boundaries for behaviour. During the course of the rivalry, they don’t always get beaten; the heroes work hard to catch up. Each of these characters has an arc that shows them as self-made, ruthless and ambitious. In pursuing their ambition, they choose a path that isn't righteous — yet it is an active choice that they exercise. As a result of that choice, they commit crimes that are unforgivable — they either die for it, or go to jail — but they aren't dishonoured.

Their honour is in their fight.

(The actor who essayed Vasundhara in Adhe Kangal   was earlier depicted inaccurately in this article's Title image. The year Thimiru was released has also been corrected. Errors are regretted.)

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