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Let’s talk biology. Men are meant to hunt while women… Women are meant to give birth and look pretty. Pretty misogynistic, right ? This is a statement that the enigmatic and eccentric VC (Karthi) makes to his girlfriend Leela (Aditi Rao Hydari) in Mani Ratnam’s Kaatru Veliyidai . Meanwhile, in Kavan , Vijay Sethupathi’s character Thilak parrots pretty much the same thing. He kisses another woman in front of his girlfriend (Madonna Sebastian as Malar) in the guise of acting — said girlfriend is actually the director of the film they’re acting in, by the way. And what is his excuse? The same evolutionary biology line. “Scorpions sting and snakes bite. Men will be men. It’s biology.” he says.
While VC and Thilak are poles apart in characterisation, the one disturbingly common thing about these two alpha males is the way they view women. Some said that the portrayal of abuse in KV — including VC’s very nature in itself — is normal. That it was how a section of men thought back in the '90s, which is when the film is set. Some questioned why, when a woman who has all the freedom in the world to choose — she chose to come all the way to Kashmir to work independently — did not exercise her right to walk away until she was forced to.
One might argue that it is the director’s prerogative to make his characters behave as he chooses to, but that doesn't fly in this case. We’re not given a solid enough reason for Leela wanting to stay in the first place. As a result of this exercising of the filmmaker's prerogative to override logic, and having VC and Leela live happily ever after despite the dysfunctionality of the relationship, the film invites criticism for glorifying abuse. At any rate, it certainly lacked the finesse that the director managed to bring to his other portrayals of women in abusive relationships. Ratnam's handling of this film was strange in that a film that could have been a stark indictment of interpersonal abuse ends up with a trite denouement. All the layers simply collapse into a banal requital, with love trumping all and absolving all problems.
So what if Kavan's Thilak cheated on his girlfriend? He is still the do-gooder journalist who wants to slay evil. So when Malar asks him, “What would you have done if I had cheated on you,” he gaslights her, saying, “Don’t complicate things for no reason at all.”
This aspect is almost reminiscent of Balu Mahendra’s classic Marupadiyum (1993), where Thulasi (played by Revathi) asks her cheating husband the same question. In sharp contrast to Thillak's response, Muralikrishna (played by Nizhalgal Ravi) is respectfully candid in his reply: "No, I would not have taken you back," he says, with a hint of solemnity and remorse.
Portrayals down the years
While unusual relationships and their nuances are Ratnam’s forte, KV attempts to dip its toes into an abusive relationship and still attributes it all to love — which is regressive, in sociological as well as cinematic terms. Shouldn't the trope of love's all-forgiving absolution have died out by now?
The two women in Kalki — Chellamma (played by Geetha) and the titular Kalki (Shruti) — are polar opposites. Chellamma suffers mentally at the hands of her sadistic and chauvinistic husband played by the fantastic Prakash Raj. In both Chellamma and Kalki, KB portrayed women with agency — the power to leave an abusive relationship, to have an affair without fear of being judged.
Marupadiyum portrays complex relationships and women in them candidly. After learning of her husband’s extra-marital affair, Thulasi feels lost at first. She begs her husband to come back to her, she cries, she yells. But towards the end, she walks out and does it with grace. Mahendra, who was known for his avant-garde movie scripts, wrote a winner while scripting a character like Thulasi, someone who learns that her newfound independence need not make her feel lost. The other women in the film too have their say in almost every frame they occupy, including the movie star played by a superb Rohini. “How can I believe that you won’t leave me, just like you left your wife,” she questions her lover, upon which Muralikrishna gapes at her in horror. These characters ask questions of their paramours and command respect in a relationship, something that was not the norm in that era.
Even a simple romantic proposal shown these days are perfect examples of misogyny that reiterates a misconception that the tolerance level of a woman is limitless and her self-respect is negligible. Love proposals are either the result of intense stalking or just a fleeting glance at a woman’s ethereal beauty.
In Pudhu Pudhu Arthangal (1989) by K. Balachander, life comes full circle for the protagonists. While Jyothi (Sithara) is physically tortured by her husband who wants her to get into the flesh trade, Bharathi (Rahman) is married to Gowri (Geetha) whose all-consuming love for him turns her into a jealous partner. With no love to spare from their ‘better halves’, Bharathi and Jyothi find solace in each other. However, K. Balachander ends the film with a surprising twist where Bharathi and Jyothi, despite the abuse, choose to go back to their spouses. By showing that abuse happens irrespective of gender, KB also ventures into breaking the stereotype where the man — when tortured by a woman — is neither is stripped of his masculinity nor does he end up being a murderous or hen-pecked individual.
How misogyny is normalised
Even a simple romantic proposal shown these days are perfect examples of misogyny that reiterates a misconception that the tolerance level of a woman is limitless and her self-respect is negligible. Love proposals are either the result of intense stalking ( Remo , 7G Rainbow Colony , Minnale and so many others) or just a fleeting glance at a woman’s ethereal beauty. And God forbid that these alpha males get rejected. As the audience, we then have to brace ourselves for the quintessential ‘TASMAC song’ rueing the treachery of women. Remember when Revathi proposes to Mohan in the climax of Mouna Ragam (1986)? Or how Sridevi spells out her feelings to Rajini in Johnny (1980)?
All this is not to say that 21st-Century directors don’t give their women characters their due in relationships. Karthik Subbaraj’s Iraivi (2016) attempts to showcase abuse in a very layered and nuanced manner. In a poignant scene in the film, we see the elderly Vadivukkarasi crying after being yelled at by her husband in front of everyone. When someone tells her to stop crying as someone might see, Vadivukkarasi dispassionately states, “As if I haven’t been doing that all my life.”
Iraivi , with all its flaws, underscores the prevalence of the “men-will-be-men” logic, and portrays how their acts of abuse — either by cheating on the women in their lives or by simply taking them for granted — is something that women ‘get used to’. Karthik has openly stated many a time that KB is his inspiration, and that is evident in Iraivi .
Selvaraghavan’s Mayakkam Enna (2011) has its moments. It’s a film that has the protagonist singing hate songs about his love interest (' Kaadhal en kaadhal ') and at the same time, shows the female lead becoming the breadwinner when her husband becomes an abusive alcoholic. It takes something as horrendous as a miscarriage for him to realise the error of his ways. In a rather peculiar fashion, Yamini takes a stand in ME. She refuses to talk to her husband after the miscarriage. They stay married, and have a baby together. But she holds her silence. Selvaraghavan, in his own way, shows that relationships are complicated and despite that fact, Yamini holds the upper hand.
Misogyny amid modernity
Not to take away from the filmmakers of today, but the fact that we need to take lessons from the '70s to showcase gender equality and nuance goes on to say that misogyny does not necessarily become alleviated by modernity. While we can name so many films of the '80s and before that show women and their relationships sensitively, it is rather sad that we struggle to find recent films that portray gender-sensitive relationships. Where are the sensitive yet sensible love stories? The ones where both the participants in a relationship get a say irrespective of their gender?
The turn of the millennium has afforded a lot of space for change — including the way we look at relationships, at least in urban circles. Dating is okay, divorce is not frowned upon anymore, and each relationship need not be squeezed into a one-size-fits-all box.
But while relationships have become more liberal, there has not been a corresponding regulation of interpersonal responsibility. The films of today are missing the respect and gravitas that participants of a relationship accorded to one another back then. Does this mean that if the old-timey societal consequences no longer apply to a bad relationship, it then becomes easier to take a relationship for granted? We have come a long way from shy looks from behind curtains to the Internet helping us make our choices. Has that also given us a sense of entitlement?
While Kavan 's Thilak takes quite the passionately moral stand on media rights and freedom, where does he stand when it comes to treating women equally? These are questions that can no longer be brushed away with nonchalance but need to be dealt with head-on. Because there will come a time when the real-life Leelas and Malars will walk away and won’t look back. Will Tamil cinema be able to catch up then?