The list of Tamil films in which women are destroyed by men is long, but it wasn’t always that way

The evolution of the women in Tamil cinema, from ideal to rebel to object.

Beyond Bollywood The Cinemas of South India comprises essays on the four main industries that produce numerous commercially successful and socially significant films every year. Edited by MK Raghavendra, the anthology contains essays by Raghavendra, Elavarthi Sathya Prakash, N Kalyan Raman and Meena T Pillai on Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam cinema respectively. In an edited excerpt from one of Raman’s essays, the acclaimed translator examines the evolution of women in Tamil cinema after the 1970s.

It was no longer possible to portray the ideal woman as someone who subordinated herself and sacrificed her well-being for the sake of her husband and family. Instead, film-makers had to deal with the aspiration of women to be treated as individuals in their own right, and the inevitable conflicts and struggles they experienced in trying to live with freedom and dignity.

K. Balachander, representing the vanguard of the middle class at the time, was among the earliest to respond to this shift. His Nootrukku Nooru (1970) dealt with alleged sexual harassment of a college student by her professor. In Arangetram (1973), a young woman from a poor Brahmin family is forced to resort to prostitution to support her family. Avargal (1977), Noolveli (1979) and Oru Veedu Iru Vasal (1992) are some of K. Balachander’s films that deal with the problems of women in difficult and/ or abusive marriages. While Balachander can be credited with bringing such problems to the screen in contemporary settings, the manner of their resolution usually involved compromise, resignation or, in extreme cases, suicide on the part of the affected women.

Oru Veedu Iru Vasal was an exception in that it affirmed the possibility of a woman rejecting her husband and forging a new life outside marriage. That the film was adapted from a story by Anuradha Ramanan, a writer who dealt sensitively with women’s problems, could have been a contributory factor. At any rate, none of K. Balachander’s films about women would have passed the Bechdel test – a check whether a work of fiction contains one or more sequences featuring a conversation between women that does not involve a man – because men were invariably the central problem in the lives of all his women characters and thoroughly dominated the proceedings.

Aval Appadithan (1978).
Aval Appadithan (1978).

The first film to focus exclusively and sympathetically on the predicament of a modern woman was Aval Appadithan (1978), directed by C. Rudhraiya. The film is about Manju, a young woman who works in an advertising company in Madras. As a result of an insecure childhood and early experience of betrayal in love, Manju is trying to fight her inner demons even as she seeks a meaningful relationship with a man. Through her workplace, she meets Arun, a sensitive young man who lends a sympathetic ear to her woes and nightmares, but the relationship comes to naught because she is incapable of trusting anyone. The film ends with Manju being forsaken at the threshold of her own lonely world. Co-written by Vannanilavan, one of the finest Tamil writers of the past fifty years, and realized beautifully on film by Rudhraiya, then a recent graduate of the Adyar Film Institute in Madras, Aval Appadithan enjoys the status of a cult classic, perhaps more out of nostalgia than active empathy.

The first two of P. Bharathiraja’s films, both of them superhits, dealt with a young girl’s situation in a rural setting. While 16 Vayathinile (1977) brings alive on screen the vulnerability of a teenage girl in a typical village setting, Kizhakke Pogum Rail (1978) portrays the love that blossoms between a low-caste poet-drifter and an innocent, almost childlike, teenager, and how it is viewed by the narrow-minded community of villagers around them.

Pasi (1979), directed by Durai, was another landmark film during the period dealing with the condition of women belonging to a city’s so-called underclass. The story revolves around Kuppamma, teenage daughter of Muniyandi who ekes out a living from his cycle-rickshaw. While on her rounds as a ragpicker, Kuppamma is seduced by a truck driver and becomes pregnant. Kuppamma’s mother is devastated by her daughter’s predicament and dies of a broken heart. To her shock and dismay, Kuppamma comes to learn that her lover is already married, with a family. She becomes reconciled to her situation but dies during childbirth. Pasi was special for its unsentimental portrayal of not only the pain and squalor in the lives of the urban underclass, but also of their fight to live a dignified life in spite of being poor and vulnerable to many kinds of exploitation. The film won a National Award each for the director and Shobha, the actress who played Kuppamma.

Shobha in Mullum Malarum (1979).
Shobha in Mullum Malarum (1979).

An inflection point in the trajectory of women-centred films was the arrival in 1978 of J. Mahendran, considered by many to be one of the finest film-makers in the history of Tamil cinema. A taut screenplay with a consistent internal logic, an approach to storytelling that did not raise its voice and a studied avoidance of baroque sentimentality were the hallmarks of Mahendran’s films.

Mullum Malarum (1979), his debut film, was a superb cinematic effort about the love between two orphaned siblings. The sister wants to marry a man of whom the overly macho brother doesn’t approve, but she finds a way to do this without hurting the brother’s pride. Mullum Malarum was based on a short story by veteran writer Uma Chandran.

Based on ‘Sitrannai’, a short story by the tallest icon of twentieth-century Tamil letters, Pudumaipithan, Uthiri Pookkal (1979) is considered a breakthrough in the visual narration of a complex psychological situation within a family and in the wider community of a village. It explores the atrocities inflicted by a sadistic man on the women in his family, and the community’s ineffective response. In this film, the visual medium is used to examine a culture that is being compelled to examine and revise its own conception of humanity. Two years later, Mahendran made Metti (1982) about a woman who has been abandoned by her husband, along with her two daughters. It presents the perspective of women who are relentlessly subjected to the unjust expectations and unequal arrangements of society.

All these ‘feminist’ narratives of that period in Tamil cinema suffered from the limitation that they were conceived and presented by men. To that extent, they did not interrogate the structure of patriarchal authority but merely depicted the sufferings of women under its brutal reign. The real contribution of Mahendran’s films was to show this stark reality using a rich visual language shorn of the artifice and staginess of conventional Tamil films. But women were still hostage to a male-dominated world, as much in Tamil cinema as in the real world.

It is not surprising, then, that the flowering of a new kind of cinema in the late 1970s and early ’80s did not transform itself into a movement. The sway of big-budget entertainers starring Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan took hold of the viewers from the mid-80s, and the conservatism – both political and social – inherent in mass-market entertainers with a lot of investment at stake pushed all dissent to the margin.

From the 1990s on, a woman with autonomy and a life of her own was a rare occurrence in Tamil films. Instead, open misogyny became an integral part of most popular films. From Chinna Thambi (1991) and Padayappa (1999) to 7G Rainbow Colony (2004) and Paruthiveeran (2007), the list of Tamil films in which women are humiliated and/or destroyed because of the caprice of men is endless.

Anyone would be puzzled as to why such a return to misogyny took place in a context of rising prosperity and increased educational opportunities. The answer could well lie in the rise of caste power on the political plane and the shift to market economics in everything, including public services, which established the brute power of money at all levels. The observation that the impact of all hegemonies is the greatest on the poor and the weak may not be far off the mark, after all. The position of women in contemporary society and on-screen will validate its truth.

Excerpted with permission from Beyond Bollywood The Cinemas of South India, HarperCollins India.

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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

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For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.