An uninterrupted monologue is most often the privilege of the male protagonist in Tamil cinema. A rebellious outburst against an oppressor delivered on a trigger, it generally marks the moment when the hero is about to launch his revolution. Imagine Sivaji Ganesan’s court speech in Parasakthi (1952) or Rajinikanth reacting to Meena’s insult in Muthu (1995) or more recently, Dhanush taking on the villain in Velai Illa Pattadhaari (2014).
A welcome addition to this glorious lineage is the impassioned and rebellious monologue of an unnamed housewife in this year’s Magalir Mattum or Ladies Only.
“Naanga enna summaava irukkom?” (Are we sitting idle at home?) asks the woman as she launches into a high-pitched, breathless, and angry monologue directed at all the men who devalue her role in the household. Though she is not the hero and does not appears on screen again, she gets to deliver the dialogue that sets the tone of the film that traces the journeys and agonies women, a theme that can no longer be ignored.
From a time when even self-proclaimed feminist films needed to be propped up by famous male actors and elaborate back stories, Tamil cinema has come a long way in 2017.
It has been a year of many feminisms, of women and their stories insistently taking centre stage and demanding their space. It has been a period when filmmakers took note of the gaping holes they left of women’s stories. But more importantly, it has been a year when stories of women came to be accepted as financially viable. Star vehicles are no more aadavar mattum (men only).
The pivotal role in Magalir Mattum is played by Jyothika, whose character is a documentary filmmaker who masterminds and executes an all-girls trip with her mother-in-law’s school friends (played by Urvashi, Saranya Ponvannan and Bhanupriya).
Upon her return from her marriage-induced hiatus, Jyothika had declared that she would only participate in films that treat women with respect and importance. Along came Magalir Mattum, with the kind of feminism that smacks you in the face, demanding to be noticed, emerging from behind the walls that constrain women’s lives. It treats women as women – warts and all – giving space for their needs, angers, imperfections, vulnerabilities, and desires. Even as Jyotikha’s Prabha walks around as the torchbearer of liberation, the film is the story of every woman, seeking little acts of progress, everyday.
At the other end of the spectrum is Madhivadani (played by Nayanthara) in Gopi Nayina’s Aramm (2017). The character, an honest Indian Administrative Service officer who serves as the district collector in a drought-hit village, is the hapless representative of an incompetent establishment. But make no mistake, she is still the hero.
In the course of her efforts to save the life of a young girl who has fallen into a borewell, she stands up for the people, takes on a powerful mafia, commands a police force and makes difficult decisions – much of it without the melodramatic portrayal of achievement shown in films with male heroes.
The feminism of Aramm is one of strength and vulnerability. As a cinematic endeavour, Aramm breaks the shackles of how women are portrayed. The film is entirely about Madhivadani’s work – she is seen in just two outfits throughout the film, she has no romantic interest, no one speaks for her or paraphrases her. She commands respect and gets it, even if mostly by virtue of her post. Yet, towards the end of the film, she breaks into loud sobs, partly because she realises her own failings. She is not ashamed or scared of being a woman.
Neither is Aruvi. The titular character of the film starring Aditi Balan is a gun-wielding youngster who walks into a television studio to demand an apology from those who wronged her. Aruvi tells us the riveting story of a 25-year-old woman who seeks vengeance from the world for ill-treatment, estrangement, sexual violence and disparagement.
Aruvi’s intersectional feminism is one of self-assurance, self-love, and empathy. It is intersectional not just because Aruvi’s comrade and partner is Emily, a transwoman who gives her the motherly love she seems to long for, but also because writer-director Arun Prabu populates the film with remarkable – even if flawed – women. There is TV host Shoba Parthasarthy, who treats her young assistant Paapaathi like dirt, Assistant Director Jayashree, who knows every Vijay film from the recent past, the “kalathu dosa kelavi” (sandwich-dosa-making old lady) who once fed an entire village and the many women journalists and police officers.
Aruvi’s world is presented to us in all its ugliness and beauty. Not all women stand with one another and not all men are evil. Aruvi’s feminism is not one of victimisation or glorification of female sacrifice, but of presenting the stark realities for us to ponder over and find a way to play our parts better in a messed up world.
In bringing all of these movies under the umbrella of feminism, I know I’m on a slippery slope. A voice in my head is shooting many questions: Do the filmmakers approve of this label? Are any of these films really feminist? Are they all not flawed in one way or another? By what definition is any of this feminist?
To me, simply by virtue of placing women at the front and centre, these films are somewhat feminist. And that makes 2017 a great year for women’s stories in films, a year when so-called women-oriented films broke out of the confines of a niche submarket and came into the the mainstream.
While Prabha of Magalir Mattum gave women a hero whose lead they can happily follow, Madhivadhani and Aruvi transcended the label of feminist icons to become models for the youth at large. So, in a stoic and nihilistic monologue about the pressures of a capitalist global village is heartwarming, when Aruvi declared that “ipdi oru kuppai vaazhkai vaazhardhukku AIDS vandhu saagalaam” (instead of a trashy life like this, it’s better to die of AIDS), she spoke not just for women but for all those struggling to come to grips with a materialistc and self-serving world, just like heroes are meant to do.
For a filmgoer with feminist inclinations, 2017 was certainly not a perfect year. But it was one filled with endearing imperfections. For now, that’s good enough.