Recently, I met a veteran Tamil actor-director, and we were discussing many things—including opportunities for women in Tamil cinema. To my surprise, he spoke at length about the rampant sexism (Men-can-play-heroes-even-if-they’ve-aged), wage discrepancies, and the double standards that female actors witness. He rightly pointed out, “There’s only one K Balachander. One Crazy Mohan and one Ilaiyaraaja.” That conversation left me with many questions. If you ask me to name a celebrated woman technician, on par with their male counterparts in Tamil cinema—I would have to think and rethink. Probably, I could think of the late P Bhanumathi, who aced in most of the departments of cinema—(acting, music and script-writing.) This explains a lot, isn’t it?
It is heartening to note that Tamil cinema is slowly harkening back to the 1970s and 80s era, which were known for several critically and commercially-acclaimed women-oriented films. One can’t miss but notice the trend started by the late K Balachander when Tamil cinema was churning out the mainstream rot with ‘commercial heroes’. Balachander not only wrote powerful female protagonists including Kavitha (Sujatha) in Aval Oru Thodarkathai but also fantastic supporting characters. For instance, take Chandra, the role played by Fatafat Jayalakshmi, in the same film. It was one of my favourite onscreen characters. Chandra thinks more like a man. She is wild, non-judgmental and free-spirited. (You get what I am saying, right?) Her role was ahead of its time. Chandra and her mother hit on the same man. I don’t think no other filmmaker would have shown this complicated relationship gracefully as Balachander did.
His female characters came as a refreshing change when Tamil cinema was still going gaga over MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. We wouldn’t be talking about Balachander today if his films weren’t commercially successful. His stories were predominantly centred around women—Apoorva Ragangal, Avargal, Thappu Thalangal, Thanneer Thanneer, Sindhu Bhairavi and many. We all talk about Veerey Di Wedding and how progressive it was—but Balachander was undoubtedly the pioneer in giving the audience a real shift in the larger moralistic narrative of Tamil cinema—that too, in the black and white era. The beautiful thing about his characters is that they are familiar, and the type that you meet again and again. After Balachander, its, of course, Balu Mahendra and Mani Ratnam.
When we discuss women-oriented films and Tamil cinema, I always feel they haven’t been promoted like how Bollywood does. When an NH10 gets released, the whole India notices. The same applies to Akira, Kahaani, Hichki and Piku. But why many weren’t aware of Jyotika’s Magalir Mattum or Nayanthara’s Dora or Maya?
Women-centric films are nothing new to Tamil cinema. In the last couple of years, some of the best films, in fact, came from women. Be it Nayanthara’s back-to-back releases—Kolamaavu Kokila and Imaikkaa Nodigal, or Keerthy Suresh’s Mahanati aka Nadigaiyar Thilagam (the Savitri biopic), Aishwarya Rajesh’s Kanna, Samantha’s U-Turn, Jyotika’s Kaatrin Mozhi, or Trisha’s 96—gone are those days when the success of a movie was defined by its male actor. These days, the audience is very much looking forward to watching the leading ladies grace the screens, and no wonder these reel women have left indelible impressions in our mind.
I sincerely hope 2019 will be an exciting year for Tamil cinema with a spate of women-centric films gearing up for the release. We have Amala Paul’s Aadai, Kajal Aggarwal’s Paris Paris, Nayanthara’s Airaa, Hansika’s Maha, and Taapsee Pannu’s Game Over among them. You can say Tamil cinema has been seeing some remarkable change in the recent past. At the same time, you can’t deny misogyny and patriarchy that are rooted in the system. It is 2019, and when a woman makes a film like 90ml, she is targeted personally.
Also, we can’t keep complaining about the dearth of good films because there is no better way for women to start than by becoming producers of content they wish to see. We say things have changed. But I really wish they did. Again, we say the industry has given many opportunities for women. But, we don’t have many female stunt choreographers, female editors, or female makeup artistes or female sound designers, or female music directors. Where does the problem exist? I would like to place on record what a popular director said when I had asked him why he didn’t have many women assistant directors. He said they lack ambition and conviction. Alas, he doesn’t realise they lack opportunities. As we evolve, we not only need fresher concepts, besides a new wave of women-centric films to bring in a revolution—but also, the acceptance of women for their talent, not anything else.