Vijay starrer Sivakasi released during the holiday of Deepavali in 2005. Written and directed by Perarasu, the actor had essayed the role of a very conservative working-class youth in the film. In a scene, he takes on his future love interest Hema, played by Asin, and blatantly slut-shames her over her fashion sense. “There is no underskirt or saree. Why are you standing just in your underwear?” Sivakasi asks Hema. “They are shorts,” Hema spells out. “They may be shorts for you. But, for us (read men), it is underwear.” “Why are you just wearing a bra without blouse and saree pallu?” Sivakasi berates Hema. “This is sleeveless,” again explains Hema. “For you it is sleeveless. But, for us, it is BRA,” Sivakasi explodes.
And he doesn’t stop there. He even indulges in victim-blaming. In short, he alleges that skimpy dresses turn men into molesters. “If you cover yourself in a saree like a woman, all men will worship you as the goddess Lakshmi,” Sivakasi reinforces the regressive views of the patriarchy. The film has a few more scenes that make for cringe-worthy comments.
Back then, the scene played to the gallery with fans breaking into claps and whistles as their favourite hero insulted a woman for getting groped by a pervert. However, revisiting the scene today, makes me flinch in disgust. Even Vijay won’t condone the views that the scene in question propagates. His latest film Bigil makes a strong case why the Vijay of today won’t appreciate the Vijay of 2005.
In my earlier piece, I had suggested, “What Vijay can learn from Ajith.” There, I complained about how backward Vijay’s films had been in depicting female characters. I had observed that “the cinematic world of Vijay was significantly underdeveloped” based on the way it treats its women. In that respect, Bigil is quite a leap for the superstar.
Take, for example, the scene in which Vijay’s Michael meets Gayathri’s (Varsha Bollamma) husband. The husband is highly conservative (like Sivakasi). So much so that he hasn’t allowed his sister, who cracked the IAS exam, to pursue her aspirations. He comes from a school that taught him “a woman belongs in the kitchen”.
“Tell me, will you be okay if your wife runs around in shorts in front of other men?” Gayathri’s husband asks Michael. Sivakasi would have loved this man. But Michael clinches his fist in rage. He would have hated Sivakasi.
For once, this Vijay film is not entirely about…Vijay. Yes, of course, the film has several cues that scream Vijay is the next Thalaivan (read chief minister) in the making. The majority of the first half is devoted to catering to the expectations of the core fan-base of the star. We see all the old tropes from the book about how-to-make-a-massy-star-vehicle. “It may be old but still guarantees minimum success,” Vijay tells in the opening moments of the film. The dialogue in the film is said in a different context and for a different reason but, it pretty much sums up the film for the audience.
And yet, Bigil belongs to the women of the Tamil Nadu football team as much as Rayappan and Michael (both played by Vijay). Atlee and his co-writer S Ramana Girivasan use up more time addressing issues related to women than indulging their hero in the second half.
One of the best stretches of this film is when Michael meets Anitha (Reba Monica John), an acid-attack survivor. To encourage her to free herself from self-imposed solitude, Michael narrates an inspiring story. He reminds her of the struggles and challenges that she has faced. He recalls the achievements that she made against all odds. Later, he even gives her the power to deal with her attacker. Michael is not fighting the battle for Anitha. He is empowering her to face her demons. He is taking a back-seat. He is just being the catalyst. The scene also played to the gallery. The audience hooted, clapped and whistled. But it was Anitha, not Vijay, who was walking in slow-motion as AR Rahman’s inspiring score played in the background.
That said, Bigil may not be the women empowering movie that director Atlee had promised us. But, it is a start. And, it is a significant improvement in the cinematic universe of Vijay.