Two films that have had a big opening this extended Navarathri festival weekend at the Tamil box office feature two of the most happening films stars in South Indian cinema: Nayanthara, who is building a reputation as a female superstar of this generation, and Samantha, a young and upcoming actor who has at least once before demonstrated reasonable acting chops.
The films in question - Naanum Rowdy Dhaan and 10 Endrathukkula - are in a commercial format that go with the diktat “leave your brains behind at home and have a good time at the cinemas”. I am sure it appealed to sections of the audience, most surely to the fans of the actors and most definitely to those who make it a point to have a good time at the cinema no matter what.
But what I really want to know is why the makers of such “time-pass” cinema cannot come up with better characters for the female lead. I am not even looking at gender equality or talking feminism here. (Almost all movies fail the Bechdel Test.)
I just wonder why invariably the female lead characters in the bulk of our commercial movies do not go beyond the description best summarised thus: cute, dumb and dependent on the hero to hand-hold them through routine tasks.
Both Nayanthara’s character in “Naanum Rowdy Dhaan” and Samantha’s dual characters in “10 Endrathukkula” suffer frequent brain fogs. They are also blissfully ignorant as they get repeatedly objectified in the dialogues, most of the times by the supporting cast and at times by the hero too.
In one of the initial sequences in “Naanum Rowdy Dhaan,” the hero (played by Vijay Sethupathi) wants to test whether Kadambari (played by Nayanthara), the girl he is trying to woo, is truly deaf as she claims to be. We get a tight close up of the hero uttering an expletive that Kadambari lip-reads and interprets as a rhyming alternative. The joke here is on the deaf girl, who is too innocent to know the wily ways of the hero.
A little later, Kadambari accidentally propositions the villain. (The colloquial Tamil word ‘podarathu’ can be used both for murder and sexual intercourse.) The character suffers from intermittent brain fog, and lands up voluntarily at a gangster’s den, knocking at the door with an offer no goon can turn down: “enna yenna venumnaalum pannikonga”. (“Do whatever you want to do with me”.)
Samantha’s character in “10 Endrathukkula” has the emotional and social intelligence of a two-year-old. There is the running joke, exaggerated on the “women can’t drive automobiles” claim.
The only time these characters are made to appear like adults are when the hero reveals his love or when the sexual innuendoes fly. Rest of the time, they are like three or four-year-olds that require constant hand-holding by the adults, in most instances the hero or one trusted adult male.
Don’t get me wrong here. Commercial cinema runs on characters that do exaggerated things. The male lead beats up at least 15 persons at a time, and the female lead has flawless skin all the time.
Even within the framework, I suspect this is just a case of very lazy writing on the part of the film-makers.
There have been many female actors who have been a part of very successful commercial cinema at least - right through the 1980s and 1990s - who have held their own even in purely hero-backed scripts. The likes of Revathy, Suhasini, Urvashi and Nadiya have all acted in movies that have been both hero-centric and heroine-centric, but they had never been reduced to the cardboard caricatures that we see so often these days.
Even within the comedy format, which everyone knows is the most difficult format to write and execute, the most famed writer-actor collaboration of Crazy Mohan-Kamal Haasan always produced wonderful female characters. One of the biggest comedy blockbusters of South Indian cinema “Micheal Madana Kama Rajan,” despite being an all-out Kamal Haasan show with the actor playing four zany characters, had female characters played by wonderful actors that have stood the test of time.
Revathy had a solid character in the comedy “Arangetra Vellai,” in which she was much more than a prop. Suhasini did a class act in “Gopurangal Saivathillai” despite the role demanding a physical caricature.
Among more recent ventures, I would recall the 2013 romantic comedy “Kalyana Samayal Saadam,” in which the female lead character (played by Lekha Washington) was shown openly talking about her sexuality.
The template of the “brainless bimbo” seems to be a phenomenon that has taken root in the last 10 to 15 years. One movie that readily comes to mind is the Vijay starrer “Sachin” in which Genelia D’Souza was cast to play an ever-pouting cute moron.
From then on, there has only been a deluge. I often wonder if the actresses even receive bound scripts for the roles they pick, and if they do whether the character description goes beyond “cute with frequent brain fogs”.
(I am not even kidding, but just watch Samantha attempt the cute act in the trailer of “10 endrathukkula” after she accidentally parks her car on the top of a tree.)
Hindi cinema, on the other hand, has generally warmed up to strong female characterisations over the past decade coinciding with rising stardom of the likes of Vidya Balan, Kangana Ranaut, Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone.
More recently, Yash Raj Films have launched a web video short series on YouTube titled “A Man’s World” that has a humourous take on gender stereotypes.
It is not impossible to find in real life an aspiring rowdy like Vijay Sethupathi’s character in “Naanum Rowdy Dhaan” or a speed junkie like Vikram’s character in “10 endrathukulla”. Their actions, of course, are exaggerated in the commercial cinema format.
So even within the ambit of a “desirable woman,” can’t we have more plausible characters? Time we bid goodbye to the cutie pie act. Our leading ladies deserve better characters.