The police has, after an intense manhunt that lasted for a week, arrested the prime suspect in the techie murder case that sent shockwaves across Chennai. Swathi, a 24-year-old woman, was hacked to death by a man (now identified as P.Ramkumar) at the Nungambakkam railway station at 6.45 am on the 24th of June. There are conflicting reports about what happened and why, with an eye-witness even claiming that Swathi was slapped by another man a few days prior to the murder. From what the police has said so far, it appears that the suspect was in love with Swathi but that he couldn’t take it when she did not reciprocate. He, therefore, decided to end her life. And they say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Sounds cinematic? Because it certainly is. The storyline is the wet dream of any Tamil film-maker who is looking for a soul-stirring tragic love story, the sort that will have at least one song with the drunken hero and his bros abusing women for being such bitches or sluts or innocent heart-breakers. The drunken men are fondly called ‘soup boys’, a term popularized by Dhanush in ‘Why this Kolaveri di?’, the gaana that broke the internet five years ago. Wait, what was the song about? A white-skinned woman with a black heart who rejected our man and ruined his life. Right.
In a society where there are so many rules for falling in love (No.1 being that you don’t), it is not surprising that our ideas about love are so warped. Good girls and good boys don’t talk to each other. They are strictly heterosexual and marry the person of their parents’ choice, carefully selected after matching caste, class, education, complexion, height, salary, and horoscope. In the movies, romance is the selective disruption of these factors. The hero is an aspirational figure, the go-getter who overcomes any number of obstacles to ‘win’ the girl. And many a time, the obstacle on his path is the girl herself who calls him a ‘porukki’ or tells him in no uncertain terms not to follow her around. By the end of the movie, however, all her nays magically turn into a coy yes and everyone goes home happy. True love has won, consent be damned.
It is amazing to take a cursory look at Tamil cinema and discover the sheer variety of ways in which stalking is celebrated as romance and violence against women is openly encouraged. By now, everyone agrees that songs like ‘Adidaa avala’ (Mayakkam Enna) are a bit much but the plot of the average Tamil movie is reluctant to move away from misogyny. In fact, in “Paayum Puli”, Vishal plays the role of a cop who stalks and threatens a woman (Kajal Aggarwal) to fall in love with him and never for a moment are we supposed to think that this is anything but romantic. Or unlawful. “Nanbenda”, starring Udhayanidhi Stalin, is yet another stalker-lover movie which, as an added bonus, also teaches the audience how to find out if a woman checking into a hotel with a man is his wife or a sex worker. And oh, this film is U-rated. In “24”, Suriya plays the role of a typical gas-lighter, playing games with the heroine’s mind, dressing her up to suit his tastes without her knowledge and so on. So cute ya.
But it’s not just this new crop of films that have done this. In “Sethu”, a critically acclaimed film that made Vikram’s career, the hero is a college goon of sorts who falls in love with a meek girl. When she rejects his advances, he kidnaps her and threatens to smash her head with a rock if she doesn’t accept his ‘love’. The hero’s long speech in this truly appalling scene is everything that is wrong with how romance is celebrated in celluloid. And of course, the template isn’t particularly original. Remember Kamal Haasan in “Guna”? His deranged ‘Abirami-Abirami’ chants ought to chill our spine but instead, we weep into our popcorn and hum ‘Kanmani anbodu kadhalan’ to our loved one with great emotion even now.
Actors like Dhanush and Silambarasan have turned stalking into an art – the loser boy who has nothing in life going for him but can still aspire for the fair-skinned girl. Who wouldn’t want to be like him, eh? But if you thought the problem was with only these men who play ‘low-class’ characters in their films, you’d be wrong. In “Vaaranam Aayiram”, Suriya follows his love, Sameera Reddy, all the way to the US! After she has said no. With his father’s blessings. Apparently, this isn’t in the least creepy…it’s romantic, bro! In “Minnale”, Madhavan goes one step further and impersonates another man altogether to win the heroine’s heart. Phew.
In a society like ours where a woman’s sexuality is tightly controlled, everyone’s consent but her own matters. This notion is repeatedly reiterated and magnified in cinema. I’ve lost count of the number of times a hero has proudly declared onscreen that his sister is not ‘that type’ and that she will marry anyone he asks her to. And if a woman is to express her desire openly, why, she becomes a Neelambari whose only way out is death! Or, of course, she may do an item number and gracefully disappear.
It is simplistic to blame everything on cinema but one cannot deny that movies transmit cultural codes and behaviours. For instance, right after Swathi’s murder, a Facebook user, who belongs to a star’s fan club posted a comment saying women like Swathi deserved to die – ‘…pasanga lyf ah spoil pandra girl evala irundhalum matta pannanum’. Any girl who ‘spoils’ a boy’s life by rejecting him deserves to die, is this noble man’s thought. In a land where romance is so fraught with difficulty and moral policing is routine, we often take our cues about how to make the next move from our favourite people onscreen. The college boy who lusts after the girl-next-door does not see himself as the lecherous villain who is assaulting her…he sees himself as the righteous hero who is giving her what she deserves. He has learnt it from the men we cheer for in the darkness of a cinema hall, with the background music manipulating our minds and telling us exactly how we’re supposed to feel about what’s happening.
Misogyny is not exclusive to Tamil cinema certainly. A while ago, a woman named Annapurna Sunkara had made a Youtube video about how women are portrayed in poor light in Telugu films. The backlash and abuse she faced from movie stars and their fans was unbelievable to say the least. So no, misogyny is not limited to Kollywood but I honestly cannot remember the last Tamil film I watched in which women were not called ‘figure’ repeatedly. This objectification and reduction of women to their bodies is so normalized that it doesn’t even make us uncomfortable any more. We sit passively in our seats, with our kids, watching the hero and his machans take a piss on the women in their lives and laugh at the comedy that this is supposed to be. But enough is enough, boys. It’s time we had this conversation. You may not be guilty of this particular crime but you are guilty of perpetuating a culture that condones it. We all are.
How, then, does one make a good romance movie, you ask? I’m not convinced alcohol would help but start by seeing women as real people with minds and opinions of their own. And I’m sure you will ‘figure’ it out.