A Tamil short film titled Lakshmi has created a furore on social media since it was uploaded 10 days ago by Ondraga Entertainment.
Directed by Sarjun KM, the film is about a woman, Lakshmi (actor Lakshmi), who has an extramarital affair. It's pretty straightforward why she decides to have this fling - Lakshmi is in an abusive marriage where her husband only treats her as a cook and caretaker. Lakshmi is like the pressure cooker with which she begins her day, building up steam and threatening to burst any moment.
Her husband's callousness extends to the bed where he only thinks about his pleasure and rolls off as soon as he's done. He seems to have another woman in his life as well - there's a phone call from a woman who hangs up when Lakshmi answers and her husband refuses to give her an explanation.
We're also shown Lakshmi meeting an attractive man on the train. Circumstances bring them closer and after a conversation in which he seems to be genuinely interested in her, Lakshmi goes home with him for a night.
The ending of the film is a bit ambiguous - does taking the bus mean she will meet the man again, since it's at the bus-stop that they first have a real conversation? Or does it mean it was a one night stand since her regular transport is the train where she used to see him? At any rate, from the black and white grind of her routine, her world turns colourful when she meets him.
The film is not without its flaws. Lakshmi's "saviour", a stereotypical "artist", comes spouting lines from Bharathiyar as characters from Tamil films always do when they are out to "liberate" a woman. He makes her stand before the mirror and unwinds her tight plait, loosening her hair to make her see for herself what she could be (a faint echo of Mahendra Baahubali making Avantika aware of the "real woman" within her). The film would have worked better if Lakshmi's self-discovery had happened because she makes that internal journey herself - this is what sets apart films like English Vinglish and Queen.
Nevertheless, Lakshmi is an attempt to show a woman's desire to flout the rules to seek her own happiness.
A volley of abuse, objections
This little film, less than 20 minutes long, has unleashed a barrage of abuse and divided opinions from several social media users who've said that Lakshmi's decision is not "women's empowerment". Still others have objected to using Bharathiyar's words to "justify" an extramarital affair.
Does feminism encourage extramarital relationships? No. However, feminism does encourage people of all genders to expect equality in relationships and the right to happiness. Feminism also refuses to pitch marriage as a woman's destiny and acknowledges the patriarchal ideas that sustain the institution of marriage.
The first question her husband asks when she says she's stuck somewhere and can only return in the morning is, 'Then who will make breakfast?'. Considering Lakshmi is in a dead-end marriage, it's ludicrous that the film has upset so many people who have condemned it in strong words. While showing the woman's perspective of an unhappy marriage is fresh, the justification for why she decides to explore her life and sexuality outside the institution is on safe, conventional lines.
History of ‘forgiving’ a man’s extramarital affair
The anger is especially incongruous when Tamil cinema has had a long history of "chinna veedu" or "stepney" (phrases that refer to the "other" woman in an extramarital fling) humour. In fact, this idea of comedy extends to a man treating his wife's younger sister as a "chinna veedu" too.
Further, there are many celebrated films like Sindhu Bhairavi, Gopurangal Saivathillai, Sathi Leelavathi, Rettaivaal Kuruvi, and Chinna Veedu (among others) which have had the hero have an extramarital affair without receiving condemnation. In the end, all is forgiven and the "family" is restored.
In Agni Natchathiram, even though the father is berated by his sons from two different marriages for his deeds, they rally around him when his life is in danger. Films like Marupadiyum, where the woman refuses to take back a husband who cheats on her, have been extremely rare.
Ironically, the female leads in many of these films have been lauded as "strong" women characters while Lakshmi, who does what the male characters in these films have done (with a stronger justification for it to boot), has been condemned.
Does feminism mean women have to imitate the "wrongs" that men do? Certainly not. But feminism insists that you don't have different standards of judgment for the genders.
When we've celebrated years and years of men having the cake and eating it too in popular culture, why is a woman crossing the line upsetting people so much? The anger comes from the fear that the bedrock of patriarchal values, which make up our society, has been threatened. The people outraging about the film should admit this instead of the whataboutery of 'real' women's empowerment. As if they care.