Bramma's Magalir Mattum which released on Friday opened to mixed reviews. While many enjoyed the film and applauded the story of four women who go on a trip to rediscover themselves, some have questioned the film's understanding of women's empowerment.
However, word of mouth has been unanimous on one aspect - the film's cast. Actors Urvashi, Saranya, and Bhanupriya teamed up with Jyothika, who made her comeback to cinema two years ago.
Unfortunately, although the three seniors are at least a decade younger than Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, they rarely appear in Tamil films which have substantial roles for them.
Always the Amma
Saranya has become Kollywood's favourite mummy and has acted as Amma to actors like Suriya who're only a few years younger than her. With her ability to emote as well as impeccable comic timing, Saranya is the most sought-after actor to play the mother role in Tamil cinema. This, however, means that she remains in the fringes even if her performance is memorable. Achamindri, in which she played the antagonist, was an exception.
National Award-winning actor Urvashi appeared as Kamal Haasan's wife in Uttama Villain but mostly gets stuck playing small, comic roles in Tamil films. The incredibly versatile actor can pull off films of any genre but sadly, nobody seems interested in putting her talent to use in Kollywood. In Malayalam, she continues to get far more substantial work.
Bhanupriya, who charmed audiences with her graceful dance and expressive face, has also been relegated to playing small mother roles in the Tamil industry. Like Urvashi, Bhanupriya also works in other languages but there too, it's mostly the mother that she plays.
Glamour over language
Many responses on social media to Magalir Mattum were about how refreshing it was to see these women actors in pivotal roles on screen, after years of seeing heroines who can barely speak Tamil. Even though none of the three actors was born into a Tamil family, they are comfortable with the language and are believable in their roles.
In an interview to Film Companion, actor Ramya Krishnan spoke about how in earlier times, women actors used to dub for themselves. It's not just a question of lip sync but the emotions that the actor is able to bring to the scene when she uses her own voice.
However, after filmmakers began bringing in women outside the south as heroines in Tamil cinema, a dubbing artist doing their voice became the norm and a heroine dubbing for herself made news.
Case in point, Jyothika, who is not from the south, dubbed for the very first time in her career for Magalir Mattum. Even though Nayanthara and Trisha, two top woman stars in Kollywood, are from the south, they did not venture into dubbing for themselves until well into their careers because directors did not consider it necessary.
The preference for fair skin that big budget filmmakers like Shankar and Mani Ratnam actively promoted by bringing in women from the North and Bollywood, set the trend for the rest of the industry. This meant that as long as a woman actor was fair skinned and "looked like a heroine", she was given preference over someone who could speak the language but was darker.
Aishwarya Rajesh, who has now established herself as a bankable star, has previously told TNM that she was advised that a dusky woman like her should never aspire to play the heroine and that she could, at best, hope to play "sister" roles. With the heroine's role becoming largely decorative in mainstream cinema, it is considered enough if the woman actor looks "glamorous", never mind if she looks the part.
Although Tamil cinema is experimenting with genres and techniques of storytelling, the films, like any other industry, are mostly about men. The ageist nature of the industry ensures that older women will be limited to playing mother roles and can seldom step out of its confines, even as men their age play the dashing sons romancing women who're decades younger to them.
Lakshmy Ramakrishnan's Ammani and Dhanush's Pa Paandi are among the unusual films where older women have roles that go beyond the mummy one. Ammani was about Saalamma (Lakshmy) who decides to live independent of her suffocating family, inspired as she is by an eccentric old woman (Subbalakshmi). Pa Paandi had the lovely Revathy playing Paandi's ex-girlfriend who connects with him after years and falls in love all over again. These films, however, are rare and hard to come by.