It's high time that Tamil cinema recognised that brother-sister relationships need to go beyond ownership and entitlement.

Rajinikanth and Keerthy Suresh in Annaatthe
Flix Opinion Tuesday, November 16, 2021 - 18:30

Sivaji Ganesan and Savitri's 1961 film Pasamalar is perhaps the most well-known Tamil film on the brother-sister relationship, followed by Rajinikanth and Shoba's 1978 film Mullum Malarum. In both films, the brother and sister share a deep bond that is shaken by the entry of another man — the sister's lover/husband. It is the same template that Siva's Annaatthe, starring Rajinikanth, Keerthy Suresh, Nayanthara, and a host of other stars, sticks to in the year 2021. Except that unlike the first two films, where the directors put considerable effort into building the bond between the siblings, Annaatthe does a lazy cut-copy-paste job, making it a terribly regressive film that disguises toxic familial relationships as 'love'.

One can argue that it is futile to expect better from Siva whose films thrive on amplifying sentiment with shaky camera angles and loud background music, perhaps in the hope that the audience will forget that there's such a thing as a plot. However, it is important to note that this is a Superstar film that hit theatres in the Deepavali season and is drawing in large numbers of the family audience if reports are to be believed. It's alarming that the version of brother-sister 'love' celebrated in the film is considered 'touching'; in fact, it is the same sense of entitlement and ownership that male members exert over the women in their family that ends up suffocating their dreams in real life.

In Annaatthe, Keerthy plays Thanga Meenatchi, sister to Kaalaiyan (Rajinikanth). At the beginning of the film, she's just arriving from Kolkata where she went for her 'studies'. There's no discussion whatsoever on what Thanga Meenatchi may want to do after her 'studies' — her brother decides on her behalf that she must get married and that too, to someone who is within a five-kilometre radius. Why did she have to go all the way to Kolkata for her 'studies' to meet this fate, we do not know. Ironically, for 'screening' the potential grooms, he takes along his girlfriend, lawyer Pattu (Nayanthara), while not once asking Thanga Meenatchi what her own preferences are when it comes to her future partner. All that Thanga Meenatchi has to say is that her brother's decision is her decision, and her brother's happiness is her happiness. Clearly, it's only the sister who needs her sibling's approval of a life partner and not the other way around.

Also read: Annaatthe review: Rajinikanth's action drama belongs in a museum

Kaalaiyan decides to fix his sister's wedding with a local thug's brother (reason: he's a doctor and can provide immediate medical assistance to Thanga Meenatchi if required. Sigh). Just a few hours before the wedding, however, Thanga Meenatchi elopes with her boyfriend from Kolkata. Family members and acquaintances with sickles of various sizes accost the couple on a train and threaten to kill them both. Kaalaiyan 'magnanimously' forgives them because of the 'love' he has for his sister and lets them escape. The focus of the film is on how generous Kaalaiyan is towards Thanga Meenatchi's betrayal rather than on the unreasonableness of his assumption that he can make all her life decisions for her. The camera painstakingly documents his humiliation, his grief, and his kindness in the aftermath of the event. In a state where families have often resorted to violence, even murder, when it comes to love marriages, Annaatthe once again resorts to painting a sympathetic portrayal of a 'betrayed' family. There's not one scene when Thanga Meenatchi and her boyfriend/husband have a conversation about the events that transpired and what they feel about Kaalaiyan hold on their love life.

If Thanga Meenatchi's act of elopement looks like an assertion of agency, it's anything but that. We're treated to a sentimental monologue on how she'd actually decided to break up with her Kolkata boyfriend for the sake of her brother's happiness but was forced to get back with him only because he'd attempted suicide. As is only to be expected — how can a woman go against her brother and hope to live well, after all — her decision backfires on her and she finds herself in a soup in Kolkata.The loving brother, however, continues to 'protect' her while remaining in the shadows.

After several rounds of fights with several villains, annan-thangatchi are reunited. Thanga Meenatchi apologises for her 'mistake' while Kaalaiyan tells her that he was also at fault because the 'respect' she had for him meant that she couldn't tell him about the man she was in love with. This may sound like the film is seeking to balance out the regressive ideas it had so actively propagated thus far, but all it does is confuse the brother's toxic entitlement over the sister with the 'respect' she has for him. When the siblings can communicate telepathically, and the sister comes home every weekend to a Tamil Nadu village even as she studies in Kolkata, how are we supposed to believe that 'respect' is the reason she was unable to speak her mind? If Thanga Meenatchi had told Kaalaiyan that he was being a prat for expecting her to live within a five-kilometre radius of where he's stationed, would she still be considered a 'good' sister? The film implies that Thanga Meenatchi was in the wrong for going against her family, and it's Kaalaiyan's enormous 'love' for her that saves the day.

The 'thangatchi' in Tamil cinema mostly exists only to turn the hero into a righteous, avenging young man or she's depicted as his weak spot. In Kamal Haasan's Sakalakala Vallavan, for instance, Velu's sister is raped; the sister and Velu then disguise themselves and con the rapist and his sister into marrying them respectively. In Baasha, Rajinikanth's Manickam transforms from humble auto driver to don Manick Baasha when his sister is humiliated. He's portrayed as a loving, caring brother — and it's the same loving, caring brother who insults his sister publicly when he sees her out on a date with a man of her choice. In Annamalai, the hero's sister is married to the villain's sidekick and he, therefore, has to behave with restraint lest her married life is 'spoiled'. Later stars like Vijay and Ajith have also capitalised on the annan-thangatchi sentiment (Thirupaachi, Vedalam), but seldom is the sister allowed to be a sentient human being capable of making her own decisions, even if they go against her brother's wishes (Vaanam Kottatum, though a mediocre film, is among the few that have given the sister a better deal).

It's high time that Tamil cinema recognised that brother-sister relationships need to go beyond ownership and entitlement. What we see in Annaatthe is control, not love. Fear, not respect. Can brothers on and off-screen please understand this and let their sisters live their lives?

Watch:Trailer of Annaatthe

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.