Can we stop asking if Jyothika is a 'real feminist' every time her movies come out?

If we were to ask 'hypocrisy much?' about the fantasies sold by male stars, there wouldn't be many films with morally upright heroes at all.
Can we stop asking if Jyothika is a 'real feminist' every time her movies come out?
Can we stop asking if Jyothika is a 'real feminist' every time her movies come out?
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Yet another Jyothika film is around the corner and once again, social media is full of the same questions that come up every time promos of her films release – is Jyothika a 'real' feminist to be selling these ideas to her audience? Isn't she someone who quit cinema when she got married? Don't the men in her family continue to make films with two heroines, women who are much younger than they are – aspects which she has been critical about in her speeches?

The recently released promo for Kaatrin Mozhi, which is the Tamil remake of Vidya Balan's audaciously funny Tumhari Sulu, has Jyothika holding up the '10 commandments' for women. Ranging from telling them it's fine to be fat, to stressing they can wear whatever clothes they desire, the poster has the actor staring ahead like a revolutionary. It was released to coincide with Independence Day. Over the top? Perhaps. But is it in line with the hero-centric promos we've seen for unapologetic male star vehicles? Absolutely.

Do we always ask 'hypocrisy much'?

Most teasers, first look posters, and even trailers of mainstream cinema hardly feature women. Why would they when they are superfluous in the actual film? Moreover, mainstream films typically revolve around the hero fighting oppression, corruption and saving damsels in distress.

If we're to apply the 'hypocrisy much?' test to these films, comparing them to what male actors are known for doing in real life – from tax evasion to hoarding black money, cosying up to the political class, sexually assaulting women in their industry and/or not speaking up when such allegations come up – most of them would spectacularly fail.

If actors were to only play roles that suit their real life ideologies, policies, and actions, there wouldn't be very many films revolving around the upright hero at all. Why are we so willing to suspend disbelief and buy into the fantasies sold by a male star but so critical when a female actor does the same?

Jyothika's fanbase

Jyothika was known mostly for playing "bubbly" roles when she was at the peak of her career. There were some exceptions like Mozhi and Khaaka Khaaka, but she sort of strengthened the template for the alarming "loosu ponnu" heroine who has become Tamil cinema's staple. She returned to cinema, after marriage and two children, with 36 Vayathiniley, the Tamil remake of Manju Warrier's How Old Are You? (incidentally, the Malayalam film marked the comeback of Manju after her marriage and subsequent divorce).

The film was about a woman who decides to carve out her own career path, after losing her identity in the years she had given to home and family. Although some critics found the film to be melodramatic, it struck a chord with the female audiences and went on to do decent business.

Jyothika followed this up with Magalir Mattum, in which she teamed up with Urvashi, Saranya Ponvannan, and Bhanupriya – the theme was once again the same. Getting back the dreams women have lost for the sake of their families. While some slammed her for the "pop" feminism (apparently, it's 'real' feminism only if you show suffering women in rural areas, not an urban woman riding a bullet), droves of women went to watch the film in theatres, wildly cheering for the star's appearance on screen. Needless to say, such responses are usually reserved for male actors.

Jyothika's fanbase is no longer the young men of Tamil Nadu who loved her in the "bubbly" girl roles. It's the older women, the middle-class women in their late 20s and upwards, who find cathartic relief when their stories are represented on screen and their thoughts are amplified through a star. Jyothika has said as much in her speeches, thanking the women audience for their support.

What roles do older female actors get?

Unlike Trisha, Nayanthara and Anushka Shetty, who are also doing films with solo leads, Jyothika is married to a top male actor in the industry and she has two children. This automatically limits the roles that come her way. Even the glamorous Samantha had talked about how offers dried up the second it was announced that she was marrying Naga Chaitanya, who comes from a powerful film family.

Women are hesitant to play mother roles because it signifies that they look "old". The shelf life of a heroine is much shorter than what it is for the men. For instance, Trisha walked out of Saamy Square, the sequel to the first film in which she starred with Vikram. The reason, reportedly, is that she was given a much smaller role while the main heroine was the younger Keerthy Suresh. Meanwhile, the current toast of the town in Kollywood is the 21-year-old Sayyeshaa who is doing films with top actors who are more than double her age (and yes, Suriya is one of them.)

Actors like Amala Paul, who have returned to cinema after a divorce, face incessant online abuse and moral policing for dressing in a certain way or doing certain roles that are deemed unsuitable for them only because they are married or were once married. Jyothika herself was harshly criticised for mouthing a Tamil swear word in the teaser of Bala's Naachiyar, in which she played a foul-mouthed cop. Social media warriors were quick to slam her for giving the "wrong idea" about "women's empowerment" although top male actors who happily swear in their films and glorify violence, have never been castigated for it.

Is Jyothika a 'real feminist'?

Jyothika's first two films since her comeback were produced by her husband Suriya's production company. She makes it a point to thank Suriya for his support, as well as her family for encouraging her to get back to cinema. This may seem ironic because it was supposedly the family's opposition to her film career that made her drop out after she got married.

However, people change with time and it's an encouraging sign to see a woman return to southern cinema, doing lead roles, while still on amicable terms with her marital family. Other than Rima Kallingal and now Samantha, how many such actors do we know of?

Besides, it is mostly the media's fault for repeatedly asking her about Suriya and focusing the limelight on his support rather than her career. This kind of pandering to male stars and their fans is common in interviews with women stars and perhaps we need to address this before dubbing Jyothika a "faux" feminist.

The point, however, is that it doesn't really matter if Jyothika is a "real" feminist or not in her personal life. She's an actor performing a role and if it promotes progressive ideas rather than regressive ones, we really have no reason to complain. Amitabh Bachchan is no real life feminist but it mattered that he lent his weight to a film like Pink. It matters to mainstream these ideas, make them part of popular culture, take them to the masses through the influential medium of cinema.

You may like or dislike Jyothika as an actor. But to hold her in contempt for her brand of cinema without thinking about the existing dynamics in the film industry smacks of good old sexism.

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