As the decade comes to an end, we find ourselves discussing Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag, Killing Eve, and several other TV shows by women. Shows and films made by women with strong women characters are taking a foothold in both national and international markets. Successful shows like Made in Heaven, Laakhon Mein Ek, Ghoul, Leila, Delhi Crime, Lust Stories and many other shows on Amazon Prime or Netflix have strong women as central or pivotal characters. While shows on television still feature a Nagini or the typical daughter-in-law and mother-in-law fight sequence, now and then, thereâs a show with some substance. And the superhit Tamil TV serial Chithi (1999-2001) was one of them. The sequel is set to premiere soon.
Itâs production house Radaan, founded by Radikaa Sarathkumar, made Chithi and other successful shows like Selvi, Arasi and Chellame, all staring her. She reinvented herself after her successful career as a heroine came to an end in the mid-90s. Her career as a lead actor may have ended in the movies, but her experience gave her access to the television market. And, she found great success in her first venture Chithi.
Other women actors like Khushbu Sundar, Meena and Ramya Krishnan tried their hand in the small screen and they did see some success, but nobody, not even Radikaa, was able to recreate the impact that Chithi made.
The first episode of Chithi aired on December 20, 1999, and in the months and years to follow, every household at 9:30 pm had the âKanninmani kanninmaniâ title song playing on their TV. Some go as far as to claim that the streets of Chennaiâs Anna Nagar had no traffic at 9:30 pm because of Chithi. This kind of obsession isnât unbelievable or unrealistic in Tamil Nadu, the land where actors (MGR and Jayalalithaa) rose to become the chief ministers, where people even built a temple for Khushbu and where the Rajnikanth phenomenon is still going strong.
The Chithi story
Chithi revolves around Sharadha played by Radikaa. Sheâs introduced to us when sheâs pulled out of the river Kaveri, when people were looking for a young girl called Kaveri played by Hemalatha, who drowned in the river.
Kaveri and her father Ram Chandran, played by Siva Kumar, are at the river performing the funeral rites for her mother when they find Sharadha. Despite the dramatics, Chithi is a story many families and households related to very quickly.
It had a narrative that theyâd been longing for: the intercaste marriage between Sharadha and Ramu, Sharadha navigating a Brahmin agraharam, the stepmother who isnât evil, unconditional love, a (Brahmin) family climbing the class structure to a respected (upper class) social position.
The story of a Brahminâs wife
The intercaste marriage and mobility of a non-Brahmin woman whoâs wife to a Brahmin man, has been a trope in Indian literature about caste created by Brahmin men, often enough. Sharadha is a strong, independent woman whoâs an excellent homemaker and is more Brahmin than Brahmin homemakers in their madisar.
When Sharadha walks the streets of the agraharam, the Brahmins look down on her, call her names, and treat her poorly. She fights back with her silence or words of wisdom from the scriptures that shut the Brahmins up. In a Hindu society that follows the laws of the Manusmriti, Dalits, marginalised communities, and widows are considered to be a bad omen. There was a time when they were banned from entering the streets of an agraharam, and this was an act of revolt by Sharadha.
If x is the brother of the son of y's sonâŚ You know how these questions go, or how you explain to a friend the way your second cousin twice removed, is also your uncle or grandfather? No, are you even Indian?
The complex relationships, affairs, marriages, cheating, lying, gossiping - basically, everything that goes down in a large family, was dramatically depicted to a very satisfying extent but never to a point when it got annoying.
Sharadha and Ram fighting and making up, their sanskari romance, and their hard work to climb the social ladder despite the many obstacles and hardship; the homoerotic nature of the friendship between Ram and Krishna, played by Subhalekha Sudhakar, where Ram tattoos a peacock feather and flute as a symbol of his love for his dear friend Krishna; the hatred and fights in the serial are between women who belong to different social classes and caste positions, and surprisingly the depiction was not as misogynistic as it could have been.
There was space for the growth of the characters, for them to admit their flaws and change. There was also a repeating pattern of abuse, flaws, and mistakes among all the characters. The serial established actor Radikaa as a mother figure in the hearts and minds of millennials who watched Chithi as kids.
The sequel has a lot at stake. Chithi carries the weight of influencing serials with strong independent women changing families with their strength, determination and power over tears or a goddess coming to their rescue. Many âheroinesâ have been cast in these serials to play the roles of strong, independent women and interestingly the same actors also played goddesses in many movies. The landscape of serials changed to accommodate a narrative where a woman whoâs crying because of another woman, is either saving herself or a third woman saves her. No man is saving a woman here! Even though most of these stories were written or directed by men, they still managed to change the narrative.
The serial Selvi had a sequel Arasi, which managed to do fairly well but then again, the stakes werenât so high, and they werenât aired two decades apart. Chithi carries immense baggage, and Radikaa has received numerous awards for the serial. Chithi 2 has a lot riding on its back and only time will tell if the outcome will meet our expectations.
Views expressed are the author's own.