Speaking at the audio launch of Magalir Mattum, Jyotika's second film after her return to cinema, the actor spoke her mind about sexism and misogyny in Kollywood, especially with respect to the on screen portrayal of female characters.
This is a subject that has been frequently discussed in the media and in the public ever since the murder of Infosys employee Swati by her alleged stalker in 2016. The glorification of violence against women in films has been blamed partly for influencing such crimes.
In her speech, Jyotika was candid about the distorted way in which women are represented in films.
"Please give dignity to women in your films," Jyotika appealed to filmmakers. She asked directors to create female characters who were like their mothers, sisters, girlfriends or friends - real women. She pointed out that heroes have crores of fans who imitate their dialogues, style, and clothes. And unlike many (mostly male) defenders of cinema who argue that the medium does not perpetuate violence against women, Jyotika acknowledged that cinema has a big impact on the youth and is responsible for influencing their behaviour towards women.
"Physically, I know you won't give them the clothes that women in your house would wear," she said, referring to how women are objectified in films. "But mentally, give them roles that portray them as people with brains." Jyotika added that filmmakers should avoid making women stand by as comedians speak in "double meaning" and do away with vulgar introductory scenes. "Why have a woman follow a hero around saying 'I love you, I love you'?" she asked.
The actor further took a jibe at the tendency to give a hero a bunch of heroines to make him look good. "Why have four heroines for a hero? Isn't one enough?" she asked. "Let's make good films, let's be socially responsible - cinema really has a big impact," she said.
Jyotika quit cinema when she was at the peak of her career to marry actor Suriya. Other than a few films like Kaakha Kaakha and Mozhi, Jyotika, like most heroines of her time, was cast in the "bubbly" girl role. With her comeback with 36 Vayadhiniley, however, she seems keen to do more meaningful films, especially women-centric ones.
Jyotika said that director Bramma's decision to cast her in the role of a woman who is younger than her actual age was unique because in Kollywood, heroines are considered to be too "old" after 30. Heroes, of course, face no such roadblock. She added that she'd been waiting for the right script because all the offers she was getting required her to play the "mommy" role to teenagers and she didn't want to be typecast.
Impressively, she thanked composer Ghibran for working in another woman-centric film, Nayanthara's Aramm and acknowledged the other female stars who'd worked with her in Magalir Mattum. The actor then went to say that she had a message for directors who made big hero films and critiqued the portrayal of female characters in mainstream films. Jyotika's forthright statements are refreshing, especially because she has been through the whole gamut of acting in such "mass" films and she is married to a top male actor who does such films, too.
However, it's interesting to see how the debate on the on screen representation of women has taken shape, with male critics and fans of cinema typically sticking to a line that defends such portrayals as either inevitable or dismissing the criticism as conjecture. The majority of those who find such depictions problematic continue to remain women. Not surprising since they are at the receiving end of it.
People from the industry have largely remained tight-lipped about the issue, although Dhanush, an actor criticised for glorifying stalking in his films, recently acknowledged in an interview that one cannot deny the influence that actors with large fan bases have on people's behaviour.
Do films have to be disrespectful towards women if they are to become commercial successes? It's a question that filmmakers who ultimately cast actors and control the kind of films that get made should think about. At a time when the Tamil audience is opening up and embracing realistic films with sensible characters like never before, there cannot be any more excuses to run away from the question.