The police has, after an intense manhunt that lasted for a week, arrested the prime suspect in the techie murder case that sent shockwaves across Chennai. Swathi, a 24-year-old woman, was hacked to death by a man (now identified as P.Ramkumar) at the Nungambakkam railway station at 6.45 am on the 24th of June. There are conflicting reports about what happened and why, with an eye-witness even claiming that Swathi was slapped by another man a few days prior to the murder. From what the police has said so far, it appears that the suspect was in love with Swathi but that he couldnât take it when she did not reciprocate. He, therefore, decided to end her life. And they say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Sounds cinematic? Because it certainly is. The storyline is the wet dream of any Tamil film-maker who is looking for a soul-stirring tragic love story, the sort that will have at least one song with the drunken hero and his bros abusing women for being such bitches or sluts or innocent heart-breakers. The drunken men are fondly called âsoup boysâ, a term popularized by Dhanush in âWhy this Kolaveri di?â, the gaana that broke the internet five years ago. Wait, what was the song about? A white-skinned woman with a black heart who rejected our man and ruined his life. Right.
In a society where there are so many rules for falling in love (No.1 being that you donât), it is not surprising that our ideas about love are so warped. Good girls and good boys donât talk to each other. They are strictly heterosexual and marry the person of their parentsâ choice, carefully selected after matching caste, class, education, complexion, height, salary, and horoscope. In the movies, romance is the selective disruption of these factors. The hero is an aspirational figure, the go-getter who overcomes any number of obstacles to âwinâ the girl. And many a time, the obstacle on his path is the girl herself who calls him a âporukkiâ or tells him in no uncertain terms not to follow her around. By the end of the movie, however, all her nays magically turn into a coy yes and everyone goes home happy. True love has won, consent be damned.
It is amazing to take a cursory look at Tamil cinema and discover the sheer variety of ways in which stalking is celebrated as romance and violence against women is openly encouraged. By now, everyone agrees that songs like âAdidaa avalaâ (Mayakkam Enna) are a bit much but the plot of the average Tamil movie is reluctant to move away from misogyny. In fact, in âPaayum Puliâ, Vishal plays the role of a cop who stalks and threatens a woman (Kajal Aggarwal) to fall in love with him and never for a moment are we supposed to think that this is anything but romantic. Or unlawful. âNanbendaâ, starring Udhayanidhi Stalin, is yet another stalker-lover movie which, as an added bonus, also teaches the audience how to find out if a woman checking into a hotel with a man is his wife or a sex worker. And oh, this film is U-rated. In â24â, Suriya plays the role of a typical gas-lighter, playing games with the heroineâs mind, dressing her up to suit his tastes without her knowledge and so on. So cute ya.
But itâs not just this new crop of films that have done this. In âSethuâ, a critically acclaimed film that made Vikramâs career, the hero is a college goon of sorts who falls in love with a meek girl. When she rejects his advances, he kidnaps her and threatens to smash her head with a rock if she doesnât accept his âloveâ. The heroâs long speech in this truly appalling scene is everything that is wrong with how romance is celebrated in celluloid. And of course, the template isnât particularly original. Remember Kamal Haasan in âGunaâ? His deranged âAbirami-Abiramiâ chants ought to chill our spine but instead, we weep into our popcorn and hum âKanmani anbodu kadhalanâ to our loved one with great emotion even now.
Actors like Dhanush and Silambarasan have turned stalking into an art â the loser boy who has nothing in life going for him but can still aspire for the fair-skinned girl. Who wouldnât want to be like him, eh? But if you thought the problem was with only these men who play âlow-classâ characters in their films, youâd be wrong. In âVaaranam Aayiramâ, Suriya follows his love, Sameera Reddy, all the way to the US! After she has said no. With his fatherâs blessings. Apparently, this isnât in the least creepyâŚitâs romantic, bro! In âMinnaleâ, Madhavan goes one step further and impersonates another man altogether to win the heroineâs heart. Phew.
In a society like ours where a womanâs sexuality is tightly controlled, everyoneâs consent but her own matters. This notion is repeatedly reiterated and magnified in cinema. Iâve lost count of the number of times a hero has proudly declared onscreen that his sister is not âthat typeâ and that she will marry anyone he asks her to. And if a woman is to express her desire openly, why, she becomes a Neelambari whose only way out is death! Or, of course, she may do an item number and gracefully disappear.
It is simplistic to blame everything on cinema but one cannot deny that movies transmit cultural codes and behaviours. For instance, right after Swathiâs murder, a Facebook user, who belongs to a starâs fan club posted a comment saying women like Swathi deserved to die â ââŚpasanga lyf ah spoil pandra girl evala irundhalum matta pannanumâ. Any girl who âspoilsâ a boyâs life by rejecting him deserves to die, is this noble manâs thought. In a land where romance is so fraught with difficulty and moral policing is routine, we often take our cues about how to make the next move from our favourite people onscreen. The college boy who lusts after the girl-next-door does not see himself as the lecherous villain who is assaulting herâŚhe sees himself as the righteous hero who is giving her what she deserves. He has learnt it from the men we cheer for in the darkness of a cinema hall, with the background music manipulating our minds and telling us exactly how weâre supposed to feel about whatâs happening.
Misogyny is not exclusive to Tamil cinema certainly. A while ago, a woman named Annapurna Sunkara had made a Youtube video about how women are portrayed in poor light in Telugu films. The backlash and abuse she faced from movie stars and their fans was unbelievable to say the least. So no, misogyny is not limited to Kollywood but I honestly cannot remember the last Tamil film I watched in which women were not called âfigureâ repeatedly. This objectification and reduction of women to their bodies is so normalized that it doesnât even make us uncomfortable any more. We sit passively in our seats, with our kids, watching the hero and his machans take a piss on the women in their lives and laugh at the comedy that this is supposed to be. But enough is enough, boys. Itâs time we had this conversation. You may not be guilty of this particular crime but you are guilty of perpetuating a culture that condones it. We all are.
How, then, does one make a good romance movie, you ask? Iâm not convinced alcohol would help but start by seeing women as real people with minds and opinions of their own. And Iâm sure you will âfigureâ it out.