Men passing derogatory comments on women’s outfits and moral policing women for their choice of clothes is so normalised that these tropes remain pervasive in mainstream Tamil cinema.

Santhanam and Shirin Kanchwala in a screengrab from Dikkiloona trailerScreengrab/ YouTube- Zee5
Flix Kollywood Friday, November 26, 2021 - 16:08

Donning a black top and a choker, Samantha sports a ‘modern’ look as Khatija, while Nayanthara, who is essaying the role of Kanmani, is spotted in a saree. These were their first-look posters from the upcoming romantic drama Kaathuvaakula Rendu Kaadhal, which co-stars Vijay Sethupathi. The much-anticipated posters created a lot of hype among fans. They even had some fans guessing that the film will employ the infamous ‘Modern vs Traditional Girl’ formula.

In a number of films in the past, one of the female protagonists is shown as a ‘traditional’ woman who is usually associated with attributes like soft-spoken, reserved, conventional and ‘homely’, and at the other end of the spectrum, we find the ‘modern’ woman, who is often outspoken, fun-loving, bold and ‘progressive’. It’d be premature to ascertain if there is any truth to the speculations made by fans about Kaathuvaakula Rendu Kaadhal as it’s yet to release. However, the same cannot be said about earlier Tamil films that had used the ‘Modern vs Traditional Girl’ formula to typecast women on the basis of how they dress. Films like Kho, Parthiban Kanavu and Gopurangal Saivathillai serve as examples. And unfortunately confining female characters to such simplistic duality isn’t the only problem with how Tamil cinema portrays the relationship between its ‘heroines’ and their clothing.

You’d be surprised at the number of films that use women’s clothing as a layer to the script – not to add depth to their characterisation but to typecast them. “You watch the man being introduced as a thinking individual with a vision and a philosophy to boot, but when it comes to the woman in the film, watch as the camera lovingly caresses every contour of her body. She doesn’t behave anything like the aspiring activist she is,” film professor and gender activist Uma Vangal says in a TedX event, where she walks her audience through the introductory sequences of the male and female protagonists in the Tamil film Ghajini. From chiffon sarees in hill stations (2013 movie Endrendrum Punnagai) to ballroom gowns in deserts (2012 film Oru Kal Oru Kannadi), the clothes worn by women is not only logic-defying but has very little to do with the characterisation or plot of the film.

Suriya's introductory scene from Ghajini features him delivering a speech, while Asin, who aspires to become a
social activist is seen in a song describing her beauty. Credit:  YouTube- Filmy Score, Khafa Entertainment

Casual misogyny in Tamil cinema

Men passing derogatory comments about women’s outfits, taking a jibe at them for their clothing and moral policing them for their choice of clothes has also been commonplace in Tamil cinema. The extent of its normalisation is perhaps the reason why we find objectionable remarks on women being passed off as comedy. Case in point: Dikkiloona which premiered on Over-the-top (OTT) platform Zee5 in September 2021.

“Freedom is not about living as per your wishes but living in a way that’s acceptable to society,” Mani, the protagonist played by Santhanam – who passes double entendre and blatantly sexist remarks about women in almost every other film – says in a scene. “Konjam izhutha avundhrum, idhu suthanthiram,” (Your dress will come off if someone tugs it, you call this freedom), ‘Karuthu’ master Mani is heard saying in his holier-than-thou voice, while wearing a veshti (which apparently will not come off if someone pulls it). This and other scenes from the time-travel film have been rightfully called out by many on social media. If only viewers could use a ‘high-tech’ time machine like the one in the film to fix the director and his team’s notions on comedy that are stuck in a time warp.

Filled with patriarchal platitudes and overtones, films in the past have given a platform for misogynistic dialogues and tropes. And almost as if to proudly proclaim how distasteful Kollywood dialogues have been in the past, a video titled “Sivakasi Tamil Movie – Vijay ‘criticises’ Asin’s ‘skimpy’ outfit” has been posted from a verified handle on YouTube and is still available to watch – in 2021.

In the video from the 2005 film, when Hema (Asin) is inappropriately touched by a stranger, she beats him with her slippers and people soon gather around to witness the ruckus. Muthappa (Vijay) enters the screen and reprimands the harasser (not with the same kind of conviction with which he passes remarks about the heroine though) once again because how else would he assert that he is the ‘hero’? In a series of extremely problematic remarks, Muthappa then shames Hema for wearing a short skirt and a sleeveless top instead of a saree and blouse. And the victim blaming does not stop there. “Reveal your body to your one true partner. If you reveal it to everyone else, they would all want to live with you,” he states, adding that men will treat women like goddesses, like Mahalakshmi to be precise, if they wear a saree and behave ‘appropriately’.

It is not just Vijay, think of any big name from Tamil cinema and you’d be able to find similar dialogues and scenes bashing women for the way they dress. If Baba’s Rajini advises a group of girls not to exercise on their terrace wearing clothes they feel comfortable in, Priyasakhi’s Sandhana Krishnan (Madhavan) tells his wife what kind of lounge wear is appropriate to wear in the living room. The problems between the couple resolve only when Priya (Sadha) gives in and adopts her in-laws’ traditional way of life. Clad in a saree, Sadha is seen in a montage of ‘Engal Veetil Ella Naalum Karthigai’ isque shots towards the end of the film, promoting the trope of love’s all-forgiving absolution.

Once again, women are conditioned to believe that they need to put everyone’s needs and thoughts before their own comfort. People who gossip, stalk, molest and harass are not put on trial in these films but it is women’s agency over their choices and decisions that goes for a toss. Patriarchy much?

Aarumugam (Suriya), a thug, shouts at Mahalakshmi (Trisha) and her friends in Aaru when they are going about minding their business at a restaurant till 10.30 pm. “How do you people wear jeans and a crop top revealing your waist, why don’t you stitch lengthier clothes for yourselves? And then you can’t stop whining when someone abducts or kidnaps you,” Aarumugam says. In response, Mahalakshmi tells her friend that although it was insulting to them, it is true.

Be it the scene from Sivakasi which caters to male gaze, or Mahalakshmi’s response in Aaru that sounds quite unrealistic, these dialogues and sequences clearly indicate the absence of female presence and perspective behind the screens. Instead of cinema inspiring people to speak up against their abusers, it depicts women remaining silent with a bowed head, or worse validating the hero’s actions.

More recent examples, such as the lyrics “Kaanchi Patta Vittuputtu Kerchieepu Kattuthunga (Women are draped in kerchief instead of Kanchipuram silk sarees)” from Hiphop Tamizha’s hit 2012 number ‘Club le Mubbu le’ and the ‘Duppatta Podunga Doli’ meme trend, also spell out sexism in bold letters.

The 2019 film Aadai was expected to discuss the taboos around women’s clothing, but instead it uses its plot and an animated story about Nangeli and her ‘noble’ fight against breast tax to reiterate problematic notions like women having to pay a higher price for their freedom. Kamini (Amala Paul), the protagonist is initially projected as an outlier who claims to be a feminist. Unlike conventional female leads, she is flawed. She has an elaborate introduction scene that closely resembles the introductory sequences for heroes but she does not break into punch dialogues to put her point across. When she asks her friend Jenny how she wears sarees since they are so uncomfortable, the latter points out how high heels are uncomfortable too and adds that it comes down to each individual’s choices. The underlying theme, however, focuses on proving Kamini wrong for misusing her freedom and shows her in poor light for failing to acknowledge how a woman’s body is linked to her ‘modesty’ and ‘dignity’, when that is the very idea the film was expected to challenge.

READ: Why ‘Aadai’ is yet another example of male directors misrepresenting feminism


Positive representation in recent years

Sixteen years after the release of Sivakasi, Vijay spoke up against sexual harassment of women and condemned the culture of victim blaming in a deleted scene from Master (out of all the scenes, that was the one that did not make it to the final cut). Any attempt at unlearning patriarchal and misogynistic notions is largely appreciated but one wonders if heroes simply dub dialogues to woo audiences or whether they genuinely believe in course correction.

In recent times, filmmakers have made significant strides towards unlearning toxic masculinity and sexism. “Why do you care whether she is opting for an abortion, dressed ‘inappropriately’, if she is nude, or whether she is a good or bad person? Regardless of what she does, it’s her life. Just because you think she is wrong, do you get to do whatever you want?” Nayanthara, who is fondly called ‘Lady Superstar’ by fans, questions a psychopath who abducts, sexually harasses women and later justifies his actions by arguing that the victims weren’t virtuous women. This ‘punch dialogue’ from this year’s Netrikann is a rare example of a female protagonist calling out victim blaming. 

Similarly, the makers of Nerkonda Paarvai, the Kollywood remake of hit Bollywood film Pink, deserve due credit for not compromising on the core messaging, unlike the Telugu remake Vakeel Saab. Pawan Kalyan’s Tollywood film received flak online for portraying the three female protagonists as ‘ideal’ victims who were virtuous. While Pink’s Minal is a dancer and her costumes complement the rebellious side to her personality, Pallavi in Vakeel Saab is a software engineer. Instead of attending parties, Vakeel Saab’s women go to the temple wearing sarees.

In the original, the protagonists go out for a drink with three boys who try to misbehave with them and molest them. With its tagline ‘No means No’, the film created awareness around consent and how the circumstances or details about the victim are irrelevant and cannot be used as an excuse to violate their consent. In the Telugu remake, we find the women being stranded on a deserted road at night after their cab breaks down, and not at a music concert like the original. At the same time, the makers of the Tamil remake, Nerkonda Paarvai (2019), chose to retain those aspects of the original, ensuring that they don’t derail the discussion around the vilifying nature of victim blaming.

The 2019 film Sivappu Manjal Pachai had a scene where the hero’s mother wonders why men who wear women’s clothing are ridiculed and why it is perceived as something they should be embarrassed about.

The protagonists in 'Maguva Maguva' song from Vakeel Saab. Credit; YouTube/ Aditya Music

Protagonists in Nerkonda Paarvai. Credit: Screengrabs/YouTube- Zee Music South 

Protagonists in 'Jeenay De Mujhe' song from Pink. Credit: YouTube/Times Music

Filmmakers who make gender sensitive, diverse, in-depth, well-informed and culturally sensitive works can go a long way towards fighting sexism and be instrumental in creating better roles for women in mainstream cinema.

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