Too many characters, too many stories, too much rain and too much alcohol. Sorry, Subbaraj, this goddess wasn’t pleased

Iraivi A film about women who bear everything and put up with anything
Features Tuesday, June 07, 2016 - 17:44

Cast: SJ Surya, Vijay Sethupathi, Bobby Simha, Kamalini Mukherjee, Anjali

Director: Karthik Subbaraj

I get excited when someone makes a film on women, women’s rights, feminism etc. After all, in most films, the only thing we ever get to know about the heroine is that she’s beautiful and has a heart just like the hero’s mother. I devoured Pizza and slurped up Jigarthanda, so I was sure that Iraivi would be a good watch. But I came away feeling disappointed. And bored. I’m yet to decide which of the two I felt more.

Iraivi is about three men and the women in their lives. There’s Arul (SJ Surya), a director who has made a film that’s stuck in the cans because he had a tiff with the producer. Arul delivers lectures on films, how film-makers should behave, the greatness of Ilayaraja’s music and so on whenever he gets drunk. Which is all the time.

There’s Arul’s brother, Jagan (Bobby Simha), who is a college student and part-time thug. Jagan hits people on the head, asks questions about Tamil epics to his professors and is generally a do-no-gooder. There’s Michael (Vijay Sethupathi), who is a full-time thug. Michael’s job is to be angry with anyone who makes Arul angry. So to sum up, we have three men who are very angry and not too bright.

Arul is married to Yazhini (Kamalini Mukherjee), who works in an IT company and keeps threatening to leave him for his alcoholism. Michael is in a casual sex relationship with Malar (Pooja Devariya), an artist, but he ends up marrying Ponni (Anjali) because Malar doesn’t want to marry him. And oh, I almost forgot, there’s Arul and Jagan’s mother (Vadivukkarassi) who plays a coma patient for the entire film barring her opening scene.

This galaxy of characters is connected through the friendship that the three men share. The men do (moronic) things that create a ripple effect. The women are engulfed by the waves. The women wait for things to get better. The men don’t oblige. This goes on ad infinitum. The women in Iraivi may slap their men once in a while when they lose their cool (they are also slapped in return – it’s all about equality) but they are incapable of exercising choice. They are the sort who put up with any amount of bullshit. They can best be described by what Arul says towards the end, ‘Woman: she who bears everything and puts up with anything.’

Except, this is a horrid generalization that has done women no favours. In real life, now more than ever before, women across social classes are exercising choice, refusing to obey patriarchal social norms, and displaying their unwillingness to put up with anything and everything. And ironically, it is the idea that a woman is she who puts up with it all that’s thrown at her when she rebels.

The bride who cancels the wedding because the groom demanded dowry, the rape survivor who refuses the judge’s offer that she marry her rapist, the pregnant wife who walks out of the marriage because the in-laws want a sex-selective abortion, the minor girl who is steadfast in her determination to go to school and not get married, the intern who sues her powerful boss for making sexual advances…we see none of this agency in the female characters who appear in Iraivi. They are like the stone goddesses who become pawns in the games that the men play in the film though they may shriek now and then.

The problem is, Karthik Subbaraj has made a film that he thinks has revolutionary ideas but his notions of women’s liberation is still entrenched in patriarchal thought. Take, for instance, Malar – the artist who doesn’t want to marry Michael but just have sex with him. It is, perhaps, the first time in Tamil cinema that a woman has said ‘I just want to fuck’ but then, the narrative burdens her with a sob-story to make this seem acceptable. Malar is a widow who is still mentally devoted to her husband. She sleeps with another man for her physical needs but cannot marry him because she doesn’t want marriage again. She’s mentally Kannagi even if she may not be so physically. In OK Kanmani, Mani Ratnam gave Nithya Menen’s character a similar sob-story to justify why she wants to be in a live- in – her parents’ traumatic divorce.

In real life, women get into casual sex relationships, hook-ups, and live-ins for exactly the same reasons as men: they don’t want the commitment, they don’t believe in the institution of marriage, they are taking it slow. This happens all over India, including Tamil Nadu. Why give unnecessary ‘emotional’ justifications for it? Why not show it the way it is? Plenty of characters in Indian films have already done so – Queen, Piku, Margarita with a Straw, Masaan, Phobia to mention a few. And to top it all, Malar weeps secretly when she breaks up with Michael for ‘his own good’! Sigh.Films like Marupadiyum (1993) and Sati Leelavathi (1995) have already questioned the importance that society places exclusively on women’s chastity, so it’s quite disappointing that more than two decades later, we’re still hesitant to push the envelope when it comes to women exploring love or sex independent of the institution of marriage.

But my greatest problem with the film lies in how neatly it cleaves the masculine and the feminine. The men are angry, violent, insensitive, and incapable of change. We’re expected to understand why they are like this and even sympathize with it. The women are like characters from Waiting for Godot, hoping that someday, things will get better without taking charge of their own lives. This is a very simplistic depiction and does injustice to both genders. It is also unreal though we may be tricked into believing that it is completely realistic.

Towards the end, Subbaraj does suggest that women ought to stop depending on men for their happiness but sadly, even then, none of his female characters MAKE that choice actively. The men do it on their behalf.  More than anything else, I got bored despite the commendable performances of the cast. There are too many characters, too many stories, too much rain and too much alcohol. I felt close to falling into a coma myself. Sorry, Subbaraj, this goddess wasn’t pleased.

Also read: Iravi controversy: The inside story of the war between Karthik Subbaraj and producers