"I am the chief servant here. In return for the work I do, I get a place to stay, food and a little affection," says Banupriya, holding a ladle and smiling wryly, as an open-mouthed Urvashi looks on unblinking.
With these words, the actor essaying the role of a homemaker who runs a family in Agra, echoes the lament of women across the country. The smile accompanying this statement proves that little has changed for women since 1994, when the first Magalir Mattum released.
Director Bramma has written and directed a film that once again celebrates friendship among women as they crusade against everyday sexism. To start off, the film is a laugh riot. What else can you expect, with an actor like Urvashi at the helm of affairs? Gomatha, the character she plays, is a widow and a tuition teacher. Her son leaves to Qatar for work and now, with no pressing responsibilities and duties to fulfill, she finds herself reminiscing about her college days and the two best friends that she lost touch with.
We've seen past lovers connecting through social media in Pa.Paandi but this time, it's the turn of women who last met each other when they were teenagers. In 1978, to be precise. Enter Jyothika, to loud rounds of applause - all she has to do is put on a pair of sunglasses, chew some gum and get on a bike and the audience in the theatre went absolutely crazy (watch out 'lady superstar' Nayantara!).
The actor, who features as filmmaker Prabhavathi, is Gomatha's future daughter-in-law and is set to help the older woman reconnect with her friends. Soon, you get a glimpse of the stifling lives of Banupriya (Rani) and Saranya (Subbulakshmi). Their experiences constantly move you to tears. But perhaps what is worse, is how they have silently accepted what patriarchy doles out to them.
The apathy and incompetence displayed by their respective husbands leave you gritting your teeth. Unfortunately, it is not even exaggerated. These are men you encounter in your everyday life. The ones who put you down because you are a woman and take you for granted because you are bound by a contract named 'marriage'.
The director cleverly intersperses these current day happenings, with scenes from their hostel life which tell you how society has moulded these women into shadows of their previous selves.
Cinematographer S.Manikandan leaves you mesmerised with these flashbacks. You almost feel like you are standing there in every scene, as they run through the hostel to escape a nightmarish warden. A special mention has to be made to the three women who played the younger roles of the homemakers. The casting could not have been better.
Mohamaad Gibran adds to the intensity of the scenes with his music and keeps you glued to the screen even when Saranya merely stares at herself in a dirty bathroom mirror at home.
The lump in your throat gets harder to swallow, as the first half progresses and you watch these women through the eyes of a young filmmaker.
Moved by their silent suffering, Prabhavati decides to take them on a road trip which turns their world around. This is where the film falters.
Since her return to Tamil cinema, Jyothika has projected herself as an actor who believes in doing women-centric films. However, Tamil cinema is still struggling to understand feminism and portray it in a way that won't make the audience uncomfortable. We saw it in 36 Vayathinilae, where Vasanthi had to, before celebrating her success, reiterate her commitment to her husband who'd treated her shabbily. And we see such a compromise again in Magalir Mattum.
Prabhavathi, for instance, hates all men before she meets 'the one' and only wears western clothes with aviators. She also rides a motorbike to signal her 'empowerment'. The depiction falls neatly in line with the stereotype of a feminist.
Bramma also goes overboard with the ambition he sets for the Prabhavathi. In addition to being a filmmaker, a 'feminist', a public speaker, a doting daughter-in-law and planning road trips, Prabhavathi also finds the time to get inter-caste couples married. And one of these couples is named 'Kaushalya' and 'Shankar', an unfortunate reference to a terrible tragedy that Tamil Nadu is yet to recover from.
There are also lines like "According to me, woman empowerment is falling in love with who you want and marrying that person" which are simplistic and don't confront the very real problems posed by caste and patriarchy.
In his eagerness to give us an "empowered" woman, Bramma has Prabhavati dictating to other women what they should be doing, almost as if she's taken on the traditional role of the man. In the second half, there's a scene when then the three homemakers hoot in joy when they hear that a tribe in Chhattisgarh expects the man to pay dowry and not the woman. While this is an interesting piece of trivia for the audience, one wonders if the role reversal is anything to be celebrated.
Magalir Mattum has its heart in the right place. It's clear that the film wants people to understand the lives of women but it struggles to articulate their stories within the pop culture framework of "empowerment". A 3-day trip, away from the family, is enough to solve the problems of the women in the film. While it's enjoyable to watch this (we don't have too many wish fulfillment films with women, after all), one should be aware that it can only be the beginning of the real fight.