Nayanthara's 'Dora' and the growing league of South India's woman superstars

It is a sign of the times that we're seeing more women actors taking centerstage on hoardings.
Nayanthara's 'Dora' and the growing league of South India's woman superstars
Nayanthara's 'Dora' and the growing league of South India's woman superstars
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With Nayanthara's Dora set to release on Friday, Kollywood is seeing yet another film powered by a woman star. Nayan, as she's popularly known, is among the most marketable women stars today, and is greeted with claps and whistles usually reserved for the hero when she comes on screen.

Contemporary Bollywood is well ahead of the South Indian film industries when it comes to women-centred cinema, exploring a wide range of subjects like sexuality, consent, the institution of marriage, and adopting a largely non-judgmental tone when it comes to women and morality.

Actors like Kangana Ranaut, Anushka Sharma, Vidya Balan, Radhika Apte, Alia Bhatt, Sonam Kapoor, Rani Mukherjee, Sridevi, Priyanka Chopra, and Taapsee Pannu, among others, have had successful films where they were either the biggest stars in the cast, or the film revolved around their story arc.

In the South, although we've had actors like Vijayashanti who have had solo releases in the past, the content by itself did not overturn patriarchal norms. However, a woman actor taking on the role of the hero, in itself, was novel for those times and one cannot deny the impact that they had, however problematic they might have been in retrospect.

Contemporary woman-centric South Indian cinema offers some much needed female perspective, but is still hesitant to cross certain boundaries. However, with more success, producers, directors and actors, too, are likely to become bolder with the kind of themes they're willing to look at.

In Kerala, Manju Warrier has become a name to reckon with. Always loved for her talent, the actor has grown in stature since her powerful comeback with How Old Are You? which took a critical look at gender disparity within the family. She has since gone on to do films with big stars like Mohanlal but continues to sign projects where she's the main lead - Kamal's Aami based on the life of Kamala Das being the latest.

Parvathy is a fast rising star who has a made a name for herself for pulling off substantial roles with aplomb. And if you noticed, in Take Off, her name appears first in the credits - justifiably so considering she shoulders most of the film.

Other than Nayanthara, Jyothika and Trisha are two other female actors who appear to be keen to do solo releases. Jyothika's comeback film was the Tamil remake of How Old Are You? (36 Vayadhiniley) and she will soon be seen in Magalir Mattum, yet another woman-centric project. Interestingly, Jyothika had played the lead role in Snehithiye several years ago and that was a film which had an almost fully female cast.

Most films in Trisha's career graph have been of the masala variety where she's had nothing much to do other than look pretty and dance. However, when given the opportunity, the actor has proved her mettle. Abhiyum Naanum revolved around her relationship with her father (Prakash Raj) and although Ganesh Venkatraman played the male lead, she was clearly the star of the film.

In Kodi, although Dhanush appeared in a dual role, it was Trisha's character which drove the film ahead and she got to play a very interesting female villain. The actor is doing the Tamil remake of Anushka Sharma's NH10 and appears to be looking for films where she has substantial roles.

Anushka Shetty is a popular actor in Tollywood as well as Tamil cinema. She shot to fame with Arundhati and is probably the only woman actor after Ramya Krishnan who swings between glamorous and stately roles with ease.

In Rudhramadevi, in which Anushka plays a princess who disguises herself as a prince to keep her kingdom safe, the makers actually show menstrual blood running down the legs of the young girl dressed as a boy when she gets her first period - and this is done tastefully and respectfully. Considering we still do not discuss menstruation openly, it was refreshing to see a scene like this in a mainstream film.

Anushka's Size Zero, which was on the exploitation that happens in the weight loss industry, saw her piling on the kilos in a bid to look authentic for the role. The film didn't do well but touched upon the unfair beauty standards imposed on women in society.

Sandalwood had two recent releases - Urvi and Shuddhi - each of them with three female actors in the lead and no male star as part of the cast. Both films generated quite a bit of excitement, usually reserved only for films with male stars.

Kiragoorina Gayyaligalu which released in 2016 was critically acclaimed for its strong female protagonists and took on a wide range of issues from casteism to gender inequality.

Priyamani, essaying the role of a sex worker in Idolle Ramayana, brought dignity to a character who is usually vilified in celluloid. The film largely features her and Prakash Raj and Priyamani's spunky performance was a big plus.

Actors like her, Shraddha Srinath (who did U Turn which revolved around her character's actions), and Shruti Hariharan look ready to take on films with substantial roles when given the opportunity.

Most of these women-centric films in the South are made on modest budgets, even if the star is someone bankable. However, it is a sign of the times that we're seeing more and more women actors taking centrestage in the large hoardings that announce a film's release.

At the end of the day, it is usually economics that succeeds in driving social change and these films will have to get the box-office ringing if we've to see more of them.

Will Nayanthara's Dora steer clear of the usual misogynistic traps of the horror genre and triumph in commerce as well as content? Let's wait and watch!

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