The moment the trailer for Mani Ratnam's recent film Kaatru Veliyidai came out, it was clear that the love story between its lead pair had shades of grey to it. It seemed to veer towards portraying an abusive relationship and this was an exciting promise, because Kollywood has seldom explored such an angle.
While Puriyadha Pudhir, the 1990 thriller gave us a sadistic husband (Raghuvaran) who enjoys torturing his wife, he was cast as the villain. It was also one of the few Indian films to have recognised marital rape.
However, when the abuser happens to be the hero, the narrative, and consequently the audience, hardly acknowledge the abuse.
The hero's righteous slap
What is recognised by the law as domestic violence is glorified in films as a man's necessary 'taming' of his upstart wife or girlfriend.
Take the 1982 film Sakalakala Vallavan, in which Kamal plays the role of a young man, Velu, who is out to seek vengeance because his sister, Valli, is raped by a rich man. He cheats and marries the rich man's snobbish sister to ensure that Valli gets "justice". That is, he ensures that Valli marries her rapist, and stays married, because otherwise, the rapist's own sister will be in trouble. Talk about a complicated plot!
The hero landing a slap on the heroine's face to "bring her back to her senses" or humiliate her to make her understand her place as a "woman" is routine in Tamil cinema, and is something we continue to see on screen today. These scenes throb with the hero's righteousness and are written in a way to suggest that the heroine was asking for it, and totally deserved the violence.
What's worse, the woman actually falls in love with the man for treating her this way! The nauseating scene from Sivakasi in which Asin's character falls in love with Vijay's after he humiliates her on the road is only one such example.
The 'naughty' hero with two women
A man married to two women or having a fling with one while being married to another is a source of comedy in Tamil cinema. Or it is something to be condoned and "understood".
In Chinna Veedu, Bhagyaraj plays a man who marries a fat woman (Kalpana). He insults her in every which way possible and also has an extramarital affair, but she succeeds in winning him back through her patience and erm...willingness to completely strip herself of any sense of self esteem.
Gopurangal Saivathillai, too, is along similar lines with the infamous Arukkani (Suhaasini) transforming into a beauty after a visit to the parlour, and succeeding in winning her husband's heart. The very man who cheated and married another woman (Radha), and had been cohabiting in a house where Arukkani decides to work as the domestic help.
In Rettaivaal Kuruvi, the remake of a Hollywood film, Mohan plays Gopi who loves two assertive women "equally" - he marries both, impregnates both and becomes a father of both children on the same day. And this was considered to be a hilarious comedy. A woman cheating on her husband, even today, would not receive a sympathetic portrayal and would be castigated as a slut.
The artistic hero's tantrums
The male artist in cinema gets to throw tantrums and behave badly because...ART! His creative passions, it would seem, are enough to justify any amount of unjust treatment to others.
Take Sindhu Bhairavi, for example. A film that's often cited whenever there's a discussion on "strong female characters" from Tamil cinema. JKB (Sivakumar), a famous carnatic singer, is impatient with his wife Bhairavi (Sulakshana) because she's a "gnanasooniyam", and to make it worse, unable to bear children.
He then falls for Sindhu (Suhaasini), who is his intellectual equal, and the two of them have an affair. To cut a long story short, the two women fall over each other to make life better for the man - they help him get through his alcoholism, help him recover his health, and the strong Sindhu begets him the baby Bhairavi could not give him. She then makes a clean exit from their life because she is a strong woman, did you forget?
Sindhu's exit is much celebrated because it's seen as her defiance of society, but one wonders how else the director could have resolved the conflict without making JKB look like a total cad. Not to mention he walks away with the best deal - baby, wife, career, and social respect to boot.
Iraivi is another film where the male artist (SJ Suryah plays Arul, a director whose film is stuck in the cans) wallows in self pity and alcohol, and ill treats his wife. She files for divorce, prepares to marry another man, but decides to go back to her husband after all.
Although the film recognises that Arul's actions hurt his wife, there are many scenes which sound like they were written to justify Arul's "pain" only because he's an artist. For instance, when his wife asks him why he can't just make another film, he says, "Could you have given birth to another child when our daughter was inside you?" Quite an irony that, appropriating an exclusively female biological experience to justify a behaviour that's possible only because of male privilege.
The hero as captor
The Stockholm syndrome is a favourite with filmmakers to justify the romanticization of a woman's abduction.
Whether it's a film like Sethu where the hero threatens to kill the woman if she doesn't comply with him, or a Guna where a mentally unsound man abducts a woman, the victim is shown to reciprocate eventually. And if you say you are tired of this validation, you'll be told (condescendingly) that this is Stockholm syndrome, stupid.
However, one wonders why we never see a male victim responding to a woman captor's affections in a similar vein. Remember Julie Ganapathy, the remake of Misery? The abductor is portrayed as an unattractive woman and never is her love taken seriously. And what happens to her in the end? She's killed by the victim, who never for a moment wondered if he was in love with her.
And finally, the hero as abuser
Given this long history of problematic portrayals of abusive relationships that were never recognised as such, Kaatru Veliyidai deserves credit for acknowledging that its hero is an abuser.
VC (Karthi) twists Leela's (Aditi Rao Hydari) hand behind her back, shouts at her, treats her abominably and the reason, it's suggested, is his parents' own violent marriage. The characters around VC and Leela recognise that this is abuse, too. VC's colleagues don't approve of his behaviour, though strangely, Leela's friend Nidhi (Rukmini), chooses to call this "love" and doesn't attempt to talk her friend out of it.
The relationship between VC and Leela is reminiscent of what we saw between Inba (Madhavan) and Sashi (Meera Jasmine) in Ayudha Ezhuthu, only the first pair is far removed from the second in social class and standing.
VC is a sophisticated Air Force pilot; Inba was a gangster. Sashi was an ordinary but spirited woman living in a slum; Leela is a doctor - though I've never seen a doctor walking around with huge jhumkas and long, loose hair while on duty, but never mind.
Both women become pregnant through their respective abusive partners. However, both Inba and Sashi desire the baby while it's only Leela who wants hers. VC, as he says, doesn't think he can be a good father and washes his hands off the responsibility.
Sashi aborts her baby when she realises that Inba will not change his violent ways. Interestingly, it's not because of his violence towards her that she makes this decision - it's because of his violent job. In other words, it's not the violence in the marriage itself which troubles her but what happens outside of it.
In Kaatru Veliyidai, Leela decides to go ahead and have the baby without telling VC that she's keeping the pregnancy. Much like Sindhu Bhairavi, we're expected to think that this is somehow progressive because it goes against social norms but where exactly does Leela go with her decision?
In the end, VC gets back the woman he abused along with the bonus of a child he had no part in raising (like JKB in Sindhu Bhairavi). The question of his violence towards Leela apparently gets resolved because he spent a few years pining for her in a Pakistani prison. Anyone who knows anything about abusive relationships and how they work would attest that such a "reformation" is quite unreal.
Is this then not the right way to read the ending? Are we to see it, instead, as Leela being drawn to VC like a moth to a flame, flinging herself to self-destruction in an ethereal anarkali?
One wishes Mani Ratnam had made a film with better characterisation and a stronger script if that were indeed the case, because as it stands, all we see is a happy family reunion in the sands.