From 'Sakuntalai' to 'Game Over': Female friendships in Tamil cinema

Beyond the 'messenger' friend between the hero and the heroine, there have been some interesting portrayals of female friendship in Tamil cinema.
From 'Sakuntalai' to 'Game Over': Female friendships in Tamil cinema
From 'Sakuntalai' to 'Game Over': Female friendships in Tamil cinema
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Tamil cinema has plenty of films that celebrate bromance - from the ‘Andha naal nyabagam nenjile vandhade’ song to the ‘Nanbenda!’ dialogue from today. However, though the industry has mostly prioritised male characters and their stories, it has also made some space for its women on screen, even if small.

These portrayals of female friendship may not pass the Bechdel Test, but there are interesting arcs taking off from the brief interactions among women on screen that are worth noting. Veering between the all-sacrificing friend and the adjunct friend who is only present to egg the heroine on to get the hero, Tamil cinema has explored a few meaningful relationships among women, some of which come across as more layered and transcendental.

In order to discuss female friendships on screen, one has to keenly observe the side-lines of a narrative, given that films focusing entirely on women and their relationships are almost non-existent.

The perfect companion

Tamil writer Jeeva Sundari observes that as early as the 1940s, when Sakuntalai was made starring MS Subbulakshmi, friendship among women has been shown on screen in Tamil cinema.

“It is based on a mythological story and the lead character Sakuntalai was always surrounded by her friends with whom she’d share her happiness and sorrows. Female friendship did exist on screen. The term ‘thozhigal’ has always been around and it perhaps comes from Sangam era literature,” she explains.

While the friends in such films are usually relegated to the margins, their presence is pivotal to the female lead’s character sketch - that she had women friends to confide in and perhaps had a social life not involving men.

“In earlier days, when women were not allowed to leave their homes, having friends meant relatives and neighbours. When women started going out for their education, bonds were formed outside families. This is true in real life and cinema, too, followed the same trajectory,” says Jeeva Sundari.

She notes that in most of A Bhimsingh’s films, a duet involving two women was a regular feature.

“The ‘Athan… Ennathan’ song from Paava Mannippu has Savitri and Devika, who played sisters, but as the plot would have it, they grow together as friends, sharing their secrets, their love,” she points out.

The early films, therefore, mainly showed friendships between sisters, mother and daughter and sometimes other relatives. In later years, too, this trend persisted. Take for example the ‘Malligaye Malligaye’ song from the 1998 Tamil film Ninaithen Vanthai, in which Devayani and Rambha played sisters and sang about their would-be husband.

Writer Archanaa Sekar adds that with time, female friendships on screen went beyond family circles.

“In the film Adhe Kangal (1967), in one of the earliest scenes, Kanchana comes home with a group of her girlfriends and says that they will be staying with her for the vacation. Now this meant that women were studying while being away from their homes, and these women were allowed to stay over at their friend’s place for the holidays. This is an interesting piece of detail for us to notice and is very telling of the period in which this film was made,” she says.

However, she also points out that their roles had no meaning apart from this.

Sisters before misters

However, there have been some films which have shown female friends as more than just a gaggle. Mayangukiral Oru Maadhu (1975) by SP Muthuraman, starring Sujatha in the lead role, is one such film.

Although the film takes a moralistic tone from the word go, it shows a beautiful bond between its lead character Kalpana (Sujatha) and her friend Revathy (Fatafat Jayalaxmi). Kalpana is cheated by a lover and ends up having to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. Though Mayangukiral was made in the ‘70s and abortion is not illegal in India, it’s considered to be a taboo even today.

Talking about Mayangukiral, Jeeva Sundari says, “Even in her most desperate times, her friend is the one who stands by her side. However, if you were to ask if the friendship continues, unfortunately, it doesn’t. Which is close to reality. For many women, sustaining friendship beyond college is improbable. Especially since their lives are so changed by marriage.”

In the film, the friend who stood by her when she was at her lowest and helped her brave the storm, all but vanishes in the second half.

Interestingly, in 2017, Magalir Mattum 2 was made to address this very issue - of women reconnecting with their childhood friends and reigniting relationships that they rarely get to keep as life goes on. Director Bramma says that he wrote the story based on real events from his mother’s life.

“My mother would repeatedly talk to me about her friends. She was married when she turned 16, and at 17 she had me. I’ve heard her stories about them all my life,” he shares.

“Cinema reflects real life. In real life, women were not allowed to cherish their friendships but things are changing now. When we make a film on this premise, we need not call it a woman-centric film just like how we need not call Thalapathi a male-centric film. Friendship among young girls or women should be portrayed in every other film and it need not be an exclusive script,” he adds.

Another film with an achingly beautiful friendship between two women characters is Vattathukkul Chadhuram (1978), one more SP Muthuraman film which starred Latha and Sumithra.

“Latha and Sumithra play childhood friends and the two of them run away from their homes, a unique story in Tamil cinema at that point. Sumitha plays a junior artiste who is an escort sometimes and Latha’s character ends up taking the same route just so she can help her friend continue her studies. It makes us question if such a friendship can exist in real life, but it is true that such stories have been told in Tamil cinema,” Jeeva Sundari says.

The friend in the background

Tamil cinema has plenty of examples of the “messenger” friend who remain nothing but a pawn in the hero-heroine’s love story. For instance, films like Neethane En Ponvasantham, in which, ironically, Samantha and Vidyullekha play besties from school. The film features no meaningful conversation between the two and all we get is the friend trying to play the mediator in the strained on and off love between Samantha and Jiiva’s characters.

“Vijay’s Bigil is another example. The women in it became 11 issues for the hero to handle. The only time the girls are shown together is when they decide that they do not want the hero to coach them. We don’t see anything more about their friendship otherwise. Another impossible track to understand is this - if the girls knew two of their best players (and friends) were missing, why did they need a male coach/hero to tell them?” Archanaa asks.

She continues, “I think portrayals will become more real if the friends are treated as equals. Instead of the lead character being shown to have certain type of friends, we need to ask ‘what kind of a friend is she?’ to be able to understand the dynamics of their relationship together.”

In that sense, Aruvi (2017) sets a great standard for the portrayal of friendship. The relationship between Emily and Aruvi is one between equals and the two stand up for each other when the other is in need. The adult comedy 90ml is another example in which each of the women’s problems is collectively solved by the others. No one is made to seem unimportant in this film, with Oviya’s character encouraging her friends to “rip off the bandaid” when it comes to dealing with their problems.

The two wives fantasy

Archanaa also leads us to acknowledge an unusual display of sisterhood between two wives who are married to the same man in Tamil cinema.

“This female solidarity between two women who are in a polygamous relationship breaks the idea of friendship existing only among women of the same age groups,” says Archanaa.

Rajinikanth’s Veera, where Roja and Meena’s characters become friends at first without realising that they are married to the same man, is an example of this camaraderie. When a conflict arises in the climax, the friendship helps smooth things over, and the film ends with the two choosing to co-exist with the man.

In films like Gopurangal Saivathillai (1982) and Sindhu Bhairavi (1985) too, Suhasini’s character has an almost self-destructive yet cathartic friendship with the other women who are oblivious to what she knows. At the end of both films, she is made to forge a friendship because the presence of the man has altered the dynamic.

Ettupatti Rasa starring Khushbu and Urvashi, and Pattali starring Ramya Krishnan and Devayani, are other films that we can study to observe this kind of friendship between women who share their partners.

Green with envy

While portraying friendship between women on screen, filmmakers have often shown them fighting over a man or backstabbing each other due to jealousy. After all, spiteful women whose entire lives revolve around getting the man is the common misconception that men seem to have about women.

In a lesser known film called Punnagai Poove (2003), Kaveri’s character enters into a relationship with a man with whom her best friend is in love. The story is of deceit but nevertheless shows two women sharing a meaningful friendship. The story is almost the same in Vijay’s Kaavalan (2011), starring Asin and Mithra Kurian, in which the latter chooses to betray her friend’s trust. As if to emphasise the pain of that betrayal, they’re shown to be close buddies throughout the film.

Even in the 2019 film Aadai in which Amala Paul plays the lead as a feminist, she does not bat an eyelid to bring down her friend played by Ramya. In another place, Ramya is shown to be envious of Amala’s confidence, taking advantage of her when she’s vulnerable. While Aadai was criticised by many for its pseudo understanding of feminism, the representation of friendship between the women too did not go unnoticed. 

However, the 2007 film Kalloori is a great example of a female friendship that evolves beyond a conflict. The film briefly discusses a possessive relationship between two friends Shobana (Tamannaah) and Kayalvizhi (Hemalatha), but just towards the tragic ending, they make up to prove their friendship.

‘I’ve got your back’

Archanaa points out that the celebration of female friendships in mediocre films too should not be overlooked. “It is also about how relatable it is to us in real life. I have found that real, even if fleeting, conversations between women on screen gets to me more than having an entire film made to glorify friendship between two women characters.”

Viralukketha Veekkam is a 1999 family comedy drama starring Livingston, Vadivelu, Vivekh, Khushbu, Kovai Sarala and Kanaka in lead roles. We might be familiar with the comedy scene in which Kovai Sarala beats the living daylights out of Vadivelu inside a room since the scene is popular with meme-makers, but this film also shows an important friendship among the three woman and how they stay together as they come up in life.

We have seen films like Snegithiye (2000), starring Jyotika and Sharbani Mukherjee, in which Jyotika’s character goes to the extent of burying a dead man and covering the crime to protect her friend. This film, based on friendship between women, was praised at the time of its release and remains to be one of the few Tamil films which have focused so much on female friendships.

The 1994 film Magalir Mattum starring Revathi, Urvashi and Rohini in lead roles, is another excellent example of women standing up for each other. So is the 1985 lesser known film Kalyana Agathigal that shows the camaraderie among six women who stay together in a women’s hostel, fighting against patriarchy in their own ways. 

In Magalir Mattum, three women from different social locations come together to take out a common enemy - the sexual predator at their workplace.

“The film was an eye-opener on workplace sexual harassment in Tamil cinema, and showed this impossible dynamics among its three main characters. I believe the success lies in creating characters who can fight and stay angry with each other, who are vulnerable and confused together rather than just remain a sidekick to the heroine,” Archanaa says.

Ashwin Saravanan’s Game Over that released in 2019 cannot be left out of this list. Swapna’s (Taapsee Pannu) only companion is Kalamma (Vinodhini Vaidyanathan), the domestic help. The former is a rape survivor who has PTSD and it is Kalamma who keeps a watchful eye on her. Kaavya Ramkumar, who co-wrote this story along with Ashwin, says that the relationship between the two was written organically.

“It was more of a camaraderie that forms naturally. It is not hard for two women to find that bonding actually. They don't have to constantly keep expressing how close they are,” she says.

Vinodhini Vaidyanathan, who played the character of Kalamma, has a lot of insights to share about the characterisation.

“I think even in real life, women are always supportive of other women. There are films in which we’ve seen the male domestic help play a friend to the hero or his family, but the status quo regarding class would be maintained. In Game Over, that boundary was not present. The employer-employee status was not there. They are bound together beyond class boundaries. That is how relationships are between women,” she says.

Vinodhini further goes on to talk about a short film that she was part of to make her point.

Oru Koppai Theneer is a shot film by Sri Ganesh based on a short story by S Ramakrishnan. I play a woman constable in it who has to take a petty thief to the court. It so happens that on the way, the convict gets her period and when we stop to find a toilet, we bond over a cup of tea. The two women discuss how they are in it together. That is how it is in real life,” she says.

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