Thiyagarajan Kumararaja's Tamil film Super Deluxe has become a rage at the box-office, fetching rave reviews from critics and fans alike. While a section of the transgender community is unhappy with the portrayal of Shilpa, a trans woman character played by Vijay Sethupathi, the film has won praise for upturning stereotypes about gender and morality.
Particularly, the portrayal of Vaembu (Samantha), a woman who has an extramarital affair, but is treated sympathetically in the narrative. Super Deluxe opens with Vaembu having a phone conversation with her former boyfriend as the credits roll. We don't see the two of them immediately; we just get to know that Vaembu invites him over to her house. And the next thing you know, Vaembu is in bed with the former boyfriend.
In Tamil cinema, there have been several films about a husband who cheats on his wife or even marries the “other woman” without getting a divorce. Many of these films have been comedies like Rettaival Kuruvi, Gopurangal Saivadhillai, Sathi Leelavati, Chinna Veedu, and so on. Some have been drama/thriller films like Sindhu Bhairavi, Agni Natchathiram, and Pachaikili Muthucharam, where the male character is treated with sympathy. The 2018 film Kadai Kutty Singam had a patriarch who marries more than one woman to sire a son but is still loved by everyone, and in the same year, Mani Ratnam's Chekka Chivantha Vaanam had Aravind Swami playing a husband who cheats on his wife.
When it comes to women characters, however, their 'chastity' has been of the utmost importance and any woman who crosses that line has to meet a sorry death or is characterised as evil – films like Uyir and Thiruttu Payale, for example. Even when filmmakers have attempted to be "progressive" about women's sexuality, they've anchored themselves to traditional notions of morality – like Iraivi, where a widow remains emotionally devoted to her dead husband and that becomes a sob-story justification for why she's in a live-in relationship and doesn't want to marry anyone else.
The backlash that KM Sarjun's short film Lakshmi received for showing a woman in an unhappy marriage having a one night stand was not because such an instance was unusual in Tamil films, but because the woman character "got away" with doing it. She, like the men in Tamil films so far, did not face any serious consequences for crossing the boundaries of morality.
But slowly, Tamil filmmakers seem to be getting more confident about challenging the status quo. The 2018 film Kaali, directed by Kiruthiga Udayanidhi, had a young woman in an abusive marriage with an elderly man. She is on the verge of killing him when she's interrupted by a thief, and she ends up having an affair with the latter. Though the character is treated sympathetically, she meets a gory death.
Thiruttu Payale 2*, the sequel of the 2006 film, had a wife (Amala Paul) who develops a close Facebook friendship that goes wrong. She does not cheat on her husband but the antagonist (Prasanna) films her nude. The husband, however, remains committed to her and the two of them manage to overcome the problem together.
In Prem Kumar's 96, Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha play childhood sweethearts who meet after years, with the woman having married another man. They spend a night together, talking and catching up, realising that, but for a few unfortunate twists, they would have ended up together. Though the two of them do not have sex, the film provoked a lot of discussion and debate. While some felt that it was unnatural for them not to have gotten physical, others were appalled at the idea of a married woman (with a decent husband, as she herself acknowledges) spending a night with her former lover. Films where the husband meets his former girlfriend(s) like Autograph or Azhagi have not triggered such extreme reactions.
In Ram's Peranbu, the wife leaves her husband and daughter, who has cerebral palsy, for another man. She is never chastised for her actions in the film, even by the husband (Mammootty), who acknowledges that he'd been a negligent partner and father all along. The woman asserts that she has a right to happiness. In the same film, another married woman (Anjali) sleeps with Mammootty's character to get out of a sticky financial situation. Though her husband knows what she's done, he does not go ballistic. Instead, he treats her with empathy and understanding, even gratitude.
In Super Deluxe, however, Vaembu's act of having sex with another man has no weighty reasons other than the fact that she wanted it. There's no back story to make us sympathise with her – she isn't in an abusive marriage (though it isn't exactly a happy one), she isn't seduced by the other man (calling him over was her idea), and she doesn't beat herself up about what has happened. When her husband Mugilan (Fahadh) finds out, she does not launch into a lengthy explanation for cheating on him. She admits what happened, as it happened.
Later in the film, Vaembu is put in a position where she has to allow a man to rape her if she's to rescue herself and her husband from the law. Though the man, a cop, tells her that this must be easy for her to do since she'd cheated on her husband, the narrative does not manipulate us into agreeing with him. The word 'consent' is not spelled out but that is what the entire sequence is about – Vaembu consented to sleep with her ex-boyfriend but that does not mean she will sleep with any man who wants it.
The same film has Leela (Ramya Krishnan), a middle-aged married woman, who is also a mother, acting in porn films for a living. And towards the end, we're told not to judge her for it. It's also suggested that Vaembu and Mugilan might decide to stay on in their marriage.
While people of all genders are capable of cheating on their partner, it is only cis straight men and their stories which have received acceptance on screen for years. Before the MRAs lose it (if you've read this piece till this point, that is), one must underline that this is not an encouragement for people to cheat on anyone. It's just that the hypocrisy needs to be called out – if you have enjoyed stories about men cheating on their partner all along, why can't you watch a similar, entertaining film about a woman who does the same?
The real life double standards on morality have been normalised on screen for years, and it's refreshing to see filmmakers testing waters and willing to face the flood if need be.
*It is to be noted that Amala Paul later alleged that the director of Thiruttu Payale 2, Susi Ganesan, had misbehaved with her during the shoot of the film. It must therefore be emphasised that the willingness to overturn stereotypes on screen needn't necessarily reflect in a filmmaker's real life behaviour (as we also painfully discovered in the case of Vikas Bahl, the director of Queen).
Sowmya Rajendran is a journalist who writes on gender, culture and cinema. She also writes children's books.