Thaali sentiment to justifications for rape: The bizarre world of Tamil serials

Tamil serials teach you to accept patriarchy as part of your life, and justify it till the last episode. Sometimes, even in the last episode.
A scene from Tamil serial Roja
A scene from Tamil serial Roja

Tamil serials are a challenge to the idea of evolution. And I will never tire of explaining how.  However heinous the crime you commit – from cheating to murder attempts – in Tamil serials, you do not have to face the scrutiny of law. You will probably be warned in such a way that you will actually feel empowered enough to commit the next crime. Ask any expert and you will know the struggle behind the laws that exist today for women to seek justice. Tamil serials essentially make a mockery of such struggles. Tamil serials teach you to accept patriarchy as part of your life, and justify it till the last episode. Sometimes, even in the last episode.

For instance, I really don’t expect to see the hero of Nila, playing on Sun TV, punished for raping his wife’s best friend under the pretext of being drunk.  They are a doting couple, but are yet to consummate their marriage (at least till I was watching it?).  The best friend is initially upset that the hero is cheating his wife, but 'realises' that he raped her only under the influence of alcohol (?!) and doesn’t confront him. Instead, she confides in him and takes his help. She even tries hard to shield him and protect her friend’s marriage.

Also, like in possibly every Tamil serial/cinema that has a rape incident, she becomes pregnant.  With her attempts to get an abortion thwarted because she is not married, the woman decides to tie a thaali (mangalsutra) for herself. No, she wouldn’t let the man do it because it will be a betrayal to her best friend.  

The fascination for thaali and the moral policing done by the doctor who threatens to call the police if they insist on having an abortion, is quintessential Tamil-serial style retrogradation. The doctor equates abortion to murder (???) and says the husband and wife should enter into an agreement to have it done (??????). “You are neither wearing a thaali nor a metti (toe rings), shows what kind of woman you are. Your health is fine, it's your character that is not,” the doctor says, proudly displaying the name board on her table.

And this is not a random event in an otherwise normal family. The serial is also about mother-in-law and daughter-in-law fights, and the MIL bribes a nurse to set up a duplicate pregnancy report for her DIL so that her son would ‘realise she is cheating on him’ and abandon her.  

There is a similar mother-in-law in Thirumagal, also playing on Sun TV,  who is equally obsessed about removing her DIL from her son’s life. So much so that she gets her DIL's photos morphed into a fake marriage with some random guy. The daughter-in-law eventually finds out, warns her, but doesn’t expose her to the husband. Why ma?

Roja on Sun TV perhaps has the stupidest of characters. The heroine, who grew up in an orphanage and is often ridiculed by her husband’s grandmother for it, is encouraged by her husband to educate herself. She even appears for an exam, but that isn’t apparently enough to read papers before signing it. She believes she is being gifted a land for the orphanage she grew up in, but is actually giving away her land. The husband is even more clueless. A renowned criminal lawyer, he forgives the other woman who tries to kill his wife, like EVERY SINGLE TIME! Why?! Because he is working on a bigger case which will trap her (incidentally a murder case), but the case never comes up ever. 

The serial has its own share of superstitions, too. Every third week, the MIL or DIL would be doing a votive offering or penance, and in some cases, these are outright bizarre – like several episodes ago, the heroine was made to walk with slippers made of nails, with her eyes blindfolded (why is she not in any Olympic event?). And in most cases, the goddess descends for even the smallest of prayers (like making some murukkus) and helps out!

Seriously asking: Are cardiologists also trained to deliver babies? Because this one does, for his estranged wife.  In Bharathi Kannamma, playing on Vijay TV, a renowned cardiologist (but who is not renowned in Tamil serials?), stalks and marries a dark-skinned, timid woman only to chase her away after a friend who is secretly in love with him poisons his mind against her. To stop him from getting married to any woman other than her, the friend comes up with a ploy:  an accident in which the hero’s earlier girlfriend is killed and the friend (also a doctor) tells the hero that he can't beget children because his spine is hurt in the accident! But the hero goes on to marry the dark-skinned woman and ditch her at the first available opportunity (read: her pregnancy).  The friend is neither arrested for the murder nor for the attempts to murder the heroine for years together! Also the doctor refuses to get a DNA test done, but heck why should he?! After all, he is a hero in a Tamil serial that defies all logic!  

Also, it’s a breeze to change scan reports/test reports and use it to judge a person. I wonder how the medical fraternity is actually suffering such portrayals on the small screen.

There was one serial though that left me really scared: Pandavar Illam on Sun TV. There is this woman who had so extensively researched the Chola empire that after a point of time, she starts thinking of herself as a Chola princess. The psychiatrist treating her doesn’t find it odd, it's normal and she can continue to live that way because she is anyway happy! I'm scared because what if my Madurai-history-obsessed-husband fancies himself as a Pandiya king at some point? 

Kavitha Muralidharan is a journalist with two decades of experience, writing on politics, culture, literature and cinema.

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