Tamil TV serials have been synonymous with exaggerated drama that unfolds with emotionally loaded music playing in the background and family members plotting to ruin or kill each other. These infamous serials are also known for perpetuating problematic stereotypes about women, especially educated and/or working women and women who speak up for themselves. For instance, Chithi 2 airing on Sun TV, follows the life of the protagonist Saradha (played by Radikaa Sarathkumar) and her many trials and tribulations. Her younger daughter-in-law Nandhini is portrayed as the â€˜villainâ€™ only because she wants to move out of the joint family and live alone with her husband. Similarly, the main antagonist of this show, Mallika, is a woman who is educated and runs a successful chain of schools across Chennai. These problematic portrayals are not limited to Chithi 2 but can be found in Tamil TV serials made over the years.
However, there are attempts made by producers and writers of these serials to keep up with the changing times and portray stories rooted in reality that are not rife with misogyny and sexism. Vallamai Tharayo is one such attempt. While this show follows the format of a TV serial, it is a web series and was streamed on YouTube from October 2020 and the final episode aired in February 2021. Produced by Vikatan TV and directed by Chidambaram Manivannan, Vallamai Tharayo spans over 80 episodes, following the life of Abirami, a young woman from a conservative family struggling to escape an unhappy marriage.
Starring Shali Nivekas, VJ Parvathy, Kaushik and Vivek Rajagopal in lead roles, the premise of this web series is revolutionary for Tamil serial standards for multiple reasons.
Watch: Trailer of Vallamai Tharayo
Abirami (played by Shali Nivekas) is an obedient and a submissive woman who is not given an opportunity to speak her mind as her family makes all her life decisions for her, including her marriage to Siddharth (played by Kaushik). Their marriage is evidently unhappy and anxiety inducing (at least for the viewers) as Abi has to constantly walk on eggshells around Siddharth to not upset him or his family. While she tolerates his berating and verbal abuse like all â€˜good womenâ€™ are expected to, this does not last for long because she reaches a saturation point and makes decisions that would have been too â€˜controversialâ€™ for Tamil serial heroines.
The transformation in her character is gradual and often a little too slow, but organic and realistic. For instance, when Abirami gets a job, she is riddled with guilt because her children are alone at home and she is willing to quit because Siddharth and his family do not approve of it. Over time, she realises that working outside home is not just an economic necessity but has given her an identity apart from that of a full-time mother and she does not want to quit her job, no matter who approves or disapproves.
The treatment of friendships in this series is noteworthy. Abirami's closest friend Anu (played by VJ Parvathy) is a fiercely outspoken and independent woman who stands by her friend, come what may. And this is evidently disliked by Abiramiâ€™s family and husband who assume that she is a corrupting influence and does not have the formerâ€™s best interests at heart. When the couple move to Chennai, Abirami takes an instant dislike to Harshita, their neighbour, because she is in an open marriage and consumes alcohol in public. But as the show progresses, the two women become close friends and it is Harshita who helps Abirami find a job and speaks up for her friend while the latterâ€™s family accuses her of â€˜ruiningâ€™ their reputation. Even friendship between men and women are portrayed in a matter-of-fact manner and any attempt by a character to imply that two people of different genders were more than friends is immediately thwarted.
Nosey neighbours who try to question Abiramiâ€™s late working hours under the guise of concern are quietly shut down by Siddharth. Sethu (played by Abdool Lee) is Abiramiâ€™s cousin and a party worker for a left leaning political party. He provides a refreshing change to the conservatism and misogyny expressed by their other family members and constantly encourages his cousin to stand up for herself and not pay attention to their familyâ€™s emotional blackmail. Other subjects like the lack of acknowledgement of womenâ€™s emotional labour in marriages, consent and single parenthood are briefly touched upon throughout the series.
Despite the progressive ideals the show embodies, there are certain aspects that are quite regressive and problematic. There is a scene where Anu is trying to persuade Abirami to wear jeans instead of her usual saree and says that obese women are wearing what they want, and she must not be hesitant to wear western outfits as she has a petite figure, implying that women must have a certain body type to wear what they want. Gauthamâ€™s (played by Vivek Rajagopal) â€˜adviceâ€™ to Benita (played by Madhuri Watts) about her drinking habits and being blamed for women not â€˜gettingâ€™ freedom because of her â€˜misuseâ€™ does not sit well with the progressiveness of the show. This begs the question whether it is only women like Abirami, who have been denied basic rights and freedoms, deserve to be â€˜empoweredâ€™ because they fit the mould of a conventional woman while Benita does not. A similar idea is perpetuated when Abirami takes the moral high ground and â€˜convincesâ€™ Harshita and her husband to not be in an open marriage as it will affect their son. It appears as if the open marriage is used as a foil to elevate Abiramiâ€™s fidelity despite her husbandâ€™s verbal abuse and the general unhappiness of her marital life.
Despite a few problematic elements and unfunny jokes, Vallamai Tharayo is an important attempt to initiate a discussion on subjects that have been considered taboo by mainstream TV serials. The comments under each episode stand testament to this fact because viewers were discussing different parts of the show, sharing personal anecdotes similar to what was happening on the show and hoping that it would be broadcast on television so that more people from the older generation would watch it and maybe change their mind about certain issues. This is indicative of the fact that the society is slightly more open to the idea of seeing relationships and issues that could not be discussed openly, and it is imperative that TV shows keep up with the changing times to stay relevant.