Until a few years ago, feminist analysis of mainstream cinema was confined to academic circles. However, with the explosion of social media and more women journalists writing about cinema, the representation of women on screen and the patriarchal and misogynistic overtones in several films have been discussed with increasing acceptability.
The scene is no different in Tamil cinema, which has for long projected a submissive woman as the ideal, and has constantly moral-policed women on screen. Many superstars, starting from MGR, Rajinikanth and the current generation of Ajith and Vijay, have told women how to dress and behave, often indulging in violence to make their point. Revisiting these celebrated films from a gender perspective clearly shows how misogynistic the industry has been thus far.
On a News 18 Tamil Nadu show about how women have been portrayed in Tamil cinema, VJ Mubashir took viewers through films from the past and present. The script for the show was written by Rakesh P.
From MGR advising women on being a true “Tamizh penn” to Sivakarthikeyan impersonating a nurse to win the love of the heroine, Kamal Haasan romanticising sexual harassment in songs, Rajinikanth “taming” Vijayashanti in Mannan, Vijay giving advice on how to be a “pombala”, and Simbu and Dhanush singing abusive lyrics about women, the 22-minute video pretty much sums up Tamil cinema’s substantial contribution towards upholding patriarchy. The “loosu ponnu” trope and the objectification of women in the name of glamour also find place in the video.
Speaking to TNM, Rakesh said, "Every evening at 5.30 pm in the Cinema 18 show on News 18 channel, we discuss a particular concept. We thought of doing it this time on how women are depicted in Tamil cinema. We were thinking of doing the video for 10 minutes but we realised there's enough to talk about for even 4-5 episodes. We started from the MGR period. Finally, we decided to keep it down to 30 minutes."
"Jeeva Sagapthan contributed in recalling MGR movies and Anandan from the infotainment team also contributed a lot in recalling movies that portaryed misogyny," Rakesh adds.
Rakesh says that the intention was to create awareness among viewers to recognise violence against women on screen.
"A star like Vijay is called 'Anna' by his fans, including women, but look at his dialogues from the film Sivakasi. And this film didn't come out in his initial days but was in 2005. It was shocking for us that he's done such films in recent times," says Rakesh, crediting his team for doing the research and putting together the problematic scenes from old films to contemporary ones.
Speaking about the feedback for the show, Rakesh says, "I was not sure if people would understand. For example, my friend, who studied with me and is of the same age as I am, has misogynistic scenes from Tamil films which tell women how they should behave, as his WhatsApp status. We wondered if people would get the point we're trying to make - how will people in rural areas watch this? But we have got very good feedback, especially from women, including journalists. We wanted to do more on this but ran out of time."
The team also believes that women actors like Nayanthara and Samantha, who are in a position of influence, should take a stance like Parvathy of the Malayalam film industry to not act in roles which are demeaning to women.
While feminist critics have already built a discourse around the representation of women in cinema, often facing a backlash from readers/viewers and even the film industry for expressing their views, it is encouraging that such analysis is now becoming part of the mainstream. Hopefully, a sustained conversation on the issue will lead to an organic change in how cinema projects women.