‘Why can't a woman express lust, is she a tree?’: '90ML' director Anita Udeep to TNM

In this interview, Anita speaks about the controversies surrounding '90ML', why she made the film, and her desire to see women prioritising their happiness.
‘Why can't a woman express lust, is she a tree?’: '90ML' director Anita Udeep to TNM
‘Why can't a woman express lust, is she a tree?’: '90ML' director Anita Udeep to TNM
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Anita Udeep's 90ML hit the screens last Friday and has been making waves ever since. Actually, even before the film came out, the trailer had led to social media outrage from certain quarters. But at that point, not many knew that 'Azhagiya Asura', who is credited as the director, is a woman, and that it's Anita's pseudonym from the song she sang for the 2002 Tamil film Whistle.

Certified 'A', 90ML is about a bunch of women who share their life stories and problems over alcohol and even ganja. The film has Bigg Boss fame Oviya in the lead and has received good reviews from several film reviewers. However, it has also attracted criticism from many – including those from the largely misogynistic and male-dominated film industry – for portraying women indulging in such activities, which they feel is unsuited to "Tamil culture".

In this interview with TNM, Anita, who also happens to be a mother to two children, opens up about why she did 90ML, the feedback and backlash she has received for the film, and her desire to see women prioritising themselves.

Were you nervous about the response that 90ML would get?

I wasn't nervous. I was curious. This is a film in a very new genre. When I finished the script, as a filmmaker, I wondered about who would like and appreciate this film. What's interesting is the kind of responses the film has got. I've not tried to show feminism. I've not tried to bash men. I wanted to make a proper commercial film. If a man can make such films, why not try the same thing with a group of women? People who are a little more aware and intelligent will see the subtle layers in the film.

Off screen, it has brought out so many appalling issues – there's so much prejudice against women in the name of "Tamil kalacharam". I want to know how men should behave according to "Tamil kalacharam". You have a list of rules for women, but what about the men?

I've not compared a woman to a man in the film, and neither do I think that a woman should do what a man does just for the sake of it. It's just about empowering yourself.

Why did you use a pseudonym? Some claim that this is because you're ashamed of having made an 'A' film?

I'm a multi-talented person. I've sung the 'Azhagiya Asura' song for Imaan, I've done pop albums, I've done art direction, costume design. Next, I'm doing a single and a music video for that. So I wanted a pseudonym for all my creative ventures. 'Azhagiya Asura' was a very popular song, so I just went with that.

Second, as a person, I have my own thoughts and perspectives on my life, and I want to express myself creatively. Now, looking at the kind of reactions, I feel it's good I didn't put 'Anita Udeep', because either my father or my husband Udeep will get bashed for my work. They will say my father has not brought me up well or ask why my husband is "allowing" me to do such work. I want to take responsibility for my own creative expressions. I don't want them getting into the picture at all.

How did the idea for 90ML take shape?

If you watch Tamil films with women protagonists at the centre, they will be shown fighting for justice, it will be very serious. Or they will talk about how a housewife can go and win at the Olympics. These are stories which I think very few women go through in their lives. What about what ordinary women go through? And nobody represents different kinds of women in Tamil cinema. When I talk with my women friends, the impression I get is that what they feel inside is very different from how they behave. They are scared to express their opinion or any emotion outside of the narrow circle that society has drawn for them.

A boy in a family is allowed to say whatever he wants, wherever he goes. But people ask the girl to keep quiet all the time. If at all she speaks up despite this, she's judged immediately and labelled 'bad girl'. Society has accepted all kinds of men – good ones, men with grey shades, bad ones. But women are either slotted into being a goddess who sacrifices everything – a "kudumba kuthuvilakkua" - or a slut if she does what she wants in life. I find that a lot of my friends are afraid to express themselves freely. All this comes out only when we meet up and talk amongst ourselves, because it's only in this circle that they're able to do so.

The things I've shown in this film, like a wife expecting affection from a husband, are very common. Why can't a woman express lust? Is she a tree? All of us have these feelings. I'm actually like the counselor lady in the film, listening to all the issues that happen in homes and society!

I don't know about others, but making this film itself has been liberating for me. It has made me give importance to myself, my needs and desires. I have two kids, I have my parents and in-laws to take care of. At some point, you ask where you stand in this. When will you think of your own happiness? Women’s empowerment has to begin with self-empowerment. Why can't women be jolly?

There's an accusation that the film will make the youth take up drinking and ganja, or make them think this is the only way to have fun. What do you think?

It's not the only way to have fun. Other than drinking, smoking or doing ganja, there are so many things which have been expressed in 90ML. In the past, cinema was the only medium of influence. But now, young people have access to so many things. All of them have internet, all of them know what's happening where and they have an opinion on everything. With just one film, what is going to change? There are many films being made with positive messages and socially relevant themes – has society changed because of this?

This is why I made an adult film, it's for a mature audience which knows what they want to do and what they don't want to do. Will they stop drinking and smoking because I tell them? No. So, just because my characters drink and smoke, will they also do that? No. This generation does what it wants – either they do it with your knowledge or without.

Some of the criticism has been very personal. People offering you life advice! What do you feel?

Reviewing is a job. You should have some cinema sense. You can thrash my film, you can make comments on the screenplay, the story, the dialogues, the characters and so on. You can hate my film, you can say it is garbage. But you cannot say the filmmaker is garbage. Some of these reviewers have gone on about how it's wrong to show these things, even saying I was in "arai bodhai" (half-drunk) while making the film. This is a personal attack.

Nobody has raved about the film – a lot of people have pointed out flaws – and that is fine. But personal comments are not okay. People who say they laughed for Iruttu Arayil Murattu Kuthu are saying 90ML is garbage. Why such double standards?

90ML has a sensitive portrayal of a lesbian relationship. But some of the responses, including that of a popular Chennai psychologist, have been really homophobic.

I handled this issue in my film because I know there's too much homophobia in our society. In the film, the women around the lesbian couple are themselves hesitant to accept it. But with time, they learn to accept it. I strongly believe that love is love – a line that also comes in the film. I totally support the LGBTQ community. I want society to open up to all kinds of people. Nobody is perfect, why do we judge so much?

Now that the film is out, how is the cast handling the feedback?

Everybody did this film because they understood the subtext, beyond the smoking and the drinking. Those who want to watch that and enjoy are welcome to do so. But there are so many things which have been handled in the film in an entertaining way. Cheran's Thirumanam also released on the same day and talks about some of these issues, but how many people will go and watch it?

The cast is extremely happy. All of them have been appreciated for their performance. I've been watching the film in different theatres – what's interesting is how similar the responses are across theatres. Emotions are the same everywhere. Whether it's in Palazzo or Udayam or Kamala theatre, everyone is reacting in the same way because at the end of the day, it's all about the emotion. My film has all the navarasas and the audience reacts to all of it, it's a rollercoaster ride.

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