Instead of asking if a woman actor can swear on screen, we should be asking if a film trailer can have adult content.

Why the outrage over Jyothika swearing in Naachiyaar trailer is misplacedScreenshot/ Youtube
Flix Opinion Thursday, November 16, 2017 - 14:03

The teaser for Naachiyaar, Jyothika's upcoming film with director Bala, was released on Wednesday.

Bala, known for including a good amount of "shock value" in his films, does not disappoint his fans in the new teaser. While GV Prakash, who usually appears as the boy-next-door in his films, looks like a textbook Bala character with his brownish hair and make-up, it is Jyothika's avatar which has become a point of debate on social media.

Sporting a red bindhi in some shots and a cop uniform in others, Jyothika utters a common abusive phrase in Tamil towards the end of the teaser. The phrase itself isn't anything we haven't heard of. The words translate to "son of a whore" and have been spouted by other Tamil actors, including heroes.

The phrase is, of course, deeply patriarchal as is most verbal abuse in languages around the world. Cuss words almost always refer to a woman's body or morality in derogatory terms, even if they are aimed at men. It also dehumanises sex workers, an already exploited and much maligned community, further. That a woman is saying these words does not make it any better or worse than a man saying it. People of all genders can be complicit in sustaining existing hierarchies of power, be it gender, caste, community or whatever else.

Without losing sight of this, however, it's amusing to see the discomfort that Jyothika's casual swearing has evoked. From people asking if this is "feminism" (??!) to others wondering how "Suriya's wife" could utter such words, the reactions have been indicative of how women actors, particularly the married ones, are perceived by the audience.

The 'is this feminism?' question comes up whenever a woman actor plays a role that doesn't fall within the safe boundaries drawn by filmmakers over the years. Considering these "safe boundaries" have mostly given us scores of heroines cuddling teddy bears and lisping their dialogues, it's not surprising that any deviation from this norm creates such a flutter.

The "strong" women we're capable of appreciating on screen are the ones who play adults doing socially and morally acceptable acts. The mother who stands up for her children, the wife who takes a bullet for her husband, the heroine with a proper job, the woman who slaps her molester and so on.

But show a woman exploring her sexuality or indulging in any of the "vices" which are considered to be in the exclusive domain of the "masculine" and there is immediate outrage. Even if we've been completely all right watching male characters doing the same things for many years. The anger triggered by the Tamil short film Lakshmi is a recent example of this hypocrisy. There cannot be anything "feminist" about anyone doing anything unethical or illegal but that standard of judgment has to be applied irrespective of gender.

Jyothika has been vocal about doing substantial characters ever since her return to cinema with 36 Vayadhiniley. She has also been speaking about how directors treat women characters on screen with scant respect. We don't know as yet what her character in Naachiyaar is - if she is a villain, a hero or a character with shades of grey. We also don't know if the narrative will glorify or validate her actions.

All that we can say for now is that as an actor, she seems to be more willing than ever before to do roles that go against the grain. And her marital status does not seem to have been on her mind before she said yes to this scene.

Funnily, the focus has been on Jyothika uttering these words and not if a film's trailer should carry adult content as critic Baradwaj Rangan has pointed out.

Some months ago, there was a furore when ex CBFC Chief Pahlaj Nihalani objected to the words 'sexual intercourse' which appeared in the trailer of Jab Harry Met Sejal. The filmmakers were asked to beep out the words for the TV trailer while no changes were made to the digital one.

The viewing of trailers and teasers, unlike the film itself, is not regulated. It's therefore a fair question to ask if film promos can carry what is deemed as adult content in the film. Given the suffocating levels of censorship in the country today, it is also necessary to ask what defines this "adult content".

Is it all right for film posters to have two consenting adults kissing as the Arjun Reddy ones did? Is it fair to object to "adult content" film promos that have sexual references but give a free pass to ones that have violence and gore? Does it make sense to beep out certain words in TV promos but not in the digital ones, given that this content is available on platforms like YouTube which are accessible to young people and will not be blocked by content filters put in by adults? When does certification infringe artistic freedom?

It's these questions that deserve a debate rather than asking how the Sivakumar family could have "allowed" Jyothika to swear on screen. The last time we checked, Jyothika was an adult. Period.

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