Major Spoilers Ahead
Mani Ratnam's Chekka Chivantha Vaanam has opened to rave reviews and good word of mouth. Fans of the director have hailed the film as his return to form, given that his last few releases have been quite disappointing. To be honest, CCV isn't a bad film. Vijay Sethupathi is dependably entertaining all through and it's a pleasure to see Aishwarya Rajesh so well styled on screen. However, one suspects that the euphoria around it comes more from a sense of relief that 'Mani Sir' hasn't lost his touch entirely than anything else.
A gangster drama loosely inspired by the Tamil classic Ponniyin Selvan (and supposedly a Korean film called New World), CCV has a huge star cast, which in itself brought the audience to the theatres. But, it is not necessary for one to have read Ponniyin Selvan to understand CCV. The story of an ageing patriarch and the ensuing succession battle is as old as time and has recurred all through history, in different civilisations and countries. In modern times, we see it in dynastic politics and business empires. Besides, despite having four women actors who play lead roles, CCV gives them very little to do - which isn't the case in Ponniyin Selvan where women characters play pivotal roles that drive the narrative.
When the large cast was announced, many of us were looking forward to what Mani Ratnam would do with the women characters. Although his women characters in the past haven't been entirely free of patriarchal trappings, they've still managed to catch us by surprise, offering something different from the predictable way in which heroine roles were written back then. Divya from Mouna Ragam who asks for a divorce from her newly-wed husband, Chitra from Anjali who struggles with her last born child, Meghana from Dil Se who is a rape survivor, Roja from Roja who is not afraid to face a Kashmiri separatist in prison, Shakti from Alaipayuthey who pursues her ambition of becoming a doctor and is actually shown at her workplace...these characters have stayed with us even if the films may lend themselves to more critical readings today. These women characters had a substantial presence and were not around simply to make the hero look good.
Which is why, CCV is all the more disappointing when it comes to the women. It's not just the insufficient screen time - Chitra (Jyothika), Parvathy (Aditi Rao Hydari), Renuka (Aishwarya Rajesh), and Chhaya (Dayana Erappa) - it's also how they are used in the film merely to inflate the image of the male protagonists. Take the introduction scenes for Varadan (Aravind Swamy), Thyagu (Arun Vijay), and Ethi (Simbu), who are Senapathy's (Prakash Raj) sons.
The first is a thug, so he's seen beating someone up violently. The other two sons are suave and sophisticated. So, we see Thyagu on a luxury boat, but not before the camera roves over the bodies of bikini clad women who're dancing on board. Thyagu's Sri Lankan Tamil wife, Renuka, arrives at the scene with important information for Thyagu. She's disgusted by the scantily clad women and reprimands Thyagu, but the latter is unfazed. The director uses the moment to establish Thyagu's "swag". We are not meant to like Thyagu any less because of how coolly he brushes away Renuka's comments, we're meant to like him more. The objectification of women's bodies to establish a man's "swag" levels isn't anything new - a near naked woman draped on a stylish hero who has negative shades to him or a "cool" villain is a common enough trope and CCV falls back on the same trick. Next, Ethi's "swag" is established by his girlfriend, Chhaya. We first see her standing in an open jeep, her hair blowing wildly, and moving her arms around in ecstasy like women characters often do on screen. It's then that the camera moves to Ethi, the man that this "bombshell" is dating.
Varadan, who is already married to Chitra, gets his moment when he romps around with Parvathy, a journalist he's sleeping with. One is not sure why we're even told Parvathy is a journalist - it adds absolutely nothing to the film, except help create some "erotic" moments, with her using the camera to seduce Varadan. The trailers had us believe that Parvathy is reporting about Senapathy and his crimes but in the film, she's reduced to coochie-cooing with Varadan and asking him when he plans to take over from his father.
Even if we suspend disbelief and accept that this woman with alabaster skin and light eyes indeed comes from a state that's so close to the equator (well, we do that for nearly every Tamil film anyway), it's disappointing that she's reduced to simply being Varadan's property. Parvathy utters some "independent woman" lines like paying her own rent when confronted by Chitra, but when Ethi forces her into house arrest and attempts to misbehave with her, she asks, "Will you take everything that belongs to him?", as if she's a vintage car that Ethi is coveting.
Senapathy also has a daughter, apart from his three sons, but she barely gets any screen time. She's always in the background, holding a baby and looking distressed. We may be in the 21st century but clearly, the heir to the throne can only be male. By virtue of her gender, Senapathy's daughter is automatically out of the picture, with no interest whatsoever in her father's vast wealth.
Of the four women, it's Chitra who gets the lion's share of screen time. Like Senapathy's wife, Lakshmi (Jayasudha), Chitra is a devout wife despite knowing her husband's indiscretions. She's also the closest to her mother-in-law. There's a lovely moment in the hospital when Lakshmi is injured and Chitra is taking care of her. Lakshmi asks her if she looks like a "rakshasi" and Chitra stares at her for a moment before saying in a matter-of-fact tone that actually, she does. Both Jayasudha and Jyothika are great in this scene, capturing the tragicomic essence of the moment. One wishes, therefore, that there had been more such scenes in the film, where the women speak to each other and about things which aren't only about the men. Renuka's one line conversation with Chitra about Thyagu is only to build up his character, not a genuine conversation with her sister-in-law.
Chitra talks back to Varadan and accompanies him when all hell breaks loose. She walks into Parvathy's home and sees her husband with his lover, but though she expresses her displeasure, she doesn't do anything more. Family is more important to Chitra than anything else. Certainly, there are women like Chitra in real life who may look like push-overs from the outside but may have just decided to make their peace with the circumstances because there are other things at stake. But is the film really invested in Chitra? When her father, Chezhiyan, is brutally hacked to death, Chitra is devastated to see his body. But just a few minutes later, she's on a bus with Varadan, glibly expressing her willingness to walk with him till the end. There's no trace of agony on her face, not a single comforting word offered by her husband.
While the film makes a great deal of the grief of the male characters as the people they love die, what the women feel is barely explored. Renuka is angry when she is wrongly jailed, but the moment isn't about her - it's about Thyagu's rage at what has happened to his wife. It gives him a reason to pump bullets into Varadan towards the end. Chhaya is unceremoniously shot dead - her life span on screen is less than that of a fruit fly. We know nothing about her other than the fact that she's Ethi's fancy girlfriend. Her death makes Ethi depressed and murderous.
When Ethi and his goons walk into Parvathy's house, the focus is on how this is bothering Varadan, not how violated Parvathy must feel. Devout Chitra is shot when she attempts to save Varadan's life. But when Varadan makes an important confession to his dying wife, the camera is entirely on him. Because the scene is about how conflicted he feels (the lines about him seeing blood in his hands, interestingly, are from the Shakespearean play Macbeth, where husband and wife are involved in a murder), not Chitra breathing her last after spending years looking after his family and tolerating his adulterous ways.
Rasool (Vijay Sethupathi), is the only one who doesn't have a "love interest", so to speak. However, the honest undercover cop seems to think little about endangering the lives of commercial sex workers, as he sets up an encounter in a brothel to achieve his target. He also doesn't seem to mind that innocent women like Chitra may die during the elaborate "plan" to kill the gangsters in her family. Even if one were to go easy on this, the way the brothel sequence is shot - from the background score that suggests sleaze to a "comic" moment when Rasool is solicited by a sex worker in the middle of a chase - dehumanises the women who inhabit the place, just as Tamil cinema has for decades now.
One may argue that much of Tamil cinema is sexist and extremely hero-centric and that Chekka Chivantha Vaanam alone shouldn't be targeted. Fair enough. But then, let's accept that this film, too, falls in the same category of using women as props on screen to make the men look good. The women in the star cast deserved better.