Lover: A rare Kollywood film that calls out abuse but then falls prey to sexist tropes

Lover: A rare Kollywood film that calls out abuse but then falls prey to sexist tropes

Prabhuram Vyas’ ‘Lover’ takes Kollywood’s celebration of toxic masculinity head on. The film attempts to show the toll Arun’s (Manikandan) lies, vacant promises, and even more empty apologies take on Dhivya (Sri Gouri Priya).
Lover (Tamil)(3 / 5)

At some point into Lover, I could only think this film should be a prescribed watch for all South Asian men, especially the ones who make their way into the cinema industry. A hopeful thought that the third act completely diffused. Manikandan plays Arun, a man with dreams of opening his own cafe, but the only person in his way is himself. His drinking until he turns violent, brazen lack of accountability, his controlling and suspicious attitude with his girlfriend Dhivya (Sri Gouri Priya), leads to heartbreak for both of them. And while throughout the film director Prabhuram Vyas makes the nearly unseen cinematic choice in Kollywood to call out all of this as abuse and not romance, he ends the story on a note that leaves the misogynists in the theatre hooting with glee.

Lover takes Kollywood’s celebration of toxic masculinity head on. The film attempts to show the toll Arun’s lies, vacant promises, and even more empty apologies take on Dhivya. And for once in a Kollywood movie, the heroine stands up for herself. Not as a ‘singapenney’ or any other male fantasies on when it is okay or not okay for a woman to stand up for herself. But simply as many of us who have survived abuse sold to us as love.

Dhivya represents the women raised in conservative families slowly establishing for themselves who they want to be. She has a job in an IT firm that also gives her friendship, safety, and solidarity from her colleagues. Meanwhile, Arun switches between binge drinking and a few weeks of trying to straighten out his life before convincing himself that Dhivya’s attempts to eke out a small space for herself is an immediate threat to him. Alcoholism deserves empathy and support, yes. Rather than contending with the related mental health aspects, Lover makes you wonder what exactly the director wants to say given how he ends the story.

Dhivya, on the other hand, is not Kollywood’s long-suffering girlfriend/wife who dutifully accepts all of the hero’s nastiness without asking him to take even a smudge of responsibility. She walks away when she realises she is with someone who has no intention of changing. Arun constantly humiliates her, sees threats where there are none, and even violently reacts when she forces him to take a long, hard look at himself. He refuses to acknowledge her choice to break up, resorting to slut-shaming her and then crossing all her boundaries, dismissive of her choice, decides for the two of them that they’re going to get married. This is what passes for romance in South Asia both on screen and off. It is this exact mindset, this entitled disregard for a woman’s right to say no that leads to the real-life murders of countless women. Arun, like all abusers, tries to isolate Dhivya saying it’s her friends who are ‘misleading’ her and says he knows her best. So when he attempts to shame her for her choices and she turns around and snaps: “No, maybe this who I always was,” the scene leaves you reeling. Because isn’t that what abusers first take from us? Our sense of who we are.

Lover attempts to keep things as real as possible, for the most part. Even in toxic relationships, there are things that once gave the couple a tiny portion of joy. It is, after all, the occasional moments of light that keep people trapped in that kind of darkness. We see that in the way Dhivya mourns what she’s decided to walk away from, particularly in the times her resolve wavers when she remembers the reasons she fell in love with Arun in the first place. However, it is precisely this insight that is twisted around at the end in a manner that makes Arun the hero after everything he’s done.

Judging by the cheers it drew, the sequence played right into the Tamil cinema trope of women-who-leave-a-man-deserve-to-be-humiliated-at-the-climax-mass-scene. Cheers from audiences or not, Prabhuram Vyas’ conclusion of his story begs the question: Can abusers who refuse to take accountability for their own lives turn things around only by acting like it’s they who are the victims?

Sri Gouri Priya seamlessly brings out the hurt and confusion of her character, though there are moments when you wonder if Dhivya has been written as less assertive not out of a deference to the lived experiences of victims of abuse, but to soften her for the sake of Kollywood audiences who seem incapable of accepting a woman who makes decisions not approved of by the male protagonist.

Manikandan is that rare actor in Kollywood who has created a space for himself as someone who not only picks roles that are unusual to the industry, but also pulls each of them off with superb ease. Among all the characters he’s played, his performance as Lenin in Kaala (2018) remains my favourite. The actor has a flair for bringing out male vulnerability without resorting to the toxic gimmicks of Tamil cinema heroes.

As Arun, he gets under the skin of the character. Not just his unacceptable behaviour, but also the parts of him that dream of brighter possibilities as the son of an alcoholic and a mother weighed down by all that she’s had to survive. You see the glimmers of humanity and pain within him trying to push him towards something better than who he chooses to be. You also see the breathtaking sense of entitlement that keeps him an awful person. If only his reckoning, negligible as it is, didn’t come through outrightly disregarding Dhivya’s trauma.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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