Tamil cinema’s Amman goddesses and how they championed women and the marginalised

Amman or goddesses featured in these movies are commonly worshipped by non-Brahmin castes and were popular in rural areas. Perhaps, due to this reason, these films also focussed on the plight of women and the marginalised who turned to them for help.
Ammans in Tamil movies
Ammans in Tamil movies
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Decked in silk sarees and jewellery, Mookuthi Amman (Nayanthara), the goddess, teams up with Engels Ramasamy (RJ Balaji) to expose the hypocrisy of religious godmen who are out to make a quick buck by exploiting people’s faith. While the film, also titled Mookuthi Amman (2020) earned a lukewarm response from both critics and audiences alike, Amman movies were a hit among the Tamil audience in the late 90s and early 2000s. Most South Indian films, especially Tamil cinema, had many mythological themes that eventually died down as time and politics progressed. But Amman movies made a comeback, becoming a niche category that espouses relatively radical ideas of gender and caste when compared to other mythological films made in Kollywood. 

Who is Amman?

Most villages in Tamil Nadu have a unique Amman – a local goddess not widely known outside the village, often worshipped by non-Brahmin castes. She is prayed to for a myriad of reasons – sufficient rains, plentiful harvest, fertility for newly married women, and relief from smallpox and measles, to name a few. The Amman’s name is prefixed with either the geographical location of her temple or her powers. Even the popular Mariamman is a portmanteau of the Tamil words ‘mari’ (rain) and ‘Amman’ –‘mari’ also means smallpox and legend has it that people would flock to the goddess to heal them of the disease. To date, several Amman temples see people bringing their unwell family members, hoping the goddess would cure them.  

Research suggests that most Amman goddesses worshipped in villages across Tamil Nadu were real women who were killed for “transgressive behaviour”— dominant caste women falling in love with men from marginalised castes. To ensure that their anger does not wreak havoc on the village, these women would be posthumously venerated to the status of goddess and worshipped. Since Ammans have somewhat been co-opted into mainstream Hinduism, this aspect of their origin is largely ignored.

Rituals and celebrations followed in Amman temples also break away from conventional Hindu worship practices. For instance, it is not necessary for Amman temples in villages to have a Brahmin priest. Some priests in Amman temples are from marginalised castes and dominant non-Brahmin castes. Animal sacrifices are common in Amman temple festivals and while menstruation still forbids women to go to temples, the rules are relatively relaxed in Mariamman temples as legend has it that some of these goddesses themselves menstruate. 

The celebrations in these temples too are loud, and colourful, where men and women walk on fire, carry pots of burning coal, and pierce their tongues and/or cheeks to express devotion. It was not uncommon for women to supposedly ‘receive the spirit’ of the goddess and act as a ‘medium’ for the goddess to express joy, anger, or disappointment. Soon enough, these celebrations made their way to the celluloid in the form of Amman films. 

How Tamil cinema made way for Amman movies

Before the inception of cinema, ‘therukoothu’, or street plays showcasing dramatised versions of stories from popular mythologies, were performed during temple fairs and festivals in Tamil Nadu. Once cinema came into the entertainment landscape in the early 1900s, filmmakers chose to make films on these mythologies as the audience was already familiar with them. According to Beyond Bollywood: The Cinemas of South India, between 1916 and 1932, 88 out of the 107 films made were on mythology, bhakti saints like Kabir and Ramdas, and Tamil epics like Silapadikaram. It was only after 1935 that films on contemporary subjects began to be made. Despite, mythological films remained at the forefront. 

Later in the 1930s, as the Indian Independence struggle gained momentum, films started centering on patriotism and nationalism. Almost a decade later, during World War 2, the British government brought a rule saying that one in every three movies produced by studios must be in support of the ongoing war. At this point, war propaganda movies like Burma Rani, Manasamrakshamam, Kannamma En Kadhali, to name a few, were released, all of them in 1945. 

Parallely, the Self-Respect Movement (later renamed as Dravida Kazhagam), founded by Dravidian ideologue Periyar in 1925, was growing in Tamil Nadu. This movement called for women’s emancipation, rejecting Brahminism and ritualistic Hinduism. After India gained Independence in 1947, Dravida Kazhagam playwrights critiqued such inequalities. Soon, cinema became the medium to propagate the Dravidian ideology, and notable writers including former Chief Ministers CN Annadurai, M Karunanidhi, and Ilangovan, among others, started engaging in this. 

One of the most popular films made during this period was Parasakthi (1952), written by M Karunanidhi, who would go on to become the leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). A scene from the film in which a temple priest molests a young girl who is later rescued by the hero created a lot of controversy. Similarly, a film written by CN Annadurai titled Velaikari (1949) became a hit and featured several themes like class injustice and rationalism. Films made during this period also had caricatures of Brahmins and continued to take digs at Vedic traditions while propagating rationalist and atheist principles.

It was in the 1960s and 70s that movies began focussing on narratives from rural parts of Tamil Nadu with the entry of filmmakers like Bharathiraja. Film critic and academician Stalin Rajangam attributes the rise of Amman movies to village-centric films made by Bharathiraja and others. He said, “‘Ulloor’ [local] movies were beginning to be made in the 1970s and 80s. Movies centering on local female deities like Aathi Parasakthi (1971) were also being made in the same period. For 30 or so years, movies with similar stories were being made. These movies were a hit among the audience, especially women because they portrayed their struggles and also provided a woman saviour to relieve them.” 

The rise and fall of Amman films

Almost all the Amman movies made during this period had similar storylines, but they managed to capture the fascination of the audience. It was also the first time that devotional films in the Tamil film industry were centred around regional goddesses rather than pan-Indian Hindu deities. Perhaps, due to this reason, these films also focussed on the plight of the marginalised who turned to the Ammans for help. 

One of the first Amman films to become a hit was itself titled Amman and released in 1995. It was a remake of the Telugu movie Ammoru which was also released in the same year. The movie created the template for the many Amman movies that would follow – a flashback that explains the goddess’s origin and a present-day scenario where she comes to the rescue of a devout, abused woman. Other popular tropes in these movies included a rich landlord collaborating with a practitioner of black magic to steal treasures belonging to the goddess, the goddess leaving the village out of anger only to break her vow and come back to save a suffering woman devotee, and so on. 

In Kannathal (1998), for instance, Kannatha (Neena) is merely 16 years old and is forced to marry Chinnadurai (Karan), the son of a rich landlord, because she has four younger sisters and her father is unable to provide for the family. In another Amman movie, Kan Thiranthu Paaramma (2000) Gayathri (Sangita), finds herself coerced into marrying Prabhu (Ranjith) because he promises to not demolish the Amman temple that she frequents. While hers is a happier marriage compared to Kannatha, Gayathri still experiences hardships to the point where her life is threatened. In Kannathal, Kannatha resurrects as an Amman to save Seetha Lakshmi, who marries Chinnadurai after her death. Meanwhile, Gayathri resorts to the local Amman in her village to deliver her from her marital troubles.

However, Amman movies slowly lost appeal by the end of the 2000s. According to Stalin, this possibly happened because the storylines were becoming outdated. “The template became overdone because women were becoming more mobile due to education and employment. Therefore, relatability to these movies declined and once it was not profitable anymore, filmmakers stopped making them,” he said.

Gender and caste dynamics in Amman films

Despite being made nearly two decades ago, most Amman movies have had relatively progressive ideas about gender and caste. While devout women are often portrayed as having little agency, the depiction of the goddesses can be interpreted as an expression of bottled female rage. The Ammans themselves were never portrayed as serene or conventionally ‘divine’ but were shown to be terrifying, angry, and even violent. 

The women seeking the help of the Ammans have the odds stacked against them and it does not come as a surprise that they resort to the goddesses for help. And the Ammans are happy to oblige. Owing to the oppressive nature of their marital homes, the women refrain from expressing their anger and disdain towards their husbands and in-laws but simply pour their grief before the Ammans. It is almost as if the oppressed women’s anger is projected onto the goddess as they are unable to express it without facing dire consequences that can even be fatal. At the same time, resurrecting a wronged woman as a goddess (as seen in movies like Kannathal) also comes across as a form of retribution for violence against women. Further, while the castes of the many characters in Amman movies are ambiguous, almost every villain punished by the goddess is from a rich landowning family referred to as zamindars.  

Moreover, there are no ‘middlemen’ between the Ammans and worshippers, unlike gods in the Hindu pantheon, who supposedly require a Brahmin priest to ‘communicate’ with them. Even the chants and prayers would be performed in Tamil, a language accessible to worshippers, unlike Sanskrit. Such worship practices reduced the formality between the goddess and her devotees, especially women. 

Another interesting thing about Ammans is that these goddesses were one among the others before death. Stalin pointed out movies like Aatha Un Koyilile (1991), in which Kasthuri (Kasthuri Shankar) was killed by her parents for falling in love with a Dalit worker in her house. “After her death, her lover Marudhu builds a shrine for her and worships her. There are several stories like this across Tamil Nadu, and sometimes, legends say that the goddess chooses to reside among the Dalits. Because of this, her worshippers treat her as ‘one of them’. This could explain why worshippers can demand things from their goddesses and express their anger as well,” he explained. 

But despite implicit representations of marginalised people and their struggles, Amman movies have always also played it safe when it comes to caste.

Are Amman movies perfect?

Stalin is of the view that when many local goddess stories are co-opted into mainstream Amman or Mariamman legends, there has been an erasure of the histories of marginalised communities. “When Amman movies were made, filmmakers were hesitant to make direct representations of the subaltern narratives that formed these legends. So, they tried to bring in these narratives through an oppressed woman and having the goddess come to save her. The core of these stories continues to be a goddess saving people of marginalised communities from oppression,” he said.

While there are some feminist aspects and representations of oppressed castes in Amman movies, they are far from perfect. The woman devotees are portrayed to be ‘ideal’, and such depictions raise questions of whether or not the Amman would help more ‘imperfect’, ‘modern’, women who do not come across as ‘good’ (read confirming) in a patriarchal society. Neither do Amman movies shed light on the treatment of marginalised castes in these temples. Practices of untouchability and segregation are still prevalent in some villages in the state, but Amman movies gloss over them or falsely equate them with class issues. 

Nonetheless, Amman movies have created a niche category that showcases a subculture of Hinduism that might not have otherwise gained mainstream attention. While religious films nowadays seem to pit one group against the other, perhaps Amman movies deserve some praise for attempting to stand by women and marginalised communities.

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