Watching Tamil serials can be a spiritually elevating experience. It can leave you numb, emotionless and stoic. There are women who can make your own problems appear much smaller. And then there are women who will make the offenders you are reporting on look holy.
Tamil serial terrain is not all that unfamiliar to someone like me. Ever since Tamil channels started airing serials, portrayal of women has always vacillated between two extremes – either an epitome of sacrifice, or the personification of evil. Over two decades since Tamil serials started capturing the imagination of the middle classes, little or nothing has changed. Perhaps they have gone from bad to worse. And then there are patterns – some of which travel across channels. Let’s look at some of them:
Weddings cannot happen without some drama: Sometimes, they don’t happen despite the drama. And sometimes, the drama continues even after the wedding. In most cases, including Nenjam Marappathillai (Vijay TV), Raja Rani (Vijay TV), Aranmanai Kili (Vijay TV), the hero and the heroine get married forced by circumstances. And eventually, they fall in love.
Not that other channels lag behind with this trope. In the hugely popular Sembaruthi (Zee Tamil), the wedding again happened amid drama, with the hero tying the knot to the domestic worker he is in love with, hoodwinking his mother. In Kanmani (Sun TV), the heroine’s wedding is stopped twice – both times after some drama. In Priyamanaval (Sun TV), the drama continues after the wedding – bride Selvi’s family comes to know that groom Kumar’s brother faked horoscopes to get them married, and the couple continue to live separately.
Perpetuating hierarchies: Serials encourage liberal use of degrading terms like Velaikkari (to refer to a domestic worker) even if the domestic worker has graduated to playing heroine. In Raja Rani, hero Karthik is forced to get married to the domestic worker Semba and after some ice-breaker episodes, the couple fall in love. Yet Semba continues to call Karthik Chinnaiya (junior master). In Sembaruthi, Aadhi falls in love the domestic worker Parvathi. Throughout their relationship, Parvathi calls him Periaiah (senior master). In Aranmanai Kili, Jaanu is forced to marry Arjun – the physically disabled son of her father’s employer Meenakshi. She calls him sir, sleeps in the kitchen, and continues to wait for his acceptance, at his beck and call.
The Veetla Eli Veliyila Puli syndrome: In the 1991 film Veetla Eli Veliyila Puli (A mouse in the house, but a tiger outside) Janakaraj is a henpecked husband and yet at office, he is seen as a terrorising boss. Several heroines in Tamil serials seem to incurably suffer from that syndrome. All it takes is a whiff of fresh air to bring out the tigers in them.
Aranmanai Kili’s heroine Jaanu would suffer innumerable abuses at home silently without any retaliation, yet on the streets she wouldn’t stand by as a poor old man is hit by an arrogant woman in a car. Picking up a fight, Jaanu ensured that the arrogant woman not only apologised but also paid the old man for his medical expenses. Bhagya Lakshmi in Lakshmi stores (Sun TV) will do all the work at home, silently suffering the insults heaped on her by her sister-in-law, yet outside home, she is a fighter who would expose the antagonist Union Minister. (Though of course, of late she has been showing some sign of rebellion).
The weird ways of wickedness: From stopping weddings to plotting murders, the evil women of Tamil serials are capable of doing just about anything. In Sembaruthi, the antagonist kidnaps the heroine (Parvathi), keeps her in a temple, and disrobes her so she would not escape. Earlier there was a murder attempt on Parvathi by the same woman – which she miraculously escapes. In Nenjam Marappathillai, antagonist Sathya plots various ways to take revenge on heroine Saranya for marrying her ex-boyfriend Vikram, and that includes setting up a rowdy to kill her. Aranmanai Kili’s Durga plots to take revenge on her aunt Meenakshi in ever so many ways including plotting against her son Arjun’s wedding. Typically, these wicked women dress well and stay at home, sometimes they go to sleep with their heavy jewellery and make up intact.
Stealing jewellery and incriminating the heroines, just so they go to jail – is something very common in Tamil serials. However, the promo of a more recent serial Selva Magal (Sun TV), went a step further: a woman is seen wrapping a snake in a bridal sari so that the heroine will be killed, and her daughter can then be married to the hero. Don’t ask me if I ventured to see the actual serial though.
Ancient ideas and surviving myths: Typically, heroines switch to sarees after marriage, even if they have to go to medical colleges to continue their education. It is a blasphemy for men to enter kitchens – occasionally they can if their spouses are unwell – and that is an act for which the wives have to be eternally grateful. In Ponnukku Thanga Manasu (Vijay TV), the heroine Divya from a lower middle class background, is married to a fairly rich Prashanth, only to be constantly harassed for dowry by her arrogant mother in law Sethu Lakshmi. She wouldn’t dare file a police complaint or leave the house, lest she lose her husband.
In Aranmanai Kili, Jaanu resorts to Ayurveda to cure her husband’s disability. The Ayurveda exponent puts her through a series of rigorous ways of worship as part of the ‘treatment.’ Such ‘medical’ myths are not uncommon in Tamil serials. Athipookal, a serial aired on Sun TV from 2007 to 2012, was about surrogacy with a poor understanding of the process.
Dare watch any of these?
Kavitha Muralidharan is a journalist with two decades of experience, writing on politics, culture, literature, and cinema.Views expressed are the author's own.