Brutish or infantilised: How Tamil cinema has portrayed women cops over the years

In Tamil films, when women police officers aren’t being infantilised, they are shown as stone-like characters and hardly ever as multi-dimensional human beings.
Jyothika in the film Naachiyaar
Jyothika in the film Naachiyaar

Tamil films on police officers have been around for almost as long as Kollywood has had larger-than-life, hero-centric movies. Across generations, nearly all the male stars from Sivaji Ganesan and Rajinikanth to Suriya, Vijay and Sivakarthikeyan have worn khaki to help sell a particular brand of spurious self-righteousness. One would not be over-stating to claim that hardly any of these films have introspected on the flaws within the police system. Nor has there been a profound analysis about how a majority of police films celebrate extrajudicial violence as heroism. But how has this genre dealt with gender? Specifically, how has it depicted women in uniform over the years?

Those of us who are old enough will recall films like the Lakshmi-starrers Rudhra and Udaya Geetham. The two films, though very different, shared a particular representation of a woman police officer. In both, Lakshmi plays an unflappable police officer, with single-minded dedication to her work. 

Rudhra, though, had a liberal dose of comedy thrown in, as Lakshmi's character, DSP Lalitha, spars verbally with Bhagyaraj’s irascible criminal Madurai. In Udaya Geetham, Lakshmi’s SP Leela Chowdhury describes herself as stone-hearted. “Ennamo kalum karaiyura maathiri paatu paduviyaame? Naanum kalu dhaan, enna karaiya vaikamudiyuma?”— “Apparently your singing can soften even rocks? I’m a rock too, can you soften me?”— she mockingly asks Arun (played by Mohan). A few scenes later, Arun who had retorted “only love can make me sing, not authority”, breaks into the famous lilting number “Thene Thenpaandi Meene”, voiced by SPB and arranged by Ilaiyaraja. Leela’s claim about herself is predictably hollow. The scene when she addresses Arun after the songs is a conflicting one. She admits that Arun indeed has a beautiful voice, reminiscences about her murdered son and husband as tears well up in her eyes. As if to say, at the end of the day, a woman will succumb to her emotions. Yet, through the crack in her demeanor, she holds on to her dignity and by that extension, her sense of fairness.

Regardless of Lakshmi's presence, Rudhra is ultimately a Bhagyaraj film, meaning he needs someone to serve as a foil. Here, it has to be Lakshmi who is at the receiving end of Bhagyaraj’s constant needling.

Tamil cinema has repeatedly struggled with wholesome representations of women in authority, either as police officers, heads of corporations, or heirs. Often, they are vilified only to be “corrected” and softened into doting wives (case in point Mannan) or if they are incorrigible like Neelambarai (Padayappa), they simply die unrepentant. Rooted in misogyny, the trope finds itself at odds when the film needs a woman police officer character. 

Vague tokenism

A woman police officer in Tamil films is frequently harsh, unfeeling, or misguided like in Udaya Geetham. And when the character is the love interest in a male star-led film, like Thalaivaa or Jilla, it appears that a woman cannot be a police officer and have romantic inclinations.

In Thalaivaa, Amala Paul is just there as bait and then is mistaken in her mission to take on first Sathyaraj and then dancer-turned-do-gooder-don Vishwa (Vijay). In the end, she makes amends by retiring, to be a dutiful wife serving tea, while Vishwabhai rules Bombay’s underworld. 

Kajal Aggawaral’s character as Vijay’s colleague in Jilla, rather than having an actual job to do, seems to be around for the film’s inside joke about him initially hating the police and then to nudge him on the path to righteousness. Of course, one might add that the majority of female roles in Tamil cinema could be similarly described.

Gautami in Guru Sishyan is an older example of this kind of vague tokenism by having women play roles generally kept for male actors. She has a smattering of gutsy dialogue but still needs Rajini to rescue her, fight for her.

If women police officers aren’t being infantilised, they are stone-like characters such as DSP Leela, and hardly ever are they multi-dimensional human beings.

When Nagma played a police officer in Ajith’s Citizen, she was almost unrecognisable. Not only was she a brusquely-spoken, driven-to-solve-her-case character, instead of the “glam girl” role she’d done over and over again, but even her dubbing artiste was someone with a harsher voice. The idea seemed to be that a woman in uniform must be quickly scrubbed of any gendered notions of femininity, but not with the intention of breaking stereotypes. Instead, the characters internalise toxic masculine traits, mimicking the same violent excesses portrayed by male actors.

Recreate systems of male violence

Sneha’s Bhavani, the 2011 remake of Vijayshanti’s Tamil-dubbed Vyjayanthi IPS (originally Karthavyam in Telugu) may stand out for several reasons. Just like Vijayshanti in the Telugu version, Sneha has the same kind of “mass-moments” reserved for male stars, such as over-the-top fight scenes and face-offs with nefarious villains. While Sneha’s role isn’t condescending because it is a female actor playing the usual righteous police officer character, Bhavani, like Vyjayanthi IPS, suffers from the same elements that most hero-police films do: a valorisation of police excesses. It’s a shallow kind of feminism that simply seeks to imitate violent masculinity.

Naachiyaar, starring Jyothika, takes everything wrong with Bhavani or Vyjayanthi IPS, and dials it up. “Na adichitudhaan visaaripen” (I only start my investigation after beating up the accused), growls Jyothika as Naachiya when confronted about her methods. Throughout, she channels the same brutishness common in police films led by male actors. If anyone had been wondering if it was possible to make the genre worse, director Bala somehow manages to do just that. Jyotihka’s way of dealing with the rape of a minor girl who becomes pregnant is to lie to her, letting her believe the baby is her boyfriend’s. Feminism, in its true sense, is about dismantling oppressive structures, not an excuse for women to be perpetrators of violence and trauma. But that is exactly what Naachiya does. Her class, rank and power allow her to condescend to a working-class rape survivor. Instead of using her privilege to help a child sexual assault survivor access help, she too robs the girl of any agency by leading her to believe the rape never happened. It is a horrific act to portray as heroism.

Despite the many women-led police films, it begs disbelief that the industry has scarcely tried to address how gender, class and caste affect those working in the police system. There was a short film by Behindwoods, called Kaaval Theivam, that tries to tell the story of a female constable’s claustrophobic life trapped as the sole earner. She faces constant humiliation from male officers, a lack of basic needs like toilets when out on the field and utter loneliness when trying to fight the pervasive inhumanity within the system.

The recently released Writer, directed by Franklin Jacob, gives Ineya the minor role of a police officer. Brief though her scenes are, it addresses a lot more than the industry has thus far with its many police-hero films. Ineya wants to be in the mounted police. She is Dalit and grew up riding her father’s horse, which he rode at fairs and festivals to earn a living. She adores the animals and is in her element when on horseback. But no, her application to shift to the mounted police is rejected. “I don’t even let the men from your community get on a horse’s back, you think I’d let a woman?” snarls the male officer, who turns down her application. Her final act of defiance is a superbly shot sequence that tells us how good a rider she is and how fierce. She rides up to the officer and blocks his jeep, completely rattling him. Instead of imbibing toxic masculinity, Ineya’s part in the story speaks on how gender, rank, caste and class are barriers to women in uniform. And in doing that, allows for an oppressive structure to be shattered, not by tormenting criminals just as violently as any male hero, but by sheer, breathtaking defiance against authority.

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