Tamil cinema loves lecturing to women on how they should behave while happily giving the hero a hall pass for any kind of “moral” corruption. But any mention of misogyny in films raises the hackles of industry insiders who are quick to defend themselves with the excuse of "freedom of expression".
That’s why it’s so refreshing to listen to a young and accomplished director like Pa Ranjith speak on the issue so openly.
Addressing an audience comprising members from All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) in Chennai, Ranjith spoke on gender inequality, the representation of women in films and the need for families to discuss such issues in their homes. The programme was organised to discuss and debate violence against women.
Though Ranjith begins with a familiar strain of argument when discussing women’s rights – talking about woman power in terms of “sacrifice” – he moves on to tackling the problematic representation of women in cinema. Acknowledging that women are routinely objectified and almost never treated as human beings on an equal footing in films, he points out that the age bias against heroines is very strong.
Ranjith’s brief but impressive filmography has already demonstrated his intellectual prowess and his willingness to explore uncomfortable politics. In the speech, he goes on to explain how gender, caste and community intersect to create complex prejudices on screen: a woman who is shown to be open about her sexuality is generally derided in the narrative.
Ranjith, who has already established how keenly aware he is of the politics of naming in “Kabali”, observes that such characters are given names like "Rita", a name belonging to a minority community that perhaps justifies their "immorality".
The outspoken woman character, as in the ones who appear in K. Balachander films, that the audience is able to accept, is typically from a higher caste and class. Drawing a parallel to folklore like the Tenali Raman tales and the Panchatantra where there is no critique of the Varnashrama Dharma system, Ranjith says that in films too, it is upper-caste women who are treated with respect.
He points out that in films that show intercaste marriages, the women are routinely killed off. A woman who is explicit about her sexuality and is shown to be powerful is seen as a villain, Ranjith adds. He also shares his perspective on how women can be portrayed differently on screen and says that he believes in creating powerful female characters in his stories. He goes on to address the culture of victim blaming that exists in society, giving the example of the Nirbhaya case.
An insider in the industry speaking about these issues so openly is cause for celebration, given that Tamil cinema routinely validates victim blaming and has had several top heroes ‘advising’ women to cover up.
Like this one:
What can change with people like Ranjith making movies? A lot.
That was Rajinikanth in “Padayappa” mouthing some of the problematic ideas Ranjith has so wonderfully critiqued in his speech. And this is Rajinikanth in “Kabali”:
“Kabali” is the first film in which the Superstar has treated his heroine as an equal partner in a long time. His daughter in the film is a short-haired, tattooed, gun-wielding woman whom he does not attempt to tame at any point.
Does this break sexism and misogyny overnight? No. But it is progress when an influential actor like Rajinikanth, who has made his career playing the omniscient superman, steps out of his comfort zone to be part of a script where the female lead isn’t subservient to him. It’s a small yet significant contribution towards building a culture of equality and mutual respect.
Ranjith stresses the importance of dismantling gender stereotypes and inequalities beginning at home and appeals to the audience not to treat their sons and daughters differently. Perhaps because it was a largely female audience he was addressing, he states that it is mothers who can bring about a change in society, whether it is breaking caste, religion or gender prejudice, by talking to their children about social issues openly.
Pa Ranjith has signed his next film with Rajinikanth and one can’t wait to see what he will do with the superstar this time around. A question to Ranjith though: why do your heroines continue to be fair-skinned women, whichever strata of society they may belong to? Isn’t that related to caste and class too? May we see the “karuppu power” in your heroines in future?
Watch the full speech:
First published in the News Minute.