For a person who prides herself on growing up watching KTV, not HBO or Star Movies, I must admit that I know very little of Tamil cinema from the black and white era. Even a research paper that I co-authored for a History conference titled ‘Silk to Sunny: A feminist critique of item numbers in Tamil cinema’, as the title suggests starts with the infamous Silk Smitha.
That we have not any information or memory of the earliest women in Tamil cinema is not surprising given we do little to record the stories of women, much less take women in art seriously enough to want to keep their memories alive. But this is where subversive history buffs make all the difference, going out of their way to research and seek stories and bring them to the public discourse. Niveditha Louis is one such history buff and had it not been for her talk, ‘Wonder Women of Madras’ held the past weekend, that covered pioneering women in the fields of science, Press, cinema and social activism, I would have never been privy to the life and times of actor K Thavamani Devi, one of the two women featured in the cinema section.
I could introduce K Thavamani Devi as the woman who starred along MGR in Rajakumaari, the movie that gave the former chief minister his big break. This much is on her Wikipedia page, as is the fact that she was the daughter of a well to do barrister in Jaffna. What Niveditha found out for us is that she was all of thirteen when The Ellis Dungan debuted her. She stunned the reporters by handing out a photograph of herself in a two piece bikini. In Niveditha’s words, “Thavamani, named that because she was the daughter that her parents prayed to beget, was a woman who owned her sexuality and knew its power. Can you imagine someone doing in back then?”
No, I cannot. It must have taken some nerve and a lot more courage to be first vamp of Tamil Cinema. But I can imagine why an actor so immensely talented (she had a voice and the will I write her own songs), and sought after, earning almost four times the salary of the male stars of the day was asked to tone down her clothing and type casted once she played a vamp. In her last years that we have no record off, Thavamani was shunned by her ‘respectable’ family and looked down upon a society that not very long ago had thronged the theatres to catch a glimpse of her. For ten years she stayed in Madras, struggling to support herself as a dance teacher before moving to Rameshwaram in a quest for a spiritual life, and died there.
Now one of would think that in the decades after things would have changed. Turns out as it always does in the matters I write about, that not much has. Of course there are more women today that are willing to play vamp roles, but the flip side of that is that they are out and replaced by yet another woman willing to go further in a blink. While this tells us that more women dare to do what it takes or expected of them to get a foot in the industry, it does not mean these women are making choices or refuse with agency.
The woman who plays the vamp will attain instant popularity but only until the voyeurs grow tired of her. What remains the same, as I suppose it will for a while is that the women who play bad girls will be looked at as just that, and type-casted in roles that will never explore the actor in her. When such roles are written, we can guess the result: remember smitha, Mumtaz, and Namitha in serious roles and try to think about who took them seriously. What has changed then? That a Yashika Anand needs to be a quintessential cool girl answering questions about porn, swearing and drinking with a smile of her face - questions that an actor like Aishwarya Rajesh or her co-star Gautham Karthik will be asked, and they all have a big boss to show the world their true selves. And that’s where the buck stops.
The writer is a city-based activist, in-your-face feminist and a media glutton