I had been waiting to watch and write about a film ever since the Tamil Film Producer’s Council’s 48-day futile strike ended. It was predicted that ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ would bring the audiences to the theatre. I was part of the audience that went to the theatre to watch the film; I concurred with the New Yorker’s review that it was ‘like listening to two and a half hours of Tin Machine.’ Not having much else to say other than the ‘Feminism In India’ article on the movie, I waited for the Tamil releases.
As a person deeply invested in the campaign against Unilever’s mercury pollution in Kodaikanal, I refrained from talking about ‘Mercury’, a film based on the issue. ‘Iruttu Araiyil Murattu Kuthu’ in my opinion deserves no better than the controversies it has landed itself in – it is a snooze fest that for some reason (read sexual repression) had the viewers in splits at the mere utterance of the words sex and virgin. An A-rating in this case should only stand for Atrocious or Avoidable. Irumbu Thirai was supposed to the sure shot blockbuster that would attract the summer cinemagoers. It turned out to be multiple testosterone shots and a tiresome cat and mouse game within an archaic screenplay that could’ve done without a female lead.
I went to watch ‘Nadigaiyar Thilagam’ with little expectation and even lesser knowledge about the life and times of yesteryear actor Savitri, whose biopic this is. I came out overwhelmed and overjoyed, wanting to run atop a tall building and scream to the entire world, “This is the movie I have been waiting for!” The whole team gets the credit for the magic that is the movie and for recreating to near accuracy from what I hear not only Savitri’s life but also the setting of that period. The best thing about ‘Nadigaiyar Thilagam’ for me though is that it passes the passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours.
The Bechdel Test is named after American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, in whose comic strip, ‘Dykes to watch out for’ the test first appeared in 1985. The Bechdel test is the mother of all others and their several variants that are used as feminist analysis tools to test for the active presence of women and to call for gender inequality in films and fiction including literature, video games and comic strips. While a call to go beyond the Bechdel and create culture specific feminist tools for fiction has been around, the Bechdel Test with its three rules remains the most basic check of gender representation in film. To pass the Bechdel test a work must feature at least two women, these women must talk to each other, and their conversation must concern something other than a man.
Several popular films worldwide have failed the test miserably and very few Indian films pass it. ‘Nadigaiyar Thilagam’ that revolves around the stories of actor Savitri and journalist Madhuravani with stellar performances by actors Keerthy Suresh and Samantha Akkineni respectively remains a film about the females through and through. The film rests squarely on the shoulders of its long list of women playing supporting characters that include actors Bhanupriya, Malavika Nair, Shalini Pandey, Tulasi, and Divyavani. But its success lies not only in staying true to the story of Savitri, but in keeping actors such as Dulquer Salmaan and Vijay Devarakonda at bay, as both stars and the characters they adorn and solely focusing on the women.
The writing of the film too has subversive elements. One is the rare female friendship between Savitri and Susheela, who remain supportive to each other till the end. Then there is the camaraderie between the two mother figures in Savitri’s life. A scene in the film where Savitri refers to her husband’s first-wife as ‘Alamelu Akka’ is an uncommon twist to what could’ve been a lazily written wife-rivalry sequence. Not by seeing but by hearing, the actor inspires the journalist and we have one woman looking up to another in a world that has a dearth of female role models. The conversations amongst these women on life, love and loss and character traits that portray perseverance, an iron will and integrity could make one forget the existence of the men at all.
In more ways than one, Nadigaiyar Thilagam, a movie on an actor that broke glass ceilings has shattered some of its own. And I daresay that it is okay if the kingpin of the Nadigar Sangam has failed me, the story of Savitri, Nadigaiyar Thilagam has given me a reason to celebrate the actor and a step forward for cinema.
The writer is a city-based activist, in-your-face feminist and a media glutton