It’s a greasy neighbourhood, the sort where everyday survival is a struggle for the inhabitants. The hero and his friends wear their poverty as armour, and spend their days dreaming of a redemptive rise to respectability, even if at the cost of morality. It’s all gritty and real. The supporting characters seem chosen with great care, as are their clothes.
It’s impossible not to be invested completely in the filmmaker’s world, in the problems of its people… until the alien entity, the heroine, steps in. She’s wearing more make-up than characters in that universe usually do, and seems like a bull in a china shop. It happened in Madras. It happened in Kadhalum Kadanthu Pogum. And now, last week, it happened again… in the otherwise well-made Rangoon. Every one of these films are by directors who displayed in their films a great love for ground detail.
And yet, the female lead, among the biggest characters in a film, threatens to disrupt the suspension of disbelief that the filmmaker has built so painstakingly. Suddenly, the ill-fitting manufactured nature of the lead female’s looks in such a story reminds you that the events are but staged.
And you have to wonder why this emphasis on the looks of the heroine, when it’s evidently coming at the cost of the authenticity of the film’s universe? Do the filmmakers intend it to be a necessary distraction from what they perceive to be the grime of such stories? Do female leads need to look attractive in the conventional sense of the word?
And in any case, why are their characters still used as a prop, as an aspirational quest for the hero, and by extension, for the average member of the audience? In last week’s Rangoon, for instance, director Rajkumar Periasamy hints at a detailed characterisation of the heroine: he shows you that she’s an aspiring singer and is part of a singing competition that could potentially make her life. But then, these details amount to nothing significant, and she joins a long list of lead female roles that have been waylaid to make way for the hero’s pursuits, which apparently just cannot be interwoven into the heroine’s.
And here’s another question you just can’t ask enough of: Are we really that starved of homegrown talent, of local faces that would be more at home in the neighbourhoods portrayed in films like Madras and Rangoon? It isn’t really an issue in masala narratives that tell larger-than-life stories. But in stories of real people and real suffering, a face that doesn’t belong has the power to undermine the whole intent. In any case, ask yourself, why is it that only the heroes often look the same in films as they do in real life? God forbid that an actress look ‘imperfect’ on screen, god forbid that she not look suitable enough for the male gaze.
It’s not a surprise then that even some film reviews have only comments to make about a heroine’s looks. I cannot wait for the day when actresses are shown in films as they look in real life, imperfections and all—at least, in subjects that demand such portrayal. It’s an insult to the women in our lives when real stories champion unreal expectations of beauty.