Campus films in Indian cinema are almost always synonymous with nostalgia. They are expected to be memoirs of cuteness, designed to make us feel good. But very few films acknowledge that this phase lays the foundational blocks to your persona, in one way or another.
For women, there’s an additional layer of discovery. Suddenly, the world treats you differently. Boundaries are redrawn, new rules are placed. Fear finds new forms to manifest. Some rebel, some settle, but there’s no denying that these experiences shape lives.
Two recent campus films — Mudhalum Nee Mudivum Nee and Hridayam — chose to look beyond the cuteness facade of campus films. They attempt to show the dark corners of growing up. Even though they have male protagonists, the narratives are structured like an ensemble movie. Each character gets an arc, but what’s really interesting is how the female characters are treated.
Darbuka Siva’s Mudhalum Nee Mudivum Nee largely plays out like a mix-tape of nostalgia for the 90s kids. But it shows how early the ‘othering’ begins for women. For Rekha, a girl like Victoria who openly expresses her crush on Vinoth becomes ‘antha madhri ponnu’. For Victoria and Catherine— more western in their sartorial choices—their classmates become ‘paatis’ in their sarees. You don’t see this disdain with the guys. One could say that this ‘othering’ stems from patriarchy’s habit of consistently pitting women against each other — their worth determined by the men in their lives.
It is disappointing that the film doesn’t do much with this though. What’s more questionable is how it ‘punishes’ its male bully vs its female bully. Richard is the garden variety school bully—he bullies Francis, a boy who doesn’t subscribe to the hetero-male gender stereotypes. The film does make him realise his mistakes, but it comes as a mild rap on the back. As an adult, he has a good life -- a cushy job, loving family. He is forced to realise his homophobia by a wife who threatens to drink alcohol if he doesn’t apologise for his behaviour. I’m sure that’s quite scary, as threats go.
On the other hand, Catherine gets groped. She falls in love with a married professor, becomes a single mother, and is shown to be struggling with life. This in isolation wouldn’t be a problem but in comparison with how Richard’s life pans out. In Catherine’s case, she is also a victim. She gets harassed by Chinese who ignores her multiple rejections. When she gets rude— because she can’t tolerate his gestures anymore—he decides to cover her cycle with cow dung and piss on it. Years later, the same behavioural cycle repeats. Chinese apologises to her only after he realises that she is a struggling, single mom.
In contrast, I really enjoyed the girl camaraderie in Vineeth Srinivasan’s Hridayam. The film breaks a lot of behavioural stereotypes, allows its characters to err and make amends too. Their agency is not always conflated with arrogance, and not reserved to the main characters alone. Darshana is not alone in calling out Arun’s hypocrisy, she has a female friend backing her. It’s a female senior who helps Darshana sneak out of the hostel. There’s a female friend who escorts Maya to safety, taking her away from a potentially dangerous situation with Arun. Hridayam also acknowledges their momentary insecurity. When Nithya sees Darshana, her husband’s ex, for the first time, it’s natural to feel a pang of insecurity. When Darshana sees how happy Arun is with Nithya, it is understandable that she feels a pang of jealousy.
The coming of age questions that the women face are also very relatable. When Nithya is asked about Arun’s unstable income, she simply says, ‘I earn too. Don’t you think I will be able to take care if things go south?’ Darshana, on the other hand, is sceptical about the institution of marriage. It’s a plausible reservation to have, considering that for generations, the institution has thrived by treating women unfairly. For new age-women, who have rebelled all their lives to gain certain social and financial independence, it’s not easy to put that in a vulnerable position, even in an equal partnership.
For long, our films have always pitted women against each other. It’s a welcome change that films like Hridayam are trying to change that. And it’s even more significant that the writing is so insightful and nuanced in a film with a male protagonist. This is important because good representation is not restricted to women-centric cinema. The ideal is to have realistic, well-written female roles even when they aren’t protagonists.