Last week’s column “Are strong women roles all about men in Tamil Cinema?” started off a slew of deep social media discussions (not meant as an oxymoron) and long telephone conversations. “What about cinematic license?” I was asked; “What about needing conflict?”
By the weekend my head was spinning with ideas and I noted them all down assiduously with a mix of excitement and despondence. The former obviously for having so much to say, the latter because so much is still needed to be said about women in Tamil cinema.
As Iru mugan (2016), recent Vikram-Nayantara flick dragged on (literally), I caught myself wondering about Nitya Menen’s character in the film, and all of the films that have two leading ladies. By the time the credits rolled, I was certain that there were only so many ways in which a filmed panned out if there were two female actors in it - eight to be precise.
The first scenario is pretty logical – if it were a multi-starrer (male) film, then we would need the same number of women — Vetri Vizha (1989), Chandramukhi (2005), Agni Natchatiram (1988) and more recently, Kedi Billa Killadi Ranga (2013), to name a few. Suyamvaram (1999), that set a record for its ensemble cast, had nine men paired with the same number of women!
In the early 90’s if both women were alive, the hero could marry both of them with or without their consent, maybe with divine intervention thrown in. Thank god we’re done with the Rettai Vaal Kuruvi (1987), Athisaya Piravi (1990), Veera (1994) phase and I am crossing fingers for it not to repeat. More recently, we’ve got what I can safely call the ‘Gautham Menon Formula’ — bring in the second woman after the first has been buried. That way there are two gorgeous women, appearing in two phases of the hero’s life.
Pathway number four is ‘The holy and the whore’. It runs along these lines – one hero, one woman who confesses her love to the hero, the other woman - upholder of virtue and quintessential Tamil woman – who secretly is in love with the hero, but awaits his proposal. The hero as it just so happens, will always choose the holier than thou character over the non-conformist. Need I even say superstar’s Padayappa (1999) here? Oh, but how can I leave out the son-in-laws Thangamagan (2015)!
‘Dispensable Woman’ aka pathway five - Guest appearances aplenty, sometimes killed off, sometimes oomph factor. Let’s talk Nithya Menen in Iru mugan, Piaa Bajpai in Ko (2011), Reema Sen in Dhool (2003). Not so different from five — women who are the villain’s sidekicks — is the other favored route. For over four decades, From Rita in Pattanathil Bhootham (1967) to CJ in Billa (2007) we have seen so many cigar smoking ‘bad’ girls have a change of heart in the climax of the film, often laying their lives down to accomplish the hero’s mission. Route seven - another common trope — woman as villain. We’ve seen so many yesteryear female leads comeback to perform in at least one movie as the villain. As older villainous characters, they share equal screen time with younger virtuous heroines. The latest trend is the ‘Ghost Woman’ as in ‘Aranmanai’,
where one leading lady plays the revenge-seeking ghost to another who plays the hero’s love interest. Are there more than eight ways in which two sought after female actors are cast in the same film? I can’t think of more, but I sure would like a ninth ‘Nightmare woman’ role — it’ll have me giving the screenwriters a scare. (The writer is a Chennai-based activist,
in-your-face feminist and a media glutton)