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Recently wall posters carrying the faces of Ajith and Vijay appeared all over the state to promote their much-hyped Pongal films Thunivu and Varisu. Not only in posters but also in ads published in dailies, banners and even on social media, the macho heroes alone figured front-and-centre as if theirs were just one-man shows, where the rest of the ensemble are lesser mortals. Of course, there are heroines in the lead. But Tamil cinema being what it’s been for long, neither the heroines’ faces nor their names figure in promotional ads for the films.
A couple of days after the release of the films, however, Rashmika Mandanna was seen rubbing shoulders with Vijay in the Varisu posters and so was Manju Warrier with Ajith in Thunivu.
Showbiz hasn’t yet broken free from the male chauvinism lurking in the collective unconscious of society.
When actor-director R Parthiban made his film ‘Oththa Cheruppu’ (single chappal), its posters showed him fully occupying the space. Yet he could justify it, saying it was literally a one-man show. Film posters may not strike one as an important issue. After all, it’s a petty issue, they may claim. But the syndrome of hero-oriented posters invisibilising heroines is symptomatic of a man-made and man-oriented system exploiting women’s labour for centuries on end.
As far as Tamil cinema is concerned, it’s pretty much a given that heroines play second fiddle; they are expected to be content with and confined to being just glamorous add-ons, more-often-than-not wearing appealing outfits and featuring in dazzling duets with the heroes, and made to lasciviously utter lines — all targeted towards a male audience
The culture of bypassing heroines (of course, exceptions are there) dates back to the 1930s when the movies turned talkies, and continued through the era of MGR-Sivaji, Rajini-Kamal and now to Ajith-Vijay.
At least when the 1980s-90s’ heroes Rajini and Kamal called the shots, the posters of their films equally featured the faces of the heroines, although the heroes amplified the rampant sexism of society in their roles. Now with Vijay-Ajith posters again not featuring the heroines, is the film industry actually becoming more backward?
As far as Tamil cinema is concerned, it’s pretty much a given that heroines play second fiddle; they are expected to be content with and confined to being just glamorous add-ons, more-often-than-not wearing appealing outfits and featuring in dazzling duets with the heroes, and made to lasciviously utter lines — all targeted towards a male audience. They hardly get a chance to cross the lines drawn by this template.
And then there’s the misogyny! Filmmakers script scenes where, without a sense of irony, the hero who is dressed in western wear lectures heroines on Tamil culture and ethics, and how only the sari is the right garment. Remember how MGR lip-synched the lines in the film Vivasaayee “Ippadithan irukka vendum pombala” (this is how a woman should be), asking his heroine to wear a saree when she appears wearing pants and T shirt “spoiling the minds of the men around”?
MGR, Sivaji, Rajini and Kamal who were once movers and shakers of Tamil tinsel town were, in fact, torchbearers of the suffocating sexism and misogyny.
“A woman must be a woman; though (allowed, condescendingly) to be educated, she must not cross her limits: she must uphold our native culture. If education and modern lifestyle make her ‘haughty’, she will finally be tamed.” This is the message driven home in most of these top four heroes’ films. MGR does it in the film Kanavan to subjugate the rich and progressive heroine; Sivaji ultimately brings the London-educated heroine who was getting on his nerves all long to her knees in Pattikada Pattanama; Rajini is at it in Mannan, teaching a lesson to his heroine who is a numero uno industrialist, and Kamal turns his heroine — a computer whiz-kid — into a romantic slave in Vikram, making tongue-in-cheek comments on how the woman is empowered.
The culture of bypassing heroines (of course, exceptions are there) dates back to the 1930s when the movies turned talkies, and continued through the era of MGR-Sivaji, Rajini-Kamal and now to Ajith-Vijay
This has been the trend right from the first Tamil film Kalidas released in 1931. And it has continued in the films of current heroes. For example, Vijay’s Sivakasi features a terribly cringe scene where Vijay lectures the heroine Asin on what not to wear, ending with the utter lie that if a woman wears a saree, she would not get sexually harassed or molested. These false narratives popularised by top heroes not only embolden men to harass women in real life but also put the onus on women’s safety on their own selves, rather than on men needing to stop criminal behaviour towards women.
In addition to such misogyny, with some exceptions Tamil cinema, by and large, has mainly focused on the shining supremacy of the heroes, relegating heroines to the background, however educated and empowered they are.
There’s no denying that now and then, films that give equal importance to the heroines do hit the screen. But, they are just flashes in the pan. The heroines, though, have touched a new high in acting performance in some exceptional films. Savithri, for instance, can be cited for her sterling performance in Pasamalar, no less intense than Sivaji’s.
Another heroine who got equal importance was P Banumathi, a multi-faceted personality who openly slammed the top hero MGR during the making of his blockbuster Nadodi Mannan. Banumthi was well-known for her audacious dialogue delivery targeting the men around.
But the fact is that gifted heroines are deliberately kept out of male-chauvinistic heroes’ films. For instance, Nadiya Moidu, in her heyday, made it a point not to pair with Kamal and Rajini (with whom she was in the lead in just one film: Rajathi Raja). Poove Poochoodava is her most memorable film, in which she was at her best throughout, giving no space for the dominance of hackneyed heroism.
Discussions on this issue have long been initiated. But Tamil cinema is not ready for a shift in attitude and approach.
No person of reason can buy the argument generally put forward that it’s after all commercial cinema where only heroes can dictate terms. Do the fans flock to theatres to watch only Ajith and Vijay in their films? Can the heroes alone carry their films on their shoulders? Don’t other actors and actresses contribute to the popularity of the films?
Tamil cinema has, of course, evolved by leaps and bounds in terms of technology. But it is still lacking in content and principles.
It is welcome that Ajith comes off as off-beat, appearing least bothered about slightly aged looks and wearing his white hair and beard in films with swagger, and throwing overboard the long tradition of nurturing fans’ associations and of being nicknamed by them with sobriquets like ‘thala.’ Surely his activities are not popular gimmicks, are they?
Vijay, however, deliberately follows in the footsteps of MGR and Rajini, nursing as he does the ambitions of attaining superstar status in cinema and possibly making a splash in the political arena as well. So, he is not ready to take the risk of being a game changer and deviate from the conservative and traditional concepts about women and her secondary role in cinema.
At best, Ajith can set an example by giving his heroines their due; because he raised our hopes when he played a role defending modern women in the court in the film Ner Konda Paarvai and challenged society’s superstitious beliefs and wrong perceptions about women going to pubs and parties.
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