The Feminine Light Shining through the Masculine Prism
One of the predominant inequalities that plague our humane society is the gender inequality. It is applied in different forms in different societies, around the world. Ours is a men’s world. From the pre-historic times, when our kind lived inside dark caves, societal constructs designed women to huddle and exist around the men’s shade. In men’s world, men lives. In women’s world too, men live. In the patriarchal web weaved by men, a women cowers like a prey. In movies, feminist ideologies have grown into a movement. When thinking of female-based movies in Tamil Cinema industry, the body of works one could immediately remember is that of legendary film-maker K. Balachander’s films. In such narratives, unlike the typical portrayal of women in Tamil/Indian cinema, we could witness ambitious women. They are diffused with fiery looks to call into question all the moral constructs placed upon them. Moreover, these kinds of films employ a preachy and heavy-handed dramatic tone. The staunch female perspective is stressed through its inclination towards didactic dialogues.
Among the recent (Tamil) movies, Karthik Subburaj’s “Iraivi” aka “Goddess” (2016) seems to have adapted fresh film form. Its dense plot structure infused the feeling of watching a truly distinct work, especially when compared with Mr. Subburaj’s ‘style-over-substance’ approach in his first two films. In typical feminist movies, the movement and expansion of the plot, revolves around the characteristics of the ambitious women. Or else, the narrative will start at a point, chronicling women’s unspeakable atrocities faced under the hands of men, and half-way into the movie or at some other threshold point, the on-screen women will be shown to have overthrown the patriarchal order. However, the narrative in “Iraivi” is structured around three men’s life. These men live in a self-centered men’s world, who despite co-existing in a familial structure, make erratic decisions, ignoring the deep impacts that might eviscerate the familial structure. What becloud these men’s mind are the conceptualized targets and the single-minded obsession for victory.
Rather than vividly explain the plot details, I’d like to analyze the subtlety and nuances in Karthik Subburaj’s script. First of all, the men in “Iraivi” aren’t the over-exaggerated, totally irresponsible womanizers we usually encounter in ‘female-perspective’ movies. Each man articulates a strong reason for their irredeemable actions. Their characteristics stay closer to the perceived reality. Many men drink and smoke in their day-to-day life. They are armed with reasons for those actions. The film places the distinct aspects of modern man in front of us, without passing a narrow judgement upon them. Arul, the dedicated film-maker, is afflicted by the producer’s vicious efforts to block the release of his film. As an artist, he is unable to move onto the next project, killing off the previous one. He delves into the ‘bottle’ to fly away from the agonizing thoughts of failure. ‘To drink to death’, which is a good enough reason for his actions. Our society has taught alcohol is the alternate way to forget one’s emotional pains. In the male-centric society, this action is perceived as right and relevant. Women also drink, but less compared to men’s binge drinking. Moreover, the (patriarchal) society never approves alcohol-consuming women. So, does the depression and inner pain only plague men? Or why can’t the society accept alcohol as the perfect way to blank out psychological anguish, when it comes to women?
‘Iraivi” begins with the visual of a girl, on the cusp of her adulthood, extending her hands to touch upon the gentle streaks of rain. Her dreams are crushed under the wheels of reality and the film finishes with her, now drenched in rain, hands once again grasping the gentle drizzle. Throughout the film, ‘rain’ becomes the symbol for womanhood’s yearnings and desires. Considering the message spewing approach taken by many other film-makers in Tamil/Indian cinema, the director’s profound and nuanced visual language in “Iraivi” turns it into a distinct work of Tamil cinema. In this film, men don’t cause any physical abuse on the women. But, their self-centered decisions and quick-tempered reactions totally refute the feelings of women present in their lives. It is the typical identity denial by inbred patriarchy. They have no idea about the consequences related to heightened masculine behavior, which directly affects the women closer to them. In a way, the women are only thrusted with extreme emotional distress. “Iraivi” visualizes the losses a woman deals with when her man embraces a perceived masculinity.
The script tracks down the life of three couples: the sculptor father Doss (Radha Ravi) and his bed-ridden wife (Vadivukkarasi); His eldest son Arul (Sj Suryah) — a failed director who tries to forget the inner pain through alcohol – and his working wife Yazhini (Kamalini Mukherjee); Michael (Vijay Sethupathi) and Ponni (Anjali). Michael, a good family friend to Doss’ family manages their sculpture shop. He is also closely acquainted with Doss’ youngest son Jegan (Bobby Simha), a college student. Apart from the aforementioned three women characters, the other vital character is that of Malar – a widow with whom Michael has a fleeting relationship. Except for Malar, the other women are forced to lead a life, where their words and emotions are not taken into account by their husbands. Although all the women characters are illustriously written, Malar’s characterization seem to possess the typical, over-loaded ambitious ideologies. Nevertheless, Malar’s self-realization, precise decisions and flawless perception of reality singles reflects her uniqueness. From the perception of general sociocultural context, the character Malar would instigate a lot of controversial arguments. When looked through such a conformist position, the narrative center’s challenging core becomes more powerful.
When we first see Vadivukkarasi’s matriarchal character she is lamenting about her ostracized state, devoid of basic respect. As she lies in the comatose stage for the rest of the narrative, she literally becomes a silent witness for the family men’s rage, selfishness and betrayals. Her unsettling silence is an attestation of the previous generation men’s denial of gender equality, within the constricted familial structure. Even though, Ponni and Yazhini hail from different socioeconomic backgrounds, the visuals see a similarity in their void existence. By making this comparison, we could understand how gender inequality remains very common, transcending the class and economic barriers. Like Malar’s characterization, Ponni character design travels in a marvelous trajectory. She is introduced to viewers as a girl with unbridled dreams and infinite imagination, but gradually an empty reality chokes out her dreams, forcing her to opt for a choice-less life. Ponni’s life decisions prioritize her daughter rather than the ‘self’. Even for a single instant, Micheal doesn’t reciprocate such a concern.
Compared to the usual straightforward narrative, films like “Iraivi”, with no narrative center, wouldn’t be easy to adapt for the general viewers. But, this approach not only strengthens the script, but also creates a profound and evenly distributed narrative layers. Bobby Simha’s Jegan is introduced as a man with progressive ideologies, but gradually his pretensions behind the reformist facade become clear. In the intoxicated state, he rants against Arul, Michael and all the males. He is furious about how men are still beholding women as inferior. But, this character with such a robust mentality, chooses to obsess over the girl Michael is about to marry. The narrative twists in the second-half are predominantly created due to Jegans’s infatuation over Ponni. And, when he uses feminist ideologies to validate his actions (in the scene, where he gives a long lecture to his unconscious mother, seeking some validation), his progressive nature loses its truthfulness. In a way, Jegan and Malar’s polarizing character nature could be compared with a narrative commonality. Malar, a widow, maintains relationship with Michael (before his marriage), purely seeking physical pleasure. She neither justifies nor considers it a worst sin. However, when Michael after marriage, unable to forget Malar, knocks at her door, she gives a wise advice and sends him off. Contrarily, Jegan knowingly woos a woman, who is about to be his close friend’s wife. As a woman, Malar rejects Michael’s advances, after marriage by thinking from Ponni’s position. This could be understood when she gazes through the splatter of rain on the window at Michael, frantically kick-starting his bike. A mixture of misery and yearning floats in her gaze as she has sent off the man, she truly loves. As a man, Jegan only envisions Ponni as the vital target to be attained, averting others’ perspective.
Later, when Michael comes to know about Jegan’s fixation on his wife, he is deeply unsettled. He questions Ponni and she gives a truthful answer (about how she rejected Jegan’s declaration of love), but still Michael’s doubts lingers around whether they had any sexual relationship. In the ensuing argument, we get to know how Ponni has knowledge of Michael’s previous relationship with Malar. Citing that, she asks what rights he has to boast such a doubt. She strongly refuses to provide an answer. This uncertainty that haunts Michael eventually sets off the typical ferocity to kill Jegan during a chance meeting. In the same sequence, when Michael questions Ponni, she expresses a soulful desire to start a new life, forgetting all the nagging doubts and other agonies. The scene was filmed with a poetic quality. As the husband and wife stand in close proximity, the camera looks at them through the center of their child’s cradle. Ponni, although has valid reasons to end her marriage relationship, makes a life decision by thinking about her child’s future. Without big words, this one, lyrical shot conveys the decisive position of a mother.
Forgiveness, mercy, and acceptance has made out to be the defining, inviolable qualities of womanhood All the three males – Arul, Michael, and Jegan – easily detaches themselves from the alleged male bonding at the narrative threshold. By killing Michael, Arul seeks vengeance for the murder of Jegan. The long gestated happiness for both the families is terminated with a single bullet. The inherent arrogance of being a ‘man’ pushes Arul to commit that act. As, he laments (Sj Suryah delivering a brilliant monologue) Michael could have told everything to Arul. Michael could have forgiven Jegan. But, despite having alternative solutions to the problems at hand, the men make decision compelled by twisted idea of masculinity. Hostility and resentment originates like a vortex to pull them deeply inside. The societal constructs which theorizes the duties and qualities of a man creates a magnanimous ‘self’, only to make him perceive things and argue from that alleged higher perspective.
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If we take the central characters and view them through the long-standing history of men, we can trace it back to societies, paving paths to install men’s authority, which directly or indirectly inflicts physical or emotional abuses on the womanhood. Throughout history, women are cited as reasons for war and the ensuing bloodshed and unspeakable violence. From a common perspective, women are declared as the provokers of battles. But, if you de-construct this line of thought, you can clearly perceive how wars and bloodshed are all about men trying to impose their authority on a woman; how men have tried to objectify woman, in order to flourish their dominance and oppression.
Few days after the release of “Iraivi”, there were many adverse and counter arguments to Karthik Subburaj’s stance. In social media, there were two different perceptions. Those who championed the film are belittled as pseudo-feminists. The criticism is that they are not true feminists, but just men masking their chauvinistic qualities. May be it’s true that all men who liked “Iraivi” are not feminists. But, you need not be a embracing a particular ideology to champion a film. What the criticizers failed to understand is the change in perception this film could bring upon the average male, who had grown up under rigid societal values. One of the reviews in a daily magazine has passed on a comment that “Iraivi” at times seem to fabricate the entire male gender as ‘bad’. I heard the same line of thought among friend circles too. In a way, I was taken aback by this thought. For example, let’s take Bharathi Raja’s “Sigappu Rojakkal” (aka ‘Red Roses’) which released in late 1970’s. The central character in the film as a young boy comes across bad and morally reprehensible women. He grows under a care of individual with misogynist ideologies, which later makes him to kill bunch of women, whom he perceives as the ‘bad ones’. In contemporary times, there’s Silambarasan’s “Manmathan”. The reason behind killing the women are the same and these narratives are designed to be ‘thrillers’. There weren’t many criticisms about how these films could portray majority of women as immoral (except for the ‘virginal’ heroine) and there were no big arguments on how immoral behavior (in most of the old or contemporary Indian cinema even wearing a modern dress and talking against men are considered ‘immoral’) could be meted out with brutal murder (done by movie’s protagonist). We are also made to sympathize with these so-called protagonists for the way ‘those’ women emotionally abused them.
In a non-violent, romantic film like “Theeradha Vilaiyattu Pillai” (aka ‘The Insatiable Playboy’), the protagonist is shown to be a slick, modern guy choosing only what he loves in life. As an extension of that ‘grand ideology’, he justifies wooing three women at the same time, in order to eventually choose one among them. Not many voices were raised for such a plot-line. And, if the same plot-line is conceived with a female protagonist, the reviews and the nature of central woman character would have been incisively dissected. We should take this also into consideration. Would “Autograph” be the greatest hit, if a woman (like Cheran’s protagonist) makes a journey to give marriage invitation, recalling the men she came across in her life? Again, even if the female character is dealt in an even-handed manner, would there be a warm general consensus on those alleged female characters?
Normally, a creative work, be it literature or cinema or other arts, if its central core arouses thoughts against integrated social structures or general people’s consensus, opposing arguments are quickly formed. The work that questions the society’s collective conscience and unmasks the promoted myths by speaking truth will definitely create a sudden unrest. The unbridled self-pride will look for different ways to blunt the force of harsh truth. By questioning the work’s logic, the foremost agenda would be to reinstate the supposed ‘guiltless, pure state’. Most of the opposing and degrading analysis, “Iraivi” faces belongs to that category (driven by misconception and pre-conception). This film can’t be declared as the greatest feminist film ever made (in a way, such declarations are obsolete term for any work of art. Creative works aren’t made to find a place among viewers’ lists). However, “Iraivi” makes a healthy and vital argument to take forth Tamil cinema in the right direction. One minor gripe is that it would have been nice if female actors’ names are displayed alongside male actors’ name. That would have brought the inherent ideology to a full circle. But, still director Karthik Subburaj’s should be highly commended for taking such a rarely explored plot-line (in Indian cinema) without any big compromises.
(This article was published in a monthly Tamil magazine ‘Uyir Ezhuthu’. Translated into English by Arun Kumar S)