Deep, or only skin deep? Revisiting the women from popular Tamil romantic dramas

Deep, or only skin deep? Revisiting the women from popular Tamil romantic dramas

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‘Vallamai Tharayo’, ‘Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa’ and ‘Raja Rani’ are popular among fans for their unconventional portrayal of female characters – but how much depth do these characters have and are the films any different when it comes to portraying romance

In recent times, social media has paved way for various discussions on representation of women on screen in Indian cinema. The Malayalam film The Great Indian Kitchen, for instance, not only won critical acclaim but also inspired a range of social media responses around patriarchal practices in Indian households, with many people drawing parallels between the themes discussed in the film and their personal experiences. At the same time, feminist critics have also come up with various tests to analyse the portrayal of female characters on screen.  

With the release of films that widen the scope for sensitive representation of female characters, it would be safe to say that audiences no longer look at films through the same prism that we once did. Hence, we revisit three Tamil romantic dramas – Vallamai Tharayo (2008), Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa (2010) and Raja Rani (2013), which are popular among fans for their unconventional portrayal of female characters, and apply the Peirce test to gauge how well the female characters were portrayed in the selected films. While the well-known Bechdel test has fairly simple requirements (the movie should have at least two women characters who talk to each other about something other than a man), the Pierce test requires a more detailed and rounded representation.

Founded by filmmaker Kimberly Peirce, who is popular for her debut feature film Boys Don’t Cry, the Peirce test is used to analyse the depth of female characters in films. A movie passes the test if:  

1) It has a female character (the protagonist or antagonist), with her own story.  

2) The female lead has dimension and exists authentically with needs and desires that she pursues (creating action). 

3) The audience can empathise with or understand the female lead’s desires and actions. 

Let’s switch on test mode as we apply the requirements of the Peirce test on the aforementioned Tamil romantic dramas. 

Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa (2010

Gautham Menon’s Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa narrates Jessie and Karthik’s complex, tumultuous and bittersweet love story. Engineering graduate and aspiring filmmaker Karthik is head-over-heels in love with Jessie, a programme analyst, the woman who lives upstairs. With a mellow track playing in the background, Jessie walks down the street looking dreamlike in a simple blue saree and meets Karthik. Thus begins the romantic journey. Karthik is nothing but persistent in his attempts to woo Jessie. Despite several roadblocks, he is reluctant to give up on their relationship and leaves no stone unturned to make their relationship work. Though Karthik narrates the story, his world – at least during the course of six months – revolves around Jessie. 

As the plot moves forward, we get a closer look at Jessie’s fears, strengths and, more importantly, her indecisiveness. A Malayali Christian, she is a year older than Karthik. Her conservative father will not permit her to marry a Hindu man, who also aspires to make it in the film industry. The couple don’t have a lot going for them to begin with. She replies with a stern no when Karthik professes his love. However, when he travels to Kerala in search of her and ends up finding her, she invites him over for lunch. 

Later in the film, she even goes against the wishes of her family and walks out of her wedding. But she changes her mind once again; when Karthik convinces her to elope with him, she refuses saying she doesn’t want to disappoint her parents. “I’ll convince them somehow,” Jessie says. In every step of the way, we witness Karthik’s persistence coupled with Jessie’s indecisiveness, shaping their relationship. The romantic relationship is as much ‘Oru Naal Sirikkum, Maru Naal Verukkum’ Jessie’s, as it is Karthik’s but that’s not the case with Jessie and Karthik’s character arcs in the film.  

Shortly after meeting Jessie, Karthik professes his love for her. Although Jessie clearly dismisses the possibility of dating him, Karthik simply does not take no for an answer. He even follows her to Alleppey. The sequence makes viewers wonder how and why Karthik’s actions do not qualify as stalking. Does Karthik follow her only because she is a “super figure” as he refers to her in one of the scenes? Why is it that he ignores all the red flags and Jessie’s repeated rejections? “There are so many girls out there, Karthik… why did you love me?” she questions him at one point in the film. Perhaps viewers wouldn’t consider Karthik a stalker if GVM had answered the question in the film and explored how Karthik’s relationship with Jessie is deep enough for him to intuitively sense her feelings for him. 

Karthik breaks into songs every now and then, describing how Jessie’s beauty is unparalleled but the makers don’t spend the same amount of time exploring the depth of her character. Viewers get very little insights about her choices, her reasons or even her indecisiveness to understand Jessie’s emotions and empathise with her.  

On the other hand, VTV vividly tracks how Karthik ended up as a filmmaker and traces how Jessie became his muse- the woman his films are inspired from- the lover he could never quite forget. One could always argue that Karthik is in focus since he is the narrator. However, even a song like ‘Mannipaaya’ that’s sung from Jessie’s perspective, only explores how his love for Jessie has added purpose to his life and not the vice versa. ‘Kanne thadumari nadanthen, noolil aadum mazhaiyagi ponen, unnal dhaan Kalaignai aanene’ (Dearest, I wandered like a raindrop hanging at the end of a string indecisively. It is because of you that I became a creator/ artist),‘Katrile aadum kagidham naan, neethan ennai kadidhamakinai’ (am just a bIank paper fluttering in the breeze.You added words to make it meaningful), Karthik sings in ‘Mannipaaya’.  

VTV passes the first criterion of the Peirce test but fails the last two requirements. 

READ: Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru: Gautham Menon’s ideas on love are stuck in a time warp  

ALSO READ: Between sexism and sexuality: How women’s roles have evolved in Tamil, Malayalam films  

Raja Rani (2013) 

Raja Rani opens with visuals of a wedding. A few minutes into the film, the audience finds out that the groom John (played by Arya) and the bride Regina (Nayanthara) have no interest in making the marriage work and, in fact, cannot even stand each other. Their indifference and hostility towards each other is evident through scenes that show John drinking night after night and Regina trying hard to get transferred overseas. The film tracks how the couple sail past this phase, develop mutual feelings of respect and admiration, and ultimately fall in love with each other, overcoming their past heartbreaks. 

With the spotlight on three love stories (two playing out as elaborate flashbacks), the crux of Raja Rani is explained in its tagline that reads ‘There is life after love failure’. In terms of screentime as well as character arcs, the focus is on both John and Regina. While the film traces John’s transformation from a fun, careless bachelor to a dejected man trapped in a marriage he isn’t happy about, it also explores the various facets of Regina – who goes from being loyal, loving and lively to being fierce and assertive. Regina does not shy away from standing her ground. Unlike in many other Tamil films, her interest towards John does not start overnight but rather blossoms over time. Similarly, the film documents how Regina’s efforts to mend her relationship with John, are gradual and deliberate. Regina’s portrayal in Raja Rani passes the Pierce test since it mostly passes the three requirements.  

To Atlee’s credit, the portrayal of Regina’s uber cool dad James (Sathyaraj) too, is a refreshing and welcome departure from the roles written for fathers on the big screen. Nevertheless, Raja Rani is not devoid of sexism.  Dialogues like ‘It is women that drive men to drink’ and ‘He wouldn’t be drinking half the night if you had been a good wife’ are thrown around casually. Rubbing salt into the wound, the ‘Hey Baby’ song from the film features a group of inebriated men ‘drinking away their sorrows’, indulging in women-bashing and blaming them for causing heartbreaks. ‘Nimmadhiye Illa Machan Pona Ava Veetuku, Athukuthaanda Vanthu Poraen Naanum Wine Shoppukku’ (I’m not at peace/ I’m troubled every time I go to her home, which is why I head to the wine shop) and ‘Therinju Pochu Ennaku Ava Maaru Veshamthaan. Avala Nambi Poyi Naanu Aanen Mosamthaan’ (I’ve seen right through her façade, I trusted her and ended up heartbroken) are lines from the song that serve as examples. 

Atlee’s treatment of some of the supporting characters too is cliched and problematic. It is evident that the characters played by Arunraja Kamaraj and his on-screen girlfriend were written only to elicit laughs over racist and fat-phobic jokes cracked at them. 

Looking back, the most distressing part about the film’s representation of female characters is the fact that Raja Rani too is among the long list of Tamil movies that glorify stalking. Unsurprisingly, in John’s flashback, he falls for Keerthana (Nazriya) the moment he meets her and decides to stalk her for over a week, despite Keerthana rejecting his advances. However, Atlee justifies the act by showing how Keerthana was secretly interested in John and in fact enjoyed being followed by him all along. Mainstream films misconstruing a woman’s ‘No’ as ‘Yes’ can have broad ramifications and derail discussions around consent. 

READ: Haunted by alcoholism, K’taka’s young widows and wives rise up to demand prohibition 

ALSO READ: Stalkers of Tamil cinema: If the character is one, then show him for what he is 

Vallamai Tharayo (2008) 

Vallamai Tharayo takes off with Anand (Parthiban) and Nandita’s (Chaya Singh) wedding. Unable to forget Sekar, the man she was in love with, Nandita is forced to marry Anand (who coincidentally works in the same office as her). As a new bride, Nandita is reluctant to take any effort to get over her past relationship and start anew with Anand. The latter patiently waits for her to come around and puts up with her whims and fancies while ensuring that she is comfortable in her marital home. 

Parthiban plays the kind and benevolent hero. He is so unreasonably ‘kind’ (or at least that’s the picture filmmaker Madhumitha paints) and so ‘in love with his wife’ that he fails to defend himself in court when Nandita, who is seeking a divorce, falsely accuses him of physically abusing her. It is absurd and worrying how popular cinema portrays heroes lying and putting their self-respect and dignity at stake for the sake of ‘love’. The portrayal also adds to the narrative of women ‘misusing’ laws to target men. 

Nandita ends up walking out of the marriage as a free woman. Tendering an apology to Parthiban, she requests him to look for another wife who’d reciprocate his emotions. She starts afresh in a different company and moves into a new apartment. It is after this point that the film really falters. From stopping by her doorstep every morning to secretly employing an unbelievably intrusive maid to ‘take care’ of Nandita, the ‘decent’ and ‘kind’ Anand starts meddling in Nandita’s day to day affairs, as opposed to her crystal-clear instructions for him to stay away from her. What’s worse, Nandita, who initially reprimands him, eventually ‘realises her mistakes’, turns a new leaf and starts a relationship with Anand from scratch. Anand’s creepy and stalker-like behaviour is oddly justified as a series of well-meaning actions filled with foresight (coupled with other life experiences), that help Nandita to introspect.  Although Nandita’s character passes the first two requirements of the Pierce test, it falters when it comes to the last one. If the viewer is meant to empathise with Anand’s problematic behaviour, it comes out of judging Nandita for her ‘lack of understanding’.

READ: From dissecting ‘thali’ to sexism in Tamil films, this Facebook page is ruffling feathers 

ALSO READ: Indian cinema needs a feminist reading: We present to you, the FItMuS Test 

Though Jessie, Regina and Nandita do not completely fall under the average stereotypical female characters in Tamil cinema, the films reiterate how popular cinema glorifies stalking, normalises everyday sexism and ridicules women for their choices time and again. While it was more apparent in films like 7G Rainbow Colony, Padikkadhavan, Thanga Magan, Aadukalam, Raanjhanna or Remo, it is rather subtle in GVM’s VTV and Vallamai Tharayo.

Filmmakers justify the hero’s actions by portraying female characters as confused or indecisive individuals who secretly meant yes when they rejected the hero’s advances. Given the unlawful nature of stalking and the dangerous repercussions of cinema persuading audiences to indulge in stalking, isn’t it fair for viewers to expect filmmakers to show more accountability, do away with sexist dialogues and steer clear of distressing tropes, and familiar yet outdated templates?  The female characters, too, deserve more depth than just being praised for their beauty or displaying tokenistic independence. 

READ: Tired of heroics? Here are 26 Tamil films that will win your heart with their storytelling 

ALSO READ: Trapped in boxes drawn by misogyny, when will women of Malayalam cinema break free on screen? 

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