Upholding Tamil Culture: Women in movies

Allow me to present to you three images from the Tamil movie Vivegam:

The first two are from the song Kaadhalada, in which we see Yazhini and her husband AK living out a romantic fairytale somewhere in Europe. They are careful to protect that endangered species called Tamil Culture, despite living so far away from home. The third image is also from Kaadhalada, a reprise version this time. AK throws Yazhini a babyshower in the forest, but he’s had the forethought to stock up on sandal paste and other such paraphernalia.

Tamil Culture, like cultures everywhere, must be protected by women. So when a Good Tamil Man walks around wearing jeans, t-shirts, suits and sunglasses, his Tamil-ness is never questioned. A Good Tamil Woman, however, needs to constantly prove her connection to culture. So she arms herself with beautiful sarees, a large pottu, vermilion in the parting of her hair, and a shiny thaali.

Yazhini is the epitome of the Tamil woman everyone loves to love. She is fair skinned (always a bonus), appears to defer to her husband, and experiences a small orgasm every time he marks her forehead red. She also takes good care of the gold chain that is said to protect his life, as seen in the second image. She holds a non-threatening job – teaching white children Carnatic music. This allows her to remain within the walls of her home at all hours.

I burst a vein every time this kind of woman is fetishized in Tamil cinema. A supposedly modern woman, who willingly submits to traditions without questioning, validating them in the process. She proudly displays the symbols of her marriage, as though she were engaging in cosplay. She does not think about the numerous women who are forced to dress and behave a certain way simply because they are now married.

After watching this, I feel almost obliged to be kinder to a movie like Magalir Mattum, which is just daytime soap masquerading as cinema: a manic Prabha, who is probably moonlighting as a summer camp instructor, teaches three older women to live for themselves, even if only for three days, after a lifetime of neglect. The women are all mired in household drudgery, disrespected by their family and dismissed as housewives. The men are uniformly callous and misogynistic. The lessons are explained with an introduction and summary in case the audience misses the point. But this movie, in all its preachy glory, asks us to consider the lives of women who are forgotten, who wear the symbols of their marriage as a kind of prison uniform. They do not feel aroused at the sight of their thaali.

The women in Magalir Mattum reminded me of everyday feminism, the kind that is overlooked as somehow being lesser than the lofty idealistic feminism. This everyday feminism resides in small acts like sticking up for female friendship, falling in love, finding the courage to articulate what is wrong with status quo. It is the attempt to go out for a movie when the hostel warden insists on locking girls up before sunset. These women do not have the time to make sure they are upholding Tamil Culture, they are breathless from being oppressed by it.

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15 thoughts on “Upholding Tamil Culture: Women in movies

  1. Oh God. I hear you so loud that I have palpitations now. You think it’s only movies? My mil did a whole hysteric drama when she saw me without the thali one night. That was the last time I stayed overnight at her house!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amman movies are a different category. The women I’m talking about are supposed to be a reflection of today’s women, but rearranged to reflect what is considered ideal.
      Also, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Tamil movies as groanfests. I love Tamil movies, and that is partly the reason I demand more from it.
      Thanks for reading!

      Like

      1. I was talking about the vivegam climax when I mentioned the Amman song. And the groanfests are the usual big budget big hero mass movies. Guess I didn’t explain better. Cheers

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, this topic is so dear to my heart. I think it is awful that movies continue to glorify such regressive behaviors and project it as though it is Tamil culture. My issue really is how we as a Society continue to operate and no wonder, these movies glorify Thali, Vermilion etc. I just can’t stand Poojais such as Sumangali Prathanai. I really don’t understand why it is a badge of honor for women. Come to think about it, this Poojai that is hosted also before a girl’s wedding- can you believe the bride, all her relatives meet and are invoking the blessings of all other Sumangalis in family and pray that the bride would also get to pass away as a Sumangali. When do you think we will not continue with these rituals – maybe in another 50 or 100 years? Would anyone invite a non-Sumangali/divorcee to these function? I am sure even if they are invited they probably will lock themselves in a room.

    My mom passed away as a Sumangali and there is nothing great about it. Women are the glue that hold a family together . After my mom passed away, slowly all the relations seemed to be break apart.

    All our rituals are patriarchal, we have Raksha Bandhan, have to pray for our brother’s lives during Kanu Pongal, pray for our husband’s life, Pray that we should pass away before the husband etc etc. No wonder our movies continue to be regressive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So women love praying to God saying “My Dear God, Hope heaven rocks as usual. I have a desire which I wish you’d grant me. Give me and my husband long healthy lifes. But please consider pulling my plug a couple of minutes before you pull the mister’s. Because I want to rush to the gateway to heaven and mop the floor there before my husband gets to the pearly gates. I want to ensure he gets his confetti when he enters”. Sheesh.

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  3. As a woman, I love reading these posts(and comments) as I find women being given very less space in a man’s life. She toils for the family, changes her last name, needs to be good to her in-laws no matter how they are to her and has to abide by certain societal norms like staying at in-laws place. Why not for a change Men do these things for a woman? Children take her father’s name as surname, functions revolve around men as someone pointed out. Anusha, love you post. Would like to see more of such posts in your powerful writing. We women need such powerful thoughts and words to create a revolution.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Same with the TV shows where upholding family values is prime kartavya. And saving pregnancy at the cost of your own life(even if you have another kid or not) is param dharm. Gosh! I want to wallop everyone who is associated with shows like yeh hai mohabbatein that has the woman who goes back to the guy who just seems to be perennially mad at her, but apparently it’s true love. Dear God! Grow some spine, women of TV land!

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  5. It’s all about someone else isn’t it when we see these kind of women on screen. Yes they do exist and I get that and respect but there are others out there. Why are they not portrayed and even if some are- if they show a slight bit of strength they are shown as arrogant or like villi. Well let’s keep trying. The 80s heroines characters were shown better – I thought we are supposed to be more progressive now. Am I missing something here!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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