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.