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Y Watch: Mani Ratnam’s ‘OK Kanmani’ Breaks Tamil Cinema’s Misogynist Stereotypes

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By Karthik Shankar:

Mainstream Tamil cinema is notorious for under-serving heroines, even compared to Bollywood’s poor standards. Despite a recent indie revolution with unique ideas and directors churning out films with dazzling scripts and impressive technical verve, women still barely get to play anything more than love interests on screen, and poorly etched ones at that. Most movie reviews basically sum up actresses’ performances by stating “She looks gorgeous and emotes well.

ok kanmani

Part of it is due to the fact that Tamil cinema largely caters to male dominated single screen audiences. Many Tamil movies broadly follow a ‘Taming Of The Shrew’ template. Except in this case it’s the upper-class heroine who’s shown her place by the down to earth hero. Just check out this scene from Sivakasi where the protagonist (played by Vijay) lectures the heroine (played by Asin) on her dressing (Spoiler alert – Her wardrobe gets more Indianised and she ends up with the hero).

Sweethearts In Mumbai

Making a dent in this regular scheme of things is Mani Ratnam’s latest – ‘OK Kanmani’. After a couple of disappointing films, the ace director goes back to what he practically invented – the naturalistic romance – and that has resulted in one of his most fully formed films in a while. ‘OK Kanmani’, which involves a young Tamil couple in Mumbai, is a simple romantic fable cloaked in 21st century garb. Its selling point is simple. It’s an exquisitely shot, feel-good romance with A.R Rahman’s mellifluous tunes backing it and none of the contrived trappings of the usual glitzy Bollywood rom-coms. Nithiya Menen and Dulquer Salmaan (son of Malayalam film legend Mammootty), the stars, also turn in performances so realistic and display such vibrant chemistry that the movie sometimes feels like Ratnam just went around documenting a real couple. What I found notable about the film though, was its subtle current of feminism.

Mani’s Many Muses

Mani Ratnam has been one of the few notable exceptions in this industry with its widespread misogyny. His female characters are seldom objectified and he is always sympathetic towards them. Ratnam has always had an interest in depicting their inner life or interests, other than the male protagonist. Whether it’s Revathi as an unhappily married wife in ‘Mouna Ragam’, the spunky child protagonists of ‘Anjali‘ and ‘Kannathil Muthamittal‘, or the enigma that is Manisha Koirala in ‘Dil Se’, his heroines are first and foremost people. This isn’t to say that Mani Ratnam has a blemish free record in portraying women. However, he is unique in a film industry that far too often resorts to grossly offensive female stereotypes.

At the risk of sounding cliché, the female lead from ‘OK Kanmani’ is a breath of fresh air. Played effervescently by Nithya Menen, Tara is an architect who has plans of studying in Paris. She’s headstrong and a commitment phobe like the hero, Aadi. Throughout the film, she’s the prankster. In several scenes, she and the audience are in on the joke, not the hero. She pretends she won’t get out of bed when Aadi’s brother and sister-in-law are in town to visit. In one excellent extended sequence, she convinces him she’s pregnant, during a visit to a fertility clinic. It’s not an exaggeration to say she’s one of the most independent female characters seen on Tamil screens in years.

The Politics Of Premarital Sex

There’s another even more impressive aspect; the heroine has premarital sex and is not chastised for it. To point out what a loaded word sex is in our state, one need only look at the firestorm that erupted over actress Khusbhoo’s comments endorsing premarital sex or Perumal Murugan’s book that depicted a sex ritual. The vitriol and the witch hunt that followed in both cases was almost Taliban-esque. It’s no wonder that in Tamil cinema, filmmakers go to great lengths to prove the chastity of their heroine. In the recent film ‘I’, Amy Jackson played a model who acquiesces to a marriage because her name has been tarnished by accusations of pre-marital sex. In ‘Enthiran’, a woman rescued from a fire runs in front of a speeding truck because the shame of being naked in front of people was more overpowering than escaping a vicious fire! So when Mani Ratnam portrays a heroine who willingly indulges in premarital sex, it’s not simply a character trait, it’s a political statement.

Patriarchy Gets A Facelift

Throughout the film, as Aadi and Tara become closer, it’s clear that this is a relationship between equals. She’s the one who convinces his caretakers to let her live with him. In one lovely short scene, while being reprimanded by Aadi’s sister-in-law who finds out about their relationship, she asks her why she was summoned and not Aadi.
The movie also has a parallel story running with Aadi and Tara’s genial landlords, an old couple Ganapathi and Bhavani (Prakash Raj and Leela Samson) who themselves exhibit a unique dynamic. Bhavani suffers from Alzheimer’s and Ganapathi takes care of her. It’s a stark contrast to the patriarchal households that are so commonly depicted in Tamil cinema.

Kanmani’s Sudden Atonement For Its ‘Immodesty

Towards the end, ‘OK Kanmani‘ unfortunately gets bogged down by the conventions of its genre. Romantic comedies favour conservatism. Even Hollywood ones, like ‘Friends With Benefits’, end with the protagonists giving up relationships without labels and settling into the warm confines of monogamy. Still, right until the last frame this is a movie that never forces Tara to relinquish any part of herself to Aadi. He has to convince her that he is worthy of her. He is the one who tells her that she should study in Paris even after they are married and that he will follow her wherever she is. With ‘OK Kanmani’, Mani Ratnam shows that escapist cinema and outdated gender norms needn’t be synonymous.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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