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.”
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.