By P.V. Durga:
The number of women-centric films that have released in the past few years has come like a breath of fresh air. Their success shows Indian cinema’s capability to challenge male-centric narratives, and that a heroine can carry a film on her shoulders too. Needless to say, the nuanced performances of the actors in the movies were outstanding, and each film had a concept that struck a chord with the issues that women from all backgrounds face.
I recently watched Roshan Andrrew’s Tamil movie ‘36 Vayadhinile‘ (the Tamil remake of the 2014 Malayalam film “How Old are You?”) and couldn’t help comparing it with Gauri Shinde’s 2012 hit ‘English Vinglish‘. Apart from serving as comeback vehicles for yesteryear actors Jyotika and Sridevi respectively, these films had a common baseline. ’36 Vayadhinile’ was the story of Vasanthi Tamizhchelvan, a woman who rekindles her dynamism and pursues her dreams to prove her worth to her husband and daughter, while ‘English Vinglish’ was about Shashi Godbole’s pursuit of learning how to speak fluent English to earn the respect of her spouse and daughter.
What impressed me about these films were the simple plots, sans over-dramatization. Their protagonists were not devoid of independent identities, and their husbands were not vilified. Shashi had a successful laddoo business and Vasanthi worked with the Revenue Department. Yet, their contribution to the lives of their spouses and children was being taken for granted and belittled. However, in the end, both Shashi and Vasanthi succeed in earning the respect of their families – Shashi learns English and boosts her confidence, and Vasanthi becomes a path-breaking entrepreneur, thereby proving to the audience that these women were empowered, and capable of standing on their own feet. But it was here that I had a problem.
Like other movies, in these had happy endings – these women were triumphant in their respective pursuits, and met the expectations of the rest of their family members. Their spouses and children developed new found love and respect for them, and the audience, including me, left the theater in very high spirits. Later, my mother asked me a question which set me thinking – “What if they hadn’t been successful?”
Would Shashi have been valued as much, had she decided to quit English classes altogether and listen to the mother in her, the day her son Sagar hurt himself? What if Vasanthi’s organic vegetable business had not taken off as well as she wanted it to? Would her husband still respect her? In addition, the benchmark for their empowerment was success. This convolutes the whole idea of empowerment, because there is no standard for judging the achievement of the multitude of roles that a woman takes up in her life. The idea that empowerment comes only when a woman makes a mark in the outside world is faulty, because we are undermining the contribution of housewives who voluntarily take up the unrewarding job.
There is no doubt that these films were great. But with this new wave of actors and films challenging notions of patriarchy in the film industry and society in general, writers and directors in future need to take care not to equate empowerment with success, because that runs the danger of reducing the protagonists to validation seeking entities. It would mean that the whole purpose of empowerment has been defeated, because on one hand, we are encouraging women to rekindle their self-respect and value their individuality, and on the other hand, we are showing that such pursuits are successful in their true sense only when these women impress others. Given the far reaching impact that such films have had in the past, it is important that films in the future celebrate the grit displayed by their female leads, with success being a part of the journey, and not the destination itself.