By Iswarya V:
Exactly one month has passed since the brutal murder of Swathi, the 24-year-old Infosys employee whose killer is believed to have stalked her for months before hacking her to death in full public view. The gruesome killing enraged even the slow-to-anger middle classes of Tamilnadu and fear among women was palpable as Chennai’s ‘safe city’ image was shattered. TV shows and drawing room debates quickly started pointing accusing fingers at Tamil films for encouraging violence against women, and soon enough, elaborate think-pieces began to appear exonerating cinema as not being the ‘the root of violence.’ The defences, however, appeared rather contrived since they were all bent on attacking a strawman: that misogyny in contemporary Tamil society was solely created and sustained by cinema.
Cinema does not exist in a vacuum. It is a product of the society and culture in which both the filmmakers as well as audience have grown up and lived. It takes its cues from society, but also has an undeniable role to play in shaping the culture it belongs to. Tamilnadu, in particular, has always been obsessed with its cinema and a cursory look at history would show how the state’s Chief Ministers in the last fifty years have risen to power after being associated with cinema in one capacity or the other. In fact, Tamil cinema’s historical role in shaping the popular imagination, aiding the spread of Dravidian politics and rationalist ideology across the state, is proverbial.
With respect to attitudes towards women, Tamil cinema has had a bad track record, right from M.G.R’s taming-the-shrew antics to Rajinikanth‘s sage advice that “Pombalai pombalaiya irukkanum” (Women should know their place). Male gaze and casual misogyny have always been the norm, and women’s bodies have been steadily objectified to the point where directors were at one time vying to find ever more ‘creative’ things to do with a woman’s belly button. (Spinning a top, making an omelette, what next?)
Even today, women characters continue to be poorly written and serve mainly as arm-candies to macho ‘heroes’ or indulgent mothers spoiling their over-entitled sons. Female filmmakers are few and hardly manage to make a blip on the box-office radar, when most footfalls in movie halls are believed to come from men of the age group 15-25. This skewed ‘target audience’ has led to the proliferation of many regrettable tropes, among them the rise of the ‘wastrel-hero’ and the glorification of stalking as the surest way to a woman’s heart.
To their credit, our films carefully avoid glorifying recognisably harmful acts such as substance abuse or rape (at least a literal one), and show only the ‘baddies‘ indulging in them. Further, crimes such as murder or robbery (even when heroes are shown committing them in the movies) are not usually waved away as harmless actions with no evil consequences for anyone involved.
This selective morality, however, is part of what makes the insidious celebration of stalking all the more dangerous: surely, rape and murder are what the villains do and get punished for, but ‘innocently’ following a woman around to wear down her resistance is harmless? After all, the woman who first said ‘No’ finally fell for the hero’s persistence and all it took was a relentless, obsessive pursuit with occasional veiled threats and lessons on ‘Tamil culture’ before she said ‘Yes’ to him – this must be how it works in real life as well? Teenagers who have had little interaction with the opposite sex come to believe, in fact, that this is what women like too, misled by the reactions of the heroines to their stalker-heroes in such films. Add to this the fact that stalking, by itself (without any other physical harm done to the victim), was recognised as a crime by the Indian law only as late as 2013, in the wake of public outrage after the Nirbhaya case. No wonder then that social taboos surrounding stalking are not half as strong as our early conditioning against other serious crimes.
Apart from ‘comedies’ that revolve around a loafer pursuing and winning over a reluctant woman, there are action movies where the hero, otherwise a paragon of virtue, exhibits undisguised misogyny and has unrealistic fantasies about why and how women fall in love. While a segment of the audience may be disturbed by this doublethink, some of the young ‘target audience’ of these movies carry home both the save-the-world message and the get-the-girl method from their hero as being equally unobjectionable and worthy of emulation. It is important to remember that most of these stalker films carry a ‘U’ certificate and are watched by impressionable children and teenagers who are the most vulnerable to such misleading messages.
The rot has run deep and it may be years before the damage can be undone. However, this is definitely a moment for some soul-searching and introspection on the part of filmmakers to see what kind of socio-cultural discourse and tropes they wish to perpetuate. If you believe, as I do, that bringing public pressure on actors and filmmakers to spearhead a change in society can put an end to the stalking-as-romance trope in Tamil films, please sign my petition here.
It is heartening to know that there have been positive responses to the petition from within the Tamil film industry, as seen in Siddharth’s tweets last Sunday, and in filmmaker Lakshmy Ramakrishnan’s vocal support of our petition. Let us hope that we can keep the public pressure on our filmmakers to be more responsible and sensitive, and that the celebration of stalking as a legitimate form of wooing disappears from our screens forever.
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