2023 Wrap: Seven Women Characters We loved From South Cinema

From Aishwarya Rai Bachchan's seductive Nandini in 'PS-2' to Rukmini's luminous Priya in SSE, 2023 had its share of women characters who displayed their agency
7 Women Characters We Loved From South Cinema in 2023
7 Women Characters We Loved From South Cinema in 2023

In recent years, south Indian cinema has been associated with violent, hypermasculine narratives, thanks to the pan Indian phenomenon. These films seldom have any space for meaningful women characters. They exist to romance the hero, add some glamour or die a painful death to fuel his rage even further. Still, 2023 had a handful of films from the southern industries that did better in this aspect – women characters who felt real and displayed their agency. Here’s our list:

Sakthi, Chithha (Tamil)

SU Arun Kumar’s thriller is about a child who goes missing and her uncle Eeswaran’s (Siddharth) desperate search for her. Nimisha Sajayan plays Sakthi, a sanitation worker, who is his girlfriend. While there have been several rape-revenge films that justify a man’s violent actions, Sakthi forces Eeswaran to look beyond his need to perform his masculinity. Sajayan is fantastic in the scene when she confronts Eeswaran and explains how rape culture functions without sounding pedantic. She trembles through the conversation, but it’s her strength that’s on display. She also brings dignity to her job as a sanitation worker, standing up for her rights and those of her colleagues.  

Lekha, Month of Madhu (Telugu)

Srikanth Nagothi’s nonlinear romantic drama revolves around a couple – Madhu (Naveen Chandra) and Lekha (Swathi Reddy) – that’s going through a divorce. Madhu exhibits all the signs of toxic masculinity that’s usually glorified in the male lead, and Lekha is initially attracted to his flamboyance. But through the years, his anger, alcoholism and indifference take its toll on her. While Madhu insists that Lekha walked out on him over a bowl of mutton, the viewer understands that it’s been long in the coming. By juxtaposing Lekha’s eager, naive younger self, with her older, wiser version, Nagothi draws a sensitive character arc for her. Few movies have shown a woman to enjoy her solitude, and as Lekha goes shopping, dines by herself and stands in the crashing waves at the beach, Nagothi’s film becomes a statement against several taboos. Swathi Reddy is wonderful as the quietly assertive Lekha. 

Maha, Good Night (Tamil)

A supporting character in Vinayak Chandrasekaran’s romcom, Maha (Raichal Rabecca) is the male lead’s (Manikandan) older sister. She stays in her parental home with her husband (Ramesh Thilak). The couple’s attempts to romance in a crowded, lower middle class household is endearing, but that’s not all. Maha has difficulty getting pregnant, and is under constant pressure from her in-laws. It’s a familiar situation in many homes – and while Maha pushes back, her husband is initially reluctant to take a stance. Raichal Rabecca portrays the emotions of the character beautifully as she goes through pregnancy and a subsequent tragedy. Maha refuses to be defined by her uterus, and the resistance feels real and organic in the script. 

Omana, Kaathal - The Core (Malayalam)

Jeo Baby’s family drama is about a gay man (Mammootty) whose wife (Jyotika) wants to divorce him. Omana is sympathetic towards Mathew, but she also wants to move on from the dead marriage. While Mathew is in denial about his sexuality, Omana wants both of them to seek happiness by ending the relationship. She’s a devout Christian, and yet understands her husband and his needs. She’s unwilling to maintain the facade any longer. Her calm demeanour as she confronts Mathew can look unrealistic but in the courtroom, the pain she has bottled up bursts out in moments of vulnerability. Jyotika delivers a nuanced performance as Omana, especially in the film’s final stretch as the couple grows together even as their marriage comes to an end. 

Priya, Sapta Saagaradaache Ello - Side A and B (Kannada)

Hemanth M Rao’s two-part labour of love is about a young couple forced apart by a hastily made decision. Priya (Rukmini Vasanth), an aspiring singer, and Manu (Rakshith Shetty), a driver, are deeply in love. Priya wants to live by the sea, and Manu jumps at the prospect of making extra cash to fulfil her dream despite the risks involved. Their lives are ordinary but their passion makes everything look magical. Rukmini Vasanth is achingly wonderful as Priya, filling the screen with her searching eyes and tender smiles. In the film’s sequel, Priya seems like a different person altogether as music leaves her life, but the sparks remain, reminding the viewer of what her life could have been. 

Nandini, Ponniyin Selvan - 2 (Tamil)

The second part of Mani Ratnam’s historical fiction film, based on Kalki’s novel, places the love story between Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) and Aditya Karikalan (Vikram) at its centre. Nandini is as brutal as she is beautiful, a coiled cobra waiting to strike. But her character is ultimately a tragic figure – a woman who is denied love at every phase in life, and is surrounded by those who covet her beauty and yet resent it. As the antagonist, Aishwarya carries off Nandini’s icy demeanour with conviction. She’s especially impressive in the scene which leads to Karikalan’s death. A rare female antagonist who receives empathetic treatment in the writing. 

Laila, Pachuvum Athbutha Vilakkum (Malayalam)

The mother in most films is just around to ask her son if he ate his food and shed a few tears, but the ummachi in Akhil Sathyan’s feel-good drama drives the plot. Laila (Viji Venkatesh) has a controlling son who entrusts the self-centred Pachu (Fahadh Faasil) to accompany his mother on her train journey to Mumbai. But Laila has other plans. She gets off at Goa to embark on a rescue mission. There are very few films that offer space to elderly female characters, and Viji Venkatesh’s performance comes as a delightful surprise. She’s empathetic but also manipulative, as the situation demands. While she has her eccentricities, she isn’t written as a caricature. 

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