When debut director S Jayakumar was casting for the role of the heroine in his sports drama Blue Star (2024), there was one thing he was very particular about – the actor had to be dusky. “I wanted Anandhi to look like the young women I grew up seeing around me. Keerthi Pandian not only looked the part, she’s also a very good actor. She was very impressive during the rehearsals,” he said.
Blue Star is set in the late Nineties, in Arakkonam, a Chennai suburb, and revolves around two aspiring male cricketers. The film is an earnest appeal for bahujan solidarity, and has Pandian playing a woman from an intermediary caste who is in a relationship with the Dalit hero (Ashok Selvan). One would think that an actor looking the part is the bare minimum to bag the role, but in Tamil cinema, dark complexioned women actors rarely get to play the lead. This has been the case even in films revolving around themes of social justice, including the anti-caste wave in the industry.
“I didn’t want to portray the female character as weak. I wanted her to be strong. I didn’t want her to be the crying type,” added Jayakumar. “Anandhi is supportive of Ranjith in every way. She is his biggest strength because he shares everything with her. When he’s broken and cries, she is the one who uplifts him. Nobody believes in him except her.”
Veteran actor Rohini was also appreciative of Blue Star’s portrayal of the heroine. “I thought it was a well written character and broke some gender cliches. The hero actually listens to her advice about the sport he’s playing. Women’s advice is hardly ever sought after, and everybody generally thinks that women are not capable of offering it,” she pointed out. However, Rohini wondered why Anandhi disappears in the second half of the film. “There were so many possibilities to the character, and I wish Jayakumar had explored that,” she said.
We get a hint of Anandhi’s aspirations in a scene when she holds a cricket bat for the first time and hits a shot. However, like in most Tamil films, the character does not get an arc independent of the hero and is limited to being his love interest. Acknowledging this, Jayakumar said many people had asked him why the heroine’s role was cut short in the second half of the film. “Since this is a sports drama centred around the two men, I could only think of including Anandhi as the hero’s girlfriend. But, I’m quite keen to explore women’s sports and the challenges they confront. If things are so difficult for men, it must be way harder for women. Maybe that will be my next film,” he said.
Most agree that the anti-caste wave in Tamil cinema began with Pa Ranjith’s Attakathi (2012), a romantic comedy about an identifiably Dalit youth and his ideas about love and life. Since then, there have been a slew of films with male Dalit protagonists where the characters are portrayed with agency and dignity. But, this hasn’t extended as much to the female characters in these films, be it Dalit or Savarna.
Dr. Vadivukkarasi TJ (Vadivu), a medical professional based in the United Kingdom, said that as a Dalit woman, she doesn’t feel represented in Tamil cinema at all. Dr. Vadivu, who is known for her sharp and insightful critiques on cinema, gender, caste and social issues, noted that Dalits aren’t a homogenous group and that they’re in different stages of class acquisitions, some holding significant educational qualifications and many struggling to hold on to different power structures.
“Also, a vast majority of us are still manual scavengers, manual labourers and daily wage workers without a roof of our own. Dalit women in all these social strata have their own problems, discrete from that of Dalit men and Savarna women,” she said. According to Dr. Vadivu, since Dalit women confront oppression at multiple layers – caste and gender oppression from oppressor men, caste oppression from oppressor women, gender oppression from Dalit men, and internalised casteism and misogyny from Dalit men and women – they’re the most complex cohort in Indian society to represent onscreen.
Filmmakers are yet to rise to the challenge. Even Rene (Dushara Vijayan) of Pa Ranjith’s Natchathiram Nagargiradhu (2022), the first Tamil feature film to revolve around an emancipated Dalit woman, was only used to view the lives of Dalit men, opined Dr. Vadivu. Natchathiram is a romance drama on the politics of love that unfolds through discussions and events within a theatre group. Rene faces casteist comments from her supposedly progressive upper caste boyfriend, and is also sexually assaulted by a dominant caste man in the group.
“The film spoke more about Dalit men’s problems than Dalit women’s problems of overt sexualisation and desexualisation,” said Dr Vadivu. “For example, Dalit women from the lowest socio-economic strata are often the victims of rape – particularly gangrape – by oppressor caste men. Dalit women in the upper middle class and above are desexualised in popular media, marriage and dating markets because of prevalent beauty and class standards that are set by Savarna women.”
These complex realities are yet to make it to the big screen. The tendency, rather, has been to show female characters as supporting the Dalit hero’s success. They’re also characterised as loud and quarrelsome, said Dr. Vadivu, instead of being shown as people with humour and sassiness or empowered to be confrontative towards power.
The screentime of these female characters also leaves much to be desired. Be it Manju Warrier as Pachaiyammal in Vetrimaaran’s Asuran (2019), Rajisha Vijayan as Draupathi in Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan (2021) or Mariyamma in Pa Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai (2021), Dalit female characters are often restricted to a scene or two that shows them as “fiery” to set them apart from heroines of other mainstream films. Savarna women characters – like Keerthy Suresh in Mari Selvaraj’s Maamannan (2023) – are largely reduced to being satellites to the hero even if they’re portrayed as being educated and politically aware.
“Male directors have a fantasy about women’s liberation, which is mostly about sexual liberation. They completely ignore the real life values of patience, stoicism, quiet determination, task efficiency, humour, encompassing kindness, and proactivity when it comes to the portrayal of feminist women,” said Dr Vadivu. This is perhaps why “strong” female characters are shown to be behaving “like men”, and issues central to them never make it to the plot.
Though Nayanthara’s district collector Madhivadhani in Gopi Nainar’s Aramm (2017) wasn’t shown as a Dalit woman, Dr. Vadivu said the “inner sturdiness and substance” of the character are qualities she has come across in real-life Dalit women. In fact, Dr. Vadivu added that Madhivadhani reminded her of her sister, who is in the Tamil Nadu administrative services, and former IAS officer and Dalit feminist writer Sivakami.
Director Deepak’s Witness (2022), which streamed directly on SonyLiv, is among the few films dealing with social justice to centre the plot on two women characters – Indrani, an older Dalit woman who works as a sanitation worker, and Parvathy, an upwardly mobile architect and product of an intercaste marriage. The two women come together to fight for justice when Indrani’s son, a swimmer, is forced into manual scavenging and dies as a result.
Rohini, who played Indrani, said she was happy to be part of a film that dealt with an issue that most filmmakers don’t wish to address. “I didn’t know what sort of director Deepak was, but when I read the script, I knew it was very strong. Especially the way the film ends. I had no second thoughts about doing it,” she said.
Rohini is part of the CPI(M)'s cultural wing of Progressive Writers and Artists Association of Tamil Nadu, and has met people from underprivileged sections of society who have faced similar issues in real life. “The one thing I keep hearing is that they just receive compensation for what happened. There is no support system for them to go to court. What sort of compensation can we even give them? Their sadness and misfortune has always stayed with me. The kind of silence you see in Indrani is what I have seen in them,” she said.
Though Indrani and Parvathy are from different social classes, they develop a friendship based on mutual respect that’s rarely represented in Tamil films when it comes to female characters. In one scene, Parvathy goes through an anxiety attack and Indrani talks her through it. The women are allowed to be vulnerable, express their anger, confusion, helplessness and yet operate with agency.
“The scene that left a mark on me is the one where Indrani decides to fight for her son. She hasn’t yet made up her mind, and her brother tries to discourage her. The comrade with her tells her that nobody has fought such a case till now. She’s not an all-knowing person. But she knows in her heart that she wants to fight,” said Rohini. “When she makes the decision to fight, she uses the word ‘thozhar’ (comrade) for the first time.”
Shraddha Srinath’s Parvathy, too, has a proper character arc. From being a single woman who keeps to herself, she becomes Indrani’s ally and discovers more about her own identity and the intersections of oppression in society. Real life is full of such stories, but female characters in cinema largely continue to be weighed down by convenient tropes, however well-intentioned.
Recounting stories from her own family of women who flouted norms well before the Dravidian or Ambedkarite movements, Dr. Vadivu said that “badass women” have always existed and put up a good fight without waiting for progressive male leaders to emancipate them. “I think I will have to wait for three more generations to see such women on screen, and my grandmother would have to wait nine to 15 generations in her grave before such a story makes it to the mainstream,” she said.
What should male filmmakers who wish to make progressive cinema do then? “They should learn about their own families from the perspective of the women,” she said. “Not write Dalit women’s roles by scrolling through our social media pages. What we portray on social media is only a shadow of who we are. Of all that I am and do, people on social media only know of my honey brown coloured hair, my angry replies to misogynists, my sarcasm and my selfies. But, that is not enough to write a character, I’m afraid.”