Wonder Women, Anjali Menon’s film about the solidarity that six expectant mothers find in a prenatal class, evokes a sense of triumph, despite its limitations. Even if the all-female ensemble glosses over the subject of sisterhood in its lean 80-minute-screen time, it is still an exclusive part of the female buddy film club, a theme that has often gone unnoticed in Indian films, and in particular, Tamil cinema. With men largely taking sole proprietorship of the “buddy genre”, women and their female friends have somehow been left behind.
Films are often reflections of reality, and the same goes for depictions of female friendships on the big screen as well. Culture and film journalist Kavitha Muralidharan points out that women are hardly allowed the luxuries of maintaining friendships both on and off the screen. “Tamil cinema is a reflection of the realities of Tamil life - in that sense, the women are supposed to not have friendships to focus on her family and be a good mother or a wife. I don't remember my mother or anybody in the older generation continuing to be friends with women who were their childhood friends. When women get married, they are so tied down by domestic pressures that they are not able to maintain their friendships. So, tropes like ‘family comes first’ are rather explored,” she says.
Writer-filmmaker Bramma, who directed Magalir Mattum (2017), a film about three female school friends who reunite after decades, agrees. “Only now are women culturally accepted to have friendships. Not many get to cherish moments of realistic friendships. In Women's Studies, there are three C's - caring, cooking and cleaning. So, the focus of many women lies within this area.”
Magalir Mattum shares its name with Singeetam Srinivasa Rao’s 1994 cult hit starring Revathy, Rohini and Urvashi, which set the gold standard for female camaraderie on the big screen. The film, which was an effective portrayal of human tenacity and sisterhood, explored the lives of three women in a toxic workplace, who take on their lecherous boss. But over 25 years after its release, there hasn't been another impactful female buddy film, save for Bramma’s version.
Rohini, who was a seminal part of the film’s success, recalls the filming environment to be joyous. “If you ask Singeetam sir, even now he says that the bond between the three of us made the film what it is now. We knew who was going to score in one scene and we would let the other person score. The whole aim was the project to work. There was no ego,” she adds.
The actress clearly remembers the jitters she felt before the film’s release like it was yesterday. “I remember before the release of the film, we were all quite tense. At that point there were 5-6 duets and fights in films, and here we were – three women leading a film. We didn't know if it would work. We definitely didn’t expect this kind of success.”
When Bramma set out to make Magalir Mattum, he wanted to breathe life into the genre by shifting the focus onto three middle-aged women and their enduring friendship, a story that he based on his mother’s life. “The advent of “female-centric” films as a genre is only now developing, and that’s probably because female audiences are increasingly coming to the theatres today,” Bramma says. But does that mean films with such themes only warrant a female audience? The filmmaker admits that there is a general tendency among men to reject such films.
“A boy genuinely told me that he thought my film was only meant to be seen by women and not men (laughs). It (the genre) does exclude certain audiences. The way women might enjoy a film like 3 Idiots (Rajkumar Hirani’s film about three male friends), might not be the same way that men accept female-oriented friendships on screen. There is this perception that it is not cool to watch such films, and that opinion is unavoidable.”
Director Ashwin Saravanan, who has explored nuanced friendships between women in the films Maya (2015) and Game Over (2019), thinks normalisation of all relationships is the only way to bridge the gap. “Our narratives and themes have always been hero centric. When you focus on the hero and his journey, the characters in the film serve the hero in a way. The subplots invariably lead you to the hero's track in the film. Right now we have had wonderful films this year that have given agency to all kinds of gender. Natchathiram Nagargiradhu (2022) was refreshing for normalising relationships, gender and sexuality. I think this normalisation is necessary before we start seeing it in the culture itself.”
Even now a lot of movies pit one woman against another and that is the narrative that sells the most, the filmmaker adds. “You need filmmakers to normalise these kinds of friendships for it to be absorbed into the culture, and then you'll see more such films being made.” While there have been individual depictions of such friendships, some have demonised the bond, while others have stuck to exploring this from a hero’s point of view, Kavitha notes.
“I remember this song called ‘Thoodhu Sella Oru Thozhi’ from Pachhai Vilakku (1964), and another film called Vattathukkul Chaduram (1978). But the problem with these kinds of movies is that the story revolves around men. Vattathukkul Chaduram, which stars actress Latha in the lead, depicts the friendship between two women. But ultimately Latha decides to kill herself because she is a dancer and her friend's fiance doesn't approve of her friendship with a dancer. So,everywhere female friendships get complicated by the presence of a man.”
Empathetic writing and increased, diverse voices are pertinent for sensible films to come out, says Ashwin, who collaborates with co-writer and wife Kaavya Ramkumar for his productions. “Even if you are a male filmmaker making a film about female friendships, there has to be a certain empathy and understanding of how it works. Women write male characters and men write female characters, and it is not odd at all. Some of the best written men are written by women, right from novelists to screenwriters. I think it is important to write with empathy rather than get into a convenient kind of writing where you are representing all your projections,” he says.
Bramma believes that equal representation behind the camera can pave the way for the same in front of it. “There are many cinematographers and editors in Bollywood who are women. There are filmmakers too, but with these technicians, I see a different film being made. Female editors cut films very differently, and the result is miraculous. Similarly in Tamil, we need women in various departments. Only then will the change be amplified.”
After all, Magalir Mattum (the 1994 satire had story by Kamal Haasan, direction by Singeetam Srinivasa Rao and screenplay by Crazy Mohan) was conceived by three men, reminds actress Rohini. “We now have a lot of female actors, technicians, writers, directors and producers. So, they will have to perhaps take up something like this and hopefully bridge the gap,” the actress smiles hopefully.