When Deepan Kannan was passing by Vettri Theatres in December, as he is frequently used to doing as an avid movie watcher, he found something striking about the banners outside the cinema. The hoardings featured faces of female stars from the Tamil film industry, indicating the simultaneous running of Nayanthara’s Connect, Trisha’s Rangi, Aishwarya Rajesh’s Driver Jamuna and Kovai Sarala’s Sembi.
His sister happened to see the same sight outside the theatres, and the next day, when they were travelling together (ironically enough on their way to watch Driver Jamuna), they stopped and clicked a picture of the banners and tweeted it out. But little did he realise the waves his observation was going to make among admirers of the industry. In short, the tweet went viral.
“When I saw these banners, it struck me that all of them were women. If I also remember it right, there are no men featured prominently in those posters. I was in awe of the thing, having always grown up watching movies with men at the centrestage, flexing their muscles in the banner, exhibiting masculinity,” Deepan says, adding that he was glad that the tweet resonated with people. But what does this actually mean for Tamil cinema today? “Something that really struck me was how even women actors were able to relate to it, which means that they see this as a major gap.”
‘It took me back to KB sir’s era of strong female leads’
When Prabhu Solomon, the director of Sembi saw the banners outside Vettri, he was reminded of filmmaker K Balanchander’s oeuvre of films. “It has been so many years since films like these, released together. Only during K Balachander sir's era did we see so many films with female leads.” Behind Prabhu's joy was yet another significant reason. Sembi sees the comeback of veteran actress and comedienne Kovai Sarala in a starring role after years. “Kovai Sarala is an actress who is so talented, but the fact that she is getting the recognition that she deserves at the age of 60 is a thing to be proud of.”
Filmmaker Leena Manimekalai, on the other hand, was reminded of films such as Balu Mahendra’s Veedu and K Balachander’s Thaneer Thaneer, which became hits in the 1980s. “When I happened to watch Balu Mahendra's Veedu in one of Doordharshan's special telecast, the central character that actor Archana played resembled my mother, as I grew up seeing my mother building our house brick by brick as a kid. When my late father, who was also a film scholar, showed me Thanneer Thanneer, Saritha looked and felt like the women from my native village in the deep south of Tamil Nadu,” she says, adding that female performers deserve good scripts and author-backed cinema.
Women are finally getting the recognition they deserve, says Ashwin Saravanan, filmmaker of Connect. But that doesn’t mean romanticisation is the way to go, he cautions. “You want these things to be normalised because at the end of the day, when that happens, you start believing these things. Romanticisation of these things can be fleeting or momentary. But like director H Vinoth said in a recent interview, I look at these hoardings as an extension of women and their evolution in today’s society.”
Are producers increasingly backing films with female leads?
Ashwin, who has only ever told stories with female protagonists (Maya, Connect with Nayanthara and Game Over with Taapsee), adds that the true implications of the banners must be understood. “It is very easy to look at this and dismiss it as a normal thing. Women-centric films were considered arthouse films 15-20 years ago. But right now, a lot of films are considering switching the gender of the protagonists to add an additional narrative. Take Driver Jamuna for example. The director thought, "Why can't the driver be a woman?" What a refreshing thought.”
There is money and market for such films today, he says. “When you make a film that is led by a woman and it is successful, you get a lot of similar offers. The number of calls I have received in the last 3-4 years from producers has increased exponentially. Obviously they are looking to make these films because there is a place for it in the market.”
Prabhu, however, thinks producers aren’t all that encouraging. “To be frank, producers still don't encourage many such films. If there are stars in the film, then it might be looked at as a guaranteed business in OTT. When you are making a film with a certain budget, the producers can break even. But nobody is ready to take a risk with a fresh face when it comes to a female driven film.”
The need for films authored by women
With Sembi, the director wanted to educate audiences on the importance of the POCSO Act, 2012, that deals with child sexual abuse. “If we start thinking about the audience for such films, we'll not be able to make them. With this film's budget, along with the theatrical release, OTT and Satellite, the producers broke even, so I was safe and they were happy. Like Kamal Haasan sir said in Sembi's audio launch, 'rasikan oda rasanayai uyarthavendiyadhu kalaignar oda vela.’ Our duty is to educate fans.”
Streaming platforms might have opened up a space but that's a compulsion of the market, says Leena. “No superheroes (big stars) are willing to do OTT and so to avoid dearth of content, female actors are getting their due. Television was always a female-driven medium and OTT is growing on that base but in slightly better terms.” The real change will happen only when women become authors, take creative control and change the gaze, she insists.
“Male directors, producers and stars cannot create anything new until they live as at least less patriarchal males in their own life. What you practise is what you create. Until then, even if they want to make women-centric cinema for a “change”, they will suggest they learn martial arts to deal with domestic violence, they will push them to choose masculinity to be considered “heroes”, and make them cynical, rude misanthropes to “stand out”.”
Even if characters today explore feminism, do we have depth to those stories and do we have stories that capture the lifestyle of modern women in 2023? asks Kannan. “We still don't have many films that talk about sexuality except for a Natchathiram Nagargiradhu that had a Dalit woman in the lead. I would also love to see more queer characters. I hope we will get there.”
The Varisu-Thunivu impact
While all the four films had a December release, it is also pertinent to note that the films released before the Thunivu and Varisu window (the Vijay and Ajith tentpole films faced off in a clash during Pongal in the second week of January). Following the release of the two giants, Connect was one of these films that could sustain a theatrical run.
Rakesh Gowthaman, the proprietor of Vettri Theatres, says that no film – be it female or male led – can match up to the impact of a production or fandom like Thunivu or Varisu in theatres. “Whether the films of these two stars should release on the same day itself is a bigger debate.” He further adds that small films might have the chance to be recognised only if it is released in a lean period such as December. “So, since these films came in this window, all theatres had a good run. Connect mainly had a good two-week run. The other movies had a one-week run. It is also the content of the film that matters at the end of the day."
The trade will always favour big films, and rightfully so because those are the films that keep the theatres running, observes Ashwin. “The rest of the films should learn to work around that and that should be the ecosystem and I think there is space for every kind of film. It is a wonderful thing that in Tamil Nadu, we have all kinds of films working at the box office.
The filmmaker also points out how the theatrical window, too, has reduced massively today, putting pressure on a producer, filmmaker and distributor to cash in on the film in the first 3 days. “I don't know if this race is good or bad, but this is the situation. You are always fighting for screens with another film. The producers are in the same position as the layman.”
Prabhu, on the other hand, hopes that small films get the opportunity to leverage the festival slots. Sembi, which was released on December 30, was taken off theatres in its second week. The film was recently brought back to the theatres after a hiatus. “A big star's film can be released on any day and that day automatically becomes a festival. If festival days are given to smaller films, they will be able to reap out their investments.”
This brings us to an important question: Can we ever see a female star vehicle coexist with a male star vehicle in the theatres? Rakesh is hopeful. “What if Shankar or SS Rajamouli did a movie with a female lead? And why can't it be released in Pongal with another star film?
But for now what we have on our hands is the Thunivu Vs Varisu clash. As for the banners at Vettri today? He smiles: “It’s Thunivu and Varisu, avlo dhaan.”