Tamil cinema has for long been a treasure trove of well-written women characters, and from the 1970s to the 1990s, they helped represent on screen the sweeping changes in society. It helped that some stellar actors such as Lakshmi, Sarita, Sujata, Revathy, Manorama and Suhasini were around to bring them to life. These women had a reason to be in the film, had more to do beyond making the man look good, and sparkled with shades of innocence, dignity and determination.
But for this, they had to be written well. And, legendary director K Balachander, of course, led the pack, writing women with a certain gravitas, and made the working woman a common feature in films. There were others too, like Visu, who managed to create someone like Kannamma in Samsaram Adhu Minsaram, a domestic help who was family, a character that blurred the employer-employee relationship.
Of late, though, the audience is only rarely gifted with well-written and fleshed-out female characters. Nostalgia comes in handy to travel back in time to when women had substantial screen time and purpose too. And so, let's take a ride into Tamil cinema, beginning with the 80s and 90s with some recent representation too, to recall some memorable characters and the actors who essayed them.
Director: K Balachander
Kannamma (Sarita) and the way she was written is probably among the earliest dignified portrayals of people with mental health issues in Tamil cinema. Balachander treated her with empathy, making you fall in love with a girl who loved Bharathiar and his poetry, and who could not even bring herself to see a candle shaped like a baby lit during a power cut. She loves Aravindan (Sivakumar), who understands the girl who has a 'Kumari vadivam, kuzhandhai ullam' (the heart of a child in the body of a woman) but his family does not. A deeply sensitive Kannamma wilts in a practical world. Her fate shocks you, because Sarita takes you along into Kannamma's fragile world where her only anchor is Aravindan.
Director: K Balachander
This film is about a noted Carnatic singer JKB (Sivakumar), his loving wife Bhairavi (Sulakshana) who yearns for a child and the confident Sindhu (Suhasini) who enters their life and turns it upside down. While Sindhu is the more arresting character, your heart beats for the innocent Bhairavi, whose only concern is her husband. He can work himself into a fury and call her names [gnanasoonyam (ignorant), jadam (insensitive)] when the sound of her operating the mixer to make paruppu podi interrupts him when he's listening to Lata Mangeshkar's Meera bhajans. But, all she can do through tear-rimmed eyes is ask him if not her, will Lata make paruppu podi for his Delhi trip? Later, when JKB desperately needs help to emerge from the alcoholic morass he has fallen in, she thinks nothing before asking Sindhu to help. When Sindhu decides to be the bigger person and leaves JKB and Bhairavi with the gift that she has been pining for, Bhairavi reveals her giving heart and gracious nature. Sulakshna was pitch-perfect as the woman willing to share everything to save the one man she loves.
Director: K Balachander
For much of the 80s, Suhasini exemplified the bold working woman in K Balachander's films. In this family drama, she's nurse Nandhini who manages her large family living in another city only through letters. She has a 'spy' at home who tells her all that's happening and she passes on instructions. Nandhini is the sacrificing daughter who does not tell her family that she's split from her husband, and continues to support them. What makes the film tick are the bonds she forms with her flatmates Sundari and Vasu, with her boss Dr Arthanari (SP Balasubrahmanyam) and her fiancé Suriya (Sridhar). While Nandhini's final decision might seem like an overkill, it is in keeping with her moral compass that is ramrod straight. Seen through society's eyes, her decision might seem wrong, but Nandhini will not have had it any other way.
Director: Seenu Ramasamy
Very few directors have tapped into the innate sincerity in Tamannaah the way Seenu Ramasamy has. Dr Subhashini is selfless, but also a self-made woman who has learnt to gather the pieces of her life and do what her college mentor inspired her to — serve the villagers. She comes into her own when her old college flame Dharma (Vijay Sethupathi) walks into her life, now a drunkard. She takes him in, helps him find a purpose to live again, and eventually the two become a couple. The song 'Endha Pakkam' showcases Subhashini at her best. She can scald Dharma with her eyes when he throws up at home after yet another round of drinking, and some time later, peers into the computer monitor with an endearing intensity when she's reading up. Subhashini is such a well-written character who is as liberated as one can get, without making much noise about it. She embraces Dharma's past the way he embraces hers.
Director: Singeetam Srinivasa Rao
Janaki (Urvashi) is a middle class working woman with a young child who struggles to cope with sexual harassment at work, courtesy her boss Pandian (Naazar). She fights it, but sticks on, because her husband is without a job. She shares an unequal equation with the cleaning staff Papamma (Rohini), below her in the hierarchy, and designer Sathya (Revathy), who is above her. Janaki is an upper caste woman and, initially, her face curls in disgust when Papamma and Sathya share some fried fish with curd rice. The best part of Janaki is that she evolves with time. She recognises allies in Papamma and Sathya and caste and class differences blur. Watch out for the scene on the terrace during lunch. Initially, Janaki is cold towards Sathya, but once she realises that she's an ally, she begins serving her curd rice on a container lid. The three work together to improve things at work, bring in better practices, and ensure the manager is packed off to a distant location.
Director: Priya V
Ramya (Laila) is a confident young working woman who is forced to play coy, because she has to impress an NRI groom (Karthik Kumar). Helping her charm him is her acquaintance from childhood and the groom's best friend Krishna (Prasanna). Somewhere along the way, their bond changes, and Ramya glows with the realisation that Krishna makes her heart sing, and reels under the guilt that she's engaged to someone else. This is one of Laila's better performances, and her body language showcases the hesitation of someone sitting on the fence about their feelings. Priya writes Ramya with dignity but also a lightness of touch. One of the reasons why the film is still popular 17 years after it first released.
Director: SU Arun Kumar
Arun Kumar writes Chellamma (a lovely Thulasi) with a mix of love and dignity and indignation. Her equation with her husband Pannayaar (Jayaprakash) is like fine wine — steeped in tradition but with notes of dissent. The elderly couple loves each other with tenderness. He knows what makes her heart sing, she knows how to make him smile. He dreams of taking her to the temple on their wedding anniversary in the Padmini car left behind by a friend. Her dream is the fulfilment of his. And then, their greedy daughter walks in asking for the car. In Thulasi's able hands, Chellamma and her deep-rooted love and realisation of modern-day familial relationships come alive.
Director: M Manikandan
As the temporarily single mother of naughty siblings Periya Kaaka Muttai and Chinna Kaaka Muttai, the factory worker mother, played by Aishwarya, lends dignity to the proceedings. She is that person you see often on screen who aspires for a better life even as her husband is in prison. She might possess nothing, but she is the queen of her universe. And however small her hut is and however desperate she is to move up in life, she keeps it tidy, never forgetting her circumstances. She's also the warrior mother, working hard to keep her kids out of trouble and in a safe space. When they go missing overnight and are found the next day, myriad emotions flit across her face. Whatever the circumstances, her dignity and smile never leave her.
Director: Vetri Maaran
Oar Iravu is among a handful of films where the dread about what is to happen persists even after repeat viewings. One of the main reasons for that is how well Sai Pallavi nudges you to watch her pregnant Sumathi on screen. The other is how Prakash Raj's face reveals nothing about his inner turmoil. In among her finest performances, Pallavi fuses love, guilt, happiness and the realisation that her eloping with someone and making a life for herself in the city does not guarantee safety. The scenes between Prakash Raj (Sumathi's father Janakiraman) and how she slowly trusts him again to let him into her world, and the heartbreak that follows are searing.
There's only one thing that might stop Ammayappa Mudaliyar (Visu) from eating halwa in Samsaram Adhu Minsaram — Kannamma's sharp words. Kannamma is written with respect and levity and is a great example of that rare camaraderie shared between the household help and its members. She takes on everyone — from the head of the family to the lady of the house and the father-in-law of the daughter of the house — to eventually protect them. "Kannamma", "Gammunu Keda" was quite the chant in the early years of the film's release. Manorama played Kannamma with the heft she required and also the deftness of body language she needed to make it work.