In many of his tweets about his upcoming action thriller Jawan, Shah Rukh Khan has said that the film is driven by its women. Indeed, the cast of Jawan has a thrilling lineup of female actors, including south India’s highest paid woman star Nayanthara, Priyamani, Sanya Malhotra and a cameo by Deepika Padukone. Such a female-centric cast is unusual for the genre, but nobody who has followed Atlee’s filmography would be surprised.
From his debut with the blockbuster romcom Raja Rani (2013) that was Nayanthara’s comeback to the Tamil industry after a year-long break, the director has always made space for women in his films. An aspect for which he isn’t credited enough, considering the shrinking roles for women characters in big budget Tamil films that almost exclusively revolve on the male star.
Atlee’s last release was Bigil (2019), a sports film about a man who coaches the Tamil Nadu women’s football team to victory at the national championship. It appears partly inspired by Shimit Amin’s Chak De! India (2007) which starred Shah Rukh Khan in the lead, but Bigil wasn’t just any Tamil film. It was a ‘Thalapathy’ Vijay film – and for the script to offer so much space for women characters was unheard of.
When Reba Monica John was offered Bigil, she was told she would be one of the girls in the football team, but she didn’t know anything else about her role. This isn’t uncommon in the Tamil film industry where young and upcoming actors seldom get script narrations. When John insisted on knowing more, Atlee called her to his vanity van, along with all the assistant directors on the set. “He asked them who their favourite character from the film was, and they all said it was Anitha. He turned to me and said that he’s been a very possessive parent to this character. He wanted the right person to play her, and he was convinced by my personality that I could do it,” said John.
Anitha, in Bigil, is a footballer whose career comes to an abrupt stop after an acid attack. In a key scene, her football coach (Vijay), encourages her to confront her stalker. Atlee asked John if she was going to be okay with appearing on screen with such prosthetic makeup to carry the role. “He told me that it was a crucial role, and that I would understand how powerful it was once people watched the film. He was right about that. I saw the responses in theatres and understood what he meant,” said John, who added that several men and boys told her that they found her story to be eye-opening.
John was conscious of the responsibility that came with playing such a role, and so was her director. “It has to be done sensitively because women in real life have experienced it. As an actor, I can only try and understand how they must have felt. Atlee sir made me watch several videos and interviews with real life survivors,” said John. Since she had to perform her scenes with Vijay, she was nervous about how much time she would get for retakes. But both the star and the director were supportive, she noted. “When I sat on the makeup chair and saw my face being transformed, I became emotional. It was an intense role, and everyone involved gave Anitha the respect that she deserved,” said John.
Atlee began his career as assistant director to Shankar for films like Enthiran (2010) and Nanban (2012). When he made Raja Rani, the similarities to Mani Ratnam’s Tamil film Mouna Ragam (1986) and Prakash’s Kannada film Milana (2007), were obvious – but Atlee’s updated and Tamil-ified version of the story of a couple on the verge of divorce, had plenty of takers among the younger generation. In 2011, Nayanthara had decided to get married to a colleague from the industry and call it quits from cinema. She had just one release in 2012 – the devotional film Sri Rama Jayam (2012), where she played Sita. But when her plans didn’t work out, it was Raja Rani that brought her back to the Tamil industry and made her queen. It was after the success of Raja Rani, where she played the sad-angry Regina who is unable to move on from her past, that Nayanthara began to do films as the solo lead.
Jawan is only Atlee’s fifth film as director. Between Raja Rani and Bigil, he did two other Vijay films – cop film Theri (2016) and action thriller Mersal (2017). Both of them have women characters who move the plot forward. When producer Hema Rukmani was listening to the script of Mersal, what excited her the most was the flashback portion. “More than the star, what draws you to a film is the story. Big stars bring people to theatres, but if you ask someone what their favourite films are, they would list movies that touched them in some way – in their growing up years or in some important phase of their life,” said Rukmani. “In Mersal, I thought the flashback was very rooted. Atlee and I discussed who should be cast for that role, and both of us were particular that it had to be a really good actor.”
The role went to the versatile Nithya Menen. In Mersal, Vijay plays three roles – wrestler Vetrimaaran and his sons, magician Vetri and doctor Maaran. Menen played Vetrimaaran’s wife, Aishwarya, and it is her death during childbirth that triggers the series of events in the plot. “The character of Aishwarya is at the core of the film. If that failed, the whole film would fall through. There were two other women leads in the film – Kajal Aggarwal and Samantha. They had good roles, too, but I’d say that Nithya Menen’s was the most poignant,” said Rukmani.
When the film was released, Menen’s chemistry with Vijay was among its talking points with the audience. Rukmani pointed out that though Vijay was the biggest star in the cast, Menen was placed as his equal in the relationship. “She was calling him vaada-poda, there is respect but there is also fondness. If you see the film’s poster, she’s seated and he’s standing. These are small gestures with which ideas of equality are asserted on screen,” she said.
While it’s tempting to be dismissive of such representations as tokenistic – after all, the film was still about Vijay and his three roles – Rukmani pointed out that it matters in towns and villages where a star’s big and small actions on screen leave an impact. “In the ‘Aalaporan Thamizhan’ song, Vijay’s character is dancing at a wedding in the village, and he encourages the bride who is looking down modestly to join him. Atlee includes such small directorial touches in his ‘mass’ films,” said Rukmani.
Varsha Bollamma, who plays Gayathri, a Brahmin footballer married into a conservative family in Bigil, also underlined this aspect of Atlee’s films. “I have seen so many women who are constrained to their home just because they’re married and have kids. Some may choose to do it, but many are forced to do it – like the character I played,” she said. “Even if the character influenced 10 or 20 women, that would make me very happy.”
Gayathri’s family is uncomfortable with her wearing shorts and having a career in sports, particularly her husband. They change their mind after the team’s female physiotherapist (Nayanthara) has a hard talk with the husband. After Bigil came out, Bollamma said that she received messages from several women who were emotional about their story being represented on screen.
It’s not that Atlee’s films don’t have problematic representations of women – the fat-shaming of Pandiyamma (Indraja Shankar) that’s disguised as a motivational speech in Bigil, the idea that police encounters are the solution for rape cases in Theri or the trope of having a woman character die to provide an outlet for male righteousness and outrage that we see in most of his films. But given that the bar in contemporary mainstream Tamil cinema is so low, to an extent that women characters barely have any screen time let alone character arcs, Atlee’s filmography remains an exception.
As upcoming women stars, Reba Monica John and Varsha Bollamma reiterate the importance of playing such impactful roles in big films – it’s not only about the messaging for the audience but also creating a space for women actors to grow in the industry. Acknowledging that we hardly have Tamil films today where women actors have substantial roles, Bollamma said that when the reviews for Bigil came out, they praised Vijay’s performance but also spoke about the women actors. “That’s not something you usually see. There are many movies where the heroine is there throughout but you don’t remember anything about the role after the movie has ended. They are just there, and don’t leave an impression because the role is written like that,” said Bollamma.
John said that Bigil had done wonders to her career, considering Vijay’s films are watched across the southern states. “Discussions on feminism and equal rights are more common now. But we still need these reminders on the big screen, especially for audiences that are in regressive societies. People worship stars here, and cinema can create a mind shift. Films like Bigil make certain thoughts more acceptable, easier to digest,” she said.