The Woman-Shaped Problem In A Lokesh Kanagaraj Film

With little to no action reserved for them, the women in Lokesh films are often under-written and their presence, ignored
The Woman-Shaped Problem In A Lokesh Kanagaraj Film

In the flashback sequences in Leo, Leo Das (Vijay) and his twin, Elisa Das (Madonna Sebastian) team up to fight against their father. We watch this unfold from the POV of an eagle as the camera glides past several knocks until it zooms in to show an exasperated Leo, who tells his friends to burn down the factory. However, it hardly pauses to give us a closer shot of an equally furious Elisa, who is eventually caught by Harold Das (Arjun). She is pushed to the background as you see her strike and kill people at a distance. If Elisa is everything that Leo is, and a big enough drug lord like her twin that makes her family want to save Elisa instead of Leo, shouldn’t we, the audience, also know what makes her so important in the first place? 

As a one-liner, it is intriguing to think that Vijay has a twin in a film and that the character isn’t played by the actor himself in a double role. But whatever value the character had on paper gets lost in translation on screen. In fact, the very first time we hear her voice is when a knife is slid onto her throat.

Lokesh Kanagaraj might be only five films old, but he has managed to create a star-studded action universe, amassing scores of fans — a portion of this includes women. So, even if people walk into Leo to enjoy a Vijay film, they also walk in to see which new supporting character (Napoleon or Amar) would turn out to be a breakout surprise. But for someone who carries the responsibility of creating Kollywood’s first Marvel-like universe, working with some of the biggest names from Tamil cinema, his female characters have been quite disappointing.

A still of Vijay from the flashback portions
A still of Vijay from the flashback portions

Kaithi, A No-Woman’s Land

Barring Dilli’s daughter, his probation officer and Deepthi, a college student at the police station, there is no other female character in Kaithi (2019). For argument's sake, let’s say the story didn’t require a woman. But is that really the case? The drug lords probably didn’t have a female member. But why are there no female cops? Not just in the commissioner’s house, which is where a police party goes awry, even the headquarters in Trichy doesn’t have one. Maybe, this is a little too much to ask for in Kaithi, which still gave us that superb safetypin moment involving Deepthi. But this is important to understand the bigger picture.

Women as Romantic Partners

When Gayathri tells Amar that she will never question his job in Vikram (2022), is it an innovative relationship arc or just lazy writing that feeds into male fantasy where a dream girlfriend never questions her man? The film informs us that their relationship is one built on trust and the details don’t matter. But let’s look at what Amar tells her when she asks about his job. He says, “Baby, do you know why I agreed to marry you? Till now, you have never asked me where or what I work. You trust me implicitly. Let that faith continue.” Should Gayathri have seen this as a red flag? 

In an interview with Galatta Plus, Lokesh Kanagaraj recently said, “I can’t write romance. But I think I have written some proper romance in Leo. This is something we can all agree with because his previous four films — Maanagaram (2017), Kaithi, Master (2021) and Vikram (20220) — either had no romance or featured those that couldn't create any connection. 

In Maanagaram, a tightly structured hyper-link film, the romance between the characters played by Sundeep Kishan and Regina Cassandra seemed half-baked. Like in the Amar-Gayathri story, this pair has a past and we only witness a small part of their present. But the fleeting glances, a montage song and Regina warming up to him, do not leave you rooting for their romance. In Vikram, there are seven main women characters. Apart from Gayathri, Vikram gave us Agent Tina (the one and only Wonder Woman), Prabhanjan's wife, Maya (an escort), and the three wives of Vijay Sethupathi’s Santhanam. The loving wives, although make an interesting addition to Santhanam’s eccentric house, aren’t written with any kind of depth.

It is only in Leo that we see a woman travel as long as a hero in a Lokesh Kanagaraj film. Trisha’s Sathya has got blood and flesh. She isn’t there only to blindly trust Parthi or just to get killed in his fight to live. She doesn’t get to do much, but here we have a woman who knows what she wants and whose emotions are respected enough (at least cared enough to be lied to by her husband, even if it means gaslighting). But the fact that this bare minimum seems like a cause for celebration is a bit unfortunate. 

Payoffs and The HEROine Moment

In a tense moment in Leo, Sathya and her daughter are alone in the house and the antagonist’s car is stationed outside. She quickly calls Parthi, who, along with his son, tries to protect their family. In a similar situation in A History of Violence (2005), the Cronenberg film that inspired Leo, Edie (Sathya’s character in HOV) picks a shotgun and nervously aims at the door, waiting to protect her family. In a film that incorporates a lot of ideas championed in HOV, why doesn’t Sathya get to pick up the gun to protect her family?

Quite often, Lokesh builds what looks like a cool heroine moment, only for the hero to swoop in and steal her thunder. In Maanagaram, when a kidnapped boy is in trouble, the hero fails to understand the situation. It is Regina who realises the issue and tries to protect the kid. She is brave and empathetic. But of course, she can’t fight a kidnapper, so the hero steps in to protect her, suggesting she go back to the house. 

In Master, we never really interact with Vanathi (Andrea Jeremiah). Say you are even willing to look past the weak writing to enjoy her sudden veneration as the archery queen. But when she faces a counterattack, she falls and Vijay rises to the occasion. In what starts off as a scene that depicts Vanathi’s skills, we end up rooting for Vijay instead, who couldn’t even aim properly earlier. The only payoff involving a female character that brilliantly works is that of Agent Tina in Vikram. Because, unlike Vanathi, Tina’s character is kept under wraps rather than ignored. There is a reason we don’t get to see a lot. So, when we finally see her in action, it is genuinely exciting.

In Vikram, when the house is swarmed with gangsters, Prabhanjan’s wife is forced to get inside a safe room (without her child, might we add) so that Vikram (Kamal Haasan) is left with the job of saving his grandchild. Likewise, in Leo, when Sathya and her daughter are the only people alone, Parthi tells her to stab anyone who comes to attack them. You end up half-expecting her to fight for her daughter — their survival is in question after all. When Parthi faces a similar incident earlier in the cafe, he goes all out. When she is pushed to the very end, it would have made sense for her to fight or even call the super cool Subramani to help. But even that order is reserved for the hero.

The Sad Fate of Cop Wives

In Master, the film spends over four minutes setting the stage for Vijay’s introduction sequence. But Malavika Mohanan’s Charulatha doesn’t get any solid introduction. Charulatha is a new professor in a college where Vijay’s JD works, and we first see her when she meets a colleague. Charulatha, like Elisa, is an important character on paper. She is the one who drives the film's turning point. But even when her role is revealed later, it is just told in dialogues. In hindsight, Charulatha is among the many Tamil cinema heroines written just to repair the men in their lives. While Gayathri is given a much better role (she is important in solving a major piece of the puzzle after all) in Vikram, she still meets a fate that many other cop wives in Tamil cinema have gone through (Mithra from Theri and Maya from Kaakha Kaakha come to mind). Bejoy’s wife is never seen on screen in both Kaithi and Vikram, but we are told that even she couldn’t escape destiny.

Understandably, strong introduction sequences for women characters are a rarity in commercial entertainers, and Lokesh’s films are no exception. But this void is apparent in Priya Anand’s character in Leo the most. We are never told who Priya is and are just left to assume her role when she is the one who nudges Parthi to address his trauma. It is indeed important the makers don’t spoon-feed us with details, but a dialogue establishing her relationship with the film's characters in passing is not too much to ask. After watching the film, a friend of mine double-checked with me whether or not Priya was the wife of Gautham (Gautham Vasudev Menon). Another told me that she felt bad for her character and noted that at least if she were to die, she might have been better fleshed out.

What could be the reason?

With Maanagaram and Kaithi, Lokesh Kanagaraj largely focused on his characters. For example, the college students are as important as Dilli in Kaithi. Each character — like Munishkanth’s kidnapper in Maanagaram or Arun Alexander’s corrupt cop in Kaithi — had their motives and also affected the bigger picture. But with Master, Vikram and Leo, the deluge of supporting characters seems to have left Lokesh with very little time to portray who they are and what they mean to his world-building. Be Elisa in Leo, Santhanam's extended family in Vikram or the numerous friends of Vijay in Master, they are ultimately underwritten, their motives and individual thoughts unclear. Which is also why the female characters are pushed to the margins.

Lokesh has time and again accepted how writing romance is not his cup of tea. As a writer and director, he likes to stick to his strengths. As a result, romance is restricted to only very brief moments in his storyline. In action-centric hero films, women have more often been limited to the space of the “loved one”. So, when Lokesh doesn’t write that particular character, the typical romantic heroine is done away with for good. But with a dearth of action queens in his universe, a question begs to be asked here: are women in action films only allowed to be seen in the light of a romance? The action women in LCU — Elisa and Tina — are already dead and so is Gayathri. After the first three instalments, the universe is now left with only Sathya, whose transformation story is probably hidden somewhere in the yet-to-be-revealed LCU theories. Now all that is left for us is to hope for an alternate Loki universe where it's finally the woman's turn to go guns blazing.

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