Understanding How Tamil Films About Women Are Still Steeped In Male Gaze

Male gaze is always not as explicit as representing women as objects of pleasure. When it seeps into well-intended narratives revolving around women, the gaze forces the audience to view such stories from the point of view of a heterosexual male
Understanding How Tamil Films About Women Are Still Steeped In Male Gaze

In Rajiv Menon's Kandukondain Kandukondain, when a struggling filmmaker (Ajith Kumar) hits a low after being rejected by multiple production houses and male actors, his good friend suggests swapping the gender of his first film's lead to save the trouble of satisfying egos. "Change Prem to Premi. Nowadays, Nandhini Varma (Pooja Batra) prefers to act in manly characters," he says. And just like that, a women-centric film was born while it was exclusively ideated and written with/for a male hero in mind. A quick glance at all the recent releases (theatre + OTT) in Tamil had me wondering—are we consuming gender-swapped films under the pretext of equality? Is there a reasonable explanation why most stories, written by men, revolving around women ooze with the male gaze while hardly exploring the power dynamics of a gender?

Almost a decade ago, Tamil cinema was churning out an outrageous number of horror-comedy films. Then came the era of 'message films' that prided itself in being the voice of the voiceless. Season 1 of it spoke about the farmers with a hint of nationalism. The ongoing Season 2, speaks for the women. Since the 2019 Pollachi sexual assault case, the global #MeToo and Time's Up movements there is a visible cultural shift in how the media perceives and consumes women's lived experiences. While I'm all in for stories that are not revolving around a cis man hoping to reflect/influence society, the problem with many women-centric stories written/directed by men is the male gaze and prejudices of victimhood and empowerment.

Flawed Character ≠ Flawed Representation

During New Year 2023, a viral image of women taking over theatre billboards in Chennai's Vettri Theatre made its round on Twitter. While all four films—Nayanthara’s Connect (2022), Kovai Sarala’s Sembi (2022), Aishwarya Rajesh’s Driver Jamuna (2022), and Trisha’s Raangi (2022) were directed by men, Connect stood as the only film that did not reek of male gaze owing to an equal partnership of women in writer's room. 

Understanding How Tamil Films About Women Are Still Steeped In Male Gaze
Women Are Taking Over Theatre Billboards. But What Does That Mean For Tamil Cinema?

Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist conceptualised the term 'male gaze'. In short, male gaze is when the camera views women inside the screen from the eyes of a heterosexual man. This depiction leads to voyeurism and hypersexualised passive female characters. But often, male gaze is not as explicit as representing women as objects of pleasure. When it seeps into well-intended narratives revolving around women, the male gaze forces the audience to view women stories from the point of view of a heterosexual male even if they are women/queer. Constant portrayal of female characters from the perspective of a man builds dangerous yet subconscious conditioning in the minds of audiences on how men look at women, how women look at themselves and eventually, how women look at other women.

Prabhu Solomon's Sembi follows the events of a ten-year-old child sexual assault survivor who lives with her grandmother (Kovai Sarala) amid their tribal community on the hilltop of Kodaikanal. Though the film's heart is in the right place to create awareness about the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, the brutal sexual assault is picturised with zero empathy. The camera lingers over a pool of blood; several close-up shots of the graphic violence ultimately dehumanise the survivor. To take the male gaze up a notch, a nameless male saviour (Ashwin) is literally represented as a god who saves the helpless women. Arun Matheswaran's Saani Kaayidham is a survivor's (Keerthy Suresh) revenge drama following her gang rape. While there is absolutely no need to film the excruciatingly brutal details of a rape to register and justify unfolding events to its audiences—Saani Kaayidham, also, utilises sexual violence to create shock value. The web series Suzhal: The Vortex created by Pushkar-Gayatri and directed by Bramma, also addresses child sexual abuse, again, with a voyeuristic gaze that not only rips off the survivor of any agency but deeply triggers for more than half of the audience who has gone through some sort of abuse in their lives.  

Not A Plot Device

You know that Tamil cinema has started using sexual violence as another plot point or symbol when every other self-righteous saviour cop story is riding their male pride on stories of female physical violation. Andrew Louis' web series Vadhandhi – The Fable of Velonie is a murder mystery cop (SJ Suryah) drama centring on the alleged rape and murder of a young & beautiful teenage girl Velonie (Sanjana). While trying to break the stereotype of an ideal victim and address how rumours spread about women, the cameras forget that it is constantly sexualizing an 18-year-old girl. You can't question misogyny and voyeurism by objectifying women. One step forward, a thousand backwards. 

Sinam (2022) and Laththi (2022) are another set of honest cop dramas pivoting around a brutal rape. The former is loosely a revenge story of a police husband (Arun Vijay) avenging the rape and murder of his wife. The latter is about a hurt cop (Vishal) who is unable to save, hence resorts to seeking justice for a common girl. While trying to speak for the women mounting all the world's responsibility on their male cop shoulders, both the film distastefully pans over the victim's bodies, as they suffer, for over 2 excruciatingly long minutes while the heroes showcase their masculinity.

Things get messier when filmmakers start to mix caste pride and sexual violence against women. Mohan G's Bakasuran (2023) and Muthiah's Devarattam (2019) are very bad revenge plots that claim to speak for/protect women against violence but treat women's maanam (honour/chastity) as larger than life itself. These films are so confused if they want to treat women with respect or not (empathy is too much to ask). Because in one scene the heroes are regressive, patriarchal and involved in victim blaming and in the next scene they fold up their sleeves, sharpen their swords and get ready for a bloody revenge for their women. 

Gender Swapping Is Not Progressive

The flip side of victimhood stories is the masculine idea of women's empowerment. These women are limited in their ability to smoke, drink, get angry and fight like a man. The strong female leads here are designed as conventional males to fit in female bodies. Hollywood movies like Ocean’s 8 (2018), Ghostbusters (2016), and The Hustle (2019) are popular gender-swapped films which were critiqued for forcing female characters to fit into existing moulds of familiar character arcs. 

Tamil cinema has always tried to adopt successful formulas that have worked for male characters to female characters—for example, the female lead introduction songs since Mouna Ragam (1986). In recent times, the demand for more female-led stories and the lack of female representation on/off screen had led to many male filmmakers writing female characters to meet masculine modalities of strength—physical power and linear ambition—not that women shouldn't possess these traits but if these female characters are removed and replaced with a man's body, the film will still work. And, that is not progressive.

In Chella Ayyavu's Gatta Kusthi (2022), while I make peace with a well-educated wrestler Keerthi (Aishwarya Lekshmi), agreeing to marry a misogynistic man-child (Vishnu Vishal) just because he refused dowry, the film isn't as convincing as it desires to be by adopting a superficial take on patriarchy. Its idea of questioning sexism doesn't go beyond a slow-motion male action-hero-style interval block fight for Keerthi and iterating how hard women have to work to reach their dreams. 

M Saravanan’s Raangi (2023) was promoted as an action-heroine film. As the title suggests, Thaiyal Nayagi (Trisha) is a foul-mouthed, headstrong, arrogant journalist who is dressed like Vijay. While there is nothing wrong with being any of the above, Thaiyal has a skewed idea of feminism. After she finds out that her teenage niece's nude videos are leaked, in an attempt to verify if it really is her niece, Thaiyal forcefully asks her niece to strip in the living room. What's baffling more than the lack of boundary is how the camera lingers in close-up. The male gaze is evident when Thaiyal advises her niece's schoolmate that she can attain conventional beauty standards if she's willing to endure pain. 

While we've come far from having a single women-led story release every year carrying the unbearable weight of speaking for a heterogenous group of women, the danger of having a singular gaze is that beyond a point people will start accepting it as the norm. Anjali Menon's Koode (2018, Malayalam), Leena Manimekalai's Maadathy (2019, Tamil), and Maria Schrader's She Said (2022, English) are some brilliant examples of how gender-based violence can be conveyed to the audience with empathy. 

Sexual assault and/or gender-based violence is about establishing power. In an effort to create social awareness, our films shouldn't dehumanise survivors. A quick solution to subvert the gaze is to include people with lived experiences in the writer's room. Forming a focus group to discuss if the said representation either triggers their emotion or does it give them agency and hope. A film that truly tries to champion women's lives will ideally reverse the gaze by focusing on solidarity, not charity; power, not helplessness.

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