Edited excerpts from an interview between director Vasanth S Sai and Baradwaj Rangan where they discuss the female characters inhabiting the former's filmography, his influences and if it's possible for men to breathe life into complex female characters
One of the first few women you wrote — Radhika's character in Keladi Kannmanii — was a very interesting character. She's an unmarried middle-aged woman with differently-abled parents, who she is responsible for. How did you think of this character?
You will find several characters who have to take care of their parents in my films. It has almost become a recurring element.
Yes, even Arjun's character in Rhythm…
Of course that's a major part of that character. I personally feel there's nothing more urgent than to show our gratitude towards people. Which is why I always make it a point to talk about gratitude whenever I'm given a chance to speak. I've realised the importance of it today and when you ask me about Radhika's character in Keladi Kannmanii, subconsciously I feel she is the personification of gratitude.
In the film, her parents are both hearing and speech impaired but they are not incapable of taking care of themselves. Even if Radhika were to assume that they could fend for themselves, there's nothing wrong in that. But she decides to remain unmarried because she understands the difficulties they will face. That's just how she is.
In terms of screenplay, it was also important for her to remain unmarried for her to fit into the 'muthir kanni' (older spinster) archetype. I have seen many people like that in my circles. These are people who thought their duties were more important than getting married to the point where they thought marriage was a form of luxury. Radhika's character is my way of saluting such people and their sacrifices.
But it only becomes a salute in the film when S.P. Balasubramanyam's (SPB) character offers a simple solution to Radhika's conundrum. When SPB looks at her parents as his own and offers to take them into their house, the problem is solved.
That's what I too would have said in such a situation. In a way, the meaning of the term 'maru magal' or 'maru magan' is simply another daughter or son. This was Radhika for me, apart from her confidence and humour, both of which are qualities that attract me. The other important aspect of her character is how she feels she has to take the permission of SPB's child before they get together.
Your next character — Nivedha from Nee Pathi Naan Pathi — was a more dramatic heroine. She is passionate and focussing on the right and wrongs. In the climax, she feels no girl in the future should have her fate because she is an illegitimate child.
I think it's a kind of goodness when a person feels no one should have to go through the hardship they had to suffer. To what extent such a person would go to make sure no one else has the same fate as them. That's what I'd describe as the basic plot line for that movie. She draws her own lines of decency within this character trait. Her character is neither black nor white but it's this grey shade that makes her so interesting.
Another important character in this film is Manorama's, the hero's mother. When you wrote that character, did you add her for conflict? Or did it come from people around you?
A part of that character is based on my mother. It's a mix of a lot of people around me. My mother too had the same level of conviction. It's the same with the mother's character in Rhythm. I really enjoyed it when I wrote dialogues for Manorama.
Next, about Meena's character named Chitra in Rhythm. I remember a dialogue in Mouna Ragam when Revathy's character asks for a divorce and the lawyer says it's very difficult to live without a husband. In today's day and age, no one has that sentiment. Chitra is a character similar to that, where a woman is bringing up a son without a husband. What I really like in that film is how she locks herself up inside a self-imposed confinement after her husband dies, only to look after her son.
For me, these personal duties are very important. This is not a regular child. It is not her biological child. The boy is someone she adopts because that was her late husband's wish. For her, the son is almost an extension of her husband. That's how kids are usually seen in our families. She adopts the son from Sivananda Gurukulam because it was her husband's wish. For her, nothing is more important than the child.
We see that she would go wait in a corner in a salon for her son to get a haircut done. At that time, a woman entering a men's salon was a huge thing. But when there was no one else to take the kid for a haircut, Chitra did it.
Even when she thinks of re-marrying, she asks him for permission. She asks how he would feel if "you, me, thatha, paati and Karthik sir stay together?" That's her way of asking for permission. When we get into a new relationship, we should not thrust it upon the kid. Even after knowing that he likes Karthik a lot, she still asks him.
Usually, we talk about the need for more female writers to write better women. What's your opinion on that?
We definitely need more female writers.
Can men not write good women characters?
If you ask me if men cannot write good female characters, then I would say that men can. There is a woman and man inside all of us. There is good and evil in us. If you have affection, sympathy and respect for women, you will feel it while you write about them. If you only have negative notions about women then that will reflect in your writing.
But if a female writer writes, we will be able to see and experience fresher perspectives. For a story like Amma Oru Kolai Seithal you need a woman like Ambai to write it. I cannot go in-depth and write like that.
The first ever story that affected me in life was written by an author named Anuthama. I read her work regularly from 5th grade and I used to go to a library to borrow books for my mother. That's when I started reading Anuthama's work. I think all this has subconsciously influenced me. But, men cannot write the way they write.
In Satham Podathey, Padmapriya's character has an interesting conflict. Her husband is impotent and then she falls in love with Prithviraj making the husband the villain. Even if the sensibilities of the film were commercial, the characters were strong. It was not male-dominated, even with two male characters.
I was once invited to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. A man spoke about how much he abused his wife. I knew this man's wife and was shocked to see her there. After the meeting, she told me how he is a changed man today. She was the biggest influence for this character. That lady was an example of how much one could accept another person. That's how I wrote Padmapriya's character.
Whoever watches the film, will wonder why she stays on for so long. It is a different kind of violence. He would lie so much and he would not acknowledge his drinking. He wouldn't tell her that he is impotent. Whatever image you have built of this person in your heart will slowly be shattered. I also wanted her to be progressive at the same time.
Can you talk about Moondru Per Moondru Kadhal's Mallika, the character played by Bhanu, Cheran's lover?
That character was very important to me. There is a beautiful line from 'Puthu Kavithai' written by Na. Pichamoorthi – Ketpathu ila, tharuvathu thaan kaadhal. Love is not about asking, it is about giving. That was my theme for Moondru Per Moondru Kadhal in all three segments. I wanted to show how much one can give for love. My favourite story was Cheran and Bhanu's. She first asks her mother-in-law if she likes her. Who would do that? That is Mallika's sweetness.
She was a physiotherapist in a small town and she carries her bag around. Even though she was from a place like that, she is educated, follows rules but also has the acceptance that Cheran has things bigger than her in his life. I never opened up Cheran's character and that was intentional. Only her acceptance and sacrifice was my story, that was the 'Kavithai' I aspired for. How much you love someone and how far you will go for them is important to me in a character.
When we come to Sivaranjani Innum Sila Pengalum, it's the story of three women from their point of view. What were the reasons for taking Jeyamohan, Aadhavan and Ashokamitran's stories? Why Devaki, Sivaranjani and Saraswathi?
A big filmmaker asked me why I hadn't included a man's supporting story in it for variety. But what should be spoken more of? What exists more? So from the start, I was clear what should be spoken about. Why these stories in particular? That's because I really liked them. I didn't pick these films from my rack because I want to do another film.
I wanted to take a woman empowerment story and convey it in a powerful manner. This was always there in the back of my mind, subconsciously. That was the base, but I myself didn't know it was in me for so long. Ashokamitran's story about Saraswathi is one of my favorites since I read it when I was 20.
How did you look at these three women?
In Saraswathi's case, someone with education, strata, learnings and exposure like hers, saying yes in a marriage is the easiest way out. But after a point, they retaliate little. Not being able to bear even that, her husband leaves. She also gives in when he is leaving and stands before him so he can hit her. But finally when he does leave, she doesn't feel bad because she has nothing in her heart for him to cry about. That's how the writer wrote it. He called the story Vimochanam. The turnaround of the character was very important to me. Just to celebrate her, I put the title towards the end.
Devaki was highly educated, very knowledgeable and she is a working woman. If you invade her privacy, she can't accept it and she is such a straight character. Devaki herself describes confidence as a kind of beauty.
With Sivaranjani's story, I wanted to explore her complex character. She is attached to her parents and won't go against them for most things. She needed to be told by an external source that it is okay for her to have personal space and that she can follow her dreams. This story is timeless even though I have chosen to set it in 2021.
Why I find her parents so interesting is they feel that her sport and all her achievements have no connection to her actual life..
My question is don't they know how important the sport is for their daughter? These days people take up Bharatnatyam only till Arangetram. Everything is only till a girl's marriage. Parents think that a girl's life is another entity after her marriage. She isn't the character that would fight her husband. It's as though men have a set of more lenient rules after they get married.