Drishya Gautham’s B. Selvi & Daughters is an affirmative late-in-life coming-of-age story of a female entrepreneur. This short eponymous movie in Tamil, created as part of Her&Now film campaign, is about a fifty-year-old Chennai-based widow who aspires to establish a full-fledged online sari business and by the end of the movie is successful in her venture. Selvi’s (Kalairani) success story implies that dreams have no expiry date. Selvi’s journey to achieving economic self-sufficiency and freedom from her inhibitions and constricting patriarchal norms is inspiring. By having an unassuming middle-aged woman as its businesswoman protagonist, the movie suggests that all women can will themselves to establish their own personhood and it also challenges the popular perception of the middle-aged stay-at-home woman as a vulnerable, abala, bechaari nari.
The movie begins with a close-up shot of a distracted, nervous-looking woman and the camera slowly zooms out showing her standing in a queue in a bank office. Later we realise that this cotton sari-clad woman wearing a nose pin and red-coloured stick-on-bindi and holding a folder close to her chest is Selvi. A task as apparently simple as interacting with the bank clerk for opening a business account makes Selvi anxious. Later, her failure to courier saris ordered by her Whatsapp customers and the ensuing wrath of her customers add to her disappointment with self.
Selvi’s journey is anything but easy, what with several deterrents—internal and external—to stall her career growth. Selvi has to tolerate her younger brother Saravanan’s (Jeeva Ravi) condescending attitude towards career-oriented women. Like the typical sexist men who desire women to be dependent on men for their day-to-day survival, he tries to sabotage the efforts of his kinswomen seeking socio-economic mobility through gainful employment and feels entitled to decide their future.
When Selvi and her daughter Kavi (Gayathrie Shankar) visit his house for the Pongal festival lunch, Saravanan broaches the topic of Kavi’s wedding much to the dislike of his independent-minded niece. Fortunately he is unsuccessful in his attempts to guilt-trip Kavi into leaving her job in Bangalore and settling down with her ‘ageing’ mother. Saravanan dissuades Selvi from following her business interests because he believes that her aspirations are not compatible with her age and therefore unreasonable. Kavi takes umbrage at the senility that her uncle forces upon her mother and for being dismissive about her mother’s business competence and defends Selvi as a strong woman who can single-handedly cope with life’s, including business-related, challenges. While Saravanan is offended by Kavi’s back talking to him, he allows much leeway to his young son and doesn’t scold him for dissing his aunt. This instance shows how within some patriarchal households ‘male’ entitlement to disrespect women is automatically passed down from one generation of kinsmen to the next.
While the 24-year-old Kavi is confident, bold, witty, outspoken, optimistic, Selvi is diffident, reticent and pessimistic. Their relationship is both conventional and non-conventional and mutually empowering. Sometimes they exchange their positions in the familial hierarchy and the daughter becomes the mother. Selvi, who has internalised the patriarchal gendered norms, imposes upper-caste middle-class patriarchy-sanctioned restrictions and rules of ‘respectability’ and ‘family honour’ on Kavi against the latter’s wishes. She tells Kavi not to contradict her uncle’s thoughts about her marriage. Selvi expects her daughter to cover her chest with the sari pallu and maintain sartorial modesty while visiting her tradition-ridden uncle and his family.
They banter and call each other out for unlimited use of the mobile phone, like friends normally do. The only endorsement, motivation and support that Selvi receives for her business aspirations are from her daughter. Upset by failure and overpowered by a defeatist mood, Selvi tells Kavi that it is the lot of women to sacrifice their dreams once they get married. Kavi bales Selvi out of any virtual business-related crises. It is heartening to watch the mother-daughter duo shake hands as prospective business partners. Kavi tells her mother to stop being a worrywart and not be saddened by people’s criticism or disappointed by personal failures. Kavi is successful in averting her mother from succumbing to self-revulsion in the face of Saravanan’s invalidation of her dreams. Selvi is comfortable confiding in her daughter about her insecurities and anxieties aggravated by a hostile public world and an unsupportive brother. A proud smile settles on Kavi’s face as she sees her mother refusing to take her daughter’s help to carry the luggage to the courier office.
Selvi’s struggle to forge an identity beyond domesticity and her journey toward self-empowerment is metaphorically suggested by the physical settings in the film. Though, Selvi’s successful entrepreneurship is the most prominent aspect of her transformation, the subtle transformation in her personality cannot be overlooked. Selvi is not presented as a superwoman. The courier office scene where Selvi is seen climbing the staircase is symbolic of the humongous obstacles that most women have to surmount in order to achieve success in their chosen field, and the saris-filled bag that she carries suggests the emotional baggage and the burden of societal expectations that most women have to carry on their backs during their journey towards self-empowerment.
As a young woman, Selvi could not work up the courage to establish her own business. Selvi’s inherent sense of her own inferiority is congealed, thanks to Sarvanan’s devaluation of her abilities and ambitions. In the Pongal lunch scene, Selvi’s eyes hint low self-esteem and self-doubt as she is scorned by her brother for her business aspirations. Her attempts to express her emotions translate to monosyllables or silence (as in her interactions with the bank staff, with the woman staff in the courier office and with Sarvanan) or emotional meltdown (only in her interactions with her daughter).
The most fulfilling scene of the movie is the last conversation that transpires between Selvi and Sarvanan. By the end of the movie, there is a tectonic shift in the way Selvi communicates with her brother— Selvi who was initially non-confrontational and non-reactive to the slights of her brother, transforms into an articulate, assertive and confidently smiling woman as the film reaches closure. Her dreams were always on the backburner. Seeing Selvi succeed in her business, Sarvanan’s masculine ego prevents him from accepting defeat. By extending monetary support to Selvi and volunteering to make tea on her behalf, Sarvanan tries his best to be the ‘saviour’ to Selvi who he thinks is too fragile to take care of herself. Holding her newfound agency pretty well, Selvi promptly declines his offer. Nothing can dent her self-confidence. She tries better than her best to hold on to her self-respect, while making it clear to Sarvanan that she has both financial and emotional strength to survive in her profession and desires to be self-reliant. Selvi wants to strike out on her own without Sarvanan’s protective and overbearing presence.
This last conversation between the siblings is exchanged while Sarvanan is making tea for his sister whom he mockingly addresses as ‘madam’. While there is power in the minimal lines uttered by Selvi, her strength is also indicated symbolically by the steaming-hot and strong smelling tea. It symbolises a newly-awakened and strong Selvi, and the whole tea-making process indicates Sarvanan’s realisation that “[a] woman is like a tea bag —you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water” (Eleanor Roosevelt). Sarvanan, who had always disregarded his sister and underestimated her abilities, is forced to consider her with new eyes as he finds that his doubts about her abilities cannot affect her as much as they did in earlier times.
The visuals in the concluding minutes of the movie, just before the credits appear with the rousing rap song “Naveeni” celebrating the newfound confidence of the ‘New’ business woman playing in the background, are striking by their conspicuousness—the camera slowly exits from Selvi’s house and the festoon of green plastic leaves with images of the Hindu goddesses on them hung on the door frame and the name plate reading “B. Selvi & Daughters”, with Selvi and Sarvanan conversing in the background, emerge within a single frame. The visual images are starkly symbolic of women empowerment and women’s valiant rebellion against their oppression in a patriarchal society. The Hindu goddesses conventionally signify women’s strength, and in the film the image stands to highlight the empowerment of Selvi, of her daughter and of the female staff in Selvi’s business group. Significantly, by supplanting the name plate of “Bhaskar & Sons” with “B. Selvi & Daughters”, the mother-daughter duo subvert the time-honoured tradition of celebrating and memorializing links between fathers and sons within patrilineal business houses.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-NhIZnJoPU with English subtitles
Leela Gulati and Jasodhara Bagchi, ed., A Space of Her Own: Personal Narratives of Twelve Women, New Delhi: Sage, 2005. https://www.google.co.in/books/edition/A_Space_of_Her_Own/JcqGAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1.