Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, written and directed by PA Ranjith, streaming on Netflix, is a universe in itself. It is a street play inside a film. It is about love that breaks all boundaries. It is about caste that pervades everything from what we eat to who we can love. It is about the fragile male ego. But at the centre of this universe is Rene (a brilliant Dushara Vijayan), a Natchathiram that storms just as gracefully as she glides.
Women on-screen especially written by men are often criticised, and rightfully so for being painfully one-dimensional. They conveniently fit into one-word adjectives suffixing a relationship with the male protagonist: caring mother, bubbly lover, scheming vamp, tomboy friend. With all the hullabaloo about this glaring lack of real women on-screen, there has been a new trope added to the list. The modern women. She cuts away all the conservatism of her small-town upbringing and is open to sex before marriage, wears short clothes, enjoy drinks and cigarettes mostly with open hair waving in a moving car with sunroof. This woman although seems empowered on paper, is sadly just another trope. A 21st-century Indian woman is at best a concoction of all these women on-screen. And Rene gloriously embodies these “contradictions”.
In the first shot of film, we see Rene in post coital bliss pausing “Feeling Good”, aptly playing on the phone, and lovingly ask a drowsy Iniyan (Kalidas Jayram), “Can we get married?” Iniyan casually agrees. Rene thinks for a second and goes on to question the validity of the institution of marriage and declares, “No, I won’t get married.” Iniyan easily agrees to this too like he is used to her wavering mind and drowses off into a slumber while Rene gets into a philosophical musing about love and death.
The scene starts with Rene wanting to hug Iniyan forever and ends with her hitting his head with a steel vessel and moving out of his life forever. Just for a comment he blurts out in the heat of the moment. She sings, she seethes with rage, she laughs boisterously, she taunts him, she hugs him, she hits him, all in the span of seven minutes. In between the fight she cares enough to correct the pronunciation of “Tamizh”, an identity she no longer associates with herself. Was her love real or the rage? How could she be so contradictory? Why are women so complex? These questions are clear on Iniyan’s face. This brilliantly staged-and-written-7-minute scene establishes the seemingly insane contradictions that make up a real woman.
Rene laughs in the face of male double standards of expecting the women to “not have been with someone” while it never applies to them. She throws a haughty “I know” whenever someone compliments her looks. She calls out pretentious woke statements. She hits back when attacked. She sees the blood behind the beautiful tea estates. She stands up for someone who abused her when she believes his apology is genuine but doesn’t forgive her lover for casual casteism. Her political correctness isn’t the hollow internet call out culture where forgiveness is elusive. She has very strong rights and wrongs in her rule book. The rulebook is hers and hers alone.
But Rene isn’t perfect. She feels jealous when the boyfriend she rejects kisses another woman. She boldly orders beef that was once what alienated her, but she hides behind a name and identity she gave herself, like her namesake Renetta who hides her true nature. Rene is a broken mirror that is carefully stuck back together but in the proper lighting, the vestiges of the cracks still show. And what makes her beautiful is she knows this better than anyone else. Her boldness is a painfully conscious choice that she makes constantly. She doesn’t let her victimhood be her story but forges her own. One where she sets the background score to Illayaraja music and aims for stars. And just like that she relates to every woman who is fighting their own dichotomy of vulnerability and strength.