There is no denying that mainstream Tamil cinema of the 2000s (and before) did not differ from mainstream cinema in most popular film industries in the world, in terms of how women were represented in them. The hero is inevitably the propagator of good: his goal is to restore order or even bring in a new, better order by the end of the story. At some point during the first half of the movie, the hero encounters the heroine and falls for her. This adds to the hero's duty – he must now protect her and her honour as some peril befalls her, while also re-establishing moral order by vanquishing the villains. The hero's saviour archetype severely undermines the strength of the female leads. Women in movies like Sivaji: The Boss (2007) and Enthiran (2010) have no interests whatsoever apart from those pertaining to their male counterparts. In recent films that introduce women with careers and larger interests independent of men, such as Kaththi (2014) and Pyaar Prema Kaadhal (2018), these aspects of their characters usually take the backseat after they meet the hero. When the element of romance is introduced in most plots, heroines tend to develop a damsel-in-distress complex – there is no need for them to be independent when they have a man to make all their decisions for them. His aggression is mistaken for assertiveness and strength; she begins to rely on him as her protector and returns this favour by acting according to his will unquestioningly. Her love for him is tangled up with dependency.
The nature of gender representation on-screen bolsters dominant notions of gender off-screen, as media acts as a major contender for setting social standards and norms. The reinforcement of stereotypical images of men and women as well as their relationships on-screen, which conform to socially accepted views on gender, even if they are regressive, normalises and justifies pre-existing social behaviour that propagates male dominance and female submissiveness. Men are the competent, capable parties on whom the women are dependent. A woman is validated when she is attractive enough for a man – she is given no independent identity. However, amidst the many mainstream films, there are efforts being made by a handful of filmmakers to challenge the pre-existing gender portrayals in Tamil movies and this must be acknowledged.
In 2019, Thiagarajan Kumararaja's film Super Deluxe was released. This film is perhaps one of the most notable attacks on the unquestioned dominant constructs of gender in the Tamil movie industry, and, arguably, most representations of women in mainstream cinema across industries. While other films such as Aruvi (2016) and Iraivi (2016) also contributed to changing the nature of gender roles in movies, none of them covered as much ground as Super Deluxe.
Kumararaja asked four other directors to write a script each and then wove them together into a single master plot.
One subplot tells the story of a boy who finds out that his mother, Leela (played by Ramya Krishnan), used to be a porn star and is infuriated at this discovery. Ironically, he realises this when he begins to watch a porn movie that he purchases with his friends, which just happened to have his mother in it. Leela's son is so ashamed of his mother's actions that he runs to attack her with a screwdriver. At the end of the film when he confronts her, she counters him by asking why nobody questions the men who watch pornography and why only the women who star in it get shamed. The porn industry exists only because there is a demand for it. In 1975, Laura Mulvey coined the term "male gaze" to denote the pleasure derived by men through the portrayal of women in visual media. This gaze acts as a guide to how women are captured and presented on screen – close-up shots of their body, dressing them in revealing clothing and giving emphasis to their physical beauty rather than their other traits. Heterosexual pornography is an explicit representation of heteronormative male sexual desires. In their 2016 speech at the TIFF awards, Joey Soloway introduced the "female gaze", which involves realising that the female body is being objectified to serve men, and returning the gaze. It actively questions the notions constructed by the male gaze and works towards revolting against them. Leela is the very personification of this aspect of the gaze. Why is it that women in the porn industry are viewed in a bad light whereas the men who endorse it get away free of any shame?
Another sub-plot is that of Vaembu (played by Samantha Akkineni) who cheats on her husband, Mugil (played by Fahadh Faasil), with her ex-boyfriend, who dies after they have sex. Mugil comes home and finds the body stuffed in the fridge, and in a state of anger says that he will divorce Vaembu after they clear up this mess. When they are caught by a cop who only agrees to let them go if Vaembu sleeps with him, Mugil forces her to consent by explaining the severity of the consequences of being handed over to the police. Here, we see both the black and white sides of Mugil's character, the male protagonist of this storyline. At many points during the film, he goes off on rants about the notions of patriarchy and caste, and attacks the government; this portrays him as a forward-thinking, morally sound man. At the same time, we see him being unable to single-handedly take full charge of the situation at hand, and working as a team with his wife. Mugil's ego has suffered a severe blow: while he doesn't reveal this to his wife, it is made known to the audience. In the scene in which he talks to the corpse of the other man, complaining about the hurt and humiliation he feels as a man, we see that the emotional pain he experiences is not due to his wife's infidelity but because of his sense of inadequacy. Here, Kumararaja sheds light on the power dynamic between a man and a woman – the man needs the woman's submission and loyalty towards him in order to prove the magnitude of his masculinity. At the end of the film, Vaembu and Mugil realise that they both still want to make their marriage work and Mugil looks past her infidelity, realising that he had not been a good husband to her in the first place. This aspect of the film subverts the ideal of a chaste wife and recognises the sexuality of the woman.
The female gaze is an intersectional gaze that represents all perspectives that have been oppressed by the dominating male gaze. Super Deluxe incorporates the inclusive nature of the female gaze in Shilpa's story. A woman and her seven-year-old son, Raasukutti, eagerly await the return of her husband. However, when the cab arrives, a trans woman, Shilpa (Vijay Sethupathi), steps out. The rest of the plot is a series of hurdles Shilpa faces – being shamed by her extended family at home, ridiculed at her son's school, and facing sexual abuse at a police station. It is obvious through the horrifying portrayals of these encounters that Kumararaja is clearly against the discrimination faced by transgender people. However, he also manages to beautifully capture the alternative, that is, the acceptance of trans people. The son is the only character in the movie who fully accepts his father's change in gender without questioning it at all. The gap that was left in his life – a missing parent – was one that could be filled irrespective of the parent's gender. The mother, after seeing the happiness of her son upon his father's return and his indifference towards his change in sex, realises that this change wasn't a betrayal of the family – rather, it was a correction, a step towards not betraying one's identity.
Thus, with Super Deluxe, we have a film that shows women as the strong characters in a film alongside men who do not necessarily occupy supporting roles. We see men who have the freedom to take on submissive roles, make mistakes and face the consequences of their actions. We see both men and women being able to challenge each other's decisions and actions. What is most beautiful about the movie is that it raises challenging questions without compromising on the larger narrative at play, powerfully suggesting that the two must go hand in hand. Super Deluxe attracted large masses because of its star-studded cast, but it also sent out a virulent message regarding the turn Tamil cinema should take for more progressive gender representation. Even though it may not have been accepted readily by all parts of society due to its radical take on gender, it is a step in the right direction as it raises important questions about gender roles both on- and off-screen.