Cast: Jyotika, Saranya Ponvannan, Urvashi, Banupriya, Nasser, Livingston
One of the best scenes in Magalir Mattum begins with a housewife — Subbulakshmi (Saranya Ponvannan) — speaking to a camera, making an ad. She dreams of becoming a beautician. But soon, reality beckons. An ailing (and complaining) mother-in-law whose bedpan needs to be emptied. A husband (Livingston) who does nothing but drink and sing Ilayaraja hits, with the preludes and interludes. I laughed — the man’s hilarious. Subbulakshmi, though, is not amused. (As we see later, she smiles while calling up friends, but the smile vanishes the instant she hangs up.) This scene is shot in what appears to be one unbroken take, but this isn’t about showmanship. This is about Subbulakshmi. She isn’t a movie character. You know her. You’ve seen women like her.
Magalir Mattum is about other women like Subbulakshmi: Gomatha (Urvashi) and Rani (Banupriya). And one unlike them: as the credits say, “Ivargaludan Jyotika.” (And with them, Jyotika.) The latter plays Prabha, a documentary filmmaker who’s always dressed in tees and shirts and pants — clothes that tell us she’s not just a modern woman, she’s almost a man in the way she leads an unshackled life, doing her own thing. But the others, they are bound in chains. It’s partly the burden of patriarchy. (Rani’s husband, played by Nasser, says, “A woman should be kept in her place.”) But it’s also that they guilt themselves into a life within four walls, believing that the family would crumble if they so much as stepped out for a movie.
So the story has them step out — not just for a movie but a holiday away from their grinding housewifely existence. This is a great premise for a movie — but Magalir Mattum is far from a great movie. For the most part, it’s not even a movie — it’s more a glorified sit-com, a light-hearted update on the family dramas Visu used to make, with Jyotika in the Visu role of self-appointed do-gooder cum therapist. There’s nothing wrong about wanting to make a Visu movie, except when the director is Bramma, whose last film was Kuttram Kadithal. I had a few minor issues with that film, but it was a solid first feature — it was cinema.
The men are uniformly pigs who pee on streets, pick their nose, spit on roads. Or they are special guest stars who are sensitive and understanding and can cook up a storm. There’s no middle ground, no nuance
When I heard Bramma was making a women-centric film, I thought it would be something auteur-y, like Iraivi. Hence my surprise at scenes like the one where the birth of a calf leads to a line about a character’s childlessness. The men are uniformly pigs who pee on streets, pick their nose, spit on roads. Or they are special guest stars who are sensitive and understanding and can cook up a storm. There’s no middle ground, no nuance. Women wearing pants, men in the kitchen — that’s the film’s idea of “liberation.” The film that schoolgirls go to see, in 1978? Aval Appadithan. The song that plays on the radio? It’s from Aval Oru Thodarkathai. Everything is a “feminist” statement, followed by an exclamation mark. The script is a series of placards.
I am not saying Bramma should only make intense existential dramas (like Kuttram Kadithal) for a handful of critics. But even with something more mainstream, surely it isn’t unreasonable to expect some of the earlier sensibility. The characters are broadly defined (tuition teacher, beautician, reluctant politician, filmmaker) — we know what they do, but not really who they are. Perhaps the focus should have been on one woman’s liberation instead of three. Perhaps the time devoted to the flashbacks (the generic backstory doesn’t deserve all this time) could have been spent on the present. When two friends meet after decades, we get a split-second shot of the reunion in the middle of a song. Why not give these friends — and the audience — some time, to soak in this emotion?
Even the can’t-miss bits — like the song where these women recall their first love, or the scene where they vent out on a punching bag — seem tossed casually into the mix, with lots of mugging. Urvashi plays Gomatha as a shrill cartoon. (She’s a fine comedian, but I wish she’d find some new shades to play.) Saranya doesn’t really get much to do, though it is nice to see her in salwar kameezes — she always seems to be campaigning to become this generation’s Kamala Kamesh.
Like 36 Vayadhinile, Magalir Mattum is content to offer instant solutions to change behaviours accumulated over a lifetime. But perhaps, for some people, this fairy-tale wish-fulfilment is the charm
Banupriya (graceful as ever) gets the best role — it’s not fleshed out very well, but at least the character, a Tamilian married into a political family in Agra, is interesting enough to make you wonder about a movie on her alone. When the election commission declares that a woman has to stand for the post of ward councillor, Rani’s husband makes her contest. Her symbol? A pressure cooker. I liked this idea of staging a woman’s struggle on a larger platform, mixing the personal and the political — but the film doesn’t do this arc much justice. I also liked the idea of Rani’s son being practically a caveman — but then, his transformation needs that much more detailing.
Like 36 Vayadhinile, Magalir Mattum is content to offer instant solutions to change behaviours accumulated over a lifetime. But perhaps, for some people, this fairy-tale wish-fulfilment is the charm. Along with the perky heroine, a mother of two, who’s doing something very rare in Tamil cinema: finding a space for herself to shine, with the help of her husband’s production house. At least to me, this is a more interesting take on liberation than women wearing pants and men in the kitchen.