The heroines of Selvaraghavan films

When NGK released, I watched it, first day, second show. Yes, there was the curiosity associated with a Selvaraghavan film, even if that had dimmed substantially since Irandaam Ulagam. But, I wanted to see what the filmmaker, who extracts raw performances from his actors, manages with the affable Suriya, the expressive Sai Pallavi, and Rakul Preet Singh, who has, so far, played the typical commercial film heroine. They have all been fairly pleasant on screen, and it would be interesting to see how they are yanked out of their comfort zone. I was also desperate to see how he’d written the women in the film.

Stalking, misogyny, toxic masculinity…

Selva the filmmaker has a huge fan base rooting for him. Only, most of them happen to be male. He made films that appealed to them in his initial ouvre, building an army of sorts that manages to eke out meaning in some scenes even when not originally so intended. As for the women, most of us read his films very differently. Yes, there’s the novelty, the crudeness, the unexpected twists and the layers to look forward to. But, there’s also the celebration of stalking, misogyny, toxic masculinity and the deep sense of male entitlement that’s quite the bane. And even if he since apologised for ‘Adidaa Avala, Odhadaa Avala’, years after he allowed it space in his film and helped turn it into a catchy phrase, it’s difficult to ignore the woman-unfriendly scenes in his films, and to prevent oneself from imagining what a far better creator he would have been, had he written his women better.

I don’t mind Sai Pallavi behaving like the bomb squad when her husband enters home after purportedly being with another woman, but to reduce a character to someone who fell in love with a man fragrant with the scent of the earth was heartbreaking.

But, I digress. The trigger for this piece was dear former colleague and now friend Vishal Menon’s tribute to Selvaraghavan. I loved that more than I’ve loved his movies. Another reason was reading Sudhir Srinivasan’s poetic ode to the last 15 minutes of 7G Rainbow Colony. I loved that too. Just that I had a problem with that film at age 29. At 43, the issues have only gotten deeper. That got me wondering. If two deeply sensitive writers of cinema, who happen to be male liked it, why did I not?

Also Read: Every Selvaraghavan Film, Ranked

I did a quick poll, among women journalists and women who watch cinema for just entertainment. The thing is, Selva’s films, especially the scenes that showcase stalking in 70mm splendour, remind us of the days we travelled to school and college by bus. It brings back the ‘puli karaikara’ feeling in the pit of the stomach. They tempt you to get back to your warrior phase, ever prepared for an assault on your dignity. The films throw us out of our two-wheelers and cars and hurl us back to our lived experiences on crowded buses. So, while the men watched something that could offend them on screen, we saw our lives being recreated, in all its gory detail. 7G was especially a punch in the gut. It did not help that at the end of it all, the girl predictably fell for the boy once deemed unsuitable, and even became the angel that helps him redeem himself.

7G and Kaadhal Kondein, to a large extent, normalised obsessive love. And, that’s not a good thing, no Sir, not when the bulk of the movie-going audience goes back to homes where gender equality is not even an object of consideration.  

7G and Kaadhal Kondein, to a large extent, normalised obsessive love. And, that’s not a good thing, no Sir, not when the bulk of the movie-going audience goes back to homes where gender equality is not even an object of consideration. The upmarket friends who watched it went back to a world where there was some semblance of gender equality; the film was just that, for them, a film. A well-made film, a film that ticked all the right boxes in their book. But, there was nothing to take home from it, or emulate, or be inspired by.

The responsibility of the filmmaker 

Filmmakers, in my book, also have to be responsible. You can’t make the entire film about stalking, and work things out in the climax in such a way that there’s repentance or large-heartedness; that’s unjust. Yes, it’s always the issue of striking a balance between stimulating intellect versus appealing to/triggering basic instincts. Like journalist friend Sangeetha Devi Dundoo said: “These days, I get upset watching such portrayals. Divya in Kaadhal Kondein, Anita in Rainbow Colony, Yamini in Mayakkam Enna, and Geeta in NGK deserved so much better. This whole idea of women having to put up with, or mentor the men who are supposedly warped geniuses/wolves in sheep’s clothing…I am tired of it.”

Makes me wonder, will everyone react the same way if the women are the warped geniuses and the men have to help them become better people?

The disappointment is all the more, because the same filmmaker has given us women who have not just taken control of their lives, but also given back in the way they could, to get even. Pudupettai’s Selvi, played by Sonia Agarwal, who also did 7G and Kaadhal Kondein, was a delicious character, who bides her time and finally avenges her hurt. The women of Aayirathil Oruvan, Anitha Pandyan and Lavanya Chandramouli have a reason to exist in the script, and if you ignore the juvenile bit where they fight over Muthu.

In a warped way, I get less irritated seeing the stereotypical loosu ponnu characters on screen. They don’t know better. But, Selva’s women do, and they still get to play second fiddle.

Mayakkam Enna won’t be the same without Yamini, but how could a fierce, independent girl who chooses her boyfriend’s friend over him turn into the under-confident married woman who is a willing doormat? The kind who tolerates every kind of abuse, refuses to walk out, and finally even washes off proof of her aborted foetus from the floor? Yes, Dhanush’s Karthik was suffering, but why is the onus on Yamini to make him a human again?

The women in Selva’s film have too much work to do. This, even when the men get away pretty easily. Women work tremendously even when the film is set in another universe, like in Irandaam Ulagam. However, in a way, Varna, the other world girl, was like the rest of us, fighting men at every step of the way, shielding herself from all things, including love. She might seem adamant, but exercises her right to choose.

“Why do all his movies revolve around men? Why do the women always pander to them?,” asks a filmgoer friend, who insists she does not ever read too much into characters. So, those very same traits that seem to make sense to men fall flat with us. In a warped way, I get less irritated seeing the stereotypical loosu ponnu characters on screen. They don’t know better. But, Selva’s women do, and they still get to play second fiddle. And, please, while we are at it, can we stop with the ‘wife as mother’ trope. It just allows for more mollycoddling, and looking after.

Three strong women

If I had to pick three of Selva’s strong women, women who are not apologetic about who they are, and who gloriously survive the testosterone-charged world of Selvaraghavan, they would be Selvi of Pudupettai: from the girl who is all set to get married to a man she likes and becoming a thug’s wife, to hitting Kokki Kumar where it hurts, Sonia Agarwal got to play a role that set right every injustice rendered to her.

Anitha Pandyan of Aayirathil Oruvan: It takes courage to be the harbinger of doom to a hidden civilisation, and some more to cold-bloodedly kill, and justify one’s actions. The film showcased a woman driven by an ancient hate, who would demean herself to get what she wants.

Varna of Irandaam Ulagam: As much as the film troubled us with its undecipherable layers and bad CG, Varna was a woman who knew what she had to do to survive. A hunter-gatherer who was used to the bitter cold, and even though it felt good when a man bathed her feet with hot water, knew when to pull back, and preserve her sense of self.

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