My review of Kadaikutty Singam, starring Karthi and Sayyeshaa, got a fair bit of social-media flak, so I thought I’d have an imaginary conversation… No wait! Been there, subjected you to that. Anyway, this is the line that people took objection to: “For a film that extols the produce of local soil, why transplant a heroine from Mumbai? Why relegate the Mayiladuthurai-born Priya Bhavani Shankar to a secondary role? (She was a news anchor on Puthiya Thalaimurai, so she also knows the language.)”

One reason for this statement was the galling hypocrisy in the film: Given its (glancing) focus on farming, if the hero is a “son of the soil,” why not go for a heroine who is a daughter of the same soil? But what bothered me even more was this statement by Sayyeshaa in an interview to Film Companion: “[Kadaikutty Singam] was a new and painstaking experience, as every day I had to put on makeup about four shades darker than my original skin colour. I also had to spray my hair black as I have naturally brown hair. It has taken a lot of effort to look the part.”

The usual logic for using a maidamaavu-colour heroine (thanks, CS Amudhan and Tamizh Padam 2, for the coinage) is that they fit the urban, loosu-ponnu prototype to the T. They don’t know the language, so their lip sync is weirdly off (though Sayyeshaa, to her credit, seems to have worked on this aspect in this film), and their parts are so outlandishly written that they look “bubbly” (see definition below) in a way our home-grown heroines can never be. (“bubbly”: adjective: effervescent; enthusiastic; reminiscent of a Hansika character opening her eyes wide, clapping her hands, and jumping up and down after a raindrop falls on her nose…)

But if the role demands a darker-skinned heroine and you are still getting someone from Mumbai, where are the opportunities for any Tamil-speaking heroine, then? You won’t give them the fair-skinned heroine parts. (Of course, this is assuming that we don’t have fair-skinned heroines in the south, which is mind-bogglingly untrue.) And now, you’re not giving them the darker-skinned heroine parts either. So the audience that welcomed duskier heroines like Radha, Poornima Jayaram (from Mumbai, but a Tamil speaker), Nadhiya, and Radhika (see clip above, from the Rajinikanth hit, Nallavanukku Nallavan) no longer exists?

 

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Let’s flash back to the 1970s, when this phenomenon began. Radha Saluja (editor Renu Saluja’s sister) was one of the first maida-maavu-colour imports. In the MGR film, Indru Pol Endrum Vaazhga (1977), she wore a swimsuit and simulated a lip-lock (see clip below). I’m not sure this “boldness” was the reason she was flown down, for south Indian actresses like Manjula and Bharathi had already performed bikini duties, but even though Radha Saluja didn’t stick around much in Tamil cinema, the trend stuck. Cut to 1979, and we get Rati Agnihotri being introduced in Bharathiraja’s Puthiya Vaarpugal – a very strange choice, indeed, for a filmmaker who made a name for his rootedness in Tamil soil. The 1980s ushered in Khushboo, then we got the likes of Simran and Jyothika in the nineties, and so on and so forth.

My angst isn’t about these heroines, who are (or were) just doing their job. It’s a free market. If you’re being offered plum assignments opposite top heroes, why would you say no? After all, south Indian heroines like Sridevi and Jayaprada and Radha (remember the tag line for Kaamyaab? “She is not Sridevi… She’s Radha”) were exported to the North. What matters, really, isn’t where they are from but whether they convince us in the part they play.

The angst is more about the system, comprising of producers, directors, heroes. There are commercial and other reasons that come into play when casting heroines, so let’s look at those. Sometimes, as in the case of Amy Jackson in Madrasapattinam or Taapsee in Aadukalam, the maida-maavu-ness is to bring in a sense of the “other” – the former played a Britisher, the latter, an Anglo-Indian. The heroine’s role in Kadaikutty Singam doesn’t come under this category.

Sometimes, it’s about the heroine’s market value. A Manisha Koirala in Bombay or a Rakul Preet Singh in Theeran Adhigaram Ondru help the films travel better in the regions these heroines are major stars (the north and in Telugu-speaking states, respectively). Does Sayyeshaa at least have box-office clout in the Tamil- and Telugu-speaking markets, where Kadaikutty Singam was released? No. Vanamagan and Akhil were flops. So what is the message being sent out by Sayyeshaa’s casting in Kadaikutty Singam? That, in the main heroine’s role, you’d rather cast a flop “north Indian” actress than Priya Bhavani Shankar, who had an average-sized hit in Meyaadha Maan? And as far as my eyes can tell, she’s pretty maida-maavu-coloured, so you could have darkened her skin, too, if that’s what you were after.

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Or sometimes, actresses who don’t know the language are cast because, like Ritika Singh in Irudhi Suttru, they (a) look the part and can play the hell out of the part, and (b) they are willing to slog and pick up the language, so that we believe them in the part. This is something eighties’ heroines were good at. Then, as now, this was what heroines had to do, ninety per cent of the time, in hero-oriented commercial films: laugh, cry, mouth songs, dance, and so on. So one is not asking for great histrionic ability. The part Sayyeshaa plays in Kadaikutty Singam is a part anyone could have played. Why, then, darken her skin, as though there was no one else?

By repeatedly doing this, our filmmakers are artificially creating a market for non-Tamil-speaking heroines. So what if Sayyeshaa has had two flops? Let’s cast her in this, anyway. And now that Kadaikutty Singam looks like a hit, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. See? Sayyeshaa is now a hit actress! Whynot give the same chances, the same consideration to an actress who knows the language? Don’t we want a Kangana Ranaut or a Parvathy in this industry? That level of performance is possible only when someone thinks in a language, and isn’t just mechanically mouthing lines. For now, all we seem to want is the flavour-of-the-day heroine, and a few years later, the next young and pretty thing.

This is the reason it’s heartening that Aishwarya Rajesh is doing big-hero movies like Saamy 2 and Dhruva Natchatiram. She may end up having nothing to do in these films, but at least, she’s getting to do what Ambika-Radha did in big commercial entertainers. And if these films are hits, that means a longer, more lucrative career – instead of just being the go-to girl for something like Kaaka Muttai (great as she was in that great film, actresses need big box office hits too). I’ll leave you with this short film (see video above), featuring Induja Ravichandran. Even in this brief running time, she nails the expressions and, as far as I can see, looks gorgeous as well. If that’s not heroine material, then what is?

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