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English - Opinions - September 22, 2021

The Portrayal of Female Characters in Pa Ranjith’s Cinema

The notion that only women are the ones who face many problems and setbacks due to this male-dominated society is a general perception. But, in reality, both the sexes often become victims in the name of customs and beliefs. Tamil cinemas, at times, have exaggerated the characteristics that underline this, but have never sought to challenge such a structure. Tamil cinema as like other regional cinemas has been promoting the unscientific and religious ideas of gender characteristics, such as bravery belongs to men and modesty to women, for a while. Few characteristics, such as crying, apologizing to wife, shying, etc… are considered as cowardice attitudes by our society when men do. Just as economic independence is essential for women, so is emotional independence for men. But no featured films have so far been concerned about it. 

However, Pa Ranjith once again squeezed these notions and gender stereotypes through his cogent script. In Sarapatta Parambarai (2021), Ranjith has vocalized that, even men can cry in front of the crowd, apologize to his wife or mother, fall at his wife’s feet, and admit defeat. 

In social media, many “so-called” progressive thinkers have criticized the female characters, especially Mariamma’s, as she has too been placed in the place of usual motivating wife which is related to the phrase ‘there is a woman behind every successful man. But, one thing to understand here is, the film is exclusively male-centric. The camera has rarely followed the female characters. But, wherever these women arrived, they have absolutely expressed their capacity as rough working women. However, waiting for Ranjith’s women-centric film is true.

As a supporting spouse, she lends a hand to her husband. Mariamma can’t be seen as ‘wife material’ that could be the case with other Tamil movies. The usual characteristics of women as shying dolls and being subjugated to their husbands can’t be spotted in any of Ranjith’s movies, even though the films are set on hero-centric. Either, Mariamma or Bakkiyam has never been identified with reticent about their personal thoughts. Even in the first night scene, Mariamma does not bow her head like the brides of other cinemas, rather goes down and dancing. In another scene, she didn’t wait for Kabilan to kiss her; rather she does it causally. 

The realistic representation of Mariamma throws light on the status of the majority of the working-class women who have the space for spontaneous independence. The film just spoke about their struggling life and what are these women in their families. In a flashback scene, Kabilan’s father was killed when he was too young. Thence, as a single mother, Bakkiyam raises him and does everything for their survival by working as a servant at Kevin, known as Daddy’s house. When she realizes that her son is going down a path that she’s afraid of, she even beats him by not considering him a grown man and refuses to talk to him. She only changes her mind, when Kabilan himself accepts that he had been in the wrong. Be it a Vetri’s wife or Bakkiyam or Mariamma, they had their space to speak their minds and not the ones who were even afraid to speak to their husband.

For reference, if we notice the wives of the Tamil movies that venerated or based on the caste privilege and pride, such as Cheran Pandiyan (1989), Thevar Magan (1992), Nattamai (1994), Sethu (1999), Kaadhal (2004), Subramaniapuram (2008), etc… one thing that is in common is the subjugation of women and the wives of those movies were portrayed as frightened to speak, romance and carry out intimacy with their husbands. The fact is that, even though all men have oppressive mindsets, the more a woman is at the top of the caste ladder; the more she is pushed into the oppression. The prevalent ‘Brahmanical social system’ protects the ‘purity’ of castes by making women subjugate. Indian women can’t be liberated totally without annihilating the caste system. Accordingly, Indian feminism needs to smash Brahmanical patriarchy that strengthens the caste system. 

Zero superstitions 

None of the scenes in Sarpatta Parambarai had spread the superstitious practices. In Indian cinema, female characters are often portrayed as being more involved in religious and superstitious practices. Practically, such portrayal mirrors our societal setup, in a sense. This social structure is structured as if women were piercing their eyes with their fingers. Before the Dalit communities have been overwhelmed by orthodox ideas, they kept themselves away from superstitious practices. Proof of this is that Mariamma did not practice any superstitions in the film. She wore a black saree, even at her Betrothal event. She is not worshipping God throughout the film. Without superstitious beliefs like good and bad times (omens), zodiac signs, she is portrayed as an intellectual traveller who knows the reality and even giving advice to her husband as “what if you lose? Get lose. Why retain your honour on your clan?” 

Colour complexion 

For the years, Tamil cinema has portrayed Dalits as dark, unclean and villains. It is the reflection of the ‘common psychology’ of the Indian people whose minds are engulfed by the Brahmanical system. For such psyche, making a film by understanding the reality is always an unattainable fruit. However, Ranjith is very keen on displaying the complexion of the oppressed as cross-cultural, in which every kind gets represented. In his films, he was very inclusive of every complexion. For instance, in Kabali (2016) and Kaala (2018), he has cast Sai Dhanshika and Eswari Rao, respectively; in leading roles who are the prominent brown-skinned actresses of the Tamil film industry. In this film too, the leading female characters are brown-skinned. And he used to cast light-skinned female characters too, as a sign of cross-cultural representation among Dalits and to smash Anglo-Hindu colourism in cinema. In such a way, Sarpatta Parambarai has taught a lesson to the other boxing Tamil movies that have come out in the genre where making the hero win a match in the climax is enough.

Author – Arthi Baskaran is a PhD Research Scholar, Department of History, Bharathidasan University, Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu. And her areas of interest are Caste, Cinema, Gender and Religion. Reach her at arthibaskaran11@gmail.com

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