By Niranjana Ramesh
It is difficult being a Rajinikanth fan in Tamil Nadu.
No, let me rephrase it.
It is difficult being a woman and a fan of Rajinikanth anywhere actually, but especially within the Tamil virtual or geographical community. Rajini really is a unique and intuitive performer that you want to celebrate as tens of thousands of Tamil men do, but only if you can reconcile the deliberate misogyny — of characters immortalised by him since the early 80s, but markedly since he attained demi-god status in the mid-1990s. I will not detail these characters here as this blog post makes a satisfactory list, with sarcasm to boot. Key omissions from it include the regressive package of classist-sexist-colourist romantic comedy in Sivaji, and Padayappa’s detailing of three kinds of women.
That is why Kabali was such a breath of fresh air, much more than just a sigh of relief. How nonchalantly this film demolishes all the patriarchal, misogynist tropes we take for granted in Tamil cinema and Indian cinema of other languages! Kabali’s quiet feminism has understandably garnered less attention than the powerful statement it makes on Dalit assertion or the struggle of marginalised communities worldwide. So, I’ll indulge in a bit of detailing, with spoilers.
Yogi, the character played by Dhansika, has of course been noticed – the gun-toting woman in pants, with short hair and tattoos – the only person capable of killing Kabali, before they figure out she’s his long lost daughter. Here comes the best part: when Kabali gets to know of this, what he shows is not sadness or even surprise so much as just pride. He doesn’t rue how his daughter turned out in his absence. She just is. It helps that Kabali’s politics allows him to look at taking up arms as survival in an oppressive status quo rather than as necessary evil to punish a select villain alone. Yogi also romances a fellow sidekick, who is killed by the bad guys, neatly inverting the gendered trope. (In the film Kaakha Kaakha, the policeman’s beautiful wife is killed by the villains, leaving our hero with angst. In Yennai Arinthal, the badass policeman’s fiancé is killed by villains the day before the wedding. Both films were appreciated for their depiction of strong female characters, who were killed off eventually in the script.)
Commenters have observed the role played by Kabali’s wife Kumudhavalli in shaping his persona. But, remember the scene when Kabali finds out that his wife may have been sold into prostitution by his enemies? Again, not sadness or devastation, but hope in his eyes and plans for his next moves. For this means his wife may be alive, and surely that’s reason for hope, even if it means she might be a sex worker.
It is not just the absence of open misogyny in Kabali, but a conscious effort at progressive gender politics that gives hope to fans of Tamil cinema. A ‘mass’ movie need not pander to patriarchy in order to be successful. Rajini may not be able to redeem his long career of such pandering or intentional cultivation of such a trope. But aspiring superstars like Dhanush might still stand a chance.
For liberal or female fans, Dhanush poses nearly as perplexing a conundrum as his father-in-law Rajinikanth, A brilliant actor with astonishing presence, he’s brought life to interesting characters in complex movies like Pudhupettai, 3, Aadukalam, and Raanjhana. But all those characters are also perpetual stalkers, possibly with the exception of Kokki Kumar in his brother Selvaraghavan’s Pudhupettai, who is so dangerous a gangster that he doesn’t need to stalk in order to get the women he wants. These characters are not unrealistic. But, the actor goes beyond the character often to expound why stalkers are justified, or how you really cannot blame a man for raping a drunk woman, and so on. That’s the process of cultivating a particular fan base, happening right before our eyes.
Why would one want to be a fan of Rajini or Dhanush or indeed, of Tamil cinema itself, when there is so much misogyny in their production? Apart from Tamil cinema and rustic regionalism becoming cool in recent times, Rajini is a cultural phenomenon. As is the kind of fresh cinema that Dhanush, Vetrimaran, Suseenthiran, Venkat Prabhu, Vijay Sethupathi and Selvaraghavan, naming just a sample, have championed. To put it simply, it’s really not fair that half of the Tamil community cannot participate in it whole-heartedly, and so doesn’t get to own it.
Why should the first-day-first-show or #FDFS be a male cultural sphere? No, it’s not a class collective either. Rajini’s ‘traditional’ fan base of working class men were frustrated with the distribution mechanics of Kabali as many tickets were occupied by bulk-booking private corporations. Anyway, why should the working class be gendered? Notwithstanding Manu Joseph’s reductive analysis of his growing urban cool, Rajini is already a pan-Tamil phenomenon. The history that made him now churns to expect more, and different out of him. Urban and rural ‘Dravida masses’ include women too.
As school- and college-going girls and teenagers in Tamil Nadu, going to the cinema was a defiant event in itself. While timid (we assumed) girls asked their male classmates to get them tickets or even accompany them (in groups of course), my girl gang took pride in arriving at the cinema on our scooters and hooting through the cinema just as the larger male audience did. We may have gotten into serious trouble, my adult self now realises. But, for all our ebullient efforts, in truth, there was rarely a movie that we really identified with or hooted in appreciation of. Except Snegithiye — a thriller by Priyadarshan made with an all-woman cast. Or an occasional quip by the ‘bubbly’ Jyothika in 12B or Kushi, rarely acknowledged by anyone else in the theatre. Why did Tamil cinema never cater to us?
Even setting aside for a moment the Superstar as an exceptional phenomenon built over a specific socio-economic history, the emerging space of Tamil cinema shares a similar quota of problems. By targeting young male audiences mainly, their social dimension is at least half unrealistic. As Nisha Susan says in this hilarious 2012 piece on short films that have changed Tamil cinema in a big way, “Tamil short films are not About the Girl.” This, of course, also has to do with her other observation: “I looked hard but I haven’t found any yet made by The Girl, sadly.”
Until women start writing and directing films in droves, we only have Rajini and Dhanush to cherish as our culture. Especially if we do not want to be shoe-horned as ‘the multiplex crowd’ at whom Dhanush’s films are not typically targeted. Besides, misogyny in multiplex cinema would need a separate post.
Kabali director Pa Ranjith’s first film Attakathi was about the ‘machis’ that Nisha refers to. The dudes did follow women around, and rely on machismo while dealing with adolescence and socio-economic needs. But, as the film title points out, the hero here is an ‘attakathi’ — a cardboard knife: a knife only in appearance, and really blunt, when it comes down to it. The film was a gentle lampooning of the machi culture as much as it was an honest depiction. With its French filmy feel and background score, it was also as much multiplex cinema as it was cinema of the subaltern.
Madras, Ranjith’s second film, was far more political but also incorporated more masala elements and a more ‘massy’ hero in Karthi. But it still refrained from sexist pandering despite featuring male camaraderie at its core. And now, Kabali. The ‘massiest’ of them all, but also the most progressive in its gender politics.
Then there is Nalan Kumarasamy, who gave us the delightful Soodhu Kavvum and then the far more low-key Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum (KaKaPo). Where Soodhu Kavvum took the easy way out by featuring only an imaginary heroine for the machis, KaKaPo fleshes out a female character (Yazhini, played by Madonna Sebastian) in life and blood, and on booze, scooters and trains, losing IT jobs and boyfriends, working part-time jobs and befriending rowdy strangers on more than equal terms. And dealing with workplace sexual harassment. I can’t think of another film that deals with this issue so well. When a prospective employer makes advances towards her and says other women have done this before to get ahead in their career, Yazhini doesn’t say the expected “I’m not that kind of girl”. Instead, she says, “They may have had their reasons, I just don’t want this.” The film is really the story of Yazhini, with Kathir (Vijay Sethupathi) as sidekick.
Why did the girl drinking with the machi and then calling him a shaggy dog she cuddled up with at a time of distress not gain the cult following that the ‘soup boy’ singing ‘Why this kolaveri di’ did? Why did her oh-so-true observations on the millions of men and women joining engineering colleges in small town Tamil Nadu not catch on like Dhanush’s speech on VIP culture in Velai Illa Pattadhari did?
Tamil women, it’s time. If we can’t all become filmmakers, let’s occupy space. The cultural space of cinema. The physical space of movie theatres. It’s time to own this culture as ours too.
Niranjana Ramesh is a journalist and currently a PhD student at University College, London.