By Krupa GE
When I saw a full-fledged flashback sequence for Alia Bhatt’s character, involving only her and her life, in the film Dear Zindagi, I let out a low whistle. For the first time, in forever, I was seeing a woman in a ‘mainstream’ film get that. So it’s possible? There can be movies about what women go through, and they can talk to shrinks? Hell yeah. I loved the movie despite my many issues with it. It happens so rarely that when it does you want to hold on to it. Seeing women you can relate to; women who aren’t caricatures written by men who seem to have closed their eyes to the real women around them. It happened briefly in Tamasha. Something about Deepika Padukone’s role in that film, despite a lot of things to not like, stayed with me.
I felt the same way about Kaatru Veliyidai, and before I go on, I’ll have to warn you about spoilers.
Mani Ratnam does something strange in his newest film. Smart, but strange. Strange because the effect is not entirely pleasant and you don’t expect a movie that ‘looks’ like this to make you feel unpleasant.
He writes up the typical masala movie hero VC (Karthi), who seems to be perfectly agreeable on paper, but when seen from a distance. He’s also everything we are used to seeing in a Tamil cinema hero: invincible (escapes the enemy nation’s prison by crossing the border as if it were a mere toll booth), looks pretty damn good, dances really well, wears great clothes, ‘seems’ liberal – he takes his girlfriend Leela (Aditi Rao Hydari) to his brother’s wedding to a very pregnant fiancé who even gives birth on the same day as the wedding. But he also spouts the kind of chauvinistic lines that are regulars in our masala films and where our Neelambaris are shown their place for daring to desire or simply having a tongue. He goes through his hero usual arc. Living in his own world, thrilling her with his flying skills, wooing her pretty easily, standing up for ‘Amma’. In one telling scene, at the hospital where his sister-in-law is giving birth, VC’s father is rude to his mother. So VC tries to be the hero for his mother—who does not need his protection but he thinks she does anyway—while battling a toxic father. But at that exact same moment he also walks all over the woman he is with. He asks Leela to shut up. End of discussion. ‘Shut up,’ he thunders. In another, when she refuses to shut up despite his command, and continues to offer her opinion on war and terrorism, surrounded by his colleagues, all men, he tells her that men and women are different (hence unequal) and expects her to understand because its biological. Come on, she’s a doctor, duh, why didn’t she get it? It was biological inequality.
We’ve seen shades of this man. In our homes, in the streets. The man who gets unreasonably agitated at the idea that a woman might have—wait for it—thoughts about the world at large or about how their relationship should be. Men who quickly appear on our social media timelines, DMs, chat messengers, to show us our place. Who mansplain swiftly so that they can get us to shut up as quickly as possible—so that they can shout at the top of their voice, and collect validation from our silences. Who take what they want out of relationships without caring about what the woman might want. Because what more can she want? She has snagged the man. Isn’t that enough? He spends his precious time with her. Shouldn’t she be thankful?
All of this could’ve, would’ve, should’ve gone unnoticed, as part of the film, as part of the mythmaking of this hero. As a part of the parcel, the price the woman pays for getting a chance to share screen space with our demigod. When the man shows the woman her place in Kaatru Veliyidai, the audience is supposed to go into a tizzy and erupt into applause, right? That’s the script for a nice masala movie. Instead, the silences and the defiance that play out between the woman and the man lay threadbare what we reduce women to in our frames when we write lines meant to show them their place. Mani Ratnam dares to send a woman with self-respect into his script. Tada.
For me, it was as if all of our cinema’s heroes were in this one film— puzzled, witless, against this one woman who was waging a war of sorts, on behalf of ‘women like us’, alone, against ‘them’. A woman who’s aware of her place in an unequal relationship. A woman trying to hold on to her self-worth. It was sad too, because it seemed as if there was no one on her side in the movie. She was so lonely that I wished sometimes she had a girlfriend who was in the story for more than just quirks. A girlfriend who goaded her on to stand her ground. A girlfriend who just said, ‘talk to a shrink about how you feel’.
Yet, she is my hero in this film. Because alone, on her own, Leela makes inroads. She makes you cringe at this man who would’ve, could’ve, should’ve been the hero. Two young women next to me in the theatre recoiled as VC in one scene, pulled Leela close and said, his obsessive gaze reeking of power, that he loved her more than she loved him and that he would love her even if she didn’t love him. One of them said, “Paavam. Poor woman! Leave her alone.” That, according to me, is this movie’s success. It is asking us who we are rooting for in our films.
If this were a movie about VC the monster vs Leela the woman, it would have ‘felt’ good. But the film isn’t going for feel good. Instead, it humanises this monster. That’s what makes it uncomfortable. It’s about the emotionally unavailable fighter pilot man vs the fixer-upper doctor woman.
With Kaatru Veliyidai, Mani Ratnam holds a mirror close to the upper class/caste space, where just under the expensive décor, shiny, perfect clothes, clean-shaven and made-up faces, lies a rot. Let’s face it, there are more VCs than we care to admit in our lives.
Krupa is a writer and journalist based in Chennai.