By Divya Vijayakumar
Tamil director G Suraaj’s views on the world have become crystal-clear after clips from a promotional interview for his new film, Kaththi Sandai, went viral on the internet. Or, it must have if you were aware of his existence to begin with. The movie, whose title translates to ‘Knife-Fight’, stars Vishal and Tamannaah in the lead roles and released last Friday to dismal reviews. Most of the fighting has taken place outside of it.
In the interview, Suraaj and two other men discuss attire with more intensity than cricketer-turned-fashion-overlord Chetan Chauhan ever has. The outfits in question are obviously what the female lead wore. Without a hint of irony that Tamannaah herself has no say, they heap praise on Suraaj for how she looks in the film. “Much better than anything else she has starred in recently.” “Glamorous,” one of them chimes in approvingly. If you do a shot every time the word glamour snakes its way into the 90 second snippet, I’m not responsible for the ensuing liver damage.
When asked whether he pays special attention to how his heroines are dressed, Suraaj responds with, “We’re all part of a low-class audience. If you’re paying money what you want to see is a hero fighting off his opponents and a glamorous heroine. I’m not interested in her coming in, fully clad in a sari. What they’re paying for is some fun where they can just look at Tamannaah.” He repeats that he wants to give his viewers what they expect. “This is what the boys [he uses the Tamil word pasangal, meaning kids] enjoy. That’s the reason I insist on glamour.” He also insists that there is no place in mainstream commercial cinema for acting, saying, “After you create an impact with your glamour, do whatever kind of story you want. You’ll be offered important roles in TV serials.” Proceeding to describe his appalling treatment of the crew and cast, he boasts, “When the designer comes with knee-length outfits, I call him aside and order him to shorten it. If he tells me that madam [the heroine] will protest, I tell him to handle her. The audience will kick me otherwise.” The impressed interviewers then clarify: “But there’s nothing vulgar about it.” “Nothing vulgar, just glamorous,” Suraaj agrees.
Tamannaah, star of Bahubali, responded on Twitter, insisting that she wears costumes she is comfortable with. She asserted that she was there as an actor to do her job, and not be treated as a commodity. She demanded that the director apologise not just to her, but to all the women of the industry. Co-star Vishal retweeted her in a show of support. Her reaction garnered a lot of attention and she was commended for her stance against sexism.
But the message she is putting across is fuzzy at best. She is protesting the director’s remarks and not his practices, which she must have experienced firsthand having worked with him in the past as well. By making the issue all about one individual while defending the industry, perhaps Tamannaah and co-star Vishal have forgotten that they shot the movie at all.
Kaththi Sandai is a poorly plotted mishmash of violence, romance and ickyness. The hero lusts after a psychology undergrad while fighting some underworld dons who also happen to be her brother’s enemies. In an attempt to win her over, he pretends that the two of them were lovers in a past life. Intelligent and worldly-wise human that she is, she refuses to fall for it. However, when her professor offers her a PhD for studying the hero’s behaviour she immediately accepts the proposition. That is how most legitimate doctoral degrees are earned after all!
Tamil cinema’s sexism isn’t restricted to what plays on the screen but what goes on behind the scenes as well. This sexism is so widespread and an integral part of the industry that it is the biggest open secret. A friend with connections to Kollywood tells me that young female actors at the peak of their careers are frequently told to change outfits because the director feels it was lacking, to paraphrase, buttocks and bosom, and that costume designers are indeed reprimanded for said lack. No one is scandalised.
Clearly it’s a difficult position Tamannaah is in. To be treated badly on set and commodified on screen is the current industry standard for heroines. But filmmakers at least pretend to the public that they are not mean towards their female stars. But here is Suraaj piercing the veil and having his own ‘grab them by the pussy’ moment. So what’s Tamannaah to do? Stay silent? Admit that when these things happen she has little room to protest if she wants to stay in the business? Perhaps if other stars jumped in and offered her support then things might change and Tamannaah would feel less victimised.
Instead what we have is actor Nayanthara joining the fray, criticising the director for making such “crass and cheap” remarks. She went on to say that female actors wear what they want and do it according to the demands of the script. In a case of the girl who cried empowered, she swept the sexism of Tamil cinema under the rug. Straying even further from the point, she argued that actresses are not like strippers who shed their clothes for money. What strippers did to deserve her hatred, we’re not sure. Nayanthara’s views on the power imbalances of the industry have a shaky history, to say the least. Back in 2013, actress Nazriya Nazim complained that a body double was sneakily used in her stead in a soon-to-be released movie to shoot a steamy scene she hadn’t given her consent to. At the time, Nayanthara came forward and criticised her for creating a scandal. She blamed Nazriya for not playing along with film industry rules which demanded that she exposed her body.
By simply praising Tamannaah and Nayanthara for challenging Suraaj in a you-go-girl way we undermine the repercussions of two of the industry’s biggest female stars saving face by saying there is no institutionalised sexism. Even Suraaj’s unselfconscious admission that he cares about his earnings and not the art is not under fire. The reason the lynch mob currently wants his head is because he spoke about objectifying the women who work for him. The key word here is’ spoke’, the fact that he is accurately describing what the business does isn’t given importance.
Suraaj in the meanwhile has coughed up an apology that is as well-crafted as a hairball, expressing his regret over a “fun comment.”
So after this brief scandal passes everyone can return to status quo. Of no one having an issue with Suraaj and others like him. And women can continue to be treated badly.