Tehelka boss, Tarun Tejpal's, alleged sexual assault on a female journalist from the same organization has come as a shocker to many. But sadly, for many female employees, such a 'lapse of judgment' is an all too familiar story. Sexual harassment at the workplace can range from making sexist and obscene jokes to physical assault. Given that creepy bosses are finally getting their just desserts, we look at Magalir Mattum (1994), a Tamil film that dealt with sexual harassment at the workplace in an emphatic manner three years before the Vishaka Guidelines (1997) were laid down by the Supreme Court.
Magalir Mattum is a comedy directed by Singeetham Srinivasa Rao. It revolves around three women (Urvashi, Rohini, and Revathy) and their sleazy boss Pandian (Nasser) who simply cannot keep his hands to himself. The three female characters are from different social classes – Paapamma (Rohini) is the sharp-tongued maid who cleans the office, Janaki (Urvashi) is the nervous typist from a conservative Brahmin family, while Satya (Revathy) is the questioning ‘feminist’ of the group who has very clear ideas on what sort of man she will marry.
Many Tamil films have shown bosses attempting to rape their employees or make unwanted sexual overtures but they are usually cast in such an obviously villainous fashion that it’s pretty easy to distance ourselves from what’s happening onscreen – the film then plods along predictable lines of the hero’s vengeance. As viewers, we forget that this deals with a very specific form of gender-based violence, that of harassment at the workplace, and do not engage with the politics that comes with it. The harassment comes and goes as an ‘incident’ rather than as a continuous and everyday threat that women have to deal with while trying to retain their jobs.
What is interesting about the boss in Magalir Mattum is that he’s real. The sexist comments, the sexually-charged jokes, the stares, the mild brushing here and there, the habit of giving personal gifts – the subtlety of the harassment itself is what makes it so familiar to women who have encountered such behaviour in their workplaces. Nasser excels in his role as Pandian, to say the least.
Fed up with Pandian’s behaviour and united by it, the women form a strong friendship that cuts across class and caste lines. Things go haywire when Janaki accidentally mixes poison instead of sugar with the boss’s coffee and serves it to him. Believing that Pandian is dead, the three women now have to look out for each other if they are to avoid prison! The mix-ups and confusions that follow ensure a laugh riot. Especially hilarious is the Muttu Muttunu Muttanam song in which the three women fantasize in what different ways they’d like to torture their harasser – a Tarantino-like catharsis for many a female viewer.
Throughout the film, we see the realm of work through the gender lens. The feminization of poverty, the problems of a middle-class, new mother who has to get back to work to make a living, the anger of a single, talented woman who has to keep her temper in check if she’s to retain her job…all of these are very relevant issues that women employees face. When at one point, the office is taken over by the awesome threesome, Satya starts a daycare center at work – a move that is light-years ahead as far as current corporate culture is concerned!
However, the film assumes that female leadership will automatically bring about positive changes to the prevailing work culture. At least, as far as harassment goes. In the Tejpal debacle, however, Shoma Chaudhury’s (mis)handling of the situation has come under much criticism. Will women always look out for other women? Maybe that’s a simplistic assumption to make but if one can suspend disbelief for a couple of hours, Magalir Mattum is an entertaining weekend watch for those of us who dread Mondays. And the boss who can’t keep it in his pants.
Sowmya Rajendran is a children's writer who occasionally offers her words of wisdom to adults. She lives in Pune.