For the longest time, it was perfectly acceptable for a hero in a Tamil film to embark on a mission to unite his sister with her rapist. Thereby saving her honour and consequently, her life. Sakalakala Vallavan style. The ‘sister’ here, doesn’t always mean a sibling related by blood. ‘Sister’ in Tamil cinema is any woman who is not sufficiently glamorous to be the heroine or 'slutty' enough to be the second heroine. The sister role goes to modest girls who are present in the first half of the film to provide a genial atmosphere and play pranks on the anna who is usually worried about their marriage expenses.
Typically, something terrible happens to the sister right before the interval and by the time you are done with your popcorn, sister has married her rapist and exited the script for all practical purposes. We might catch a glimpse of sister bringing tea for anna when he comes home to visit her, but that’s all.
Thankfully, the trend of getting the rape survivor married to the rapist has faded in Tamil movies. Vivek’s memorable comedy scene from Kadhal Sadugudu in which he effectively decries this ridiculous practice, is a turning point as far as the treatment of rape in Tamil cinema goes.
However, though rapists are ultimately punished for their crimes in the new movies that come out and the ‘sisters’ are not asked to marry them, a far worse situation is thrust upon the ‘sisters’. They are required to kill themselves. For instance, both Eesan (2010) and Yuddham Sei (2011) are thrillers in which the rapists are hunted down and punished in unimaginably violent ways. But in both the films the girls who lose their ‘honour’ are either killed by a family member (Eesan) or kill themselves (Yuddham Sei).
We see this trend in almost every movie which involves a rape – in Raavanan (2010), Priya Mani, who is supposed to be Shurpanaka, kills herself after being gangraped. Shurpanaka, in the Ramayana, starts a war after her humiliation. In Kollywood, she falls into a well to preserve her ‘honour’. Not satisfied with drilling down this twisted morality on human beings alone, we had Chitti, the robot, in Endhiran realizing what honour is after a girl he saves in a fire kills herself because everyone saw her naked.
Rapists, in real life, believe their crimes will go unpunished because they are so sure that the victim will not reveal the crime to anyone – how can a woman talk about her loss of ‘honour’ and survive in society? Films like these which pretend to speak against violence against women unwittingly bolster the social perception that a woman who has been raped does not deserve to live; that she must forfeit her life once her ‘honour’ is lost.
In the rape cases that have made headlines in our country in recent times, the victims/survivors have expressed their desire to fight back. Live. Are our directors listening? Is it possible for us to imagine a thangachi who lives despite the shame? The shame that is ours as a society and not hers?
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Sowmya Rajendran is a children's writer who occasionally offers her words of wisdom to adults. She lives in Pune.