Tamil cinema has normalised disrespect of actresses

Last Updated: Tue, Jun 25, 2019 11:57 hrs

There is little need to summarise what Radha Ravi said about Nayanthara on stage.

The video has been viewed millions of times, the actress has retaliated, and Radha Ravi is being called out for the sleaziness of his remarks.

The speech was filled with insinuation and innuendo. It is only the latest among several where Ravi has denigrated women in cinema.

The sentence that stayed with me longest, though, was not his saying anyone can play a goddess, the women whom we want to worship, and the women whom we want to “call” when we look at them. The Tamil word Ravi used implies that the woman in question is “available” for a price.

But the operative sentence, to me, was one where he compared K R Vijaya and Nayanthara.

“If people wanted someone to play a goddess back in the day, they would call K R Vijaya,” he said, “But now, anyone can play a goddess. Just anyone.”

This, combined with his reference earlier to Nayanthara playing both a goddess and a ghost – in different films, thankfully – appears to suggest that one must stick to a character throughout one’s career. One must be happy to be typecast as the Respectable Woman, the Goddess of Home and Hearth.

Perhaps this is not quite what he meant. Perhaps, unconsciously, he revealed a prejudice that has been fostered over decades in Tamil cinema.

The time to which Ravi made a reference had its lines clear – the lover could never turn seductress, even as she quivered her lips and closed her eyes in response to the hero’s overtures when they were Respectably Married and duty-bound to do what they must in order to procreate and produce more Good Citizens like themselves. There was no shame in this, and yet the heroine was shy, almost embarrassed, about the act-which-must-not-be-named.

The Shameless One was not the virgin who would transition directly into mother – the Shameless One was the vamp, she who dreamt of hugging the hero under waterfalls, she who wore skimpy clothes and embraced her sexuality, she who would never be mother because the hero would shun her for her advances.

This division of the female roles – the Virgin and the Vamp, the Goddess and the Whore – ended in the late Eighties. The last of the official vamps was Silk Smitha.

In one of her final interviews, she spoke of how the siren had become redundant because heroines were willing to wear the clothes she was, heroines were willing to do the dances she was, the Virgin was willing to be the Vamp.

And though the hero had danced under waterfalls – but only in the Vamp’s dreams – and though the hero had caused the heroine to quiver her lips and close her eyes as they went about the business of procreation, he was largely unaffected.

The heroine, though, in allowing herself to be seductive, had gone from Goddess to Whore, Virgin to Vamp – if not on screen, certainly off-screen.

This is why directors think they can get away with slapping actresses.

This is why directors can speak of how audiences come to watch heroes fight and heroines show skin, and smirk that they get their costume designers to snip the length of any skirt that ends below the knee, even if “madam” would “get upset”.

This is why the likes of T Rajender can address an actress in the first-person singular on stage and reduce her to tears, even as the rest of the cast and crew laugh with him.

An incident that slipped entirely under the radar involved another actress who is at least as prominent and popular as Nayanthara – Trisha.

Actor-director Parthepan made a speech at the hundredth day celebration of the film 96, which runs from the 14:30 to 27-minute mark in this video.

He began with a crassly sexualised statement – “At a time when everyone sees love in terms of ‘69’, you’ve made a film called ‘96’,” he told the director.

He went on to speak of the purity of love that is not tarnished by carnal desire, of love which makes everyone watching the film wait breathlessly for a chaste hug. Except, a hug is not “chaste” when it is charged with emotion and desire. The film is not about chastity; it is about love and luck.

Parthepan went on to pun on Trisha Krishnan’s surname, which happens to be a patronymic – the actress in her role as Janu, he said, would change a “Krishna” into a “Rama”, a Casanova into a one-woman man. He added snidely that there are women who would “change a Rama into a Krishna”, placing the onus for male decisions on female behaviour.

Having addressed Vijay Sethupathi as “sir” and referred to A R Rahman as “sir”, he called Trisha – whom he addressed by her first name, with no tag or title – on stage and commanded her and Vijay Sethupathi to hug.

He then sighed about having “done nothing” despite having “a girl like Trisha” on stage.

The fact that no one, not even Trisha, appeared to take umbrage at the crudeness of his comments and his behaviour is evidence of the unfortunate truth – vulgarity has been normalised not only in Tamil cinema, but in events around Tamil films.

Even as the virgin blended into the vamp, heroines became commodities who were relegated to lesser and lesser roles. Talented actresses have become little more than their faces and bodies, and on the rare occasion that she transcends the narrative and makes a film her own, she disappears – a case in point is Ramya Krishnan, who to the detriment of her career, overshadowed Rajinikanth in Padayappa. Neither the “hero” nor the audience can stomach that.

The problem is not a loose cannon like Radha Ravi shooting off his mouth.

The problem is that there is a trend of veterans of the industry taking liberties with their comments on actresses at promotional events, and unless they are overtly derogatory, they go unnoticed.

The disrespect to which actresses are regularly subjected is an issue for which everyone involved in Tamil cinema – every director, writer, lyricist, actor, producer, critic, and viewer – has to take collective responsibility and address at the root.

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Pulwama attack: When humans become symbols

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The G.O.A.T vote: When opinion offends

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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com