The Portrayal of Women in Tamil Cinema: Part 1

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As a British-Tamil teenager with hardcore movie buffs as parents, Tamil cinema and pop culture is not something I could avoid. I spent a lot of my childhood watching Tamil films.

As a child of the early 2000s, I idolized actors such as Vijay and Dhanush. Relatives love to remind me of my childhood days spent dancing along to their hit songs and repeatedly watching their movies without losing focus. Many now question how someone who grew up loving Tamil movies would suddenly have no interest in them at all.

It was after garnering a passion for social justice and feminism that I came to realize the existence of a great deal of misogyny and sexism in the male-dominated Tamil film industry. Now, looking back at the movies I once loved, I cringe in discomfort at the casual sexism. After some years, you would expect there to be a change in the way women are portrayed in Tamil films now. However, I now feel as though it has somehow worsened, with a few exceptions.

Firstly, it is a well-known fact that Tamil films are very much a hero-driven. Fanboys glorify this idea. With the majority of Tamil films being commercial, most filmmakers go along with this setup to accumulate the most profit. Due to this, in many films the lead female character has no significant connection to the main storyline, or is playing the typical “damsel in distress” role and can only be saved by the lead male.

One clear example is the popular action-masala film Vedhalam starring Ajith. In this movie, Shruti Hassan plays the love interest of Ajith. Throughout the movie, we see that she is only involved for comic relief and in the compulsory love scenes. It is almost as if she is just eye candy with her own song and dance number thrown in.

Another female character is played by Lakshmi Menon, who plays Ajith’s “unofficial” sister. In the movie, Menon’s parents are killed. It is Ajith who takes revenge on those responsible as she suffers from memory loss. Whenever her character faces a crisis, it is the overprotective brother Ajith who comes to save the day. There are many more such examples in recent films in which the male lead is glorified and idolized more than ever.

In Vijay’s action family drama film Theri, the film’s director Atlee announces that the movie focuses on women’s issues, especially in India. In one part of the film, Vijay’s character, a police officer, investigates a missing person’s case that later becomes a rape case. Vijay experiences many difficulties while trying to bring justice as the culprit is the son of an influential politician.

Until this point in the movie, I had big hopes for what was to come, and was quite happy that such a popular film was focusing on something very realistic. However, there was disappointment when the only way he brings justice is by brutally murdering the rapist. The movie then goes on to focus on the rest of the storyline, leaving the mention of rape and abuse as is.

The reason why this is a problem is that by solely removing one rapist, it certainly does not do anything about the thousands of other potential rapists in the country. It does not change anything about the way some men unfairly treat and perceive women. The movie does not in any way talk about combating rape, but takes a very one dimensional way out of the situation so the story can continue.

If the excuse was not having enough time to dwell on the issue, I do not think that they should have broached such a serious and prevalent issue in India and not given it the time and work it deserves. I do not believe such an issue should be used for publicity purposes or to make some sort of connection with the story being told, as the rest of the story does not have any connection to rape at all.

Colourism is a problem prevalent in Tamil society as well as Tamil cinema. Most often in Tamil language films fair-skinned women take on a lead role. Almost always they are not Tamil themselves.

There are many in the Tamil female population who are dark-skinned. Yet when the entertainment industry prefers fair-skinned actresses, it further supports the notion that lighter skin is the desired complexion and causes many insecurities.

When there is already a lack of representation of dark-skinned women, the Tamil film industry makes things worse by casting actresses who are of not Indian or even of South Asian descent at all.

With the rising fame of Amy Jackson, everything is questioned when a white British actress darkens her skin on purpose to play Indian characters. In an industry where actual Indian actresses do not even get hired if their skin is not light enough, this actress who stars in multiple Tamil films intentionally darkens her skin to play Indian characters.

Stay tuned for Part 2…

Related articles:
Voiceless: Tamil Cinema’s Leading Ladies
Why I Stopped Watching Tamil Movies
Deepika Padukone: Cover Girl, not Poster Girl

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11 comments
Dees Pillay
Dees Pillay

We had some excellent movies recently, Amma Kanakku, Appa. Okadhal Kanmani. Kamal Hassan",s Papanasi (kannada remake) ,few years ago Vijays Tupaki and Vikrams Thandavsm,(,vikram is blind) world standard movies, and a host of other good entrrtainers ..unfortunately Hollywood is bankrupt..playing with cartoon characters, last good move was Avataar and Titanic other wise no block busters..Bollywood you musy have a six pack or very pretty (fair,)...no storyline, dialogue etc...

Rajeena V
Rajeena V

HAVE you seen Raja Rani, Nee Enge En Anbe and Maya.?? I am half-heartedly admitting that I am a kollywood junkie and I partially owe it to tamil cinema for teaching me how to speak Tamil. That being said, I agree and disagree with some parts of this article. A lot of people poke at Tamil cinema and just say it's the same concept of "dude see girls and goes through multiple obstacles to marry her" OR "normal dude takes down rich villain". Honestly, it depends on what you watch. Many just think it's the "trend" to watch a vijay or dhanush movie in theatres, however Nayanthara made AWESOME movies like Raja Rani, Nee Enge En Anbe and Maya. These movies have STRONG female roles. I admire her for that and can see the change because I have watched even the one off tamil movies. You can't do much if the audience isn't responsive. AND with respect to Theri. The director was aiming to give a "long-term" solution to combat rapists, which was raise your kids properly from a young age. Anyways I agree with the Amy Jackson thing, like come on, it's a tamil movie, save a few bucks, hire local Director Shankar.

Sudha Nadarajah
Sudha Nadarajah

This is not going to change for the next 200 years as it's part of the culture. If you go to India as a woman, you will experience sexism every single day and at every nook and corner. Just pay attention to it. It all starts when you fly with Emirates and take your connecting flight to India at Dubai airport. You will be mortified to see how some Indian men nearly step on your foot just to remind you that there is no "ladies first" when boarding the plane, even when you were first in line to board. It really is upsetting to experience it in real life. A confident woman clearly is a threat and they should neither have a choice nor a voice.

Giajenthiran Velmurugan
Giajenthiran Velmurugan

I am sorry to hear about your experiences, but luckily you do always have a voice \U0001f609

Sudha Nadarajah
Sudha Nadarajah

Giajenthiran Velmurugan I agree but the difference is whether it is being heard.

vikramvenkat2
vikramvenkat2

what about other film industries in india have u seen any one of them?bollywood,telugu and malayalam films they are far worse than tamil films, tamil films are rated best in india,tamilnadu has the least violence against women in india or anywhere else in the world including the west and dont expect tamils to be liberals we are hardcore conservatives,tamils are hated all over india for dark complexion, not taking up hindi ,upholding tamil identity, inturn affecting national integrity though having  contributed more to india than anyother ethnic group and thanks to feminism we have the least birth rates in india while other states have high birth rates which is actually very dangerous tamil films are actually not misogynistic it actually promotes solidarity between men and women unlike the tamil serials and tv shows which are blatantly misandric whose sole aim is to break up the family unit though colourism is a problem most women in india are fair skinned the actresses are portrayed as tamil women,i am glad most of the diaspora are retaining their tamil identity which gives us some hope for survival ,but tamil women and men should stop fighting and unite before we all go extinct once for all.

Suki Balendran
Suki Balendran

Birunda Balendran this this this. and the comment below

Chandiri Thana
Chandiri Thana

Film industry in India is evolving little by little...don't compare and contrast it with other movies...we have a rich background..it takes time to bring our culture...out.. nowadays foreigners are changing their culture to become one of us...be proud..we gave away our culture to be a foreigner in our own country....not everyone is privileged like us Tamil people...we love our parents or our home country....so we dress up only for some events like weddings and parties......cinema is getting better..it takes time and we will get Oscars in near future...I don't want to say "I told you so"....

Doss James
Doss James

Majority live in poverty, while the movies are about people driving Benz and living in mansions. The government is corrupt to the core and not a single critical movie. No! i am not interested in seeing any fantasy musicals.

vikramvenkat2
vikramvenkat2

Tamilnadu is actually the most developed state in india it is termed the economic powerhouse of india google it and see if you think tamilnadu is like that then just imagine what state rest of south asia is in.

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