THE WOMAN WHO WANTS TO BE A MAN
by Joyojeet Pal
One look at the depiction of women driving car and two-wheeler drivers in Tamil cinema, and one needs little further evidence that a woman ought not to cross into a man’s domain. The office secretary is a traditionally gendered occupation and easy to depict sexually and trivialize. In fact, the secretary poses no serious threat to the supremacy of a man in the workplace, since, at least in office scenarios, the secretary reports to a man. An area of greater contestation is jobs where women replace men. Here, the focus is not only on the sexual complexity of a woman in the male domain of offices, but also on her neglect of her feminine duties through holding a job.
The first kind of male-replacement situation is when a woman runs a business. In such cases, she has usually inherited the business from a husband or father (thus did not build it from her own sweat) and frequently is unable to run it by herself, thus is probably being exploited by a corrupt manager or greedy relative, such as in Vettaikaran. Alternately, the businesswoman/heiress is a rich conceited person such as Nadiya in Sandai, Ramya Krishna in Arumugam who is eventualy tamed into greater femininity by the hero. Running a business also means widespread contact with men, which in turn can be another source of trouble to existing stable relationships – as in Sathi Leelavathi where the outgoing businesswoman Heera causes marital strive for the protagonist, or Anbe Aaruriye, where heroine Nila’s restaurant business and consequent interaction with men triggers jealousies at home.
The second kind of male-replacement is the woman who works in a white collar job. This is the more complicated because it is that which is evolving the most. The name of Rudraiah’s extremely forward film Aval Appadithan is translated as ‘That is how she is’ where the liberated, self-driven protagonist works in an advertising agency. Ad agencies were a convenient target for class dissonance, since they were seen as places where upper class women were visibly part of the workforce – thus fair game for a proletarian attack. Thus the face/persona of the model served as the starting point for stereotyping as sexualized any woman who worked in advertising. In the film, the lead protagonist is portrayed as a brusque man-hater, who drops relationships and moves on when it does not suit her. Her attitude is explained by her background, growing up in a dysfunctional family with a mother who had affairs with other men. In other words, a woman who works and behaves counter to how a traditional Tamil woman would probably owes her anomalous behaviour to another woman somewhere down the line.
Even when the woman is generally well behaved, her stepping into the threshold of an office complicates her life at home, especially where a marriage is involved. In Iru Kodugal, Sowcar Janaki is a collector, and in a scandalous reversal of gender roles, her husband Gemini Ganesan, reports to her. In Kudumbam Oru Kadambam, a married woman Sumalatha has an office job, and her promotion makes her husband insecure both professionally and personally as he starts imagining she is having an affair with a White man (ie a position of authority he cannot possibly challenge!). Worse, her being at work causes her daughter to suffer, she eventually gives up her job and the family regains its happiness.
Over the years, lead actresses portrayed working in offices have had a range of ‘low-level’ jobs, from telephone cleaners (an eyelash fluttering Saroja Devi in Aasai Mugam) to saleswomen (Jayalalitha in Raman Thediya Seethai, KR Vijaya in Bharata Vilas). Such a job, ie one that cannot be called a career or something that economically sustains a household, is a convenient foil to reinforce the male star’s professional supremacy – thus MGR generously buys Jayalalitha’s sales products in Raman Thediya Seethai, Sivaji, also a salesman in Bharata Vilas goes on to become a magnate, while Vijaya settles as his wife. It is truly rare that a woman has a white collar career in Tamil cinema.
The 1986 film Vikram was truly a pathbreaker in many ways. Here, the lead actress Lizy plays a nuclear engineer. The hero of the film, Kamal Haasan, is an adventurer/spy type, and Lizy eventually falls for his masculine charms, but it is significant that the woman plays the character with the greater intellectual qualification. In the aftermath of Kandukondain, this would cease to be a rarity.
THE NEW WORKING WOMAN
In Jilunu Oru Kadhal, Jyothika has a job, dresses in western clothes, and has a daughter, who seems perfectly happy growing up with a working mother (her father cooks for her), unlike Sumalatha’s daughter in Kudumbam Oru Kadambam. Media jobs have also turned respectable – Jyothika is an actress in Mayavi, Nayanthara is a TV journalist in Thalaimagan, Kajal Aggarwal is a filmmaker in Bommalattam, Jyothika and Asin work in advertising in June R and Ghajini respectively – in none of the films is their job and the corresponding stress used to show the characters in poor light. Power is not an issue either. In Ayirathil Oruvan, the heroine plays an archaeologist who commands a ship of laborers, Yaradi nee Mohini, the male hero of the film reports to a woman, the heroine, likewise in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaya, the heroine’s job in software is depicted as more of a ‘career’ than the hero’s pursuit in cinema. In Unnale Unnale, the heroine is a successful software engineer who lives and works abroad, and at the end of the film chooses her independent life and career instead of taking off and marrying the man.
So are we seeing a renaissance in the depiction of women’s profession in Tamil cinema? If yes, then with significant caveat. Consider closely the kinds of jobs that are seen as more accepted – practically all of these are what one may see as upper middle class jobs, not jobs that the economic median in Tamil Nadu can hope to end up with. Tamil cinema is informally segmented within the industry into what can be called ‘mass cinema’ that appeals to rural and urban low-income audiences, and ‘class cinema.’ A vast majority of the working women such as software engineers or whitecollar professionals in the movies above tend to be characters one sees in the class cinema, made for the associative consumption of audiences from similar classes, or the aspirational consumption of poorer audiences with what are perceived as different value systems and corresponding tastes.
With the exception of the occasional bank employee such as Simran in 12B or Meena in Rhythm, the middle class job and consequent career remains of little focus. For that, we need to move into television soaps – where the female audience is of immediate economic concern. A rare exception to this rule is Angadi Theru, which features women who work as sales staff in departmental stores.
Below the surface, there is still much to be raising an eyebrow about. Comical as it may sound, in a film culture so reliant on masculinity and the expression of violence as a certification of that masculinity, it would be more revolutionary to see believable and accepted female thugs gainfully employed in the Tamil cinema mafia. Aligned with this, a fascinating theme to emerge in the past decade is the idea of a crass lower-class female antagonist, such as the Swarnakka (Nalini) character in Dhool, and Sivasasi, who is a loud and brutal crime boss, who in both films needs to be dealt with not by an urbane hero, but by a rugged son-of-the-soil who is capable of inflicting visceral violence on his nemeses.
This character, reprised in Paruthiveeran as a lower-caste drug ring boss, is bound in a gunny sack and beaten with a voyeuristic ferocity that raises a range of gender and class issues. Although we’re ready to accept the woman as a boss in the software industry or advertising agency, in the true realm of testosterone masculinity, the trespassing woman will be disposed off with righteous cruelty.