In the prime of her acting career, Jyothika typified the quintessential Tamil cinema heroine: the attractive yet stupid woman. Just shortly before getting married to actor Surya in 2006, Jyothika could explore roles that would give her scope to perform. In Mozhi (2007), she played a confident, modern woman who was hearing and speaking impaired. In Pachaikili Muthucharam (2007), she was a villain. However, such characters remained few and far between.
After a hiatus, when Jyothika made a comeback in 2015, with 36 Vayathinile (a remake of Malayalam’s How Old Are You?), many thought her appearance onscreen was a fad that would soon go away. In 2017, she shut the skeptics up. Unlike in 36 Vayathinile, where she played a sari-clad, diffident woman trying to find her own space, in Magalir Mattum (2017), Jyothika was a jeans-clad, bullet-riding documentary filmmaker.
From being Tamil cinema’s silly, bubbly girl in Vaali (1999), Jyothika has come a long way. And so have the women of Tamil cinema – from being just a sidekick or a dancer in the background, from being a glamour add-in or waiting to be ‘tamed’ by the hero so he becomes a superstar, she has begun to assert her presence more.
Now, she could be divorced and start a new relationship without shocking the world and it’s ‘morals’. She could be a college student and watch soft-porn without being judged. She could be affected by HIV and go about her life without stigma. She could be a bureaucrat who fights the system for justice.
Increasingly, women in Tamil cinema are doing things that only a man has done and gotten away with before. Better still, in 2017, women have managed to do what the men could afford only on rare occasions: go solo. Nayanthara in Aramm and debutante Aditi Balan in Aruvi sparkled in roles that did not even need a hero.
Women have probably never had it this good in the hugely misogynistic landscape of Tamil cinema. Backing them up is a bunch of new, young minds that have been negotiating for a better space for them. So if director Brahmma gave Jyothika a swing-over in Magalir Mattum, debut director Gopi Nainar helped actor Nayanthara consolidate her position as Tamil cinema’s woman superstar with his brilliant Aramm.
In Magalir Mattum, Jyothika helps her mother-in-law reconnect with her school mates and in the process brings them out, albeit briefly, from the drudgery of their domestic lives. The film, whose title means ‘Women Only’, also eloquently portrayed the issue of emotional violence – something that Tamil cinema has been keen to elide over in the past (e.g., Saranya, one of the school mates, is harassed by her husband emotionally). It also discusses the issue of women unpaid labourers.
Nayanthara plays a district collector in Aramm, fighting a morbidly callous system to save a four-year-old girl trapped in a bore-well. Even among the set of new films that offer a greater role to women, Aramm stands out because Nayanthara addresses a social issue as the protagonist and not the subset of a ‘women’s issue’ because she is one.
In asserting herself as an actor to reckon with, Nayanthara began to negotiate her screen space between acting alongside heroes (in roles that were still substantial) and playing the lead herself. If she received praise for her role as the deaf girl Kadhambari in Naanum Rowdy Dhaan (2015) opposite Vijay Sethupathi, she also won critical acclaim for her role in Maya (2015), a horror film in which she is a single mother with a mysterious past.
With Aruvi (2017), Tamil cinema notched up another level in its unabashed portrayal of a heroine with all her imperfections. The film is all about an HIV-infected heroine’s quest to get back at a world that has wronged her. In the process, debut director Arun Prabhu effortlessly smashes several stereotypes that have made up the typical heroine of Tamil cinema. According to him, Aruvi seeks to unravel the wide range of emotions a woman can have and not restrict it to love, sentiment and/or hatred, as has been the industry’s habit.
And the women were political in their own ways. Jyothika was a Periyarist in Magalir Mattum; Nayanthara was seen quoting Ambedkar in Aramm.
Like Prabhu, many young directors seem to take their stories from the lives of women around them. They couldn’t stereotype women in their movies because they don’t cast cinema into any stereotypes. The award-winning director Seenu Ramasamy, for example, has challenged the stereotypes in his own way. In Thenmerku Paruvakaatru (2010), Saranya Ponvannan essayed a powerful role as a single mother. In Dharma Durai (2016), Tamannaah is deglamourised, presented as a divorced woman on the cusp of a new relationship.
While such young, right-thinking directors have been becoming more confident now, Tamil cinema itself has had a small clutch of women actors who have always stood out. In her seminal work Tamil Cinemavil Pengal (‘The Women in Tamil cinema’), author K. Bharathi singles out Savithri, the female lead of the 1939 movie Thyagabhoomi. She steadfastly refuses to live with her husband after he deserts her for another woman and then returns. She even offers him alimony. It would be 42 years before a similarly strong woman came to the silver screen: Sevanthi (played by Saritha) in Thaneer Thaneer (1981), fighting for a social cause. “It is probably the first time in Tamil cinema where a heroine puts her personal issues behind a social issue and spiritedly puts up a fight for a social cause,” Bharathi writes.
As Bharathi herself acknowledges in her work, such characters were exceptions. Women have remained largely stereotyped in Tamil cinema. But in 2017, the success and critical acclaim achieved by game changers like Gopi Nainar and Arun Prabhu promise to make the exceptions the norm.