To the patrons of shady drinking spots in Chennai, Ranjith Hotel’s Crystal Bar is a popular setting – the rooftop is a favourite haunt of regulars and newbies alike looking for a cheap place. And for every person who has told me that women rarely frequent this place (re: shady), I’m constantly surprised at the number of women who actually do share table space with the men here. We’re either part of a couple, with a group of other women, with colleagues from work or the occasional woman sitting by herself and quietly nursing her drink.
And yet, Tamil cinema seems to think we just don’t exist.
Unlike Bollywood, whose inebriated young women always seem to end up dancing on top of bar tables, Kollywood’s women are always missing from TASMAC kadais (Tamil for shops) pubs on a Friday night, bars on a weekday or house parties º it seems women and thanni (slang for liquor) just don’t mix.
The few examples I can recall are Revathi in Marupadiyum (1993), who drinks at a party to hide her sorrow over her husband’s affair; Sneha in Pammal K. Sambandam (2002), who informs her husband that she is his “better half” and so entitled to half his whisky (while he watches on fuming); Vasundhara in Sonna Puriyathu (2013), who consumes way too much beer in a pub and ends up purging on the hero; Reema Sen and Andrea Jeremiah getting drunk with Karthi in Aayirathil Oruvan (2010) while looking for the missing Chola empire; and, more recently, Nithya Menen in O Kadhal Kanmani (2015) who takes an extra swig of vodka after Dulquer tells her to slow down lest she thinks it’s water.
In the last few years, Tamil films have latched on to an even more puzzling trend: portraying the heroine as a bold independent woman heading out to drink, only to abruptly turn around and show her as the good girl who might be going to fetch her drunkard father home, a doctor buying saraayam (liquor) for medicinal purposes, or drinking only to get some dhill-u (guts) to confront someone.
Now look at the men cradling their sulphata (cheap, harmful liquor) close to their chests, so much so that their movies are even named after drinking nowadays. The upcoming Semma Botha Aagathey (‘Don’t Get Too Drunk’), VSOP (2015, Vaasuvum Saravananum Onna Padichavanga – Vasu and Saravanan are Classmates, but can also mean Very Special Old Pale in alcohol terms), Madhubana Kadai (2012, Liquor Shop) and Vaa (2010, slang for ‘quarter’).
Just the mention of upcoming movie Semma Botha Aagathey (‘Don’t Get Too Drunk’), initially slated to release last year, makes you realise just how much Tamil cinema encourages its hero to drink like a fish – because of his ‘troubled’ life – girlfriend dumped him, no money (borrow money from girlfriend/wife/parents), no job, no life… in short, liquor is a medicine that is allowed in large doses (no pun intended) for men in Tamil films.
This trend has been firmly in place for more than 20 years and does not show any signs of budging. Just look at the vast repertoire: An angry Rajinikanth rushes to the local liquor shop to get smashed in Padikkadavan (1985). Sivakumar plays a Carnatic singer who loses discipline, turns to the bottle and embarrasses himself in Sindhu Bhairavi (1985). Prabhu Dheva and his area boys sing about how it doesn’t make a difference if they drink and eat or eat and drink, and whatever happens after, in Ninaivirukkum Varai (1999). Simbu and co. have a party on the streets (Silambattam, 2008). Vikram the tough cop drinks on the job because he’s trying to be undercover (Saamy, 2003).
Songs that uphold saaraayam (alcohol) as the solution to every hero’s problems have been firmly in place for quite some time now.
The ‘soup boys’ of Tamil cinema have always had their way. Heartbroken, ‘jilted’ lovers follow Dhanush’s lead and end up at a TASMAC bar to drink and become rather mattai (smashed). Suriya in Vaaranam Aayiram (2008) pines for his dead lover (Sameera Reddy) by falling down drunk in front of his father, and later singing-dancing all over Chennai before he is put to sleep by his sister. He defines peak mattai. Then there’s Vadivelu, who in Kaalam Maari Pochu (1996) is angry because his wife refuses to have sex with him, consoles himself by drinking and harassing his wife’s family. The most infuriating of them all is a pissed-off Dhanush in Mayakkam Enna (2011), who sings about love and loss, while his friend advocates that he beat his girlfriend/wife because she just isn’t necessary as a person.
In Ethir Neechal (2013), ‘soup boy’ Dhanush joins his real-life friend Sivakarthikeyan and other love-failure ‘local boys’ at a bar to sing about drinking for ten days straight because that is the natural plan of action after suffering heartbreak. If you think about it, High School Musical’s breaking-into-song routine is probably less intense than Tamil cinema’s heroes who act as if grief and distress are apocalyptic and happen only to them.
Why is this pulling-your-hair-out feeling presented as unique to Tamil heroes? Film historian Theodore Baskaran traces this connection of liquor and “unrequited love” back to Devadas (1953, the Tamil version), which he believes “romanticised” drinking. “The traditional attitude in Tamil cinema is to consider liquor as an anti-depressant to life’s problems, which is misleading. Very few films like Dikkatra Parvathi  espouse an anti-drinking message,” he says.
We don’t have to travel back as far as Devadas but a journey to MGR’s time is quite necessary.
Alcohol and its denial has been an omnipresent enticement in Tamil Nadu politics, which itself is deeply attached to cinematic tropes. Tamil Nadu’s third chief minister and alcohol have had a curious relationship. The M.G.-Ramachandran-led AIADMK lifted prohibition in 1981 but then, six years later, closed down toddy shops — but only after he established the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) in 1983 for buying and selling arrack and toddy. On screen during the the 1960s and 1970s, he shunned alcohol, modelling himself as morally good, which included saying no to liquor. Only his villains (chiefly, the legend M.N. Nambiar), the embodiments of evil, consumed liquor. The hero did not.
In some cases, though, drinking was part of the hero’s persona – like Sivaji Ganesan’s character in Vasantha Maligai (1972), a playboy with an innate fondness for grog. But that was occasional.
A genealogy of the alcoholic hero
So from being a part of the hero’s character, how did we end up giving up all nuance whatsoever and just naming our films after alcohol and drinking, and giving it more importance in the hero’s life than even the heroine?
As modernisation slowly creeped into films, it became fashionable and edgy for heroes to drink and smoke – it never had to be a part of their role, it just looked damned good on screen. So this clearly demarcated line between good and bad began to blur: actors who started out as inebriated villains – Rajinikanth, Sathyaraj, Sarath Kumar – continued their vices even as heroes.
The genealogy of the drinking-his-sorrows-away Tamil hero can be traced back to movies such as Kalathur Kannamma (1960, with Kamal Haasan’s famous debut as a child actor), where Gemini Ganesan’s character Rajalingam becomes an alcoholic after his father feeds him gossip that his wife is an ‘immoral’ woman. Almost two decades later, in Salangai Oli (1983), Hassan plays a dancer and critic who becomes an alcoholic because of, what else, unrequited love (Jayapradha, the woman he falls in love with, chooses to get back to her husband).
Kamal Haasan somehow falls between these two extremes, having played both a darkly menacing character who drinks to overcome turmoil and a rambunctious youngster turning to TASMAC for fun. In Kaakki Sattai (1985), an energetic Haasan sings, “Namma Singaari sarakku nalla sarakku, summa gummunu erudhu kick-u enakku” (‘Singaari’s alcohol is the best, it sends me into an overdrive’) and dances deftly despite being intoxicated (his dance moves are, as always, on point). But three years later in 1988, Haasan stars in Unnal Mudiyum Thambi, a movie that exhorts the importance of prohibition, wherein, as Udayamurthy, he is a wayward, happy-go-lucky youngster turned responsible adult who reforms his village into an alcohol-free zone.
Peg by peg, we dive into the 1970s and 1980s, where the fantastical trend of club songs (‘Elamai idho idho‘ from Sakalakala Vallavan, 1982; ‘Aasai nooru vagai‘ from Adutha Vaarisu, 1983) emerge. These songs thrived in dimly-lit discotheques that were complete with glitzypsychedelic lights. Kamal Haasan was undoubtedly a big proponent of these songs. Then, the 1990s arrived. And slowly, the brooding men of Tamil cinema gave way to boorish ones.
Men in Tamil cinema have been constantly given permission to drink whenever they want, whatever they want and with whomever they want. “Machi, open the bottle,” they suddenly break into song, while a group of nubile girls in the skimpiest of clothes shake their hips, “Jalsa pannungada,” they encourage each other or they yell out “Saroja saamaan nikalo,” and dance with more girls – or they consume kallu (toddy) and describe women as heady “naatu sarakku” (country liquor).
Unfortunately, it’s these songs that have stood the test of time and gone on to become anthems for grieving boys. ‘Why This Kolaveri Di’ (the original soup song) got more than 3.5 million views on YouTube and Dhanush was invited by the then-PM Manmohan Singh as a guest of honour at a dinner hosted for his Japanese counterpart, Yoshihiko Noda. His father-in-law’s ‘Oora therinjikitten’ (‘I’ve learnt about this place’) from Padikkadavan is still an oft-quoted reference, used – when someone lets you down – among the Tamil social-media users and meme-makers.
So while Tamil cinema glorifies men to take up drinking to solve their problems, it also shows how women with problems have to settle for sulking, crying in the corner, jumping dramatically on their bed and crying, going to temples and pleading the goddess and crying, or just talking to their husbands, neighbours, sons and daughters… and crying.
Irrespective of our experience at Ranjith Hotel or a friend’s home, Tamil women are never allowed alcohol to explore their angst, failures, schadenfreude, anger, sorrow or joy. Chalk it up to the MGR-period distinction between good and bad, perhaps. Traditionally, like the villains, only the ‘vamps’ drank: they embodied the moral evil in the distinction between good and bad women. They were club dancers, mistresses to henchmen or experimenting for just a second before the hero told them off and asked them to behave like a decent “Tamizh ponnu” (Tamil girl). No woman can drink under the watchful moral eye of the Tamil hero.
Of the few women’s drinking scenes, only three stand out for me. In Puthiya Paravai (1964), Sowcar Janaki comes home to her husband drunk, and with her boyfriend in tow, much to the former’s embarrassment. In Arima Nambi (2014), Priya Anand is out on a date and invites hero Vikram Prabhu home for a nightcap. And in Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum (2016), Madonna Sebastian (with a lovely Tamil name, Yazhini) goes on a drunken rant after being sexually harassed at a job interview. Consolation prize goes to the Sonna Puriyathu (2013) heroine who is shown opening a beer bottle with her teeth. But these are the rare women who aren’t chastised or harangued for drinking.
According to historian Baskaran, the assertive heroine has only just begun to show her face in Tamil films. “She may [still] not have a beer because people will be upset”, and we still get to see men drink onscreen because it just seems “credible” enough. In last month’s Bogan, Hansika’s character steps up to a TASMAC outlet, buys alcohol and proceeds to drink it. Because alcohol will give her the strength to confront her dad – another famous reason Tamil cinema usually justifies its men to drink. Perhaps there is hope yet.
Now, how long before we can see our heroine and her friends take up sarakku and denounce men after she has been denied love? Machi, oru quarter sollen (‘order a quarter’).
By arrangement with The Ladies Finger