Perception of women in cinema vs reality

It is International Woman’s Day alright. You can give flowers, distribute chocolates and even send ‘Happy Women’s Day’ forwards to women in your contact list. Then what? You sleep and go on as usual. Nothing much changes and the routine gets boring.

Man, how many times do you want us to read those same old boring forwards and messages from people I hardly meet. Some television channels I’m sure have a hard time finding a fitting movie to celebrate womanhood, if they are looking for one. With exception of movies like 36 vayathinile’, veteran Tamil cinema director K Balachander, fondly called KB, and very few quality movies here and there, you have not much choice left.

Why am I talking about movies here? I strongly believed that art forms like movies, literature and paintings, are reflective of our society and its perceptions. It is one of the reasons why they are significant and studied in detail when learning about a country’s culture. So let’s talk how we look at women through movies, considering their wider reach, in the last two centuries. I will take Tamil movies from 1940s till date. (I’m going to stick with Tamil, as I have not seen enough of other language movies to comment on them.)

Being a daughter of someone who is a movie buff, I was introduced to movies even from an early age. I have seen black and white and early colour movies starring MG Ramachandran, aka MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. In fact you could say I have seen old movies more than the recent ones and I love them. The story of course revolved around men, their conquests and ideals and their female counterparts in supporting roles. They are supposed to reflect the ‘family girl’ image, which translates to someone who is modest, cooks and takes care of family, puts her husband first, caring, motherly and embodiment of peace and patience.

Lets get to business and see movies realised before 1950s. You could find a lot of historical movies set in 1930s, 1940s and 1950s like Mandhiri Kumari, Meera, based on Krishna devotee of the same name and Kalidas, the story of genius poet Kalidas. You will notice in these movies that women were respected, though they have only limited roles when it comes to decision making. Education was something reserved for elite and upper class. Even among upper caste, women were allowed to study only till they reach puberty and married off. It remind me of the story of my grandmother, who was born in 1915. She studied till Class 6 and was married off to a man 10 year her senior once she reached her puberty. Well, she had seven kids, two of them died during childbirth. No surprise there. 

Things began to change after that of course after Indian Independence. Women were entitled to education and began to play prominent role in the family and decision making process, though it was very small percentage in 1970s. This could very could be seen from KB’s movie Aval oru thodarkathai, where Sujatha is the breadwinner of a large family. Even with such progressive women stereotyping them, like how a woman should conduct herself in a family and dress, continued. The best example of this would be a 1972 MGR movie.

In the movie ‘Raman Thediya Seethai’, MGR plays a role of an estate owner who is looking for a wife with six virtues, very similar to attributes ones I mentioned above. (He also says the wife’s voice should be as sweet as honey. It is absurd but I’m going to let it pass as it was a 1972 movie) So he goes in search of a woman with said qualities, incites them and even slaps a girl to check if she possess the quality of patience. It is no doubt over the top but it clearly shows what is expected of a woman, if she wants to get married or even accepted into the society. Well, I can tell from my personal experience and from what my grandmother tried to teach, education is all fine and dandy. I used to think when I was a kid that unless you learn to sing, you really cannot get married. (Of course I grew up and know better now) Who can blame the movie, when it only reinforces the already existing beliefs?

Now let’s fast forward to period of Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan and other actors who ruled the roost between 1980s till the end of 1990s. Even now, a few decades later, what is expected of a woman has not undergone much change. There was more freedom to choose what you want to study and how you want to dress though. It is acceptable to wear modern clothes but once she falls in love she should suddenly change into trademark ‘good Tamil girl’ like in the movie Mannan. No matter how great a woman is, pride and standing one’s ground is a big no-no. She needs to toe the line. This is very prominent in Rajinikanth movies like Mannan and Thambiku enda ooru.

I remember my mother often repeating the line: ‘Enjoy the freedom you have now, after marriage you will have so many restriction.’ This is an unwritten formula in our society. A girl till she gets married is allowed certain kind of freedom, like her clothes, education and the rest. But once she gets married, she need to put her husband and his family first that we follow to this date. I’m sure majority of women stand testimony to this fact and this really is not something to be proud of. 

The concept of ‘item song’ became viral that saw item girls like Silk Smitha sporting skimpy clothes were high on demand. Actresses though were expected to show more skin, by today’s definition you could say they were modest.

It is probably something like, ‘Hey, she is wearing a mini skirt. She is an easy woman.’ Clearly, this ought to be the period where objectification of women began as I could not find it in earlier generation. I wonder if this shift reflect how men see certain sect of women and put them in a box, like the ones you lust on and ones you want to marry.  The distinction people draw from clothes a woman wears could probably date back to this time period. 

Now lets come to the age of modern cinema, the age where feminism and what not is reaching its peak. We have lost great directors like KB and Visu, who focused on women. We have new age directors. We have only few women who bag significant roles, whereas the rest are reduced to role of doll who dress pretty and limited to couple of love scenes.  We have seen Kajal Agarwal and Tamannah Batia play such roles in so many movies. They are obviously modern girls, who do as they please and have a mind of their own. At least that what it looks until you see the hero lead them by their nose. Even decades later, in the 21 century, it is hard to realise that what a woman has is only an illusion of freedom and it is only very small percentage who have full control over their lives. No wonder when a rare movie like ‘36 vayathinile’ pops up, where the lead is a woman and takes charge of her life, it is celebrated for brilliant movie making. 

This really shows how society views woman,  at least to some extent. If a woman is appreciated for taking charge of her life, does it not stand to show that there ten thousands who does not have this opportunity. Sometimes I feel that we have regressed rather than progressed in various ways, but it has only become harder to identify real issues as we cover ourselves under the cloak called pseudo freedom.

I’m not going to tell you who needs to do what, rather I’m just trying to understand through movies how though we have changed on surface deep down we have not. 


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