Although Jyn is accompanied by a male rebel commander, she deftly wields her weapon to destroy the inhuman storm troopers who come in her way. She inspires the scared allies to join her fight and gains the trust of the commander sent to kill her father, who relents due to her integrity. However, Jyn is not cold and emotionless. She does have a feminine, sentimental and loving side when she is briefly reunited with her father. She feels affection for the commander accompanying her on her mission and risks her own life to save a helpless child caught in the crossfire. In the climax, she boldly faces the antagonist on her own and completes her mission although sacrificing her life for the cause.
When I compare this to the average Tamil film or even a big budget one like “Bahuballi”, what strikes me is that the female character in “Rogue One” is not required to expose her body, lure or seduce the hero or let him lead her mission and rescue her from trouble. Jyn is never helpless or emotionally weak despite losing her mother and being separated from her father as a child. She does everything and more than her male counterpart who actually plays second fiddle, allowing her to dominate the scenes and move the story forward.
This trait of strong female protagonists is not an aberration in Hollywood. There are numerous examples of successful films that transcend genres just from last year – Ellis Lacey (Saorise Ronan) in “Brooklyn”, Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) in “Joy”, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) in “Carol” and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in Mad Max: Fury Road.
This begs the question, why can’t any of these characters be part of a current Tamil film? Why are female characters in Tamil cinema continually portrayed as weak and incapable objects of desire? When can we see a change of roles from the stereotypical love interest, the item girl, the sacrificing mother or the sister who needs to be protected?
Very rarely is the heroine depicted as an individual whose ideas and thoughts matter. There have been exceptions in the past in the films of director K. Balachander but this was in the 1970s and 1980s.
Do films reflect the prevailing values and attitudes of a society? If you accept film as an art form then you have to agree that the ethos of a particular culture permeates its art. So what are the current prevailing values, opinions and prejudices in our society?
This advertising campaigns plays on the fears of an urban father. Not only in rural areas, but in cities as well, the boy is perceived as an asset, a source of future income and protection in the parents’ old age whereas the girl child is seen as an economic burden.
Even if she is allowed to get an education, she is not encouraged to work and be financially independent. Indian women still require their father’s and husband’s permission to work. India has one of the most gender biased work forces in the world where only 1 in 5 employed is a woman.
Once she is in college, her parents are only worried about finding her a suitable groom and the accompanying wedding expenses including dowry. So from the time she is born, she is seen as a liability to the parents until she is married off. This may be changing in a minority of Tamilian households but still holds good for the majority.
How do films figure in this? A study was conducted on sexual violence in the Hindi films of 1997-99, where the top ten box office hits certified as U or U/A were examined. Below are the posters of two of the films analyzed. The findings of this study are still applicable and relevant to the current Hindi and Tamil films.
The findings revealed that male characters were the perpetrators and female characters were the victims in all situations. What is most disturbing is that it is the heroes who committed moderate crimes against the heroines such as stalking, eve teasing, sexual harassment & domestic violence. But since the stalking and eve teasing scenes were usually accompanied by music with romantic lyrics, it was depicted as fun. The films imply that such behaviour was actually enjoyable. In reality, these are crimes that are punishable by law.
The villains committed severe crimes such as rape and murder and they were eventually punished for these actions but the hero was not condemned but actually rewarded as the heroine finally relents and gets romantically involved.
One can conclude that in the moral universe of these films, such acts against women are appropriate, normal & even romantic. Scenes of domestic violence of the hero slapping the heroine or his sister or the father slapping the mother are also condoned, justified and accepted. So not only is the woman shown as a sex object, she is also portrayed as the weaker sex who needs to be dominated by a man to prove his manliness.
While no study has been conducted of Tamil films, the parallels are obvious. A popular, award- winning Tamil director and producer of blockbuster hits has openly admitted that his films are mostly hero-centric. “I just travel with the script and bring in women who elevate the hero, without unnaturally strengthening their roles.”
“If the costume designer comes to me with the heroine’s clothes covering up to the knee, I would strictly order them to shorten the length. I don’t mind even if my heroine is not happy or comfortable, but I insist and get it done. This is because audiences pay money to see the heroines in such clothes. When it comes to commercial films, they are paid only to provide the required sizzle to the money paying audiences.” These are the words of another director of a recently released Tamil film.
Another disturbing trend in Tamil cinema is of regressive song lyrics abusing women if they spurn the hero. These songs urge men to be physically abusive towards women in the guise of “Break up” songs.
The eminent social psychologist Albert Bandura in his social learning theory concluded that heroes represent the essence of ‘ideal manhood’ and male sexuality and that being aggressive in cinema is equated to ‘being manly’. To quote Bandura “Research on social learning from media portrayal suggests that viewers are more likely to emulate behaviours that they see in media when the modeled behaviour is portrayed as rewarded.”
The deep concern here is that in Tamil cinema, a likeable, hugely popular hero who is their idol is perpetrating sexual violence and being rewarded.
Is it fair to say that Indian youth get influenced only by films? Again several studies conducted reveal that a major source of sex education comes from film & TV. Even today, sex is a taboo topic for majority of Indian households and not discussed in families until the time of marriage. Cinema plays a significant role in shaping ideas about gender roles, masculinity, & violence. India produces the largest number of films worldwide, about 800/year with a large viewership of about 10 crore theatre goers (1999), that cuts across age groups& socio-economic classes. Youth watching the same movie multiple times is a very common Indian phenomenon and movies are accessed via cable & satellite TV. If sexuality is rarely discussed in other contexts, this source becomes hugely influential.
In addition to this, there are other regressive trends among youth. A recent study conducted in 10 Chennai colleges revealed that 21,000 students started watching rape porn every year. 45% of the boys watch videos of rape & gang rape online.
According to the National Crime Bureau more than 90 women are raped every day in India. Eve teasing & sexual harassment is very high among Indian youth. Tamil Nadu accounted for 923 rape victims in 2012.
Cinema is a powerful art form capable of huge impact amongst its audience and politicians have exploited it to its utmost. The Russians have used it to inspire their socio-political revolution in the 1920s. Hitler used it amazingly as a propaganda tool to amass support for his diabolical campaigns during the 1940s. In no other state has there been a closer connection between politics and cinema as there has been in Tamil Nadu.
Is there any doubt about the impact of cinema on the Tamil audience? So isn’t it time that the next generation of filmmakers create a revolution in gender issues and break the stereotypical portrayal of women? If you look around you, in reality women are breaking these barriers. Women in Tamil Nadu have made their mark in several fields, becoming CEOs of companies, world class athletes and heads of government to name just a few.
While lakhs of students united at the Marina beach to fight for a sport that is a display of Tamil masculinity, a small group of women were also fighting to claim their right to public spaces through their campaign “I will go out”. Unfortunately this campaign is primarily online with very few of them actually being able to go out and protest.
As a screenwriting teacher guiding students through their ideas, I feel morally obligated to instigate a change. On the one hand students should be allowed the creative freedom to express themselves but on the other hand isn’t it the role of the teacher to impart some important values? So what should I do when a student pitches a feature film idea of a psychopathic serial killer who rapes and mutilates innocent women as revenge for being sexually molested at age 10 by his step mother? Or a story of an underage girl married off to her maternal uncle to suffer verbal and physical abuse because she is domestically inexperienced and gets slapped by her parents for trying to leave him?
Write back and let me know your thoughts.
– Lata Murugan