The Tamil Cinema Heroine: Mini Skirts and Bar Counters

Two years back, a Tamil movie had a female lead who drinks vodka, albeit unknown to her family and on seeing a girl she calls her “matter”, having seen her profile on By all means, this was an unconventional Tamil heroine character in a very conventional commercial Tamil film. The film is Thuppakki, one which is talked more about for calling a single terrorist as “sleeper cells” than anything else. I find it as one of the first commercial films where Tamil cinema is getting ready to see its heroine as more than the “veetu kutthuvezhaku” that she has been expected to be.

Film critic Baradwaj Rangan, tells about Silk Smitha and the image of the vamps of Tamil cinema as “Till the end of the 1960s, the bulk of movies, unlike the Hindi film industry, were not shot at hill stations. They were family dramas with strong family-oriented cores. The heroine was sari-clad, demure and sexy in a girl-next-door way. There was no boa, no bikinis. The first of the vamps were Jayamalini and Jyothilakshmi. They were made to stand for everything negative in society that the heroine could not represent. Who were the heroines at the time? Ambika, Radha, Revathi and Suhasini. These were the ‘sexy’ heroines in the non-erotic sense. They represented the family. As a variety of villains cropped up, they became gangster molls. The vamp began to represent society’s hypocrisy.”

Mr.Rangan’s explanation offers the ideology behind the success of the vamps and the family oriented heroines in Tamil cinema. The importance placed on chastity and purity on a heroine in our films, especially in the South is something we can understand from the need for the vamps. There hardly has been any space in Tamil commercial cinema for the heroine to be anything more than an ornamental production value which the hero needs to grow from boy to man or in Nathan Rabin‘s words, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

silksmitha1In Thuppakki, the female lead is not an MPDG but she hasn’t really got much scope either. She has a boxing game to show she is more than just waiting for her man, she drinks vodka in parties,she dances on tables, a performance more attuned to a Silk Smitha gyrating to an Ilayaraja number than something with bland lyrics and the heroine being sexed up, like women we are more than capable of seeing on the streets of our cities today. I don’t trudge this point around to make wild theories of how the women have more important roles now. They don’t. They are hardly have important character traits or a life of their own in these commercial films but atleast they are starting to be more than Vadapalani/Mambalam area Iyer girl who needs only 10 Rs. a day and takes curd rice to college, wears a half sari and waits for her mother’s brother to marry her.

I am writing about this change from half-sari clad female running around trees to a mini skirt wearing female dancing on bar counters not based on Thuppakki alone but two other films that I happened to watch in the last few days. One is the Dhanush-Amala Paul starrer Velaiyilla Pattathari directed by Velraj and the other is “Arima Nambi” starring Priya Anand and Vikram Prabhu directed by Anand Shankar. The former is a commercial entertainer where Amala Paul plays the woman that looks like a cinema actress as the hero’s mother tells him and a girl-next-door who is unlike most heroines but still performs the duty of standing beside her man and being a showpiece in the movie.

Amala Paul‘s Shalini is a woman who earns Rs. 2 lakh a month – more than her lover, doesn’t yearn to watch Bommalatam with her mother, opens up to kiss her man and hugs her male friend, someone who isn’t a beggar, a child or a relative. By initiating a kiss and hugging a male friend, her character breaks away from the stereotypical response expected of a Tamil film heroine, leaving anyone who noticed these gasping at the incredulity to give a character who has a life, though it is not something we can still expect to be extolled in our films as of yet, like say a Queen or the brilliant Kalyana Samayal Saadham. The reason this hug is something I consider important is that the aftermath didn’t have the hero call her or create a scene asking her to explain her relationship with the man she hugged. There’s no “gaana” song or pathos creating to show his indecisive state of mind or a late night escapade where he climbs the balcony of her house and stalks her to the point we find him creepy.

In “Arima Nambi“, Priya Anand is a rich kid who can afford to go to Hard Rock Café with her friends and drinks beer. She spends her first date with a man drinking wine and invites him over to her place to finish off the night drinking vodka. She is the woman you go out with and also take home to meet the mother now. It is no longer a world where these women are the sultry sirens breaking homes, they also make homes as evident in “Kalyana Samayal Saadham”.

In VIP, you find Dhanush refusing to kiss her on the lips, citing that it should be after they get married. The tone here has been to set the moral compass old back but they have moved the same from the area of the heroine to the hero. The moral righteousness has been transported to the hero’s court, an act that doesn’t deserve to be present at all but this will take time to evolve and be gotten rid of in our films. The success of VIP makes me feel that it will be a long time before this misplaced family audience acceptance of a hero and heroine’s “virgin puritanism” will take some doing before it is forever relinquished.I’d be hard pressed to find a guy who doesn’t want to kiss Amala Paul, atleast someone who falls in the age group of 16-30. I stifle a groan when such moments arise in today’s films and unless the actor is as talented as Dhanush, I’d be rolling my eyes. “Arima Nambi” on the other hand doesn’t try to place a moral code on its leads. The only reason they haven’t yet kissed 20 minutes into the film is because one of the leads breaks off feeling rushed and not ready when the fated moment arrives. There isn’t a misplaced sense of “karpu” or “after marriage sentiment” here. It’s a matter of fact experience, one that isn’t embellished or slow mo-ed to create any superfluous effect.

Hello 21st Century! This is the woman who inhabits the world now and the younger directors are showing an inclination to give them the space, blurring the lines that once discriminated a Silk Smitha and a Disco Shanti with a Revathy and a Sridevi. The need for a woman other than the heroine to ooze sex appeal is still present. We have the item number, which even Arima Nambi didn’t escape and a woman’s chastity is starting to become more than her hand not brushing another man’s and her drinking nothing but water, not even orange or apple juice.

Vaayai Moodi Pesavum has Madhoo as a writer turned house-wife. She wants to find a way to have a career, at the insistence of a male character but nevertheless, there’s hope for a career other than taking care of the household.  These are very little things, things that make me hope. When I watch Simran in “Thulladha Manamum Thullum” or Deivayani in “Suryavamsham”, they go after a career for their own but they are unrealistic, highly pristine characters, the kind that exist in dreams and used to be the template for a heroine.

Manju WarrierWe have art house productions where we can see an actress exhibit her range and show us the life of a woman, though rare, we have a couple of such movies coming out every two years. In commercial cinema, we have had heroines who’ve been sculpted to perfection, the kind one would be hard pressed to find even in the Taj Mahal. It’s a culture that’s come to be over the years thanks to writers trying to depict the perfect family, the do-gooders and the ideal society, one without blemishes. Sadly, the very depiction is an expectation of perfection that cannot be and so we look at these characters and feel distant, removed from their plight and happiness unless a tremendously gifted actor essays the role. In the changing landscape, there will be less demureness, the kind which made Revathy or Manju Warrier the ideal woman in their times and we should ideally end up seeing ourselves on screen, flirting nervously, fidgeting and appearing well above our station.

I am not trying to push forward my feminist agenda here but trying to point the space where the character traits of a commercial heroine are changing, for the better. Someday we’ll have a truly universal heroine who’ll live life the way she wants to in a commercial film and still do the kind of investigative road trip that Shobana does in Thira. Our films won’t do away with heroines who are ornamental like the ever present chandelier in a Baz Luhrmann film but atleast they are showing a willingness to not judge them or cast them as angels. It’s a positive step, even if it is too little.


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