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Sridevi in her first adult role in K. Balachander’s Moondru Mudichu.
Sridevi in her first adult role in K. Balachander’s Moondru Mudichu.

The rebels of Tamil cinema

K. Balachander's heroines, and others from films in the 1970s and 1980s, played complex roles and scandalized the Tamil society of that time

As someone who has watched and tracked Tamil movies all her life, one of the things I notice is the fall of the heroine. There are exceptions, but by and large, Tamil films these days are hero-oriented, action films with a thin storyline. Women play the love interest, or dance an item number, with Rajinikanth’s Lingaa being the latest example.

It wasn’t always like this. Directors like Balu Mahendra, Bharathiraja, Bhagyaraj, and most particularly, K. Balachander, who died on 23 December, made films that were centred around women. Where are directors like that today?

Chennai in the 1970s was a mixture of conservatism and oddball eccentrics. Girls couldn’t walk down the street in jeans without getting disapproving stares. But it was perfectly okay for a man to be married to two sisters. This triumvirate lived down the street from my aunt’s home in T Nagar. It gets weirder. They had sublet their downstairs apartment to the milkman, who chose to house his buffaloes in the flat and live in his ramshackle hut.

Balachander’s genius was to choose themes that were considered revolutionary for Chennai, yet ones that they could relate to. His movies mirrored Chennai’s fervid lust and shrouded hypocrisies.

Balachander’s films were all women-centric; but his heroines weren’t doormats who served their husbands rasam-rice, and shrunk into the background. These heroines took charge of their destinies. In Arangetram, released in 1973, the heroine came from a large, poor and conservative Brahmin family. She turned to prostitution to support her large clan. Sensitively and sympathetically told, the film simultaneously caused an uproar and raised questions about family planning. To have a young Brahmin girl support her family was novel enough; but to have her look the audiences in the eye and justify her choice of career upended everyone’s expectations of how a Brahmin girl ought to behave. The fact that the plot was believable made it critically and commercially successful.

Balachander didn’t do fantasy. His women took their reality by the balls and shook it to suit their circumstances.

In a 1976 film, Moondru Mudichu (three knots, traditionally tied during a marriage on a turmeric yellow mangalsutra or thread), Balachander gave a 13-year-old actor named Sridevi her first adult film role. She was the woman caught between two men (Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth). The man she loves, Haasan, dies in a boating accident, engineered by the other, Rajinikanth. She is pursued and cornered by Rajinikanth, who believes his wealth and power will make her marry him. What does Sridevi do? She turns the tables on the man who lusts after her by marrying his father. As a stepmother, she is owed respect and has the power over her scheming “son". It is this facile use of specific cultural touchstones that gave Balachander’s movies their potency. Chennai audiences could relate to arranged marriages, even ones arranged by the woman in question. They could imagine a poor girl like Sridevi marrying an older man as a marriage of convenience. To watch her arrive as Rajinikanth’s stepmother was the ultimate slap in the face from both a traditional and feminist point of view. Marrying these two effects was Balachander’s forte.

Bhagyaraj was similarly effective in combining tradition and novelty. In Antha 7 Naatkal (Those 7 Days, made into Woh Saat Din in Hindi), a woman tries to commit suicide on her wedding night. Her husband discovers that she is pining for her lover and decides to find him. By that time, the woman has formed relationships with her husband’s child (he is a widower) and his ageing mother. The climax has her clutching to her mangalsutra and refusing to return to her lover. “My lover can become your wife, but your wife can never become my lover," says the hero in the end.

Balu Mahendra cast Sridevi and Haasan in Moondram Pirai (Sadma in Hindi) where a young man looks after a girl who, after suffering a head injury, has regressed to childhood. Sridevi, quite simply, stole the show, a far cry from the “thunder thighs" roles that she essayed for Hindi movies.

Sridevi proved to be quite a muse for many of that era’s directors. Bharathiraja made his cult classic 16 Vayathinile (Solva Saawan in Hindi), with her in the lead. Rajinikanth and Haasan played opposite her.

Films such as these launched their long tenure as leading men of Tamil cinema. Sadly, neither Haasan nor Rajinikanth used their clout to encourage their female co-stars. Not then; and not later. Then again, it is no use blaming the heroes. Both Haasan and Rajinikanth have two daughters each; and are ostensibly surrounded by strong women. Yet, women are marginalized in their movies; forced to conform to traditional roles that are almost like caricatures in today’s world. Rajinikanth’s current movies have forgettable women who are cast simply as eye candy.

What Tamil films need are strong directors who are fascinated with women like the directors in the 1970s and 1980s.

The late Balachander will be sorely missed.

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