International Women's Day 2017: Scoping the dearth of realistic female characters in Tamil films

Which performance of a female actor have you rooted for in the last five years in Tamil cinema?

Come on. Think hard. Okay, Let me help. Anjali in Iraivi? Aishwarya Rajesh in Kakka Muttai? Rithika in Irudhi Suttru? But who are the heroines who matter to the box-office? Nayanthara, Tamannah, Trisha, Shruti Haasan, Samantha and Anushka (if you cross borders and touch Telugu-land as well). But what are the significant, noteworthy role(s) which you can name beyond one film for each of them?

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Sridevi started her career in Tamil films with meaty roles. Revathy also has a stellar filmography to her credit. More recent actresses, like Shruti Hassan and Nayanthara, may be box office successes, but their roles are mostly forgettable. Images from News 18.

Nayanthara is in a league of her own and acts in prominent roles, you will say. You will further name Raja Rani, Naanum Rowdythaan, Puthiya Niyamam (in Malayalam) as her best performances, but when you compare it with Revathy in Mouna Raagam or Devar Magan, or Radhika’s sensitive portrayal as the widow in Sippikkul Muthu (dubbed from Telugu doyen K Vishwanath’s Swathi Muthyam) where she shines along with Kamal Haasan, where does it stand?

Trisha still has only a Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya as her calling card to a performing role (and Ghilli prior to that) but her's is an illustrious decade plus career, which could’ve easily seen five good roles and a few awards to boot. The recent film Kodi did little for her talent or box office value, but her spate of to-be released films has one or two interesting stories lined up.

Is the current bunch of heroines slotting themselves to take on only ‘a specific kind of role’ or is the current lot of writers/directors not giving them any good characters?

Post the 90s a strong role for a heroine would mean a character which is polarised between an avenging angel and melodrama queen. The Vyjayanthi IPS or the school teacher who would sacrifice her lot for her family. There was no middle path. Unless of course the director was Mani Ratnam, Gautham Menon or now Karthik Subburaj, whose heroines have something pertinent to do. But the likes of these directors you can count in one hand.

The stories dealt with in Tamil films recently, play between romance, horror galore and regular masala with many new writers/directors introducing heroines in their small budget debut films. Even though the ladies may perform well in that film, their career doesn’t progress beyond a point or they don’t acquiesce themselves to future greatness.

Without going into the times of Savithri or Padmini, let’s begin with the cinema of the 80s. The best of them all came from the 80s, because Tamil cinema had the best writers and directors then.

K Balachander was a heroine’s dream director who churned out scripts with stronger-than-the-hero roles for his heroines. Rudraiyah gave Sripriya her career best role in Aval Appadithaan (She is like that only – see the defiance in the title). The film had Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth play second fiddle to Sripriya, whose portrayal should’ve won her a national award but surprisingly didn’t.

Bharathiraja gave Sridevi her earliest best role as Mayilu in 16 Vayathiniley and he, along with K Balachander and Mahendran, gave the world Sridevi. She stole the limelight from her heroes in Tamil/Telugu and went on to steal it in good measure in Hindi cinema too. Hers was a “total entertainment package” which found mass appeal and piqued the interest of the class audiences as well (see the song Hawai Hawai from Mr India on Youtube and contrast it with her subtle, nuanced acting from Mahendran’s Jhonny).

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Post marriage Jyothika has taken on bolder roles, while Khushboo was the one who brought life to the term 'bubbly actress'. Images from News 18.

Bharathiraja also introduced powerhouse performers like Radhika, Revathy and Radha to name a few.

K Bhagyaraj wrote films which straddled human relationships with humour and hence the female character always had to play a pivotal role in them – Urvasi, Sarita, Radhika, Ambika were all given solid characters in his films. The writing, directing and acting went hand-in-hand then.

Lakshmi, who is on par with the likes of Shabana Azmi or Smitha Patil and has more than one national award as proof of her talent, also ruled the silver-screen marquee when she played mother to Rajnikanth in Netrikann. The examples to cite from the 80s are many as it was an era which saw the rise of Mani Ratnam, who even in his rather playful Agni Nakshatram or Geetanjali had heroines who made a mark (Amala for instance).

When one sits down to pen a piece extolling roles for heroines in Tamil films, one can’t help but stop with characters till the mid 90s. Post millennia, Hindi films take the cake. Back in the south, it is Malayalam cinema that has always seen the rise of performing female actors but with the exception of Asin and Nayanthara, none of them could shine outside of Malayalam films.

Simran emerged as a superlative actor who balanced acting (Kannathil Muthamittal), dancing (check out her trademark hip-shake in the song 'Aalthotta Boopathy' with Vijay), and glamour in greater measure. Her contemporary Jyothika held her own in films like Dum Dum Dum, Khushi and Khakka Khakka but both of them are yet to win the coveted National award. Post marriage Jyothika has taken on bolder roles and like her contemporary Manju Warrier in Malayalam films, she can carry off the whole film on her own merit.

The era when Khushbu had a temple built in her name came more out of adulation for her persona than identification with the roles she played. That’s when the term “bubbly” came to be a mark of a commercial heroine’s character in Tamil films – a term which Hansika embodies today.

This chronology also brings us to question how the Tamil film industry, which churns out as many films as Hindi, does not have a contender for the Best Actress National Award for the last eleven years. Priyamani won it last for Paruthiveeran (2006). Only names like Anjali and Aishwarya Rajesh crop up now and the roles for them come in spurts.

There is a dearth of wholesome, realistic characters written for women in Tamil films.

Sneha was a potential talent who acted in a record number of films before her marriage but whose star value did not see the kind of rise that a Simran or Anushka or Nayanthara or Trisha have seen.

Tamannah was introduced in the non-glamorous Happy Days in Telugu and Kallori in Tamil but moved on to taste commercial success and remains there. Meanwhile Samantha, too, began with a solid acting role in Ye Maaya Cheysaave (Telugu) and Neethaane Enn Ponnvasantham in Tamil, both Gautham Menon flicks (what did I say earlier about counting directors who pen good roles for women? Count them, count them)

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None of the current lot of actresses (Hansika, Trisha Krishnan and Tammannah in this image) have contended for the Best Actress for the National Awards. Images from News 18.

The bigger drawback for current heroines is that they don’t dub for themselves, but that didn’t stop a Radha or Nadhiya in the 80s from playing roles which are recalled even today. Neither did it stop Simran or Jyothika from taking up roles equal to Ajith or Vijay and Surya or Vikram.

Is the lack of a heroine of substance in Tamil films a reflection of the times we live in?

But if that was the case how did we have stellar roles written for women earlier? Who is to blame for the abject lack of names in Tamil to compare with a Vidya Balan, Kangana or Alia Bhatt? Will this piece on Women’s Day become fodder for a debate for heroines to portray varied roles in Tamil? Good questions, these, if I may say so myself.

Take our International Women's Day quiz.


Published Date: Mar 08, 2017 11:33 am | Updated Date: Mar 08, 2017 01:25 pm