How the character of the 'Foreign Return' woman in Indian cinema became a conduit for moral sermonising

Kuzhali Manickavel

Sep 13, 2019 09:52:13 IST

Allegedly Problematic' is a monthly column by Kuzhali Manickavel, which takes a cheeky look at literary/cultural offerings from the past that would now be considered, well, problematic — and asks, 'But are they really?'.

Read more from the series here.


This column is supposed to look at allegedly problematic media, as if that is an interesting thing to do. For this instalment however, I thought it would be neat to look at a trope instead, namely the trope of the Foreign Return that appears in some Indian cinema. At this juncture, it behooves us to make a few important disclaimers. I am going to talk mostly about Tamil cinema in
a very general way, particularly movies that came out between the '50s and the '90s. Ideally I should include at least the names of some of these movies but I can’t remember any of them because I am old. In other words, I have no proof, I just know it happened. More importantly, I have no authority to speak about Tamil movies, I just like watching them. I have this platform to write about them though, which is not necessarily fair but sometimes life is like that. And of course a trope is not media and sometimes life is like that also.

In the various movies I have seen, there were different kinds of Foreign Return — there was the Hero Foreign Return, which was just awesome. There was the Villain Foreign Return, which was the worst thing ever. But something that was far, far worse than the villain being the Foreign Return was for a woman to be the Foreign Return. Sometimes this woman was the heroine and sometimes she was the “side piece”, which is one of those terrible terms people use because everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about. As a youth who was myself kind-of-but-not-really a Foreign Return, I was always a little flummoxed by these women. They were, for the most part, awful human beings. They were rude, they abused animals and they kept telling people to either get out or shut up, often for no reason at all. No matter what the weather, they always wore elaborate dresses brimming over with ruffles and lace, topped off with hats which they seemed to wear all the time.

 How the character of the Foreign Return woman in Indian cinema became a conduit for moral sermonising

Illustration courtesy Amrai Dua for Firstpost

During the odd moments when they chose not to wear a hat, the hair was left open and for some reason it resembled a shiny helmet. Sometimes they even wore trousers or the glamorous (for us, anyway) salwar kameez. They were often seen carrying and sometimes even reading an English novel. They ate in oddly constructed restaurants surrounded by bewildered staff. They played the guitar or piano in the most extraordinary fashion, usually at parties where everyone stood with their backs to the wall, holding colourful drinks and looking sad. They had a small radio and they wore nighties. They sang at least one song in which, like many of the rappers of today, they talked about how amazing they were while doing posh things like driving cars, riding horses, eating ice-cream and enjoying soft drinks straight from the bottle. They served little purpose other than to be awful and were slapped and raped as a result, sometimes willy-nilly.

As a child, I would often wonder about these Foreign Return women. I wondered if they ever felt like ‘going back to where they came from’, like all good immigrants are supposed to. I wondered what happened to all their pants when the urge to wear them was slapped out of them and they made the virtuous switch to saris. And of course, I wondered if someone was going to beat me like they kept beating her. So is this trope of the Foreign Return lady problematic or only allegedly so? Should we even be wondering about this because after all, it’s just a woman? We will contemplate these burning issues further in our next column.

Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of the short story collections 'Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings' and 'Things We Found During the Autopsy', both available from Blaft Publications

Updated Date: Sep 14, 2019 10:05:24 IST