Lakshmi: Furore over Tamil short film shows society can't handle a woman's adultery, even in fiction
What can explain the overreaction to a simple Tamil short film, Lakshmi, about two married people who may have both cheated?
By the time I watched Lakshmi — an eponymous short film film about one Lakshmi, with the terrific Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli in the lead — I was already aware of that it was a hot potato. If we have learned anything, it is that any controversy is good for a film. It brings with it eyeballs. The proof of this is in fact in the hits the film’s received — over a million on YouTube, released on the page Ondraaga Entertainment which is the official page of Tamil filmmaker Gautham Menon. So I am happy for the makers of the short.
What is befuddling, however, is the overreaction to the film. Lakshmi works in a printing press, is in a deeply unsatisfying marriage and has a young son. When she doubts that her husband might be having an affair, she recollects her own experience outside marriage. She meets a charming stranger on a train to work. And eventually sleeps over at his place. Whether she actually does anything to warrant the term ‘affair’ is left to our imagination but for the sake of the story, we must assume that she indeed does.
The film by Sarjun KM would have possibly been ignored if it were made in English or even Tanglish in a ‘multiplex’ setup. It is set in a middle class household (by the character’s own admission) with the lead dressed in a sari, all pinned up or a nightie, and her hair oiled and braided, her bindi intact. Perhaps that touches a raw nerve? Making it to close to home for comfort?
Though the film is charming in its simplicity and captures a fleeting moment or two of abandon (when Lakshmi spends the night with the stranger, Kathir) and horror (Lakshmi’s reaction to when her child lying on the bed stirs briefly, even as she and her husband are intimate on the floor), it definitely doesn’t warrant this kind of reaction, because fictional characters have done a lot more than poor Lakshmi manages to do in this film in the Tamil world.
Even as films about men reminiscing their past come and go to great acclaim, every decade, few in Tamil cinema talk about a woman and her relationships. Rudhraiya’s moving Manju in Aval Appadithaan comes to mind, as does K Balachander’s Aval Oru Thodarkathai (in which Phataphat Jayalakshmi rose to great prominence) in this regard. Jayalakshmi’s character and her mother fall for the same man in the film, and Jayalakshmi is also shown as having an abortion in the 1974 film… Balachander specialised in these ‘shock and awe’ shows of seemingly impossible relationships. The Tamil literary world is far ahead of course, than its filmmakers will ever be in writing about women’s sexual agency, sexuality and the patriarchy. From Moovalur Ramamirtham to Salma, Sukirtharani, and Kutti Revathi to Thi Jaa and Jeyakanthan to Ambai and Karichan Kunju (who wrote the first modern Tamil novel that dealt with homosexuality, Pasitha Manudam) writers have been pushing the envelope for a long time now. What the current controversy shows is, how society at large reacts to ideas in the intellectual realm or limited space (like print), when they are brought to a mass medium like YouTube. It surely irks those who seek to benefit from denial and the status quo.
The practice of men marrying more than one woman is such an integral part of our world that films that talk about it, like Chinna Veedu and Rettai Vaal Kuruvi have been hailed as classics. And it is often a trope for humour, like in Sathi Leelavathi. So clearly our populace’s objection isn’t to the idea of adultery. It is the idea of a woman adulterer, even in the realm of fiction, that affects our society so deeply. The control of women’s bodies and their sexualities is indeed patriarchy’s most important project. We saw that in the controversy around Perumal Murugan’s Madhorubagan. In our imagination, women are the keepers of ‘karpu’ and must at no point ‘falter’.
The writer is the founding editor of The Madras Mag
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