On loving problematic Tamil cinema, and where 1999's Monisha En Monalisa fits on that spectrum
In this column, we'll be assessing the alleged problematic-ness of a movie called Monisha En Monalisa. Those who are familiar with the oeuvre of T Rajendran and remember this one may be saying, oh my God why in the actual everloving heck.
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.
Hi fam! Today we were supposed to talk about something called the “problematic-ness of discussing problematic things in regional cinema”. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what that was supposed to mean. I think I wanted to talk about how when a woman talks about sexism or other issues in Tamil movies, I am immediately concerned for her safety. But if I’m honest, I am also thinking that she probably didn’t “get” the movie, and that posh, upper-class, urban “Peters” are often too Western to understand real Tamil cinema.
I would love to say that these are the gross thoughts of some entitled old dude, but they are my gross thoughts. The absurdity of this does not escape me. I try very hard to appear woke on the internet. And here I am, having un-woke thoughts and berating allegedly “English” things. In English. I think it’s kind of like when you hit yourself with your own hand and say dude why are you hitting yourself.
Here’s the thing. I have a very specific love for Tamil cinema, something that began in school. The entire Tamil cinema experience was something we all took very, very seriously and this meant following certain rules. For instance, we never, ever, EVER criticised the hero. If he slapped someone, ate someone or set someone on fire, it was because they deserved it. Everything a hero did was ALWAYS awesome. ALWAYS. The “kindal” or “eve-teasing” songs which young men used to harass us in the street were fine in the movie, because the hero was a good person, the heroine actually liked him too, they were just having fun, the heroine was asking for it, etc. Stalking was real love, like really, really, really real love. And if the girl just accepted the stalker in the first place, everything would be fine.
This was apart from the usual tropes — all good women wore saris. Women were simply different than men. And this was why the idea of a woman being equal to a man, was “feminist” — aka the worst thing ever ever.
Cinema was a very big part of who we were. And whenever we saw something that made us uncomfortable, we never allowed ourselves to feel uncomfortable. We defended and justified everything we saw because….well, I’m not sure why. And I still do this, even today because deep down, I am hugely invested in protecting Tamil cinema from…I’m not sure of that either.
In an effort to unravel this supremely absurd state of affairs, I thought I would look back on certain films from my youth and assess their alleged problematic-ness. These are movies which made me uncomfortable. But I dismissed the problematic aspects as being misunderstood or not a big deal. Of course if these had been English movies, I would have loudly whined about how awful they were.
I would like to kick this off by assessing the alleged problematic-ness of a movie called Monisha En Monalisa. Those who are familiar with the oeuvre of T Rajendran and remember this one may be saying, oh my God why in the actual everloving heck. Well, when this movie came out, we were all fascinated with it because it seemed to be brimming over with “white” North Indians, it had something called computer technology and the dialogues were heavily interspersed with English. All of this was incredibly glamorous to us.
I also remember this movie because at the time, a number of girls in my class were already being harassed by various young men who were following them home, trying to touch them in crowds, harassing them in the street and slipping them notes which often reduced these girls to tears. And here was this movie about a guy who was also stalking a girl and it was fine because it was real love! I mean, golly fam!
So! In our next exciting instalment! We will watch Monisha En Monalisa and see if it really is problematic! Can’t hardly wait y’all!
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
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