Tamil web series Topless takes a story about women, honour and makes it about the absurdities of men
The one thing that makes Topless, a Zee5 web series, work is that it’s through and through absurdist: There is no meaning, morality, purpose, or even order in its universe. But it stops just short of truly exploring ideas that intersect with honour, and also makes some seriously problematic assumptions.
Serial Chiller is Ranjani Krishnakumar’s monthly column about all things Tamil television. Read more from the series here.
In the middle of Episode 3 — titled ‘Wrong Hole’ — minister Kalki is at a TV studio to discuss his new policy for women’s safety: A dress code for women. Also on the debate is Reshma, who is introduced as a ‘social media feminist’. When asked to speak, Kalki regurgitates the three-four lines he’s practiced with caution. When challenged, he runs out of platitudes and gets personal.
He tells the TV show host, “Paarunga ivanga dupatta podala, enakku uruthudhu” (Look, she isn’t wearing a dupatta and that irks me).
Reshma loses her temper and yells, “Unga amma, paati ellam dupatta potrundhaangalaa?” (Did your mother and grandmother wear a dupatta?).
Kalki storms out of the studio. Only to return with a folded chair with which he smashes Reshma’s head in. It is at this point, almost mid-way through the six-episode series that Topless, Zee5’s latest Tamil web-series, actually takes off. And we get the answer to her question soon enough.
Topless is the story of about two dozen men and one British woman, whose lives intersect at a colonial-era painting. Helena Wellesley, the British woman, is looking for her grandfather’s painting to restore his legacy. Kalki and his men are looking for the same painting to protect his ‘kudumba maanam’ (family honour). Thrown in for good measure are a band of thieves; a drug-smuggling, money-laundering gangster; his disrespected twin; a double-crossing broker; you get the gist — a motley bunch of characters written exclusively for their quirks.
The one thing that makes Topless work is that it’s through and through absurdist: There is no meaning, morality, purpose, or even order in its universe. Absolutely no character seems to know what’s going on, each improvising so terribly as they go along. There is also little by way of human emotion that brings any of them together. The fact that they all appear to be fundamentally nitwits helps the cause.
Creator and director Dinesh Mohan positions himself as a somewhat distant observer of this chaotic and colourful universe, careful not to make anyone the hero. In Dinesh’s work, they are all selfish idiots in their individualistic pursuits, which will lead them to violent doom.
The non-linear writing adds to the texture. Over the course of the six episodes, several scenes replay over and over, each time revealing a little more than the previous. With each reveal, we understand why no one knows anything. It is both appalling and amusing.
In its absurdism, Topless isn’t frivolous. The ideas of honour and legacy underline the series. In fact, its MacGuffin places the idea of honour quite literally on women’s bodies, with big men willing to pay any price to control how it is presented. Surprisingly, perhaps unwittingly, it’s the ‘family’ who are unsettled by honour. For the unattached, the female body and its representation seems to have no value other than monetary. In that sense, Topless not only questions the farcicality of honour, but also the social systems that birth it.
Guru Somasundaram as the politician Kalki has great screen presence, he brings the horrific character to life in its entirety. His Kalki is both the everyman and the monster. Harish Uthaman gets another Kaithi-like character — all build up, no substance — which he tries his best to play effectively. Arun Alexander in his understated double role is a pleasant surprise.
But, the show stops just short of truly exploring ideas that intersect with honour. Without any woman in the present-day narrative, other than Helena who is so thinly sketched, the series makes a conscious decision that it is about the absurdities of men, their lives and their pursuit of honour. But the colonial past the series presents is the story of a woman. In using the past to merely explain the present conundrum, the series makes the mistake ignoring ideas of intersectionality of caste, consent etc, which could have starkly thrown light on today’s absurdities. In the process, it also makes some seriously problematic assumptions.
After a point, the absurdism also goes too far. A Chinese man rises from death to help another dead man reach his destiny — a sequence that stands out like a sore thumb. A few bottles of laughing gas are milked to their last drop. An astrologer runs a thematic voice-over as if to explain concepts.
There is also a thin layer of sexual innuendo that feels rather misplaced. Even if we treat the stolen car — with a dildo in the glove compartment, and a man wearing a gag ball in the trunk — as an idiosyncrasy of this universe, episodes having pornographic titles, and a character randomly identifying himself as Johnny Sins are all no more than quirk for the sake of quirk.
At a run-time of over 140 minutes, Topless is not an easy watch if you’re not a fan of the absurdist action genre. Even if you are one, this might be entertaining, if only for the dystopian ideas that are thrown in for you to find.
Ranjani Krishnakumar is a writer, obsessor and a nascent Chennai-vasi. You can reach her at @_tharkuri
Subscribe to Moneycontrol Pro at ₹499 for the first year. Use code PRO499. Limited period offer. *T&C apply
John Keats' concept of 'negative capability', or sitting in uncertainty, is needed now more than ever
Rather than coming to an immediate conclusion about an event, idea or person, Keats advises resting in doubt and continuing to pay attention and probe in order to understand it more completely.
Paris' Théâtre de la Ville, started as a lockdown initiative, attests to the healing power of a 'poetic consultation'
Anyone can sign up for a time slot, or make a gift of a call to someone. The exchange generally starts with simple questions about the recipient’s life, then ranges in any direction; after 20 to 25 minutes, the actor introduces the poem.
As European countries mull meaningful steps to end colonial legacies, Sweden makes for an important case study
The EU has some way to go to fully recognise, let alone address, the structural legacies of colonialism.