For Tamil cinema in 2017, Magalir Mattum represented the kind of startling liberation of womankind rarely seen in its films. For decades now, the industry had thrived on a skewed normal – the abject dismissal of the female gender through distasteful jokes and a generally poor depiction of characters. The men were the highlight of its movies, and the women rose into prominence – not entirely of the right kind – only when the men chose to shine light on them. And so, when Magalir Mattum, with four women protagonists who had no man to vouch for them, and who actually seemed to rise against daily oppression – a regular, normal occurrence across households – hit theatres, male audiences were baffled. Surely, there was a perverse joke at the end of it all, like those WhatsApp ones that are adulatory at first and then get progressively offensive. None arrived, though. Bramma was earnest in his over-the-top, dramatic depictions.
And, not without merit. For once, women were indulging in some brash heroics normally reserved for male leads. They ate, they drank, they made merry, they bitched about husbands and children and marriage and had the time of their lives. For an audience that is quite used to seeing the intricacies of male friendship on screen, or the man-woman romance, this was different – coming face-to-face with the sisterhood that is characteristic of most female relationships. Also part of the lesson was a ‘woke’ man, someone who – god forbid – actually cooked for his family.
Magalir Mattum, starring Urvashi, Saranya Ponvannan, Bhanupriya and Jyotika, was a kind of welcome, albeit much-dramatised relief – and a triumphant beginning for gender dialogue. Especially in the face of the brutal murders of two young women in Chennai, perpetrated by stalkers, that were chilling in their reality. The men just couldn’t take no for an answer.
Perhaps the best of the 2017 crop, Aruvi intimately portrays a girl as she grows out of her idyllic childhood in the villages, and comes to accept the harsh love of the city. It follows her through adolescence and young adulthood, and documents the tribulations of a woman ‘tainted’ by a disease that the society considers a taboo. Her family ostracizes her, and she takes refuge in a shelter, where she befriends Emily, a transgender person who is portrayed with a dignity that’s rare to come by in cinema. Aruvi is path-breaking because it decimates casteist, classist, sexist notions through a brilliantly-written script – laced with comedy, often dark – at the right intervals.
Vikram Vedha treads the fine line of grey. It stars Madhavan as Vikram, a seemingly good police officer in pursuit of Vedha, an elusive ‘criminal’. More than Vijay Sethupathi’s performance as the irreverent, haughty Vedha with ideals of his own, the tale is noteworthy for its theme: That everyone – across caste, class and other social labels – have their own interpretation of justice and what is considered just or moral, and that such definitions are largely influenced by individual experiences. Shraddha Srinath, in an interesting role, plays Vedha’s defense attorney even as her husband is in hot pursuit of the criminal.
Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu
Suresh Sangiah’s debut film, Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu, is a rural tale that follows a newly-wed couple and their family as they travel to another village to sacrifice a goat. A brilliantly-written black comedy, it subtly explores the minds of people when confronted with an extraordinary situation – a murder in this case.
Perhaps why this film deserves to be here is thanks to its theme of finding love when you are well past your prime. Rajkiran and Revathi reconnect with each other when they are in their 60s, with grandchildren of their own. Dhanush’s directorial debut, this movie played to the gallery with overblown sentiments and seemingly uncaring adult children who ignore their parents. We may not quite agree with the reasoning – who needs one to fall in love, anyway? – but, it was nevertheless endearing to watch Raj Kiran in heavy biker jackets.
With Nayanthara in the lead – a little staid, but beautiful nevertheless – Aramm, quite like Magalir Mattum, revels in female star-power. Nayanthara as Mathivahini, is an IAS officer with a conscience, idealistic in her views, representing the people in a government that is morally corrupt. In Aramm, that showcases a dismal social setting, Nayanthara does what all heroes of the old (and new), do. She becomes the voice of the oppressed, fights, emerges victorious – all in elegant cotton saris. She gets the treatment that is usually reserved for male leads, and has the kind of exaggerated, overly cinematic plot elements that is characteristic of all movies with male superstars. Soon after the movie released though, a Tamil magazine published an interview with a real IAS officer. The reporter’s brief seems to have been clear. How authentic are the situations and characters depicted in Aramm, really?
Adhe Kangal features Sshivada Nair in a role that is quite beguiling. A criminal mastermind who targets blind men, wins their affections and robs them of their money, the character is unconscionable – beautifully so. She is never prone to sudden fits of morality nor are there explanations for her behaviour. She is simply who she is: A ruthless criminal.
One of the many movies that tries to connect disparate events that unfold over a particular period of time, Maanagaram is, by far, the best of all. The characters come from varied social backgrounds; one from the districts with staunch morals, trying to make a living in the city, the other a city-bred young man with trials of his own. Their lives converge at one point, and they stand unified against an external threat. All through the film, we never get to know their names; the characters remain ordinary people – one among the milling crowd but each with a story to tell.
This Arun Chidambaram directorial explores a socially-relevant theme: That of villages and hamlets that lack electricity, and the fact that much of learning happens outside educational institutions. The movie’s lead is a misunderstood genius, a school dropout whose cleverness awes everyone except his family. He constructs a working model of a windmill from condiment jars at home – much to his mother’s chagrin – and goes on to power the whole village with the idea.
The sequel to Baahubali, The Beginning is as grand as the first part – the war scenes, beautiful princesses who are lovelier with machetes and swords in hand, and the general fascination that sets in with a canvas as large and striking as the one that Rajamouli has created. The most important aspect of the movie though, is the fact that the franchise as a whole infuses its women with strength and treats them with a lot of elegance.