In Rosshan Andrrews’s 36 Vayadhinile, based on his Malayalam hit How Old Are You*, Jyotika plays an alien. What else could the character, named Vasanthi, be? She’s 36. Her eyesight is no longer what it was. Her hair is turning silver. She has a teen-aged daughter. She works in a government job and lives in a joint family. And to unwind, she watches Tamil soaps. She lip-syncs perfectly, and the film revolves around her. Surely this not a Tamil-film heroine. I mean, there’s not even a duet. There’s no other explanation. She’s visiting from Venus. And she’s brought with her an otherworldly wardrobe. Say what you will about the rest of the film, there will be those who line up just to see Vasanthi’s impeccable taste in saris.
You could say the same for English Vinglish, where another actress emerged from retirement in a series of dazzling saris (those were designed by Sabyasachi; Vasanthi’s are more modest). Watching Sridevi there, or Jyotika here, you are reminded that, sometimes, a movie need be about nothing more than watching beautiful people swan around in 70-mm. But there’s more. Like English Vinglish, 36 Vayadhinile is a story of empowerment. It’s about a perennially slighted (some might say subjugated) housewife discovering that her inner closet has a “You Go Girl!” T-shirt after all. In the film’s most touching moment, a friend looks at this subdued version of Vasanthi and asks her what happened to the firebrand she was in college. Vasanthi simply says, “Theriyale… thedanum.” 36 Vayadhinile is about this search.
The mere existence of this film, in this hero-driven industry of ours, is reason to celebrate. (It’s produced by Suriya, and it feels like he’s atoning for the terrible movies he’s been in of late.) But 36 Vayadhinile is not cinema. It’s, at best, a glorified television soap, broadly written and staged and performed, and blaring its messages through a megaphone. Take Susan (Abirami). She turns up in the second half, as Vasanthi’s savior. (The background throbs with heavenly music. The usually subtle Santhosh Narayanan chips in with a megaphone of his own.) She’s meeting Vasanthi for the first time after college, some fourteen years later. You’d think they’ll do some catching up, have some fun, or at least an ice-cream. But no. The very next scene, she begins to lecture Vasanthi. And in the very next scene, Vasanthi changes, as if a switch were activated, as if one bit of well-meaning advice could modify years of ingrained behavior.
Another problem is the portrayal of the male characters. When we first see Vasanthi, she’s being interviewed for a job, and a man asks her how old she is. I wondered if the film was going to make Vasanthi some sort of easy victim by reducing all men to villains. It doesn’t. Her father-in-law (Delhi Ganesh) is a wonderful man, as is the cop (Nasser, with a twinkle in his eye) who investigates her background for reasons we aren’t told about immediately. Later, when Vasanthi embarks on a new career of sorts, we meet kind men who encourage her. So it’s easy to overlook the melodramatic scene where an old woman who’s unwell tells Vasanthi that she has four sons and none of them has bothered to look in on her. Some amount of male-bashing is par for the course in such a movie.
But it’s impossible to overlook what a positively dreadful man Vasanthi’s husband Tamilselvan (Rahman) is. He belongs to a different generation, one that saw the Pandian character in Pudhumai Penn, and all the mean-spirited losers in Kalyana Agadhigal, and the various men who inflicted their wives with cigarette burns. In English Vinglish, the husband was merely insensitive. The slyly passive-aggressive Tamilselvan expects his wife to take the blame for an accident he’s caused. He vents all his frustrations on her and makes her feel miserable. When the time comes for him to move to Ireland, he doesn’t discuss it with her. He informs her at a restaurant. And once abroad, he expects her to join him because he cannot afford to hire someone to cook and clean. What a prize catch. There’s not one caring moment between husband and wife, and the film’s biggest failure is making Vasanthi accept his (unstated) apology as if he merely forgot their anniversary. This, again, belongs to another generation, one that stuck with husbands whether they were stones or blades of grass, if you know the saying.
But as I said, it’s not easy to dismiss 36 Vayadhinile. It’s not right to evaluate films on just what they want to do. It’s also important how they do it. And I wish Vasanthi’s emergence as her own woman had been done in a smaller way, instead of making her some sort of crusader. (That megaphone again.) But in K Balachander’s time, films about working women were routine. Not so today – and just for being such a movie, you have to give it points. The opening-credits sequence is joyous. We hear the sprightly Vaadi raasaathi over visuals of women, doctors and lawyers, auto drivers and flower sellers, young and old. Jyotika, too, is one of them, a woman juggling work and home, and even putting her career on hold because of kids, something a man would never have to do. Deservedly, she gets top billing.
- The name of the Malayalam film was added later.
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