Readers Write In #83: Would Puthiya Paathai really be a minefield today?

Posted on June 30, 2019

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(by Madan Mohan, recreational tennis hack in the early morning, chartered accountant by day and wannabe writer by night.)

In his interview with our BR saar, filmmaker and actor R Parthiepan mentioned that he did not think a Puthiya Paathai could be made today and it was owing to the innocence/ignorance of the times that it was accepted then.  I was piqued by this statement and took full advantage of my long commute to work and back to watch the film on the device in the approved fashion of the times.

So, first of all, let’s examine why he suggests it would be a minefield today.  The answer, at a very simplistic level, lies in the premise or the conceit, if you will.  A ruffian rapes a woman for money and she decides to reform him and marry him.  There, there, I should really have included trigger warnings but I presumed the title Puthiya Paathai itself would be a trigger warning.  However, this was not by itself a premise that would have been easily accepted even back then.  The misogyny of Tamil cinema (or Bollywood for that matter) has usually been of the ‘benevolent’ manner.  Of somebody suggesting pengal should be adavadakam in the name of spreading a socially responsible message.  Telling the woman what to wear and what not, what to say and what she should not speak, when not to venture out and so on.  So what made the conceit of Puthiya Paathai work?

The answer also lies in something Parthiepan said in the interview.  That it lies in how the tale is told.  This is where Puthiya Paathai also distinguished and indeed distinguishes itself.  Parthiepan makes the effort to account for circumstances as best as he can.  So, now, consider this.  The similarity between Puthiya Paathai and modern misogynist films of Tamil cinema is unkempt dark skinned boy and rich, fair skinned girl.  And that’s where the similarity ends.  Seetha, playing a character bearing her own name, is no empty headed loosu ponnu.  Rather, she has a tragic if somewhat cliche backstory.  She lost her mother many moons ago and her father has married and divorced over and over until she is disgusted with him.  All her wealth cannot give her happiness or peace of mind.

Her first encounter with Parthiepan is brutal.  As a ruffian, he is contracted to rape her in order to ruin her wedding scheduled for the day after.  He is completely unapologetic about the deed.  There is no excuse made by the film on his behalf to glorify the act.  It is depicted as vile and unscrupulous to the core, which is exactly what it is.  In a somewhat unrealistic turn of events, her fiancee actually believes her when she says she has never met the person who raped her and insists they ought to still carry on with the wedding, overruling his parents’ threats to disown him if he does so.  It is she who pleads that she would not be able to bear the lifelong guilt arising out of such a marriage and wants out.  At this juncture, she decides that she would, in her words, rather be a good wife to the bad man who raped her than be a bad wife (burden) to a good man.  Again, the character played by Manorama also tries to counsel her against this as she is well aware of the violent ways of this mercenary slumlord.  It is by evoking Manorama’s own unhappy tryst with marriage that Seetha convinces her that she is right to try this.  That is, the film recognises that her choice is unconventional and controversial and makes an effort to account for this.  Now, we may or may not agree with her reasoning but the film at least attempts to make it plausible that a particular character, a particularly remarkable woman has undertaken this endeavour.

More importantly, it is she who pursues this ruffian who thwarts her efforts again and again.  It is not he who lusts for her fair skin.  It is she who attempts to soften the heart of this otherwise cruel creature who is barely thought of as human by the neighbourhood.   Agency.  The choices Seetha makes may come across as unrealistic but those are her choices as an independent adult.  She is not bowled over by a ‘lover’ who relentlessly stalks her nor swayed or enchanted by masculine charm.  She is simply placed in extraordinary circumstances which push her to make extraordinary decisions.

With time and through many acts of kindness that initially stupefy him and eventually warm his heart, she wins him over and marries him.  She also persuades him, gradually, to behave better with the people around him and especially with her, to make love to her and to give up his career as a successful criminal and take up hard labour instead.  He is deeply grateful to her for giving him dignity and for helping him earn the respect of others which he had never had all his life.  In a dramatic scene, he falls to her feet as if seeking her blessings.  Once again, the conceit may be fundamentally unrealistic and very filmi but it is also deeply respectful towards the power of the character essayed by Seetha to reform a person once thought of as the devil incarnate.

Very importantly, at no point does the film indulge in giving out morality lessons in the way Tamil films often do.  Seetha’s example is not held up as something other women ought to follow.  Parthiepan seems to have been aware that doing so would have been construed as placing the burden of reforming rapists on women as the victims.  It transcends broad identity considerations by building strong characters so that we identify with these individuals and buy into their story as opposed to extrapolating their behaviour on men and women in general. At its heart is a very positive message (though, again, there is no annoying voice over or monologue to spell it out to us) – that redemption is always possible, no matter how much beyond redemption a person may appear to be.  By delivering this message through masterful orchestration of conflict, Parthiepan makes it all the more poignant.

Rather than identity, though, there is an undercurrent of class conflict throughout the film.  And in this sense, it is arguably a cousin of Aboorva Sagotharargal (which was also released the same year).  In AS, Appu is a humble lilliputian of the underclass who turns to rebellion when he learns of his backstory.  Here, the backstory has turned Parthiepan into a rebel who then mends his ways at the prodding of Seetha.  On doing so, he runs into the issues that others of his class (who are not ruffians) do and has to watch helplessly as a bomb explosion takes his wife’s life.  He memorably pulls out of killing the villain (played by Nassar) when he remembers that doing so would render their child an orphan, just the way he was. By nevertheless killing off Nassar in a road accident, the film attempts to make the import of its climax more palatable and offers karmic retribution as a balm.

Having watched it, I do not know that the film is particularly flagrant or insensitive so as to ‘disqualify’ it as a proposition in today’s times.  What I saw was a film that worked hard, uncommonly so for 80s non-art cinema, to make its rather unusual story sound plausible.

It is possible that the very premise may evoke such outrage that the director would baulk at making such a film and decide he would rather not bother.  And perhaps that is why Parthiepan feels it would not be possible to make such a film today.  But there is one more reason why a Puthiya Paathai may not be made today and that has to do with a much more fundamental change in our cinema.  That is that films about the forgotten people (to loan a phrase used by Donald Trump!) are few and far between today.  The people represented in Puthiya Paathai still have poignant tales to tell.  But there’s nobody to tell them on the big screen anymore.