Readers Write In #136: Of Goddess and Women

Posted on January 26, 2020


(by Karthik Amarnath)

A viral visual from the recent array of protests showed an army of men in protective gear. Facing a young woman carrying a rose. It reminded me of another visual from a twenty year old movie song that showed an army of men with tanks and guns. Around a young woman clothed in pink. Metaphors abound in both images. What actually struck me though was the irony of finding that image in a particular WhatsApp group. This is the kind of group where women are usually featured as cardboard caricatures in misogynistic memes. The whiny wives. Gullible girlfriends. Mean mothers in law. Many of us (men, at least) know groups like this. The population is all men, memes are created by men, messages forwarded by men, and the jokes laughed at by men. Studies in genetics or statistics will you tell you that a larger population size reflects higher diversity. But if the question you’re asking is how many more men must this group have for women to start sounding real, well then, you are probably counting in the wrong direction…

Looking through eyes of men alone, (what) can women really be? There’s a meta commentary on this in a Tamil film which, subversively enough, was promoted to be about feminism. In the Tamil lexicon, Iraivi, refers to a Goddess, and is a hardly used word. In the film, Iraivi refers to hardly cared for idols of Goddesses. These are considered a symbol of skillfully sculpted perfection. By men. They could very well be a symbol of the exacting deific standards (Pen Deivam as Tamil Cinema kindly puts it) that women are held to. By men. In this movie, by the patriarch, Dass. Just as he had carefully chiseled away every imperfection till stone turned into a perfect idol, he scrupulously scolded his wife for every imperfection till she fell into a permanent coma, attaining perfection as only a lifeless stone can. That for the entirety of the movie, members of her family accord her a divine reverence, and she bears mute witness to their repentance and confession, symbolizes her deification.

If holding women to an idolized ideal weren’t harsh enough, imagine chaining them to the image of that eternal maternal Madonna. She, who birthed a divine child. In a manger. Seeded by an invisible Spirit. The movie subverts this (Tamil Cinema’s Thai-kulam) gaze through three characters, all of whom experience “motherhood”. In toxic relationships. With men who are referred to as demons. Yazhini and Ponni, who open the movie messaging their independent desires, bind themselves to marriages with two of these men. The men seed babies for them to bear before vanishing into their own vanity— Arul as a depressed drunk, and Michael a hotheaded henchman. The third maternal character is Arul, who created a film, his baby, with money seeded by a petty producer. All these “mothers” struggle to give their children the lives they deserve. There’s another woman character in this mix, Malar, who lives free of attachment. The derisive gaze she receives literally (from the men) brings to mind that all too familiar alternative to the Madonna. An interval twist brings a whiff of release from the toxicity. With men dead, divorced or in jail, all in one fell swoop, the children belong wholly to mothers, true to the biblical image. (The unreleased movie lands in the care of the producer’s wife.) The freedom from father figures though turns out to be fleeting.

That women are deserving of unfettered freedom is a yearning. Yearned by the youngest of the men, Jagan, who in an early conversation demonizes men for their carnal caging of women. His ride on the high horse is snapped by the interval twist, and his primal gaze starts mirroring the very men he demonized. In a telling scene, we see Michael in a shot where his face is framed by an opening in a window, and moments later, in an identical shot, he is replaced by Jagan whose face is framed by the same opening. A climax confession reveals Jagan’s pursuit to tie with a marital knot a woman he had wanted to see free. This contradiction also colors his other pursuit in the film which is to release the Iraivi statues from decadent shrines only to sell them for profit. When Jagan’s proposal is distanced by the woman (seemingly by way of Tamil Cinema’s Patthini principles), these intertwined threads tie up in a climax twist that echoes the interval one. This time, with all the men dead or in jail, all in one fell swoop, we are shown a picture of lasting freedom for the women.

That of all the chains that confine women, the male gaze is hardest to break free could be a defining metaphor not just for this movie but for Tamil cinema. This is a cinema culture that, when it’s not worshipping its leading men, is continually cranking out formulae that solves for the A, B, C variables. The women in this equation have mostly turned out to be two dimensional constants plugged in for convenience. The loony lover. Working wife. Fat friend. Vengeful Vamp. Even characters that are interesting, often end up being interesting like a menu item thats great to read about and gives you something to chew on, but still feels remote. Fully fleshed perfectly played characters like the nameless mother in Kaaka Muttai are the proverbial black swans. You don’t need complex equations to determine that Tamil films have been overwhelmingly written by men (166/176 screenwriters have been men), produced by men (110/125), shot by men (96/103) and directed by men (421/442). Now if by following genetic or statistical studies, you’re going to ask how many more men must we gaze through to see real women, well then….