The week saw the passing away of veteran actress Manorama. The condolences poured in, and the odes were deservingly conferred.
“A legendary comedian.”
“An acting stalwart.”
“A peerless character artiste.”
That last compliment, richly deserved no doubt, however, got me wondering. Why is she peerless? Where are all the female character artistes? Where are the female equivalents of the likes of Nassar, Prakash Raj, Rajkiran, M. S. Bhaskar and Jayaprakash? The only reasonable contender is Kovai Sarala, who is more a comedian than a character artiste. If you tried hard enough, you could also make a feeble case for Saranya Ponvannan, who’s made that naïve mom role her very own. She received plenty of accolades for her role in Velaiyilla Pattathari , but it is a mark of how starved we are that even a moderately lengthy female role — never mind if it isn’t particularly essential to the plotline — is cause for celebration.
You can see the cyclical regress that will result from asking why Tamil cinema is bereft of quality options when it comes to female character artistes. “Because we don’t write such roles in our stories.” Why don’t we? “Because we don’t have too many strong artistes who can do justice.” And we’re back to square one. It’s quite like saying that we can’t create practice cricket grounds unless we have players. How are we to get them without grounds to practise in?
There is a method called the Bechdel test which asks if a work of fiction has at least two women (who usually have to be named) who talk to each other about something other than a man. If they do, the work is said to have passed the test. You have to wonder how many of our films even qualify for testing. After all, the only all-female conversation our films usually seem to have is the one between a mother and her daughter, usually concerning the latter’s marriage. A scene in Parthiban Kanavu (which, according to Wikipedia, is thought of as a ‘heroine-oriented film’) has two women (both played by Sneha) talking to each other. The housewife character tells the educated one that true happiness for a woman comes only from being dependent on men and serving them. I imagine that if she were saying so to Sripriya from Aval Appadithan , a television would have come flying at her. The other Sneha, however, is all admiration and replies, “That’s sweet!” And just in case you conclude it’s condescension, she follows that up with, “Hearing you say these things makes me wish I had a husband to serve too.” And this film was thought of as a ‘heroine-oriented film’. I rest my case.
By and large, our heroines are written as commodities meant for the hero’s consumption: Women whose self-esteem is grossly dependent on men’s opinion of them. If the main female role in our cinema — the heroine — is so inconsequential, is it surprising at all that our stories lack other strong women? Is it then possible at all for a strong female actor to emerge from the shadows? Where are the gritty, intelligent roles?
One of the stronger roles written in recent times is of Geetha Prabhakar, the ruthless cop in Papanasam . But of course, it is a remake of a Malayalam film. I dare say that if it were an original Tamil film, the role would have been a man’s. Geetha would’ve been the meek wife crying buckets of tears every time anybody mentioned her missing son. Her husband, Prabhakar, would’ve been the merciless cop willing to go to any length to draw information about his missing son. It would have made for that archetypal battle that Tamil filmmakers dearly relish: a man versus… another man. The women simply reduced to bystanders useful only for reaction shots. Are we surprised at all that Manorama — due credit to her acting prowess — is peerless?