Whistles, not wolf whistles: Why Nayanthara matters

Towards the end of Nayanthara’s last film, Dora, it was increasingly clear that I was experiencing something quite special, something I dare say even historic. No, I’m not talking about the film itself, but the reactions to it. In one scene of this heroine-driven film, Nayanthara’s character walks towards the camera after pulverising her adversary to death. The audiences, the men included, couldn’t stop whistling and clapping. You could be forgiven momentarily for believing you were in a Rajinikanth film. On a side note, perhaps her sobriquet, Female Superstar, isn’t altogether an exaggeration. This whistling was groundbreaking for more than just one reason.

Over the decades, we have gotten accustomed to audiences cheering loudly for heroines, especially during their introduction scenes. But this was always addressed at their looks, this appreciation a vocal expression of their ogling. The films themselves would emphasise this by often showing a group of strangers in the film — an autodriver, a shopkeeper, a student on his way to school — typically swooning over the heroine in question, before her big reveal. This expression was more, I dare say, lust than love. The adulation, the rooting, the selfless connection was always reserved for the hero. The heroine could disappear after the cursory duet or two, but should the hero come into danger, all hell would break loose. BUT. This wasn’t the case in Dora. The Nayanthara the audiences were cheering and whistling for looked downright fatigued, caked in dirt, and almost haggard, given she was emerging from a titanic struggle with a man who desperately wanted to kill her. The audiences weren’t cheering for her beauty. This was new and beautiful.

And for her part, at least in films that have her playing the protagonist, she seems simply content to be part of meaningful, well-told stories. There’s little to no importance given to make her look attractive in the conventional sense. And they’re now writing films for her, can you believe it? Somewhere, as you’re reading this, some upcoming director, who’s watched films like Maya and Dora, is now writing a story with a woman for a protagonist, a woman who doesn’t need a man to fight her battles.

Yes, she’s still part of mainstream commercial films like Iru Mugan and Kaashmora, but you can’t help shake the notion that she’s doing the sort of balancing act that Kamal Haasan so successfully did during the late 80s and early 90s. One for the whistles, another to break boundaries. A Kaaki Sattai for the whistles. A Vikram to break boundaries. A Michael Madana Kama Rajan. And then, a Gunaa. A Singaravelan. And then, a Thevar Magan. Nayanthara’s done Thani Oruvan and followed it up with Maya. She’s done Kaashmora and followed it up with Dora. She’s doing Velaikkaran, and has, alongside, finished work on Aramm, that is getting released this week. Draw your own conclusions, but remember that the films she’s trying to break boundaries with are also fetching her the whistles.

For such reasons, I’m quite excited about Aramm, and so should you. There’s a line in the film’s trailer that has a hapless citizen saying, “Avan varuvaan, ivan varuvaan-nu kaathutrukkom; yevanum vara poradhilla.” Well, that’s probably because your saviour isn’t an avan. And thank god for that.

This column was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.

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