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A pottu (or bindi) is worn as a symbol of being married or eligible to marry, but how is this tradition being used to control women?
Recently, I came across this report in The News Minute, of how a 77-year-old woman in Tamil Nadu was shamed and denied pension because she was wearing a pottu despite being a widow. When her daughter-in-law complained about it to a senior official, they were told to just ‘adjust’. The worst part is that the old lady who was already sad about her late husband’s death, was left feeling guilty about wearing a pottu.
When I was a school-going student in Chennai, the teachers often ordered us to wear pottus in the future if we weren’t already wearing one (this happened when we were quite young, it stopped later). Their right to tell us to wear a pottu was unquestionable. An opposing view is presented in this article That Red Dot where it says that only married Hindu women should be allowed to wear pottus, but either way, it is quite clear that staunch followers of the ‘Tamil culture’ are highly protective of the tradition of wearing pottus. This leaves women with no agency in deciding what to do with their own foreheads! Of course, this tradition is practiced in a problematic way all over India, but I’ll just be concentrating on Tamil Nadu in this article, and in particular, on how cinema reinforces such tradition.
Cinema of any kind both reflects and influences the society that it was produced by and Tamil cinema is no different. It harps on the pottu sentiment along with the thaali (sacred thread tied around a Hindu woman’s neck to signify that she is married) sentiment. Here is a clip from a Tamil movie called Ghilli that was a box office hit.
At the end of the clip, as the pottu is placed on the heroine’s forehead, the music changes completely and indicates something divine and the hero’s mother says that the heroine looks properly beautiful only now. The scene very clearly indicates that the heroine is the ideal bride for the hero. And that’s the sort of importance that Tamil cinema usually places on the pottu. This movie was released in 2004 but it’s quite obvious that many people still care about the pottu.
Another hit film called Chinna Thambi was released in way back in 1991. It uses the pottu sentiment too. In this case, the thaali sentiment is used along with it. In this clip below, the hero rescues his widowed mother from going through the ‘dishonour’ of having the thaali tied around her neck (because most of the time in Tamil cinema, the thaali is enough to make a marriage final and unbreakable).
She has already been forced to wear a pottu which is considered humiliating because she is a widow. Note the happiness on her face when water is splashed on her forehead and the pottu is washed off. The idea of honour is inextricably tied up with both the thaali and the pottu and it is the ultimate thing that should not be lost at any cost.
The same idea of honour is often connected to how a woman should dress, to be the kind of woman that men pray to. This clip below has the hero chastising the heroine for wearing clothes that “show too much skin” – he blames the victim of sexual harassment. This is the foundation on which rape culture is built. ‘Masculinity’ is expressed through this sort of ‘taming of the shrew’ attitude or the protection of the honour of a pious woman as seen in the previous clip.
The last clip did not involve a pottu, yet it is part of the same culture that gives a woman’s ‘honour’ (usually translated as either virginity, or if a married woman, as belonging to a particular man) the utmost importance and makes it impossible to disentangle from what she chooses to wear or not to wear. And this is used to control a woman’s sexuality.
Thus, the diktats around the pottu are part of a larger culture that propagates rape culture and blames and shames women for being in charge of their own bodies. This is why we must make it a point to wear what we want, be whoever we want to be, and we must do this completely unapologetically!
Top image is of late veteran actor Manorama from an old movie – showing the ‘ideal’ look for a widow as seen in our movies
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