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Noted Director Mani Ratnam’s recent movie Chekka Chivantha Vaanam features many women indeed but does injustice to them as well-fleshed characters, writes Nandhitha Hariharan.
When I was a teenager, I would obsessively read the princess trilogy by Jean Sasson that talked of beautiful, royal middle eastern princesses who had a lot but lacked the very freedom that is required to taste life.
Similarly, the breathtakingly beautiful women in the movie Chekka Chivantha Vaanam somewhere irked me because of the deep-rooted patriarchy.
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The women in the movie are ones that l looked forward to – after all, the film has women who have essayed bold roles. However, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam does very little for these women. Each of the male leads in the movie (except for Vijay Sethupathi) have a female lead cast opposite them – I don’t know why but these women cruise the screens for a reason and a purpose that isn’t fully discovered until the end.
As I take a stand that these women are not empowered, it also means that this movie has portrayed a slice of reality – you are saying things like “she should have done this” or “why could she not just walk out?” However, this is also the reality of many, many women.
Some spoilers ahead.
I walked into the theatre a little late and saw Arun Vijay dole out a sexist dialogue to his wife (Aishwarya Rajesh) about the bikini-clad women who surround him. Obviously, how else do you ensure that a man is portrayed as masculine without alcohol or women with hourglass figures around him?
Aishwarya Rajesh’s character doesn’t have much screen time, but it’s interesting how one of the most profound dialogues belongs to her. When a few thugs enter her house and ask her where her husband was, she says “Neengalam enga poreenga nu pondatti kitta sollita poreenga?” (Do you men tell your wives where you are going?)
Here is a woman in the middle of the night, threatened by thugs and it is entirely possible her life is at risk, and yet this is her exact choice of words. In just a few sentences like this, we know what this outwardly modern woman’s life is reduced to and what her biggest frustrations are.
One of the few women characters that has the most screen time is Jyothika – she is a woman who would go to any extent to protect her family. However, it is interesting how her power is well-defined within the patriarchal structures, as she still measures her words while cursing the brother-in-law who had killed her father.
Is it because a bride belongs to the new family and her loyalties automatically become tied to that of her husband? Why doesn’t she wants to protect her father with the same fierceness as she wants to protect her husband?
Another interesting aspect is how Jyothika reacts to her husband’s affair – is she the archetype of many Indian women who are afraid to confront their husbands just because they don’t want them to leave? She is also shown grumbling here and there in the movie about his affair, but she has made her peace with more than one thing – just like her mother-in-law who raised her.
It is interesting how patriarchy plays out in the movie at different levels – a devoted daughter still picks her husband over her father, a dedicated mother picks her sons over her husband and ‘the other woman’ loves and supports the man who in reality does not offer her much.
The most problematic character for me was that of Aditi Rao’s. The talented, beautiful, young, ‘journalist’ who is shown having an affair with the hyper-masculine Arvind Swamy. Aditi is somewhere in her late twenties or early thirties – independent, seemingly stable and no strings attached. However, I kept wondering “What is even sexy or appealing about this affair?”
Arvind Swamy confesses that their affair is about a power struggle and about making him feel like he’s powerful. So, we are left to wonder why a young, smart woman like her is stroking a half-baked criminal’s male ego? However, what left a cold feeling in me was when Silambarasan pulls Aditi Rao closer to take a photograph with her, and the theatre hooted at this mild coercion – why was this okay?
Was it because she was not his legally wedded wife? Would they hoot if he had coerced Jyothika? Why is the ‘other woman’ not respected? This ties back to another moment in the movie where Vijay Sethupathy makes a ‘joke’ about not having any money at the brothel. The joke was borderline dehumanising of the women at a brothel. A classic emphasis on which ‘kind of women’ deserve respect.
Women need to be encouraged to be empowered but not within the patriarchal structure. If you’re sleeping around with someone who is married and making your life all about him, there is still an element of oppression – even if you’re a ‘modern’ journalist with a mic for a prop!
Every movie can be reviewed with a feminist lens and while the ultimate prerogative of what is right for the script is decided by the filmmaker, I walked out of the theatre wondering why I did not get to see more of these women. Why were their stories not told and why did it leave me with an incomplete feeling that lingered long after the movie was complete?
Is it the fear that the more stories I see of women who are only a shadow of their male counterparts, the more I worry about my life and the lives of many others? Perhaps!
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Nandhitha Hariharan is a writer with a love for anything that is pretty or covered
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