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Director K Balachander with his movies and the independent women with agency over things irrespective of the situation they are in, are why I am a feminist!
I was wondering the other day about the major factor that contributed to my awareness about feminism. What was it before I got exposed to the activists, books, articles and talks about it? And, in fact, even before I knew the word feminism.
The answer is movies of K Balachander, one of the greatest directors of Tamil cinema. All his movies are way ahead of its time in talking about women. The women in his movies are independent and have agency over things irrespective of the situation they are in.
They are bold and not ashamed of their sexuality or desires. These women lead families, take unusual decisions and are not tied down by culture and traditions. Most importantly when other movies of that era idolise women, by raising them to semi god status, where they can do no wrong, he did humanises them. Women in his movies have flaws but are not banished for that, instead, they are accepted, understood and forgiven.
He did not hesitate from taking up all the taboo topics like unmarried women, widow remarriage, divorce, sex workers, extra marital relationships, romance with elderly, children out of wedlock. Some of his views may be questioned today, and some may be appreciated. But what is important is that he raised issues no one else was ready to talk about that time.
Each of his movies has an aspect for analysis and discussion. But the movie which impacted me the most is Avargal. It stars Sujatha playing Anu, Kamal Haasan, her colleague, and Rajinikanth as Ramanathan, Anu’s husband.
Anu has a small kid, and is divorced from Ramanathan, who abuses her mentally. She moves to a new place where she happens to meet her ex-boyfriend and decides to get married.
Ramanathan finds out about it, and sabotages the plan by pretending he has changed. Meanwhile Kamal, who is a widower, helps her but also falls in love with her.
In the end, Anu leaves her abusive husband, the caring ex-boyfriend and man who is in love with her, and moves to a new place. She starts afresh.
When she moves to the new place, she finds out that her ex-boyfriend still loves her and is waiting for her. And she readily agrees to marry him. That she had a kid and was a divorcee would have been a thing in a lot of movies. Given the way movies treat women, she would probably have been called a ‘used woman,’ ‘a woman with a liability,’ ‘a failure of life,’ and someone ineligible to be happy.’ Meanwhile, her ex would’ve been the person who sacrifices a lot.
But here, Anu is unapologetic about her decision. She sees that as a past, doesn’t regret her decision. Neither does she shy from the happiness which is due to her. With her head held high, she accepts the new life with dignity and righteousness.
The calmness and determination with which she says good bye to her husband, after the divorce is my favourite. No cries, emotional melodrama, revengeful words, sympathy, or anything.
Ramanathan, is rich enough that the alimony he has to give doesn’t affect him in anyway. He plans to use that as a tool to undermine her, to underline her dependence on him. The swag with which she calls her husband by his name, (yes, you were not allowed to do that then,) gives me goosebumps each time! And then, she says that she does not need the money and denies him the chance of enjoying the pleasure.
After sabotaging Anu’s marriage, Ramanathan tells her that he has been successful in everything except making her cry. Despite, all this, she says stoically he will never succeed in that.
Crying is wrong, Anu is shown crying profusely over the goodness of her mother-in-law who offers to come with her. However, she is hell bent on not letting his patriarchal and possessive games affect her at all. And that is where is he loses despite his success and she succeeds inspite of her loss.
Another epic thing about this movie is that it is not a make-all-good-in-the-end movie. Ramanathan is still the same ruthless dominant cruel man who goes on treating women as playthings. And Anu, because of his deceit has lost a wonderful life that she wanted very much. That is the reality.
Women standing up for their respect in a relationship need not necessarily make a man realise his mistakes and come around. In fact, he may become more aggressive.
Whereas subjugating to them may sometimes guarantee a secured life in economical terms at least. But the important factor that empowers Anu to do all this is her financial independence.
Even when I was in my teens, this movie made me realise the importance of financial independence for women. It made me understand the need for standing up for our respect though it comes at a cost. And that we need not feel guilty for breaking the norms which are meant to intimidate us. Thus this movie and K.Balachander sowed the early seeds of feminism in me.
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