The bubble bursting series

Introducing a series that looks at how women are perceived and portrayed in Tamil literature, films, pop culture and thereby, in Tamil country

In November 2017, Tamil cine actor Athulya Ravi put up a Facebook status apologising to her fans for agreeing to do certain scenes in her (then) upcoming movie, Yemaali. Her apology followed an outrage among her male fans over two scenes in the movie’s trailer: one where she is seen smoking, and one where she is seen taking her shirt off, her back to the camera. The fans were outraged at her audacity to play the unconventional woman, and quite a number of them bullied her on social media.

In a bid to keep peace, and in all probability to stave off negative publicity for the movie, she thanked fans who stood by her, and apologised to those who were “disappointed” by her. 

Athulya had won the hearts of the people with her role in Kadhal Kan Kattudhe. She was seen as the clichéd, non-threatening, girl-next-door: she wore salwar kameez, a bindi, gave her boyfriend trouble (as defined in the chauvinistic male’s mind), and ultimately bows down to her man. The trouble with stardom in Tamil Nadu, and probably India is, some of that on-screen image comes to be associated with the star. They are expected to live up to it. Which makes it all the more difficult for female actors to navigate the reel and real worlds: they have an imagined personality, plus the moral codes of the society to live up to. 

So when the male fanbase saw her smoking a cigarette, and taking her shirt off, they went berserk. She was shaking up her perfect image of the ideal thamizhachi (Tamil girl/woman). The thamizhachi is coy, naive, plays down her intelligence when she is around her man, cannot defend herself, means “yes” when she says “no” to the hero’s romantic advances. The thamizhachi does not own her sexuality, she silently yearns for the attention of the man who has her heart. In mainstream Tamil cinema, the woman who makes the first move, wear short skirts, bright lipstick, speaks good English, and shows will power is the bad woman, the villi (the Tamilised, female version of “villains”). They are also shown to disrespect boundaries (which the men can get glorified for)—think Neelambari (Padayappa, 1999), or Easwari (Thimiru, 2006). 

Should a movie have the female lead wear “modern dresses”, she will ultimately switch to the saree-bindi-jewellery avatar when she falls in love with the male lead. She is never superior to the men in her life. 

Athulya is not the first female artiste to be subjected to culture policing by Tamil male fans. Trisha Krishnan, once the darling of the masses, was harassed on social media for taking an anti-Jallikattu stance. She was perceived as taking a stance against Tamil culture. She received hate messages on Twitter, a number of protectors of “Tamil culture” (men of course) right away hurled misogynistic abuses at her, and a number of “jokes” that suggested she was sexually promiscuous were tweeted and retweeted. Her parents were dragged into the mess, called names. However, Tamil actors Vishal and Arya, who also did not take a pro-Jallikattu stand, were not accused of being sexually promiscuous, and did not receive rape threats. This indicates the disturbing pan-Indian belief that a woman’s honour lies in her chastity and sexual exclusivity.

In yet another incident, Dhanya Rajendran, Editor-in-Chief, The News Minute, was trolled on Twitter for tweeting out a criticism of Shah Rukh Khan’s Jab Harry Met Sejal, calling it worse than Sura, a movie Tamil actor Vijay as the lead. Fans of Vijay were so enraged, that they made #PublicityBeepDhanya trend (they tweeted abuses directed at her with the hashtag). She received a tweet shortly before the hashtag started trending, warning her that it would happen. Fans even dug deep into her older tweets, unearthing her earlier criticisms of Vijay and tweeting rape threats at her for them.

That Vijay’s movies can be counted among the most misogynistic mainstream Tamil cinema content, then, comes as no surprise.

These are but few examples of how misogyny has become a part of Tamil society, something that has come to be associated with Tamil men and, specifically, Tamil masculinity. That these incidents have taken place in 2017, is cause for worry. With the increasing number of crimes against women, especially involving men rejected by their objects of romantic interest, makes it important to examine the gender roles defined in Tamil society, how misogyny and sexism have been woven into the idea of “Tamil culture”, and how it has been glorified over a long period of time.

With this series, I hope to add to the body of work that are meant to be used for analysing social structures and practices that enable misogyny.

In this series

Women in Sangam Literature


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