Crimson Skies, Held Up by No Women

I swear I promised to not watch Chekka Chivantha Vaanam expecting anything because I’d been so disappointed by Kaatru Veliyidai. I resolved that I would not dissect the movie’s female characters. I’d heard good things about it, I’d stayed away from reviews, heck, I hadn’t even listened to the songs – I was expecting only to be entertained.

And entertained I was! I was glued to the seat start to finish, anticipating what next; I was blown away by the music; I stayed till the end of the credits because I didn’t want the thrill of the film to dissipate just yet. I was so pleased with myself for staying true to my promise.

A few days later, I was talking about it to a friend, telling her how I’d successfully switched off that part of the brain that gets agitated with sexist, misogynist or flat portrayals of women. Damn! Shouldn’t have done that. The next day, I was already going through the movie in my head, remembering scenes that I could. I saw the music album’s cover, with the four ‘lead’ women.

When I started processing this, all I felt was incredibly let down. It’s 20-fricking-18 and we still have these movies?! I tried to rationalise. Does the director need to have ‘strong’ female characters? He tells the story based on characters that in his mind are very realistic. I think that is what really got me irritated: that a director whose work I’ve been raised to admire seems clueless about (the diversity in) women in general, and all the more, has been stuck in his depiction of women for a few decades now.

Here is a laundry list of what I remember about women in CCV that have my gripe. Obviously, spoilers ahead.

  1. There are 5 pretty serious female characters, but they each have 4 or 5 lines to say (except for Jo). These don’t even qualify for the Bechdel Test, because they are to ‘their’ male character or about him.
  2. MR needs to lose his fancy with Bambi women: I realised I didn’t even register the name of Aditi Rao Hydari’s character. After her one scene with the mic, I don’t see any signs of her as a media professional. Jo describes her – subtitled in English – as the journalist ‘flunkie’. I don’t know why she was in the movie. To prove Varadha’s machismo? To titillate? To be the object Ethi holds to ‘draw out’ Varadha?
  3. Zoomed in shots of women in bikinis while introducing Thyagu. Yawn.
  4. Tamil women in every part of the world, including Siberia. Just like in Kaatru Veliyidai, where the army unit seemed to be full of Tamil speaking folks.
  5. Sister: going from pregnant to clutching baby to whimpering in fear.
  6. Chaaya, whose only lines are about informing Ethi about something that’s happened to her father, or ask him if he loves him (or some such). Did I get the hint that she was handling the ‘business’ while Ethi was back in Chennai?
  7. Renuka, who looked like she had some kind of a career going (who knows, I’m just going by her clothes), but we have no idea how or why she puts up with Thyagu. I guess I should thank my stars that she at least had the guts to spit back at Thyagu when she was thrown in jail.
  8. Jo, who was involved, aware, sorting out things for her husband and father-in-law, like a tireless daughter-in-law: Rasool’s loyalty, handling her husband’s affair with dignity, heck, even accompanying her husband after her father was killed. Jo, who was the only one who had a few seconds of screentime of her story, which the other unfortunate characters don’t get. Jo, who had to change from share auto to cab to bus to run away with her husband hours after her father’s death. Jo, who died quietly, but only after reassuring her loser husband.
  9. Poor Jayasudha, who disappears without a trace. Why didn’t they kill her too? Or did I miss something?

I could go on, but in all, the presence of these women only seems necessary to give the male leads a(nother) reason to do what they do. Erase their characters and few lines, and the movie will not lose much.

Let me try to rationalise again. This is a story of four men trying to capture power. The women are simply incidental, even if major events, especially in the climax, are apparently set off due to them. Why should I expect more of the female characters, then? Besides, the movie already has dozens of characters who seem to apparate and disapparate, so why hold it accountable only for letting down the women or not developing ‘strong’ female characters?

Then again, what makes a female character ‘strong’? Are they considered strong if it’s ONLY IN RELATION to the men? That is, they help move the story forward for the male character? Think mothers, girlfriends, wives, Manic Pixie Dream Girls, the loosu ponnu that The News Minute did a feature on.

I honestly don’t know why I expect such things of movies any longer. It feels like a gaping hole if a director hasn’t moved on with the times and is unable to register the presence of female moviegoers who may want to see female characters fleshed out a little bit more, portrayed like humans with stories and thoughts, as opposed to cardboard characters whose lives only revolve around men. I question the storytelling intelligence of a director who’s not able to think out of the box and develop diverse people to be their protagonists.

Oh well, my joy with CCV lasted a few days. For my mental health and for entertainment to not be forever ruined, I need to snap out of this. That’s easier said than done – I have well over a decade’s worth of unravelling to do, not bring home thoughts from work where such discussions abound, not remember and get annoyed with older movies that I’d once enjoyed. Ah, well – who said it’s easy to live in a bubble?

Alaipayuthey and the politics of flirting and marriage

It’s the year 2000. The first quarter. Trailers for Alaipayuthey are out, and so is the music. I’m 13, and my brain and body suddenly burst onto the stage where romance, relationships, attraction and pleasure are at play. Rahman’s tunes, brought to life by the stunningly handsome Madhavan, send me into a tizzy. The family notices; I am, after all, religiously reading every word I can about the movie, running to the living room when I hear a few notes of Endrendrum Punnagai from the trailer, tearing off ads for the movie from Tamil and English newspapers and magazines and keeping them stuffed in my bookshelf, writing out error-ridden lyrics of Snehidane in my diary. I make it clear that I want to watch the movie even as Amma hesitates after watching snippets of Kadhal Sadugudu which has Madhavan and Shalini frolicking between the sheets: ‘It looks vulgar’, she says. But I don’t relent. I wasn’t allowed to go to the cinema with friends then, and my only hope – my older sister – has ditched me to watch it with her friends. And so I go to watch the movie, to feast my eyes on the glorious Madhavan, with my father.

***

Alaipayuthey was some sort of a milestone in my life: it was the first time I gave serious thought to the idea of romance and relationships as possibly playing out in my life -moving beyond crushes to thinking about what I might like in a person, and the idea of a genuine relationship and what it entailed.

Let’s take flirting, for instance. As a 13-year-old, watching Shalini not wince or run away or blush (well, she does, but not much) when Madhavan pursues her (more on this in just a bit), was a reaffirmation that I could show interest in someone  – that is, that I didn’t always need to be the recipient. When they cross paths on a train many days – or weeks – after their first somewhat-fleeting meeting during a wedding, she looks at him as much as he looks at her. This unabashed expression of interest stayed on in my mind.

How does the movie draw the line between flirting and harassing? As years wore on and I engaged more and more with feminism, the idea of Karthik (Madhavan) chasing this woman began to niggle away at my head. Mani Ratnam is clever; by making his female lead respond to the male lead – without anger, without telling him off – he distracts us from the idea that Karthik is stalking Shakti, something that we readily identify when, say, Vijay does it. As I thought back on the scenes, I was struck by how creepy it was that Karthik would ride his bike along the lane in which Shakti lived with her parents – I had gone through something similar in class 12 that had me panicking whenever I had to go home after school. And how discomfiting it was to see him try to figure out which college she studied in, and find her there.

In a work setting, someone recently mentioned hearing from girls in a semi-urban setting how boys’ relentless comments and jeering when they took the public bus to school or college was their opportunity to express interest in a boy, a permissible window where they were safe to initiate or respond to a relationship advance – subtly – in the presence of public. This idea was surprising when I heard it, but made sense as I thought more about it. It isn’t easy for women to initiate or quickly respond to romantic (or sexual) interest, but for those of us with some level of privacy, there are options, which are not available to everyone else.

I can’t think of any way to justify Karthik chasing her around, but was Shakti doing something similar? Staying within the boundaries of ‘propriety’ but responding with enthusiasm when she was approached?

***

While many movies I’d watched until then had dealt with life post marriage, this one was special for it showed (in its own flawed ways) how a relationship evolves through your dating stage to married-partner stage.

Looking back on it after 18 years, as a married person, I catch myself thinking ‘If only I knew…’ Marriage is tough, unforgiving and harsh. And (as long as it doesn’t cross boundaries into physical or emotional violence) it coexists with a strange mixture of affection, can’t-do-with-can’t-do-without and a shared hope for a future. When I think about the scenes in which Shakti and Karthik fight about them going to meet her seriously-ill father, and the next morning they make up and go together to see him, I see how compromises are made and we (often grudgingly) give our preferences a miss to keep the other happy. In all of four years, I see me and my partner flit from fighting to making up to wondering why we did this without the other to why we didn’t do this without the other. Marriage requires you to apologise, admit something by pushing your ego back, to learn that you and your partner will take each other for granted, to fathom how both of you have changed slowly, but surely, over just a few years.

I wonder what Shakti and Karthik did after she recovered; how long did those tender moments of affection that we saw in the ending scenes last? Did he get tired of taking care of her while she recovered? Mani Ratnam tantalisingly brings in these aspects – the difficulties in marriage, as in Alaipayuthey; the idea of refusing marriage, OK Kanmani; an abusive, violent and yet (problematically) ‘romantic’ relationship in Kaatru Veliyidai – but stubbornly stays within socially accepted norms of love, relationships and marriage.

***

Listening to one song in Alaipayuthey pushes me back into my school days of excitement and hope. Into my third decade of life, a few years wiser with marriage and sudden health issues, that nostalgic trip gives me a few minutes of happiness and memories of wild, carefree (and may I say, delusional) ideas of flirting, romance and marriage.

My Own Little Singlish Dictionary

So long ago, in 2006, when I was a naive college-goer new to Singapore, I came up with this post on Singlish,  the Singaporean form of English. This was written in only my second year in the country (I went on to live there for seven), and in the years to come, I would have grown so fond of Singlish that I’d grown my vocabulary significantly and it peppered most of my everyday conversations. I still use lah and lor with my friends and colleagues in India. This was one of the popular posts on the blog – and still is, going by the search terms! 

Note: Excuse the childish language; I was 19, after all! Some edits made to remove dead links. 

Singlish – the English spoken by Singaporeans. Extremely hard to understand when spoken to for the first time. Doesn’t have grammar rules. Just take off all your articles, prepositions and similar things out of your speech. For e.g., you don’t “go to the canteen”, you “go canteen”. Got the drift?

Now, let me introduce you to some of the Singlish words commonly used that I have picked up to some extent.

Lah – the mother of all Singlish words. It can be added almost anywhere and to anything. Used most commonly with can and no. Has other variants like lor, leh and meh. I do not know where these can be used. I use them whenever they ‘sound’ appropriate.
Can – Short for anything affirmative. Can substitute yes, we/I can do it, it’s possible, etc. e.g., ‘Wanna go can (canteen) 1 now?’
‘Can, lah…’
Can be very confusing, if not accompanied by you or I. I got confused when somebody messaged me asking ‘If the time is ok wid u, can msg —-?’ I didn’t know whether she or I had to message —–.
wif – that’s how with is pronounced and written in chat/SMS language. Many Singaporeans have trouble pronouncing the ‘th’ (personal observation) and hence the ‘f’ substitutes in many such places.
How – it’s not the normal how. It could mean ‘so how should we proceed’, or ‘how someone else managed something’, etc. Changes according to context. This especially has the capacity to throw me off guard, as I don’t know what how they mean.
Tomolo – tomorrow. I still don’t know why it’s molo.
e’ – this is the in SMS language.
Oredi – already. When spoken fast, already sounds like ‘oredi’, but that’s how they write it too.
Chope – reserving seats. Someone could ‘chope’ a canteen seat for me.
Makan – food. Or eat. We go canteen and makan.
Blur – not the one we usually know. If someone doesn’t know or is confused about something, she is ‘blur’.
Paiseh – getting embarrassed or ashamed about something. So every time I forget the name of a Singaporean friend I know very well, it’s paiseh.
Kiasu – used and studied in my course very often. Almost every communication course has something to add about the ‘kiasu-ness’ of Singapore. Basically means taking extra care not to lose out on something. So kiasu Singaporeans will go borrow a book out of the library as soon as the prof announces we need it. 😉
Shiok – something that’s really good. Food can be shiok.
**Updated, important word forgotten**
Die-die – extremely bad state, something that you must do even if you die in the process. 🙂

Now let’s try to put these into use.
‘She come so early so she get front seat, so kiasu lor’
‘Exam was terrible. Confirm fail oredi.’
‘Let’s go can A makan.
Will be crowded, lor…
Jasmine choped seats oredi lah.’
‘We gotta submit report tomolo. You do e’ introduction can?
Can, lah.’
‘She doesn’t want e’ report lik this. So how?’

Author updates: I got exam tomolo. Die-die muz finish today.

Check this for a proper Wiki definition. Will help!

Image from http://www.visitsingapore.com/travel-guide-tips/about-singapore/singapore-culture-way-of-life/

Whose House is it Anyway?

I woke up with a start to some extremely loud (not to forget really annoying) Tamil religious movie song. Heart beating wildly, I opened my eyes and wondered what had hit me this afternoon. I looked around, trying to find my bearings, and realized I was home.

Well, technically, my parents’ home.

But still, home.

After all, what does “home” mean when you’ve been living away from home for 12 years? Is it the wonderful hostel rooms you lovingly set up? The house that you shared with two friends and jointly bought crockery and threw parties together? The single room by the terrace that you used to retire to after work, or the house in Delhi that you moved into with your partner on the occasion of getting married?

Surprisingly, after having so many variations of “my” space, home still means where my parents live, even though they have moved five times in my years living away from them.

That’s probably because elements of home remain unchanged: Carnatic music to wake up to; the sound of water filling a bucket; of crispy newspaper pages being turned late in the afternoon, when Amma gets a break to read the news; the smell of tamarind and tomatoes boiling to make the divine concoction called rasam; lit camphor pellets as offerings for the gods. If I close my eyes, and I sense any of these smells or sounds, my mind thinks “home,” not “parents.

I find it rather odd that I would still think this way. After all, I’ve spent the last many months slowly creating a new joint space with my partner, filling the house with an assortment of things that are now “ours,” sourced from local markets to travel purchases from a variety of cities and towns. Our house is taking shape with our things, memories and our own sights and sounds. Today, for instance, he’s not in town, and I miss hearing the songs that he plays every morning. MS Subbalakshmi’s voice interspersed with the hisses of the pressure cooker and smell from the agarbatti that he lights to start the morning on a calm note. The silence feels unnatural, something feels amiss.

Why, then, is this not yet the home for me? Of course, to the everyday Delhi waasi when I refer to my home, I mean my house here, not my parents’. What then makes home?

The corner of my mind whispers that it’s the place I can be a child again, having parents wake me up and come up with plans to keep me engaged. Where, sitting at the table, Appa, Amma and I, all engaged with some aspect of cooking – chopping, grinding and so on –get into long discussions about the pressing matters of life of that time – job, investments, plans, family relationships, travel and so on. Where even as they fuss over my health and take me to doctors and dentists, the thought wriggles in that increasingly it should be my turn to care of them, not the other way round.

It is the place where there’s been hardly a change in how I’m dealt with, no matter whether I’m a student, married, employed or sick. Where I’ll always be the child.

Something that unfortunately doesn’t happen in the Delhi house, because, well, my partner and I are both the adults. We are the ones running helter-skelter trying to make things comfortable for people visiting us. To make them feel at home in our place.

What would make my house home? Does it come with buying your own place, or furnishing an empty apartment from scratch and stepping back to admire your handiwork? With the steady humdrum of married life as you chug along and create more joint experiences than you did with your parents? A pet, perhaps, or children?

I have no answers or clarity. For now, on my phone, “Home” has the number of my parents’ landline phone, with my Delhi number saved as something as banal as “VV Landline”. I wonder if my parents will be alarmed at these thoughts and if my partner will be nonplussed reading my confused account of home. I’m sure I’m not the only person who grapples with the idea of two homes; perhaps my partner does too, having followed a very similar trajectory in life with regard to staying away from parents as I did – I haven’t asked. Maybe that’s why, for now, he so easily understands the context if I say “I want to go home.” Slowly, though, we’ve both started using the name of the different cities where his and my folks live, to be clear when we refer to each other’s parents’ home. Maybe, unconsciously, my mind is recalibrating the word “home.”

Pic from https://www.flickr.com/photos/zedzap

I’d originally written this article for Spark, an online literary magazine that I co-founded 8 years ago and currently edit.