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?

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