Social equality of all sexes, that is the idea of Feminism that I was taught and most people I know hold. However, Indian filmmakers seem to have a different take on this ideology. ‘Tis the era of 90ml, Lipstick under my burka, Lust Stories, Veere di wedding, that masquerades as films that beam with feminist ideologies, the 90s kid in me had seen better.
While most people would argue that the skewed up ideologies portrayed in these films need to be attributed to the fact that the directors and makers of these movies are men, we’ve seen the likes of Balachandar, Mani Ratnam, and Gautham Menon, create female characters that were so lifelike. Walking out of their movies, we could all find a trait or two that was similar to us/or someone we knew, in the female lead.
One movie that gave us not one or two, but three powerful female characters that were inspiring and realistic was the 1994 blockbuster, Magalir Mattum. Directed by Singeetam Srinivasa Rao, the film’s screenplay was done by Ulaganayagan Kamal Haasan and Crazy Mohan. Watching today’s feminist films made me look back on all the things that Magalir Mattum got right, which makes the film relevant even after two and a half decades.
Real women with real emotions: The women in this film did not spend their time wooing the male lead, cry watching the Television, or engage in endless gossip sessions the way most women are portrayed in Tamil cinema. The women were so lifelike. They had real emotions, friends, and people they loathe for reasons personal to them, then taking the moral high ground and passing off judgments on the society as a whole.
Gender Equality: It spoke about how the career of women is as important as men and equality of genders would be achieved only through equal employment opportunities. In one instance in the film, the protagonists see a bus stop for a pregnant passenger and the lady driver, first of her kind, smiles and say "Inime nambo dhan” highlighting how women are ready to take over the world and claim half the earth and half the sky.
Work-life balance: Oorvasi, who plays the role of a typist has issues at work, but jungles it effortlessly by taking care of her family and child. She longingly mentions to Revati once as to how women working in the farm are a happy lot as their kids are around. The film also ends with a childcare centre being set up in the office by these womenfolk, which has now, over two decades later has become a reality.
Workplace harassment as a real issue: Most films pass off this as something funny and ignore it just the way we do in our everyday life. But Magalir Mattum was the first and probably the only film so far that had the issue of workplace harassment as its main plot and handled the issue in a very sensible manner.
Not all men: Yes, respecting and recognizing the contributions of the other gender is feminism too. Feminism is not male bashing, it doesn’t mean that you fight for the right to demean the other gender, it means holding hands and marching towards building a society that respects every member of the society the same way. Magalir Mattum got this right, unlike the so-called feminist films of today, where male-bashing is considered synonymous to feminism.
If it had a lecherous boss in the form of Naser, and the alcoholic and abusive Thalaivasal Vijay, it also had the Bossman Kamal Hassan, who was understanding and appreciative of the efforts of the three women.
The film, in short, continues to be one of the best women-centric films made in Tamil cinema, more so for bringing home the message that male gaze and workplace harassment is a real thing and women, irrespective of class differences, age, or our society’s favourite question of “what was she wearing?” get harassed.
While not many films have come up in this genre without speaking of women liberation and feminism in terms of drinking and smoking, the recent films like Magalir Mattum (2017 film), Aruvi, 36 Vayathinile, Mozhi, Maya, Irudhi Suttru, did have real women and real issues as the main plot. These were films where the female lead was important as a person, rather than because she was someone’s mother, sister, or wife.