There are many ways to reflect on the year in Tamil cinema. I choose to do so by focusing on the positives; by examining where we have seen growth or wild experimentation. What films stood out for their narratives and not just their budgets or box office stats? What filmmakers inspired us with new takes on storytelling? And what characters stayed with us long after we left the theatre?
When considering the last question, I quickly realized that many of my favorite characters in Tamil cinema this year were those of resilient females, all uniquely strong in their own ways. And after the crude and deplorable comments made by director Suraaj just a few days ago regarding the ‘worth of heroines’ in this industry, it seems apt, more now than ever, to take a look at all the times we saw meaty roles for female leads this year, and the actresses who brought them to life.
The Gritty Madhi
We started 2016 with a fantastic role for newcomer Ritika Singh portraying the fiery Madhi in Irudhi Suttru. Director Sudha Kongara graced us with an original story on the stubborn growth of a determined athlete chasing victory while simultaneously navigating all the typical struggles of adolescence. Madhi was a character unseen by Tamil cinema before, who suddenly re-opened the doors for female led sports films in the South.
The Invincible Ponni
A few months later Karthik Subbaraj’s highly anticipated Iraivi hit theatres and presented us with well fleshed out parts for his 3 leading females, Kamalini, Pooja and Anjali. However, it was the character of Anjali’s Ponni that stood out in my eyes. As the film largely focused on its male leads, Ponni was most directly impacted by the selfish actions of all 3 males. As cleverly paralleled by Subbaraj at the start and end of the film, we see that, although seemingly the plainest, Ponni ends up as the most commendable female in the film, who faces motherhood on her own and is determined not to rely on the males in her life.
Unique yet Conjoint
But, in my opinion, Oru Naal Koothu, which released just the week after, was steered entirely by three goddesses by the names of Meera (Mia George), Kavya (Nivetha Pethuraj) and Susheela (Rhythvika) – all excellently written and naturally portrayed. In each of these three characters we see the different struggles of modern day South Asian women of various backgrounds and mindsets, as they face pressure from their marriage obsessed culture. Through these 3 strong roles debut director Nelson Venkatesan has highlighted the blatant fact that although marriages may be made in heaven, when it comes to the South Asian community, the fairer sex often must go through hell to find someone to tie a knot around their neck, either for their own happiness and/or that of their families.
Saalama - Breath of Fresh Air
Jumping to Ammani, we saw the very unique role of Saalama - written, directed and essayed by the phenomenal Lakshmy Ramakrishnan. It’s not often that female artists of middle-age and above receive proper screen time or roles of substance, so Saalama is a breath of fresh air. The distinctive mother character who spent her entire life sacrificing for her family only to reach retirement and question what it has all been for was an absolute standout role this year, and through it director Lakshmy reminded us all that captivating narratives do not require a man to lead them.
Rudhra - The Actual Shakuni
But at the same time, 2016 also showed us films which, from my point of view, were simultaneously driven by equally strong female and male characters, such as the Dhanush-Trisha starrer Kodi. With Rudhra we received a cunning, political mastermind, who for once in Tamil cinema, was not also a male! In her strongest performance in years, (and possibly my favorite negative female role since Padayappa’s Neelambari) Trisha brought a ruthless villain to life with ease, and reminded everyone that mainstream commercial films can and should have well scripted roles for its heroines as well as its heroes.
So as we begin looking forward to the coming year I excitedly look forward to how Tamil cinema will continue to progress with its roles for females in 2017. I also happily look forward to how the industry at large will continue to disprove the mentalities and practices of people like director Suraaj wrong.
Special character mentions:
Kumudhavalli in Kabali
Swetha in Kuttrame Thandanai
Divya in Kavalai Vendaam
Keerthi in Thozha
Shanti Gopal in Amma Kanaku
Yazhini in KaKaKa Po
Karmeghakuzhazi in Aandavan Kattalai
Priya in Zero
Dr. Subhashini & Anbuselvi in Dharma Durai
Written by - Dilani Rabindran