Posted by Shyamala Rajasekar
The box office success of Veere Di Wedding and positive reception of Netflix’s Lust Stories jolted the memory of a 1990s Tamil movie Magalir Mattum (Only Women). This movie, released in 1994 and directed by Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, boasts of being the first Tamil movie to deal with the sensitive issue of sexual harassment at workplace. The movie rested on an all-female cast, starring Revathi, Urvashi, and Rohini with Naseer playing the antagonist. It was an Indian adaptation of the American film 9 to 5 and was later remade in three more languages – Telugu (Aadavaallaku Maatram), Malayalam (Ladies Only) and Hindi (Ladies Only). Only in Hindi, it never saw the day of light due to reasons unknown.
The movie sees three women – Satya (Revathi) as a modern computer engineer, Janaki (Urvashi) as an orthodox Brahmin typist, and Papamma (Rohini) as the low-caste cleaner. The three women work in a fashion export firm where the workers are primarily women but the boss is a man; a lecherous boss man who has his eyes on every woman in the firm – from the computer engineer to the maidservant. The plot of the movie sees these three women standing up to sexual harassment at workplace through their own methods – from kidnapping to a murder attempt. The movie tastefully deals with the serious issue of women empowerment with good humour and satire.
I watched Magalir Mattum as a kid. After all these years, the scene that was etched in my mind was where Satya, after agreeing to all the dowry demands of her prospective in-laws puts down only one demand: she will tie the knot around the groom. Even as a kid, I laughed out loud at this scene.
A primary school child being aware of dowry practices and happy at the thought of someone (even if it’s a movie character) standing up to it demonstrates how prevalent and deeply entrenched this practice is. Girls learn about these evil practices of oppression early in life. The change I am proud of in recent times is that they acknowledge the practice, not by caving to it but by standing up to it.
This audacious movie, which was way ahead of its time, surprised me at how relevant it was even in this age.
I re-watched Magalir Mattum recently. Magalir Mattum, released in 1994 echoed the concerns of women in post-liberalisation India who had just started stepping out of the house in search of their identity and independence. This audacious movie which was way ahead of its time, surprised me at how relevant it was even in this age. Throughout the movie, I found myself smiling – sometimes in awe, sometimes in adoration, and mostly in approval of the characters and their closeness to real-life portrayal.
Even in today’s age, it stands out for its progressive thoughts that the movie makers of our ‘modern’ times struggle to find the courage to talk about. In recent times, feminism’s flag is held the highest than it has ever been. Still, producing an all-female starrer movie, without the aid of booze and item songs seems like a challenge. Even the recent Veere Di Wedding had to be backed with two mainstream glamorous actresses, a clichéd Bangkok plot, and dazzling clothes to find a place among the top grossing movies. The movie’s message of feminism had to be gulped down with a few shots of tequila and some item songs. It makes me wonder if Veere Di Wedding was a paradox in itself.
The movie starts with Janaki complaining about bus drivers’ attitude towards women. Her bus stand friend makes the brave declaration that the day women take on to the system is when things would start to change for all of womankind. Later in the movie, the same woman is seen driving a bus, which she stops even when it is just for one woman. I was immediately taken back to the recent Oscar speech by Frances McDormand where she introduced the term ‘Inclusion Rider’. This bus scene was the closest representation for that term that finally clawed its way to existence only in 2018. You don’t leave any woman behind when you find a place in the equality bandwagon.
The second protagonist in the movie is a maidservant called Papamma, played by Rohini. Rohini shed all traces of glamour to embrace this role and made it remarkable with her Madras Tamil, karuvaadu (dry fish) and quick wit. In her introductory scene, she is seen running behind her drunkard husband who stole her savings. She yells, “Catch the thief!”. A passerby, oblivious to the relationship of Rohini and her husband, catches hold of him and plants a slap or two. Papamma quickly jumps in saying, “I asked you to catch hold of him, not slap him. He is my husband”. I was reminded of the old Tamil adage “Kal annalum kanavar” (Even if he a stone, he is your husband), which our parents’ generation lived by. I can bet that even today we all know at least one housemaid or a woman from a low-income group whose drunkard husband beats her up, but would fight tooth and nail when the same alcohol landed him in a hospital. My maternal grandmother who raised my strong-headed mother and free-spirited aunt, was one.
The third protagonist is Revathi’s Satya – a modern day, well educated, push-the-boundaries, break-the-glass-ceiling woman. She is a computer engineer back in the day of main frame computers. ‘Women in Technology’ is a post-2010 term, while this foresighted movie hinted this progress two decades ago.
Magalir Mattum challenged the conventional set up of patriarchal society where the man is the breadwinner and the woman is the caretaker. Beautifully weaved as an everyday routine in Janaki’s home is when she returns from work to her husband who takes care of their child. This role reversal, very subtly hinted, is slowly finding its way into our society. There is no shame in the husband being a homemaker, just as there is none in the wife being ambitious.
There were several scenes in the movie which spoke to me as a working woman. The lecherous boss casually commenting on Satya’s chudidhar reminded me of the time when a senior male colleague was offended when a newly recruited, highly qualified female chemical engineer colleague walked in with open hair. The retorts at work about marriage and relationships with no regard for personal space or professionalism are what often constitute small talk at work. It’s casual talk – as casual as the sexism at workplaces. I remember an instance where a male colleague taunted another male colleague to stop complaining “like girls” about body pain, while I was standing right across the room. I gulped down his jibe with my hot coffee that day and till today curse my silence.
When a bold Satya strongly tells her boss that it is his position at work she desires and not a saree he bought for her, or when Papamma’s husband, a cart puller, complains to a customer that it is financial independence that has given women their wings – both these messages are strong takeaways for audience. Women must unapologetically aim for higher roles at work and it is financial independence that will break these leashes of patriarchy. Patriarchy is so infused with misogyny that it is hard to distinguish where one ends and where other begins.
The retorts with no regard for personal space or professionalism is what often constitutes small talk at work. It’s casual talk – As casual as sexism at workplaces.
Satya appears intimidating to the other employees because of her qualifications and modern outlook. But when she expresses her anger and discomfort with their boss to Janaki, the others realise that underneath this educated, modern front is a woman just like them. In Mindy Kaling’s recent commencement speech at Dartmouth, she spoke about the primal instinct of women at workplaces. When another woman steps in, we are intimidated thinking there is only one spot for us. But what we need to fight is this practice that gives women only one spot and not the other women.
It would be injustice to this brilliant movie if it is viewed only through the lens of gender. This movie is a classic because it acknowledges women of all classes, backgrounds, and castes. Papamma is a cleaner – a Hindu society assigned/approved job for lower castes. Acknowledging the existence of caste in mainstream cinema is in itself an applaudable act. In the initial scenes, it is shown that Papamma doesn’t dine with the other employees. The movie cleverly brings in the curse of untouchability in Hindu society even after decades of independence. It is Satya, the educated woman, who brings Papamma into the inter-dining space and even eats from her tiffin. Education is the primary tool to beat these social evils.
Satya, in one scene informs the audience that thayir saadam (curd rice) and karuvaadu (dry fish) is a great combination. Thayir saadam is the signature dish of upper caste Tamils while karuvaadu is a common indulgence of the lower castes. Initially, Janaki’s disgust towards Papamma’s food astutely brings out the caste differences prevalent in ‘modern’ society. It slowly fades away when Janaki steps out of the caste boundaries.
These two women in the latter half of the movie carry out some incredible stunts. Through their representation and backstories, it urges women to rise above the differences of class, caste, and age and fight the common enemy – patriarchy. Patriarchy doesn’t discriminate based on class, caste or age. The mode of oppression can be different but the core idea remains the same throughout these practices – we own you.
Maternity and its responsibilities are often seen as excuses of women. That attitude has to change.
In the final scenes, when these three women take over the firm, they change the face of it. They set up a dining room so all employees can eat with dignity, lamps for every table to work with ease which eventually increases efficiency and productivity, and a creche in office space which was the final hit. I have often covered for my senior at work who is a new mother as she juggles between work and home to feed her child. Maternity and its responsibilities are often seen as excuses that women give to not work hard. That attitude has to change. That is the same attitude which prompts administration and HR to make ridiculous remarks that women cannot be trusted with long-term projects or plans as they will soon get married and leave.
In one scene, Papamma gives Janaki a pen as a weapon of self-defence. The pen is mightier than the sword. Using social media and talking about feminism has definitely brought about much-needed awareness, but it needs to be put in practice as well to bring out concrete changes in workplaces.
Magalir Mattum hits the right chords in almost all aspects – I say almost, because I was let down by the climax of the movie. Kamal Hasan playing the new boss of the firm is shown as the man with all the solutions, the male saviour. Even in a female-oriented, female-starrer movie, a man has to be the solution provider, the knight in shining armour. He is the harbinger of good times. A woman “needs” a husband to complete and validate her. This brilliant movie just takes an easy route when Revathi is pushed on Kamal Hasan – in both a literal and metaphorical sense.
In conclusion, Magalir Mattum is the movie women across the world should take lessons from. Stand up for yourself and watch out for each other. Blow your trumpets. The world has comfortably turned a deaf ear to women. It needs a loud call to wake up from its deep sleep called patriarchy.
Featured Image Source: The News Minute