A woman is strictly measured against a long list of unreasonable norms that govern her honour, of which almost none apply to men and most even sound absurd when thought of in relation to them. When she falls short of them, the Indian society in general perceives any wrong against her, a well deserving punishment and as something she had brought upon herself. A drunk woman never evokes the same empathy/sympathy when raped as the “good woman” or the ‘ideal victim’ does.
A woman loses the right over her body as it is looked upon as a repository of the family honour and is therefore controlled by the male in the family. Control is exercised over her sexuality through numerous rigid rules of monogamy and prohibition of inter caste and inter religious marriages. There is a strict prohibition on the marital choices of women. Violence against them is common when they transgress it. Honour killing continues to remain common in India. A woman in a relationship before marriage is often tagged as a ‘loose woman’ and is shamed and punished for her personal choices. Tamil cinema mostly only strengthens these notions and hardly ever questions them. It continues to further the idea of ‘good woman’ and ‘bad woman’. Bad women are usually either tamed to become an acceptable ‘good woman’ or rightfully meets her tragic end.
Though there are numerous ‘taming of the shrew’ movies in Tamil cinema, Padayappa (1999) featuring Rajinikanth clearly distinguishes the ‘good woman’ and ‘bad woman’. Neelambari, a foreign educated, bold, passionate woman is villanised for transgressing the gender norms. She is portrayed as a vengeful, arrogant, heartless woman in order to justify her tragic ends. Vasundhra, the heroine is the ‘good woman’ who is nothing but naive is idealised and rewarded with a ‘happy’ family life. The hero lectures on how a woman ought to and ought not to be throughout the movie.
Jeethu Joseph’s 2013 Malayalam thriller Drishyam is a blockbuster film which earned widespread positive reviews from critics as well who praised it for its excellent performance, screenplay and direction. Drishyam won numerous prestigious awards which includes the Kerala State Film Award for film with popular appeal and aesthetic. Between its initial release and 2015, Drishyam was remade in four different languages – Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. It was a commercial success in all the languages.
While it is true that Drishyam is a nail biting murder mystery, the movie is very problematic and it needs to be understood why the movie’s massive success is worrying. While the logics of the plot were largely analysed and praised for after its release, the regressive social norms it propagates, meanwhile, were overlooked.
Drishyam (2013, Malayalam) narrates the story of Georgekutty, a local cable tv operator and his family that strives and eventually succeeds in concealing a murder. Anju, George’s school going elder daughter, when blackmailed by Varun for a sexual favour with a nude video of her bathing, is terrified and confides in her mother. The equally devastated mother begs the blackmailer in tears appealing to his conscience. She addresses him as ‘mone’ (dear son) asks him if he hasn’t got a mother and a sister. She tells him that it would destroy her daughter’s future and the entire family will have no other way but to die by suicide if the video is leaked. When he stubbornly refuses and retaliates by asking her to have sex with him instead, the situation goes out of control and they accidentally kill him.
When Rani tells her husband Georgekutty all that had happened, he comes up with an elaborate plan to save his family from the law. The audience is relieved when the family dodges out of the murder case with its honour intact as the video is destroyed and the secret is buried safe with the blackmailer. While Drishyam seems to portray an understanding and supportive family that stands together in a crisis, it does nothing to question the notion of honour of a woman, and instead has only strengthened the dangerous existing narratives.
Why did the mother have to beg the perpetrator, why didn’t she tell her daughter that it is him who should be ashamed and why did she believe that there is no way out of it if the video is leaked but for the family to die? Why is a woman’s body tied to her family’s honour? These dangerous ideas that were projected in Drishyam only add to the huge heap of other such ugly cultural conditioning that makes the woman feel trapped. The huge box-office success of Drishyam and its multiple successful remakes only reflect how much the Indian society is still immersed in such problematic narratives.
Cinema which possesses immense power to positively change the narratives of the society, unfortunately only succumbs to the ugly existing ones and plays safely within the existing social norms to ensure good monetary returns. Anything that could possibly upset the audience is hardly touched upon as it would mean a huge threat to the box office. Drishyam is an example of just that.
A student of MA English and Literature from Madras Christian College, Umakasthuri now works at a women’s college in Nagapattinam and loves to read feminist works.
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