*Major spoilers are ahead
Navarasa, the latest Tamil outing on Netflix India, is a project undertaken to help the suffering Tamil film industry during this pandemic. With a star-studded ensemble both in front of and behind the camera, there were huge expectations from and hype around Navarasa. But it turned out to be a mediocre outing with few hits and few misses. However, what we will focus on is the glaring issue of how the series depicted women.
The first story in Navarasa, ‘Edhiri,’ deals with the emotion – ‘Karuna or Compassion’. Savithri (played by Revathy) witnesses her husband’s murderer – Dheena (Vijay Sethupathi), walk away from her home. The short then grapples with the reasons and consequences of this murder. We later get to know that Savithri’s unnamed husband (Prakash Raj) played a pivotal role in pushing Dheena‘s brother to suicide. When Dheena comes to confront him, his cavalier reaction enrages Dheena, who then bludgeons him to death. As Dheena walked away, he ran into Savithri, who stood dumbfounded, unable to process this info and react. Later, a guilt-ridden Dheena seeks out Savithri for forgiveness. All this is well and good, but here lies my issue.
In a movie where the two male characters have committed heinous crimes: one pushed someone towards suicide and the other committed murder; the woman is the one who finally takes the fall due to her shortcomings. And her so-called flaw was – she had a dysfunctional relationship with her husband, with whom she was not on talking terms for over a decade. Thus, she concludes she is not the right person to pardon Dheena.
The director might be trying to portray Savithri‘s character as flawed but what does this add to the overall story? Except making her a person not worthy of issuing a pardon in both her eyes and the audience, only because she did not play the virtuous and dutiful wife to her dead husband? Savithri‘s character has the potential to just end the cycle of violence between the two families by showing compassion to a repenting Dheena, but instead, that the director focuses on building the narrative of Savithri as too flawed to forgive has grave patriarchal undertones. And to think, the setup was right there, all the director needed to do was not add that extra estrangement between the married couple and scapegoat the wife.
‘Roudhram’ – the sixth entry in Navarasa is on the emotion ‘Raudra or Anger’. I found this the best made of the lot but also most problematic, story-wise. A downtrodden family is struggling to make ends meet. The mother, a domestic helper, goes to extreme lengths to at least provide fleeting moments of happiness to her struggling children. In the process, she is forced into sex with her employer in return of financial help. Her children witnesses this, which pushes them to extreme anger. The son kills the employer with a hammer; while the daughter nurses immense rage and resentment towards her mother all her life.
Anyone who does not find an issue with this story might be still stuck in the archaic thinking where the woman’s so-called ‘purity’, ‘chastity’ and ‘sanctity’ are given the utmost importance. This thought process undermines sex workers, portraying them as nothing more than a blight and showcases them as societal outlaws. Shouldn’t the son have reflected and taken responsibility for his earlier tantrums that pushed the mother to take such an extreme step? Shouldn’t the daughter understand the immense sacrifice made by her mother and sympathise with her precarious situation? But instead, once again, we see a woman being defined by a sexual act.
‘Inmai,‘ meaning ‘devoid of,’ is the seventh entry in Navarasa, which is based on the emotion of ‘Bhaya- Fear.’ While the extremely stereotypical portrayal of Muslims in the film requires an entire article dedicated to its critical unpacking, this R Rathindran Prasad directorial also has a warped representation of women. While Parvathy Thiruvothu plays Waheeda, a different actress, Ammu Abhirami, plays the younger Waheeda. One wonders why was this creative decision taken especially when we see both Siddharth and later Suriya’s characters, who are well into their 40s, play younger versions of themselves.
But Parvathy, who is just in her early 30s, is not deemed good enough to play a younger teenage version of herself. Why is it? Why do we set impossible expectations of women’s physicality in our cinema? When will we start depicting men as age-appropriate? I mean, when it comes to our actors, we still see them well into their 60s romancing girls in their 20s and running around the trees singing duets. But when it comes to women actors, we see 30 year olds playing mothers to 50-year-old heroes. Why do we have such hypocrisy?
Coming to the final short in Navarasa, Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru, based on Shringaara or Romance, we see Nethra, played by Prayaga Martin play romantic interest to Suriya’s Kamal in a painfully long sequence. The short is bizarre in how it primarily uses Nethra to pedestalise Kamal throughout, pushing him to believe in his work and sing tall praises of his music whereas, the skills of Nethra, who is a singer too, aren’t probed. She is only used to build Kamal‘s character, who cannot get over the fact that everything Nethra says resembles the conversation he had with his mother. In addition to feeding the narrative of how Kamal is attracted to Nethra who is an extension of his mother, in that sense, the film also does an Imtiaz Ali in how Nethra is a manic pixie dream girl, who is merely an instrument in getting the man to his destination and has no character arc or storyline of her own.
There was barely a single female character or storyline that stood out in Navarasa. It saddens me to think that a series put together by some of the most brilliant minds of the Tamil film industry failed to make any strides in how women are depicted in mainstream media.
How far away are we from seeing woman not being portrayed as mere scapegoats or just means to further stories? When will we start viewing ‘her’ as an individual and not in respect to interactions with the characters around?
Sindhu JaiBalaji works as a product manager for a retail company. As a side hustle, she runs a bookstagram account, which you can find here.