Radha Ravi merely a symptom, malaise runs deep

Speaking at an event, Radha Ravi made remarks demeaning actor Nayanthara

The Tamil film industry’s outrage over actor Radha Ravi’s crass, misogynistic comments is somewhat heart-warming. It was long overdue. Radha Ravi is an actor who has consistently made such comments and managed to get away with it, thanks to the clout his family has wielded in Tamil film bodies (he is the son of the well-known actor/politician MR Radha and half-brother to actor Radhika Sarathkumar). However, when he foul-mouthed the reigning superstar, Nayanthara – perhaps the only woman to earn such a title – he had to get it back.

Speaking at an event to launch the trailer of the film, Kolaiyuthir Kalam, which has Nayanthara in the lead role, Radha Ravi made remarks demeaning the actor.

Ironically, when singer Chinmayi joined issue with him over the #MeToo movement, in which she had finally gathered courage to name lyricist Vairamuthu for having allegedly sexually harassed her, she was promptly ousted from the Tamil Nadu dubbing union, headed by Radha Ravi, and denied work in the industry. The veteran actor would have wait a couple of months more to direct insults at Nayanthara to understand what the receiving end feels like.

Nevertheless, Radha Ravi remained unfazed. He declared that he wouldn’t apologise, ‘for he had done no wrong.’ Maybe he could express regret to Nayanthara and her partner, film director, Vignesh Sivan, for ‘hurting their emotions’, he offered.

The last time such a showdown took place was in 2016 when director Suraj said he cut the length of his leading ladies’ clothes because his audience were paying money to see ‘glamourous heroines’. Both Nayanthara and Tamannah, who was then playing the heroine in his film Kaththi Sandai, took strong objection to his statement and Suraj promptly apologised. Apology notwithstanding, the heroines of most of Suraj’s films do make an appearance to only fill in the ‘glamour quotient.’

Let us face it: Tamil cinema, a hundred-year-old institution, is inherently misogynistic. Even a heroine like Nayanthara – who has established herself as a woman superstar who has films written for her and has given Tamil cinema a chance to create movies without heroes – has had to keep doing run-of-the-mill roles. Essentially, parts where she is either wooed or made to come around by a hero.

Nayanthara has few precedents in Tamil cinema. Among them, the performer Banumathi effortlessly stands out. She could act, sing and direct. She could write and make music. Yet even Bhanumathi did the role of Manorama in the 1963 film Arivali – an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Many similar adaptations followed down the years. The typical Tamil hero has always arrogated to himself the role of ‘reforming’ the haughty woman. It could be the heroine or, in some cases, even the heroine’s mother! An example would be Mappillai, which originally starred Rajinikanth in 1989 and was remade in 2011 with his son-in-law, Dhanush. This is the story where the hero gets to civilize the authoritarian mother-in-law.

But this is nothing compared to other commonplace depictions in Tamil films. For example, stalking is not a crime nor is domestic violence. If the hero stalks a girl, it is because he truly loves her. If he assaults his wife or sister, it is because he wants the concerned character to become a ‘good woman.’ The hero has the right to fall in love with three women at once and choose one to marry, but if the heroine ventures to do the same, she would be rejected by the hero for being a woman of ‘loose character.’

Things are far worse for women who do not appear on screen in the Tamil film industry. At a recent interaction with women who do unconventional jobs in Tamil cinema, I met sound engineer Geetha Guruappa. After putting in three decades of work, Gurappa still has producers approaching her with express doubts over her ability because of her ‘gender.’ Women who work as assistant directors are often handed mundane jobs like monitoring continuity on the sets or checking the costumes. They face their most trying time when the unit goes on outdoor shoots. With no toilet facilities, the women often suffer the humiliation of asking the locals for help. The unit couldn’t care less. One of them told me that the form for the Film Directors Union has no column for women.

In an industry that upholds misogyny as a virtue, that actively discourages women from being a part of it – except where it is absolutely necessary – the Radha Ravis of the world are no freaks. They do not appear out of the blue. We breed and nurture them. We watch and applaud them. Yet when they grow into Frankenstein’s monsters, we fear them. When the Industry refused to listen to actor Rohini or Chinmayi on their reservations against Radha Ravi, it let all women down including the likes of Nayanthara. For if they were listened to, the attack on Nayanthara wouldn’t have happened.

Radha Ravi is merely a symptom of a disease plaguing the Tamil film industry for a century now. The outrage against his comments is necessary but not sufficient. The malaise is deep rooted and to cure it, it is important to treat the disease, not the symptom.

 

(Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist based out of Chennai writing on politics, films and literature)

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