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When the misogyny in cinema spills into real life

Tamil actor Mansoor Ali Khan’s sexist and offensive remarks against Trisha point to the misogyny that has always been a staple in cinema

Casual misogyny has always been a staple element of Tamil cinema. But, when actor Mansoor Ali Khan casually and regretfully said he no longer got to do rape scenes as villain, he didn’t anticipate a backlash. Every one of the women actors he named—from Trisha to Kushboo to Roja—called him out publicly, and sent complaints to the National Council for Women. 

Khan’s immediate response was the stock statement that the video had been edited to twist his words. The NCW forwarded the complaint to the police and asked for a case to be filed under Section 509b of the Indian Penal Code (sexual harassment by electronic mode). The Nadigar Sangam, the Tamil Nadu actors’ association, asked him to apologise. An enraged Khan called a press conference and said he had done nothing wrong and wanted all those who condemned him to withdraw their statements. Chennai city police have now booked Khan under sections 354A (sexual harassment) and 509 (word, gesture or act intended to outrage modesty of woman) of the Indian Penal Code. 

Khan may never see just how reprehensible his words and actions are, but it is a good sign that casual misogyny is no longer given a free pass. For long, in Tamil cinema, villains rape, heroes stalk and comedians body shame the women who share screen space with them. ‘Heroes’ force mangalsutras on the necks of independent women and ‘tame them’. Stalking is considered romantic, sexist dialogue is meant to be funny. Contempt and prejudice against women have been romanticised.

The 1980s and 1990s saw the worst of the sexualization of women in cinema. As budgets for Tamil films became bigger, women were roped in to do “glamour” roles that had little to do with the main plot. They were dressed in skimpy clothes and do “club dances”, while men ogled and abused them, and cameras selectively zoomed in on their bodies. Soon calling a desirable woman, an “item” or a “figure” became part of slang, and misogyny was incorporated into everyday conversation.

The iconic opening shot of the 1992 film Roja, one of Mani Ratnam’s biggest box office hits, has a beautiful village girl singing, played by young actor Madhu, beneath a waterfall of her innocent chinna chinna assai, tiny little desires. The lyrics by the then upcoming lyricist Vairamuthu were beautiful, and the romantic music marked A.R. Rahman’s debut in the Tamil film industry.

Watching the scene back then, I felt a frisson of discomfort for the way the heroine was infantilized and married off to the hero without her consent. Now, in retrospect, 30 years later, the realization that the lyrics of that iconic scene were penned by a man accused of being a sexual predator makes the scene even more problematic for me. This is the same lyricist who has been accused by so many women of predatory behaviour over the decades yet continues to get more commissions, while the women who accused him have been boycotted by the film industry.

Leading playback singer Chinmayi Sripada was the first to accuse Vairamuthu of making sexual overtures to her when she was a teenager. More women joined her later but it is they who suffered boycotts, not the accused lyricist. Chinmayi was banned for years from work by the dubbing union’s head Radha Ravi, whom she had also accused of sexual misconduct.

The roots of this bias run so deep that some older women in the industry support male predators—for one, during the height of the MeToo movement, senior actor Sowcar Janaki rubbished the accusations of all the women who had spoken about the harassment they faced in the film industry. Misogyny is, of course, worldwide and it will take years of concerted effort to swipe at its roots—and women speaking out for themselves as well as others is crucial to counter it. This is why voices such as Chinmayi, Trisha and Kushboo require all the support they can get.

Gita Aravamudan is an author and independent journalist based in Bengaluru. Her books include Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide and Baby Makers: The Story of Indian Surrogacy.

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