Updated: May 23, 2020
The world celebrated women a couple of days back. On that note, I believe it is only fitting that CelluloidTales comes up with a piece about movies and women in movies.
Karthik Subbaraj is one of the prominent directors who made their mark in the feature film industry with the content being the core. In the span of just 6 years and 4 movies, he has a SIMA award for the best debutante director, a super-hit with Superstar Rajinikanth and accolades from the likes of Mani Ratnam.
His third venture Iraivi (2016), is my favorite and shows exactly how men treat women. This film got rave reviews from the critics but was not celebrated as much in the box office. The film is about women across different walks of life and how they are affected by toxic masculinity (portrayed brilliantly using a variety of leitmotifs and symbols) at different stages of life. Just like his other films, this movie too has a lot of layering for each of the characters.
In my opinion, it is one of the most realistic feminist movies after Arangetram(1973) by the legendary K. Balachander and Lipstick under my Burkha (2016) by Alankrita Shrivastava. Let me tell you why by taking you through the plot of the movie.
The film is centered on the lives of Ponni (Anjali), Malarvizhi (Pooja Devariya), Yaazhini (Kamilini Mukherjee) and to some extent also Meenakshi (Vadivukkarasi). Each of these women is stuck in a patriarchal man's world - brilliantly portrayed via a lot of symbols throughout.
Before I go further, let me take you on a short detour. Silappathikaram is a Tamil epic about a coupe Kovalan and Kannagi. In the epic, the couple goes to another city from their native to earn a livelihood. Kovalan being the head of the house goes on an expedition of sorts to learn a few tricks of the business trade. During one of his travels, he meets Madhavi, falls in love with her and stays with him for a while. However, Madhavi abandons him once Kovalan reaches the bottom of his pocket. Kovalan returns to Kannagi and she accepts him. Let us not go in further to what happens to Kannagi or Kovalan as it is not relevant to the film.
Let us now get back to the film. Michael (Vijay Sethupathi) is in love with Malarvizhi (Pooja Devariya), a widow. He wants to marry her. However, she doesn't oblige as she likes their relationship as it is (friends with benefits). After his uncle comes to know of their relationship, he, like any other man, slut-shamed her and claimed his nephew to be an 'appavi kanni paiyan' (an innocent virgin boy). He forcibly gets Michael married to Ponni. Michael openly tells Ponni about his dislike of this marriage and continues to pursue Malarvizhi who ignores him. Ring any bells?
The director doesn't stop with the reference alone. He goes on to show the patriarchy and the double standards that men have. This he does so by including scenes, where he makes love to Ponni in frustration after Malar ignores him. It is also showed where Malar rains down on Michael, "You talk like you are Mr. Perfect. Haven't you slept with Ponni already?" In fact later in the movie, where Michael doubts Ponni's character she asks him. "Do you really think I don't know about your affair with Malarvizhi?"
The film also brilliantly shows the metamorphosis of this character in the film due to different instances in her life. Towards the end, Ponni goes and gets drenched in the rain with her daughter. It is the same Ponni who refuses to go into the rain in the opening scene.
Let us now move on to the next two women - Meenakshi and Yaazhini. Meenakshi is married to a sculptor. She too doesn't have any say in the house. In fact, her helplessness is shown (literally) in the opening scene, where she cries to her friend about his insensitive and short temper, and also throughout the movie (literally and metaphorically) where she is just a mute observer (due to her comatose) of all the conversations among her husband and the two sons - Arul and Jagan (SJ Surya and Bobby Simha respectively).
Yaazhini is the wife of a filmmaker who takes to chronic alcoholism because he is debut movie hasn't been released. She is shown to be a bold woman with her elite education, choice of a groom (a filmmaker) and her aspirations (when she tells her friend that she just doesn't want to be the stereotypical wife and has great aspirations in life). However, her life is quite ironic. Throughout her married life, she is in constant fear of upsetting her husband and sending him down the vicious spiral of alcoholism again. At the same time, she shows quite some courage when Arul is sober. Her transformation is shown towards the end of the movie, where she responds to her friend's suggestion about being independent of men.
Yaazhini: (Pointing to the rain outside) Do you like rains?
Yaazhini: Come, let's get into the rain
Friend: No! I would get drenched!
Yaazhini: Exactly. That is all being independent etc. is
The fact that it is a man's world is shown throughout various scenes of the movie. There is an instance, where Jagan goes to pick Ponni up near a Van Heusen showroom. The neon words "Men's world" glow in the backdrop. There is another instance where the newlywed Michael and Ponni are going in a taxi. Michael's back hides a part of the name of the cab company (Sornaa Cab) which in reverse spells like "AAN" (man in Tamil).
The defining moment, however, for me is in the climax where SJ Surya repents and resents his impulse. Apart from his mind-blowing acting, the dialogues are really sharp. The lines are the final nails in the coffin for all the patriarchal, toxic men in our society.
Let's now talk about how it is feminist. This film, in my opinion, is more feminist than Lipstick Under my Burkha (LUMB). The former is more realistic and raw in its portrayal of women in the clutches of toxic patriarchy. The latter focusses more on the women breaking the taboos, which is worth a standing ovation in its own right. However, when it comes to consistency, Iraivi wins hands down. This is not a film where women break their shackles and emerge as phoenixes. It shows, how much women do change in daily life. I think this is where Iraivi trumps LUMB. In the latter, there is a bit of suspension of disbelief.
Congratulations and thanks to all who have made it this far. This movie has affected me deeply. Hence, such a long post.
For those interested, the movie is available in Tamil and Hindi dubbed version on YouTube.
Suspension of Disbelief: A literary tool to make the audience believe, appreciate and enjoy a certain work of art that would otherwise only be fictional or fake