Do Thalaivar's movies pass the Bechdel Test?

By Nanditha Ravindar 

Problematic Characterizations

Recently, I have been feeling a little homesick, missing Chennai – the city I love the most. In an attempt to relive my growing up years in the city that is home to Marina and Santhome and the Semmozhi Poonga, I have been watching Thalaivar (Rajnikanth for the uninitiated) movies now and then.

I noticed something interesting while watching these films again as an adult. And those observations did not make me happy. I noticed a pattern in the ‘90s Rajnikanth movies that many people love. I was not old enough to notice this pattern when I watched these movies the first time around, so it was quite a revelation for me, too.

In most of these Rajnikanth movies, all of which went on to become massive hits, there are two types of women – the do-gooder characters who can do no evil and are perfect, as far as a Rajnikanth movie goes (read coy, good natured, sacrificial, nurturing and motherly with hardly any agency), and the villainous characters who are evil to the core or in other words assertive, confident/overconfident, aggressive, and intimidating. There is no in between, no shades of grey. Only black and white. In the case of the former, Rajnikanth, as the hero / protagonist, mostly ends up marrying them. If he married the latter kind, he did so mostly to “tame” them and teach them a lesson, for them to correct their “erroneous” ways. For those of you who have watched and engaged with Rajnikanth’s body of work, there’s a very high chance that you may remember Padayappa and Neelambari’s character in that movie. But there are quite a few other movies, as well. Let me jog your memory.

You have the assertive, arrogant dark character Shantidevi (Vijayashanti) in Mannan, juxtaposed by the timid, loving Meena (Kushboo) in the same movie. Then, there is the forever angry (initially at least), sadistic Sumathi (Madhavi) on the one hand and the ever smiling, simple, sacrificial Sulokshana on the other, in Rajnikanth’s hugely popular 1984 film, Thambikku Entha Ooru. Most of his other equally successful movies have the good natured, coy woman paired opposite him such as Meena in Ejamaan and Veera, Soundarya in Padayappa, and Kushboo in Annamalai.

This is not to say that confident women have never been shown in a good light in the earlier Rajnikanth films. But they were far and few in between, and what is most disturbing in the movies mentioned earlier is the fact that the overconfident, assertive women are shown in an extreme, such that they easily incur hatred, and are then tamed or are shown the “moral high ground” by the hero.

I remember falling in love with the song “Kadhalin deepam ondru” from Thambikku Entha Ooru when I watched it for the first time as a child. Though I still love the track, I recently realized that the song is set against a very disturbing setting – the hero, in order to teach the arrogant heroine a lesson, forcibly enters her bedroom and kisses her despite her protests. Although she did taunt him and egg him on to enter her house and touch her, and the hero does realize his mistake later on, I cannot digest the fact that the woman “falls in love” with the hero after he forcibly kisses her without her consent. Then comes the song, depicting both of them falling in love with each other. That is extremely problematic, to say the least.

Directors of these specific movies did not seem to understand the concept of a middle ground. The characters are mostly written in extremities, as mentioned earlier. Why were these directors unable to portray a confident woman who was assertive as well as a level headed and kind person?

The evolving nature of Rajnikanth’s films

With time, the portrayal of women in Thalaivar’s movies do appear to be improving, thanks to the directors and writers (and maybe an evolved understanding of women as well). In the 1980s and 1990s, it was difficult to find female characters fleshed out well, women who are strong and yet gentle. Rajnikanth’s daughter in Kabali was a breath of fresh air. She was confident, strong and could kick some ass, literally. The icing on the cake was a fight sequence where she is in the thick of action and shields and saves her father, Rajnikanth.

In one of the initial scenes in Kaala, we see Rajnikanth’s to-be daughter-in-law Charumathi, an activist, (Anjali Patil) outright state that she would not sit down in front of her in-laws just to show them respect. The same movie gives us another brilliant woman in the form of Easwari Rao who plays Rajnikanth’s wife Selvi, a strong, assertive, loving woman who is embracing her husband one minute and yelling at him for secretly meeting his ex-girlfriend in the other. What’s more, the ex-girlfriend (Huma Qureshi) and the wife actually get on cordially without any unnecessary drama thrown in. Who would have imagined such scenes a decade ago?

Through the Bechdel Lens

The Bechdel test, named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, requires a film (or any work of art) to have at least two women represented in it, and talking about something other than a man. If these criteria are met, it is said to pass the test. To put things in perspective, let us look at some of Rajnikanth’s films to see if they pass the Bechdel test.

In Padayappa, Neelambari’s (Ramya Krishnan) life revolves around Rajnikanth’s character – passionate love turns to an unhealthy obsession with wanting to destroy his life. The other female lead in the film, Vasundhara (Soundarya), also lives in the shadow of her lover-turned-husband Rajnikanth. In Mannan, Meena (Kushboo) fantasizes about Rajnikanth and loves him, taking care of his ailing mother later on even after Rajnikanth marries Shantidevi. Although Shantidevi (Vijayashanti) does have ambitions of her own in the movie which have nothing to do with the hero initially, Rajnikanth becomes all encompassing in her life as she is consumed by jealousy and constantly wants to bring Rajnikanth down. This goes to show that neither of the movies pass the Bechdel test.

Kaala, on the other hand, brought us Huma Qureshi’s character who lives life on her own terms, continuing to do whatever she feels is right regardless of the male protagonist’s opinion. In the same movie, Rajnikanth’s wife Selvi is shown as bold and loving, holding together the entire family on her own without being too dependent on her husband – Rajnikanth. The icing on the cake is the character of Charumathi (Anjalai Patil) who is a passionate activist; she is defined neither by her lover, nor by her powerful to-be father-in-law Rajnikanth. Thus, the movie passes the Bechdel test.

The credit for such powerful and respectful characterizations in both Kabali and Kaala go to director Pa Ranjith, whose penchant for a nuanced understanding of women and writing characters rooted in reality, has culminated in bringing strong and memorable narratives alive . Admittedly, the two films that walk off the beaten path are more to Pa Ranjith’s credit than to Rajnikanth - but the hope is that this remains a step that both Rajnikanth himself and others who choose to work with him carry forward.