Is Indian Cinema’s First Chick Flick, ‘Mouna Raagam’, a Hindu Nationalist Fantasy?

PopMatters, October 26, 2016.

Kumudhan Maderya begins this piece in his inimitable style — big words, confusing concepts, opaque theory. If you’ve the energy to plough through it, he makes for a fascinating and compelling case for Mouna Raagam as a Hindu nationalist fantasy.

Told from Divya’s point of view, Mouna Raagam asks and answers a question straight out of ‘chick lit’: ‘Why do women love bad boys and dump nice guys?’

You can read it here.


Is Indian Cinema’s First Chick Flick, ‘Mouna Raagam’, a Hindu Nationalist Fantasy?

Con-Scripts of Cinema: Framing the Tamil Third Wave

eDhvani (UoH Journal of Comparative Literature, ISSN 2279-0209) Issue 2, January 2013.

Madurai-based films as a study of caste representation in Tamil cinema are common —  in academic circles and otherwise. This group of filmmakers — Sasikumar, Balaji Sakthivel, Ameer and similar — being called ’new wave’ for their raw/realistic portrayal of life in Madurai is also not new. In this paper, the author explores the deliberate intertwining of the ideas of caste, criminality, civilization, citizenship and community (I swear I didn’t do this on purpose) in films set in Madurai, that makes it different from the others we’ve read so far.

After defining ‘third wave’ (jumping from Dravidian/political cinema as first wave to Mani Ratnam as second wave),  when the author gets to the idea of these film characters being ‘conscripts of modernity’, the paper hooks one in.

Could identities and spaces marked by caste and crime become “conscripts of modernity”?

The author takes us through the idea of a deviant and dangerous hero, in Madurai, living in the middle of excessive violence and caste bigotry. He says, the heroes’ “representations provide the citizen-spectator a dangerous/deviant “other” as an identification to (dis)engage with.”

While discussing Kaadhal, he argues that “the fact that the heroic-subject is made mentally insane through the articulation of caste bigotry is an important facet to understand the problems of spectator identification/citizen-subject. Murugan’s deviance is structurally located in his caste status according to the cinematic apparatus. Hence, his caste-located-body becomes a conscript of cinema.”

The rest of the paper on Paruthiveeran and Subramaniapuram makes eloquent arguments about this “wave” of films and what they do to citizen-spectators and their identification with the ‘conscript’.

Here on

Con-Scripts of Cinema: Framing the Tamil Third Wave

Voices of Meenakumari: Sound, meaning, and self-fashioning in performances of an item number

South Asian Popular Culture, 10:3, 307-318

Another paper that takes into account just one song to make a larger point — but this one does an intriguing job. In this paper, Amanda Weidman explores the various meanings of an item song — En Peru Meenakumari from Kandasamy — as it jumps off the screen into other arenas (remediation/re-animation).

She “show(s) how a song that on its surface seems to invoke only the most exaggerated stereotypes of lower-class, sexualized femininity actually participates in complex projects of self-fashioning that exceed the conventions by which female voices are given meaning within the Tamil culture industry.”

As one listens to Tamil film songs, even outside the visuals and the lyrics being sung, one is able to identify it as a romantic song, hero-introduction song or item song. While often the difference is obvious, one couldn’t tell what makes it obvious. Weidman does that in this paper.

She explores the idea of an ideal female voice (singing voice, of course) and how the voice in this song differs from it. She then talks about the meaning and significance of the song in it’s re-animated in stage shows and reality TV. Fascinating and delightful read.

On research gate here.

Voices of Meenakumari: Sound, meaning, and self-fashioning in performances of an item number

Imagining Eelam Tamils in Tamil cinema

Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 26:6, 871-881

In this paper, Ranganathan and Velayutham argue: “…that subtle shifts and changes in Indian–Sri Lankan political relations over the period of the conflict, 1983–2009, coupled with the nebulous articulation of ethnic affinity between Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils in media in general, greatly impacted on the ways in which Eelam Tamils were depicted or unspoken in Tamil cinema.”

They closely analyse 4 films —  Thenali, Kannathil Muthamittaal, Nala Damayanthi and Rameswaram.

While there is insightful context setting with references to Ceylon Tamils in films of the 1930s, collaboration with Srilankan artists, and sympathies of the Tamil political and cultural participants to the Eelam movement and the LTTE, the most interesting part for me was the reading of the films itself.

For instance, this reading of Thenali — “If Thenali is the oppressed Sri Lankan Tamil, Dr Kailash is a metonymy for India, whose help Thenali seeks again and again, refusing to see anything wrong in the doctor or his intentions, and thus elevating him to the position of a divine being.” And a little later — “Interestingly, Dr Kailash becomes a victim of his own villainy, his house is destroyed, he is incapacitated and it is Thenali’s compassion and ingenuity that restores the doctor to normality.”

Their reading of Nala Damayanti is equally interesting. They begin noting that in the film the two groups of Tamils — Srilankan and Indian — are both depicted as part of a diaspora trying to make a living abroad. In fact, the film does not raise any issues arising from the cultural differences between the lead pair — a women of Eelam descent and a man of Indian descent. But they also raise an important argument that Eelam Tamils are represented as “somewhat subservient to an undifferentiated Indian Tamil cultural hegemony.”

Imagining Ealam Tamils in films itself is seen as rather problematic and circumventing troublesome issues — they argue that among the four films, the real reasons of the crisis are never discussed (much less debated) or the name of the LTTE is never raised. They find, “While Rameswaram attempts to give voice to the displacement and trauma experienced by the Eelam Tamil refugees, it is the romance and conflict arising from it that takes the centre stage.” I say — story of our lives!

In conclusion, “While these films sought to build empathy with Eelam Tamils, they by no means generated a collective idea of ‘Tamilness’ or solidarity. In that sense, Eelam or for that matter diasporic Tamils in general are only ever present at the margins of Tamil cinema and unlikely as one of us.”

Link to full-text on

Imagining Eelam Tamils in Tamil cinema

In a forest, a deer

In a forest, a deer

I came across Ambai during my days of cinema research, as C S Lakshmi, a researcher and academician in women’s studies. For long after, I did not know Lakshmi write fiction and I didn’t bother. Recently, I got an opportunity to return to cinema research and I came across Lakshmi again and this time as Ambai. In an impulse, I decided to buy a collection of her short stories In a forest, a deer (Kaattil Oru Maan – translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom). The short story collection is translated from Ambai’s work for various journals over a decade.

My personal journey through the book was that of a silent walk along the lives of the characters, carefully invisible so as not to disturb them but watch them closely because each character was one of us. Ambai, as the storyteller, seemed to be around me, holding my hand, walking me across.

In the first story – ‘Journey 1’, she deals with marriage and motherhood. The ironic and repeated use of the word ‘amma’ in casual conversation about motherhood playfully reflects on the ways we respect our women, and the reasons we choose to do so. The story titled ‘One and Another’ is perhaps the most intriguing of them all for me. Ambai writes about (what I understand) as two lovers – two men in love, devoid of inhibitions, living lives in the middle of art and activism, in a far away mountain village. There is hardly a direct mention of love or sex, but Ambai takes us through their lives leaving us to make what we want of it. But that’s hardly the story. The story here is of death, of not living without the one you love, of dying like a bird.

How do you wish to die?

Like a bird. With no one observing me. Without being nursed. Suddenly. Without any plan. With no one to remember me.

When he does die like that in the end, as a reader, someone standing by his shoulder watching him jump off a cliff, I didn’t have the urge to stop him. I had the urge to look away and forget him. That’s what he would have wanted.

‘Direction’ is another of my favourites. For instance, at a meeting to arrive at a few decisions after a peace march:

‘The rubbish bins ought to be kept clean’. Instantly someone added, ‘Women should come forward and take responsibility in this matter’.  She retorted somewhat hotly that since there was neither male or female in the matter of rubbish, everyone should take responsibility in keeping the place clean. The man proclaimed loudly, ‘Oh, a feminist! A feminist in our midst!’ Then he added dramatically, ‘Please forgive me madam.’ Everyone laughed at this.

And then there is a story about rain, ‘glow’ it is called. Which begins with squirrels and ends with Bharati. ‘Parasakthi and others in a plastic box’ – a story of displacement and compassion. The aged mother who makes pickles for the neighbourhood and distributes kungumappoo to pregnant women around. A simple Tamil woman who brought up two modern young women. ‘Vaaganam‘ is the story of a woman’s dream to cycle – a metaphor for the degradation of a woman’s freedom post independence.

In a forest, a deer – a woman who hasn’t come of age, unpublished manuscript – a woman who left the home of her abusive husband (who she chose herself), Wrestling – a woman who has to give up public performance because she is better than her husband, Journey 3 – of women, children, gods and movies, Ambai tells tales from real life. Of people you know, of women you’ve seen, of situations you’ve witnessed, of tears you’ve shed.

‘Forest’ is an enthralling story, perhaps more than one story. The story of Chenthiru who goes to the forest looking for peace and of Sita who gets her rudravinai lessons from Ravana. Of independent life in the forest, of wandering and thinking, of peacocks and rains, of toddy-drinking rural women, of Sitayanam, of lifting Shiva’s bow as a child but waiting to marry the man who can lift it, of falling in love but staying within boundaries, of being betrayed, of walking away and starting afresh. In all of her stories, Ambai draws from mythology, from culture, from history – but this one is the most moving retelling of them all. Of leaving Sita alone, allowing her to redeem herself. Of dwelling in possibilities.

It is my life, isn’t it? A life that many hands have tossed about, like a ball. Now, let me take hold of it; take it into my hands.

Every story is a gem. Every woman is a silent warrior. Every feminism is new.

Image courtesy of

In a forest, a deer

Aarohanam – the search within

The story of a mentally disturbed mother is rather personal to me – something that is close to my heart and the words that flow below may be highly biased from that perspective.

Aarohanam is the story of a mother who leaves home or the story of two children in search of their lost mother – depending on how you look at it. Nirmala goes missing one day, setting her children – a daughter who is preparing for her weddingin 10 days and a school-going teenage son – in search of her amidst fatigue, panic and restlessness. The film goes back and forth the lives of the family, their travails and troubles.

Nirmala is seen as a woman of strange behaviour – she gets angry too often, her actions are out of her control during such phases, saami aadifies, leaves home, hurts herself, is even suicidal. Unable (or unwilling) to deal with this, her husband abandons her and her children to live with another woman. Nirmala does random jobs to bring up her children.

Her behaviour is seen through the eyes of various people. Her husband, for one, thinks she is mad. He beats her, drags her home when she runs away once, has no faith in her and does nothing to help her. There is a scene where in the police station, her son tells the police officer that she sells vegetables for a living and the husband retorts with “ava ovvoru naal ovvoru velai seiva saar. Dhidirnu idli kadai poduva, insurance agenta velai paappa. Kuppai kuda porukkuva”. Also adds “iva yaarodayum otthu poga maatta”. The husband displays absolute indifference to her behaviour – almost as if he wants to have nothing to do with it.

The children, even though are the most affected by her, stay by her side. They are embarrassed, troubled, hurt but hang around anyway. The son is more expressive in his embarrassment than the daughter but they are both affected profoundly. The scene in which Nirmala burns her hand because her son came home with his father (who had abandoned her) is a heart-wrenching piece of story telling. The sheer fear in the eyes of the children and their surrender to doing anything just so their mother wouldn’t hurt herself is shattering.

The landlord and his wife, the Muslim couple are the charitable elders in her life. They see her as a troubled child, as if the world is conspiring against her and she needs to be protected. The landlady takes care of Nirmala’s children while she is away at work, they lend her money, give her advice when she is depressed and shoo her husband away when he is troubling her. They support her in their own little way and help her stand on her own. The scene where the neighbourhood doubts Nirmala’s ability to conduct her business successfully, the landlady says, “ava thane poi bank padi yeri saamarthiyama loan vaangi irukka”. The landlady plays the role of a mother to a troubled child.

Sandhya, the rich businesswoman sees Nirmala’s behaviour as a relief in some way. She thinks Nirmala is better off because she has a vent for her emotions that Sandhya herself did not have – a classic grass is always greener on the other side scenario.

For Nirmala, this was a rather normal life. She has no idea why her anger reaches unmanageable levels – she thinks she has been wronged and it is only natural to behave that way. The scene in front of the children’s school where she waves a knife at someone who (claims to have) helped her is one such incident. Her life swings between extreme anger, happiness, pride and depression.

Just for the sake of logistics, I have no idea why that MLA character is there in the film. That song at the end of the film is too long for comfort that you just sit around and wait for it to be over and the story be told. The beginning scenes where Sandy and Jay talk about their lives and how Jay gave up her singing career (?) because she had to take care of family is force-fitted. So is that piece in the song that Jay sings. If this is meant to be about the three ladies and their lives, it doesn’t come across as that. The last pep talk that the Doctor gives about Nirmala’s high energy is strange.

All said, Nirmala’s is a moving story. Her lonely struggle against the world (perhaps made up in her mind by her bipolar disorder) is painful. What’s more emotional is the story of the daughter (elder) and the son who try to cope with her in spite of it all. This story had to be told – for psychological problems aren’t at the tip of the Maslow’s pyramid.

Aarohanam – the search within