Would Irudhi Suttru (Last round) be the “mudhal suttru” (first round) of a feminist revolution in tamil cinema?
This question kept running in my mind when I first saw the movie. Then, I heard the talented director, Sudha Kongara, telling to BOFTA students that Irudhi Suttru “is not a female-oriented film at all, it is about a woman sport”, that is to say, amateur female boxing. And, indeed, the film is not demonstratively women-oriented like a feminist manifesto, but it shows a young woman with feet on the ground, getting into action and taking the lead in her own life with the help of her boxing coach. Irudhi Suttru is not an activist film but a realistic sports drama. That being said, Sudha Kongara’s flick however appears to me as a courageous rule-breaker for women behind and in front the camera, and consequently, for women beyond the camera, that is to say, us, the audience.
Firstly, the success of the movie might impact the importance of women filmmaking in tamil cinema. Of course, since the first South Indian woman director, TP Rajalakshmi (director of Miss Kamala in 1936 and also the heroine of the first tamil talkie, Kalidas, in 1931), a few women directors have shown how skilled and talented they are, such as Suhasini Mani Ratnam (Indira), Aishwarya Dhanush (Moonu, Vai Raja Vai), Soundarya Rajinikanth (Kochadaiyaan), V.Priya (Kanda Naal mudhal, Kannamoochi yenadaa), Sripriya (Malini 22 Palayamkottai) and some others.
Yet, it remains a too rare fact to see women handling filmmaking in Tamil Nadu and in India, just as in other countries, we should say (think about the 7% of women directors in Hollywood). In some interviews she gave, Sudha Kongara, former assistant director in Mani Ratnam’s team, rightly underlines the criticisms she underwent from some male chauvinists in the industry, whereas she was giving body and soul for her film: writing the screenplay with Sunanda Raghunathan, searching for producers with the help of Madhavan, making a two and half years research about the amateur female boxing field and about Royapuram area where part of the story is set.
But secondly and above all, Irudhi Suttru is a fresh turning point for women’s portrayal in tamil cinema. In my view, a peculiar moment in the movie proves it perfectly, obviously and firmly : when I saw the film, the “Vaa Machaney” song sequence stroke me and stole my little feminist heart, as these few minutes brush aside decades of women’s film stereotypes.
Prabhu (Madhavan), the boxing coach, is impressed by the potential of Madhi (Ritika Singh), a young fish-selling girl, came to support her boxer sister, Lux (Mumtaz Sorcar). As the girl refuses his training proposal, Prabhu offers her 500 rupees per day. Madhi accepts the deal and returns triumphantly to her house with her first “salary”, already dreaming of buying Nike shoes for her sister and a new sari for her mother (Baljinder Kaur). When her drunken father (Kaali Venkat) tries to steal the money from her, he is beaten by her mother…this completely matriarchal family scene leads, in all logic, to this song sequence, where Madhi and Lux, seem to rule over their area’s men like queens in their kingdom. Through Sean Roldan’s beautiful and warm voice, the song starts, warning us about the fearless Madhi :
Senji Vacha Aasai Ellam Theeka Paakkura / Nenjukkulla Rani Aattam Uchi Nokkura / Kedacha Edatha Pudippa / Aduthu Ethuvum Nadakkum Thadukkathe
She wants to fulfill all her desires / She feels like a queen at the top / If she finds it, she will take the place / Everything could happen next, don’t try to stop her
And indeed, the whole song lyrics depict Madhi’s character, just as the director wanted to introduce her to the audience. In a way, Sudha Kongara totally hijacks the classic “hero introduction kuthu song”, for her heroine. And what a heroine Madhi is ! We could restrictively define her as a tomboy, but this word is way too poor to depict her. Madhi is raw like a rough diamond, free as a never caged wild bird, an instinctive and hot-tempered young women, speaking a crude slang, without any inhibition either ulterior motive. And here is her beauty: contrary to most of the people surrounding her, Madhi doesn’t act, she doesn’t have any mask and lives as she feels. In other words, Madhi’s roughness is just the reflection of a pure and childlike human being, who wants to live her life to the fullest as she was starving for everything. The lyrics are limpid about it:
Kariyum Sorum Kadichi Thunna / Kelambi Nikkura / Dhanusu Padam Paakka Yaengi / Polambi Sokkura
She is ready to devour meat and rice / She is eager to see Dhanush films
As a matter of fact, a crucial and appealing facet of Madhi’s character reflects this eagerness for life: “Dhanusu Padam Paaka Yaengi Polambi Sokkura”/ She is eager to see Dhanush films. Indeed, just like so many youngsters in Tamil Nadu, she is a die-hard fan of the charismatic actor but he is not only a film star to her. He is her prince charming, her knight in shining armor, of whom she keeps a photograph in her wallet (“Thalaivan Dhanush’nu ninaipu”, says Madhi to Lux about her coach). But above all, Dhanush is her role-model, an integral part of what she is.
And in fact, in “Vaa Machaney” song sequence, we can see and feel Dhanush’s presence everywhere. It’s no coincidence if the Aadukalam’s hero appears in the “Special thanks” of Irudhi Suttru.
The song begins with a joyful run in Madhi and Lux’s area shown in a beautiful long shot, and then, Madhi suddenly stops, turns back to a poster of Dhanush’s blockbuster, Velai Illa Pattadhaari (VIP), and shows a bundle of notes to her hero, with a voracious pride expression on her face. It’s just like she wants to tell him: “look what I am now, I am also a winner like you, you can be proud of me”. With the help of her cinematographer, Sivakumar Vijayan, Sudha Kongara visually translates the fact that Madhi looks up to Dhanush, with a high-angle shot where the poster is dominating the girl: the giant and six-packed Dhanush’s image reinforcing the idea of the powerful influence he has on her. An interesting fact about Madhi’s psychology is that, as the story goes by, she replaces Dhanush by her coach Prabhu, who becomes the one she wants to make proud of her (also replacing Dhanush’s photo by Prabhu’s photo in her wallet in “Ey Sandakaara” song).
And here is an important fact highlighted by Sudha Kongara: indeed, it’s quite understandable that girls want to be like the hero, that is to say the one who have the power, the one who fights, the one who win at the end, and not like the regular heroine who has a minimal role in the story progression. When I was a child, I always identified myself with the hero character rather than the heroine, not because of the actresses who did their job very well, but because the heroine character was not well written, and remained a passive doll with a limited psychology. Of course, there are so many examples of strong women characters in tamil cinema (and I am not a child anymore), but anybody could see that screenplays are still male-dominated in film industry.
In the whole song, the director has intentionally put references to Dhanush, through his posters. But above all, we can feel Dhanush’s presence in Madhi’s dance: indeed, I am pretty sure that “Vaa Machaney” has been conceived as Madhi’s tribute to one of Dhanush’s most popular songs, “Otha Sollala” in Aadukalam (Vetrimaran, 2011).
The director shows how a die-hard fan can not help but imitating her star’s most known and loved dance steps. Thus, some dance steps from “Otha Sollala” are reproduced almost exactly by Madhi and Lux.
As girls don’t wear “veshti”, Madhi makes her father dancing like Dhanush with his own “veshti”. As I said, the two sisters really rule over the men in “Vaa machaney”, whether with their father, or with other men walking or working in the streets.
Another obvious reference is the little sequence which takes place in a barber shop (decorated with Dhanush poster, of course), just as in “Otha Sollala”. Obviously, the song sequence is not only Madhi’s tribute to Dhanush, but also Sudha Kongara’s visual wink to Vetrimaran’s Aadukalam.
But there is a more fundamental link between “Vaa Machaney” and “Otha Sollala” : in both songs, the character expresses his/her happiness, in a joyful, freed and shyless street dance. And here is the feminist revolution in “Vaa Machaney”.
Usually in tamil cinema, what are the choices for a heroine who expresses her happiness in a song sequence? She could dance in the rain, totally wet of course. She could dance in fifteen different colours dresses. She could hop everywhere and behave childishly. Here, Sudha Kongara makes her heroine dance in the streets, just like a hero would do it. Madhi moves freely, following her own rhythm, her own heartbeats. Don’t we all have an unfettered, crazy (and sometimes ridiculous) dance of joy ? This anarchic but much more realistic way of dancing is so far from the regular choreographies that impose stereotyped steps to actresses, alienating their bodies, in a way. Just like Karuppu in Aadukalam, Madhi does whatever she wants to express her happiness, and in both songs, it’s such a delight and a relief to see these vibrant characters exulting like human fireworks.
This song truly breaks the usual codes of the street kuthu songs in tamil cinema, by feminizing the genre. Usually, there are limited roles for women in kuthu songs : either they are the heroine besides the hero, but with less clothes, of course ; or they are part of the disciplined group dancers in colourful “dawanis” ; or they come briefly like a “god-possessed” creature ; or they are passing by the street with a bucket of water. But this song not only shows us that “girls wanna have fun”, it asserts that “girls do have fun”. In fact, the song lyrics recapture classic kuthu songs words like “machaney”, “dhaadha”, “gethu” and assign them to Madhi. Secondly, “Vaa Machaney” just like “Otha sollala” are so refreshing because they are down to earth, realistic and genuine street dance songs, without group dancers, without spectacular and whirling-in-the air steps, without life lessons given in a camera facing shot. And last but not the least, the genius Santhosh Narayanan has totally blew out the musical codes of the kuthu song with a beautiful, stylish and bluesy track full of scatting and magical guitar moments by Sean Roldan.
Of course, if Madhi reaches so well the audience’s mind and heart, it’s obviously because of Ritika Singh’s acting. Being a professional kickboxer, she became actress and discovered her own skills with Irudhi Suttru. As the director said in an interview, before a shot, she used to ask her “what am I feeling, ma’m?” rather than “how am I supposed to act”. This spontaneous and instinctive acting gives so much life to her character. A pure actress she is.
As a matter of fact, Madhi is a good reflection of the way Sudha Kongara sketches her characters, all played by wonderful actors. They are not shown as classic heroes and heroines, but like humans with their emotions, their flaws and their greatness. Prabhu (the charismatic Madhavan), is a drinking and quite cynical womanizer hero. Lux (the talented Mumtaz Sorcar) is a complex character, a protective sister but also jealousing Madhi’s success in boxing field. The mother (the brilliant theatre artist, Baljinder Kaur) is, at the same time quite passive in her daughter’s life but also a beloved and strong women role-model for Madhi.
To conclude, we should say that Irudhi Suttru’s subject itself, female amateur boxing, is rule-breaking. Of course, sports drama are not new to tamil cinema (Vallinam, Ethir Neechal, Eethi, Chennai 600028, Vennila Kabadi Kuzhu, M Kumaran Son of Mahalakshmi etc). But how many tamil sports dramas do concentrate on female point of view? In tamil and in world cinema as well, it remains a too rare subject except with the notable example of Clint Eastwood’s Million dollar baby. We can only hope that the recent success of indian sportswomen would give ideas to filmmakers. Waiting for another path-breaker.
NB : Thanks Anusrini20 for the little correction on the lyrics !