Iraivi, questions of feminism

To be noted : This was written two years ago, in February 2020, as posts in my Instagram page.

Iraivi is often labelled as a feminist film and it made me wonder which elements clearly promote the men/women equality and women’s emancipation in it.

First of all and there is no doubt about that, female characters in Iraivi are, crucial : they are not objectified by a “male gaze” (as theorized by Laura Mulvey), written as strong decision makers, as pillars of support in their families, who can voice out their emotions and their own analysis about their relationship with men. Thus, many times in the film, Ponni (Anjali) takes bold decisions very spontaneously and always dominates the arguments with her husband with truthful words. Malar (Pooja Devariya) is strong in her choice of living which reflects her desire to be independent, as a widower who has an “affair” with Michael (Vijay Sethupathi) but doesn’t want to fall again in a marriage. Yazhini (Kamalini Mukherjee) was bold enough to marry a film director, Arul, despite her family opposition and appears as the working woman who supports her husband’s ambitions even though he is a drunkard. The mother (Vadivukarasi) is not really shown as a strong woman but described as so, by her son Jagan who explains how important she is in their family : “eppo paaru engal pathiye kavala pattukittu, engala thavira vera edhuvume pakala avanga” (she always worried about us, she hasn’t seen anything but us).

Secondly, women empowerment is the key of Iraivi, the final aim towards which the plot goes. Karthik Subbaraj’s movie is indeed rooted in a postulate : women are oppressed in a men’s world, from which they have to emancipate, to live freely their own life. Thus, the oppression of this « men’s world » is shown in many scenes and frames, through characters, words or symbols. Think about the male characters who are all without exception, flawed, either traitorous, selfish or violent. Think about the mother complaining about being ill-treated by her husband in the opening scene.

Think about this scene
where old women are trying to reassure Ponni
about marriage life in the foreground, sit on the
ground, whereas we can see, in the
background, two men, comfortably sit on
chairs. Think about the famous frame where
pink-lighted board says “men’s world” in the
background while Ponni and her co-workers
are waiting for the bus, protecting/separated
from rain, symbol of their liberation in the
whole movie. And finally, think about how
Karthik Subbaraj short-circuits the iconic
Kannagi, thanks to a genius editing. Indeed, in
the montage scene when the “robbery project”
begins, emerges the famous phrase
“Arakkargal kaiyil irundhu vidupaduvaai
Kannagji” (Kannagi will get released by the
clutches of demons) which, in fact, overlaps on
two different frames : we first hear it with a
frame on a mini statue of married couple in
Michael and Ponni house, and then, the second
after, we understand that it’s the voice of
professor doing a course on Silapathigaram, to
Jagan and other students . While Kannagi was
devoted to her husband, Karthik Subbaraj
presents, at the opposite, this statue husband
who holds his wife as if he wanted to trap her,
as the “demon” from whom the wife must free
herself. This reversal of the figure of Kannagji is
all the more obvious when, a few seconds later,
Jagan asks the professor : “Sir, Kannagiyum
yaravadhu love panittu santhoshama irudhuttu
thiruppi vandha, Kovalan ethukuttu Uthama
Purushana irundhirupaara, sir” (If Kannagi had
loved someone in an extra marital affair and
came back, would Kovalan be great enough to
accept her again?)…This moment is precious.
Not only because it’s a subtle reflection of
Jagan’s desire : to become the married Ponni’s
lover. But also, because it reveals that the
Kannagji remains, after all, an acceptable female mythical icon in patriarchal mentality, as she fights vehemently to be the chaste and faithful wife of a man who betrayed her.

On the contrary, Karthik Subbaraj seems to ask us if women shouldn’t be powerful fighters like Kannagi, not for a man but for their own emancipation…that’s the whole arc of female characters in Iraivi. Malar is already a liberated widow who jumps from a Michael to another man, Yazhini slowly emancipates from an unbearable marriage with Arul, Ponni transforms herself, from the innocent young girl who dreams about marriage to the independent widow/single mother. As a matter of fact, the film seems to be embraced by women as it begins and ends with scenes on the female characters, a good clue on the motivation of Karthik Subbaraj. But int erestingly, the director also seems to assert that women’s emancipation can only arise when men, either die, like Michael, Jagan and Malar’s husband, or disappear from their life like Arul. Interestingly, in the scene with the old ladies, one of them says : « en purushana thirutunen, maru naale avan mandaya pottutaan » (I changed my husband in a good way, but the day after, he was a dead man). Just like a premonition of Ponni and Malar’s destiny, like a condition of any woman’s emancipation in Iraivi.

And that’s one of the points that make me think that Iraivi remains a male-centric film, with what it implies for the female point of view.

I love Iraivi because it’s a brilliant exploration of tragic human relationships with a feminist message. That being said, Iraivi remains a male-centric movie and, despite the fact they are beautifully written, I feel that female characters in the movie are not as complex as male characters, and above all, not as decisive in the plot progress. Feminist film theory has created some tools to measure the presence and the importance of women in a movie, such as the Bechdel test, the “Sexy Lamp test” or, more recently, the Fitmus test. For instance, to pass the Bechdel test, a movie must have, at least, two named female characters that actually talk to each other, at least in one scene, but not about men or romance. It appears that Iraivi doesn’t succeed the Bechdel test : there are indeed named female characters (Ponni, Malar, Yazhini) ; but they mostly talk to men and not to the other named female characters (rarely to other unnamed blurry female characters like friends or old ladies) ; finally, when these named female characters talk, it’s all about their relationship with a man. Think about the introduction scene where Ponni is chatting with her friends about the man she will marry, Yazhini is making a point about her future husband, the mother is complaining about her husband’s ill treatment. Throughout the film, it appears that the female characters arcs are defined by their relation to men : Yazhini’s arc is the one of a working woman who bears her drunkard director husband and finally separates from him, Ponni’s arc is the one of a woman’s emancipation from a complex marriage, Malar’s arc is the one of a widow who has no other relations to men except “affairs”. Of course, the Bechdel test could be seen as simplistic but if you think about the male characters, you would see its relevance : of course, women are crucial in Arul, Michael and Jagan’s lives, but these men actually have other conversations topics than women, for instance the “robbery project” which is decisive in the plot.

As a matter of fact, In Iraivi, male characters lead the narration of the story, their (bad) acts are the cause of the plot whereas women bear the effects of men’s decisions on the plot. Furthermore, there is a somehow manichean opposition between men and women in Iraivi. Men are dark, flawed, thorn between the good and the evil. On the contrary, women seem to have no flaws. All main male characters are shown aggressive, short tempered and selfish in their decisions whereas all female characters are loyal, responsible, virtuous and strong-willed, like impressive goddesses. Hence, the title of the movie. Indeed, the « goddess” figure is omnipresent in “lraivi” : think about the “robbery project” which is about stealing sculptures of goddesses ; think about the scene where the ill mother, unconscious in her hospital bed, is venerated like a divinity by her husband and sons who look like faithful devotees praying their goddess. Maybe that’s what bothers me with Iraivi even though | loved the movie, like this small stone in your shoe when you are having a nice walk : men characters seem more
complex, with so many emotional shades, whereas female characters seem to be one-
shaded, idealized, freezed like statues of a deities. Here is the thing, characters are much more interesting in the plot when they are grey, when we can actually explore who they are, with their luminous side and their dark side. I think women can be empowered on screen without being idealized. I am pretty sure their emancipation on screen could be even more effective if we could actually experience their point of view. Of course, lraivi is a fascinating male-centric movie about how men oppress women, but I would love to see an “lraivi 2″, where Karthik Subbaraj could explore all the shades of Ponni, Malar and Yazhini where women would shown as humans rather than goddesses.