By Mythily Nair
The Tamil film industry, nicknamed Kollywood as a play on words for the “Hollywood of Kodambakkam, is one of the many estuaries under the umbrella of Indian Cinema. It’s dwarfed by the big Bollywood movies, but is just as important in its own right, and has progressively moved into the mainstream. With every sect of cinema, challenges emerge for writers, directors, actors and us as viewers when confronting certain themes and how a film reflects our society. One of cinema’s greatest functions is to offer us an escape for a few hours into the stories of others, but at the same time we still look for resemblances, such as how a film portrays female characters, how it depicts a family, what kind of world it immerses us in.
And as cinema has evolved alongside society, we’ve seen the welcomed inclusion of more diverse storylines, casts and the breaking down of stereotypes of the hunky leading male protagonist who always saves the day.
But, with Sudha Kongara’s new film, we see something that isn’t necessarily the same old stereotype, but in fact a truer version of masculinity from the everyday man, the struggling worker and husband.
Soorarai Pottru is a loosely-concealed film adaptation of Captain G.R Gopinath’s book Simply Fly, a story of low-cost aviation in India. Directed by Sudha Kongara (of Irudhi Suttru and more recently, Paava Kadhaigal fame), produced by and starring Suriya, the film revolves around Nedumaaran Rajangam (or Maara), an ex IAF pilot, in his journey to make aviation accessible to the everyday Indian. Maara goes through the challenges of trying to establish his business against a rival, struggling to find investment, whilst balancing his marriage. The film sees him overcome hurdles with the help of friends, family and people from his village, bringing a communal spirit to the story of one man’s dreams.
Who is Maara and why is he important?
Maara is a hot-headed, ambitious young man, from the small village of Sholavandham in Madurai. We see Maara largely conforming to the definition of a hegemonic male; an air force officer, he’s handsome, well-built, brash, but well-meaning, has a motorcycle, and most importantly, has “makkalude nanpai” (the trust of the people). He defines the aspirational class, a group relegated to the sidelines when it comes to basic necessities. Like a true hegemonic male, he is always in his element, something that Nikheth Bommireddy’s stunning cinematography serves to highlight: whether it be the beautiful visuals of the red-brown soil of the Tamil heartland, the open expanse of the NDA academy grounds or the skies he so loves.
But what’s done differently this time around is that Kongara, with her portrayal of the struggles of the aspirational class, humanises manhood. The men of Sholavandham aren’t “gusty” or “brave” in their unconventional dreams. They demand those dreams as a goddamned birthright, which makes for some long due representation for the ordinary man in Tamil cinema.
These men are content being themselves. There is no necessity to be “performatively” manly with big bodies, a superior status in society, or hundreds of women vying for them. In fact, Maara is quite the opposite, an unlikeable ex-officer, who first meets his future wife when he is dancing with a funeral procession. Kongara does not glorify manhood or certain masculine traits to tell the success story of her character. She focuses, instead, on their work ethic and their perseverance, and redefines the man from the aspirational class. : In the process, Brahmanical hegemony is stripped away as the necessary condition for getting ahead.
Maara redefining marriage politics
Perhaps the most striking example of Maara’s subversion of classically hegemonic traits in the archetypical Tamil Mass hero is in the relationship he has with his wife, Sundari (nicknamed Bommi). Played by Aparna Balamurali, Bommi is a fiercely independent entrepreneur and the main breadwinner in the family. Kongara doesn’t limit her to being an ornamental addition to the film but makes her a realistic heroine with grit, flaws, sharp wit and an impeccable comic sense.
With Maara and Bommi, we get a realistic depiction of modern marriage, one based on egalitarian foundations of teamwork and mutual respect. Maara is very secure in the idea of a feminist marriage and comfortable with the idea that his wife earns more. He admittedly struggles to provide for the family and relies on his wife economically and emotionally. While the “military” man’s leadership is largely set in outdoor settings, we neither see Maara lose his “male pride” immediately nor do we see Bommi suddenly become submissive (i.e deferential). By portraying them at loggerheads with one another, then solving their problems realistically (by talking), Kongara throws out the conventional trope of the power of the mass hero as a means to establish his masculinity.
In a patriarchal structure that classically attempts to formalise men’s positions of domination over women in every sphere, Bommi’s demand for equality is a threat, however, Maara and Bommi’s relationship thrives only when they’re both in their element.
Balamurali breathes life into the organza-saree-wearing, bun-making, acerbic-tongued wife that Bommi is. Kongara also refreshingly gives us a heroine from whose lens we get to see Suriya (her object of desire) and how she takes the lead in their romantic relationship without any shame. Thus, we are hitting refresh on the way men are depicted as good looking- it can be equally as validating through the lens of a wife, as much as the lens of other men who find his physique superior. Kongara takes not only Suriya but all of us along for the ride.
In the modern-era development of feminist discourse, the word “toxic masculinity” sprung up as now one of the most frequently used political buzzwords to denote the cultural pressures and ideals of alpha-male-ness.
Whilst it's easy to blame men, Manasai Marathe writes that we should make men part of the solution, as deconstructing the patriarchy and its hold over society requires removing the “toxic” from masculinity too.
Writing in Feminism in India, she notes that it is important to question stereotypes through cultural advocacy, allowing for different versions of masculinity to be represented on a gender spectrum. She talks about the work of Indian gender-rights activist Harish Sadani, who co-founded MAVA (Men Against Violence and Abuse). “As a pioneer in the space of gender and masculinity, he has been engaging and mentoring thousands of adolescent boys and young men to address issues of toxic masculinity and gender-based violence, using out-of-the-box methods like street theatre, interactive workshops, travelling film festivals, youth helpline, residential camps, etc,” she writes. The goal of this is to transform young men into “partners” and “stakeholders” in a gender-equal society, removing the traditional tropes of “toxic” masculinity and its large part in maintaining the oppression of women. It also opens up a space for boys and young men to engage with issues such as toxic masculinity, relationships, gender binaries and all their various manifestations in Indian society through methods that employ creativity and understanding between men, women and non-binary persons.
Whilst Soorarai Pottru isn’t a film about gender issues, it fits into this idea of cultural advocacy, slowly breaking away at toxic depictions of masculinity through the normalisation of characters like Maara in films.
Maara not only redefines what it means to be manly but also provides a representation that was formerly lacking in mainstream Tamil cinema. By highlighting the men of Sholavandham as able to express emotions, have dreams conventionally seen as beyond their reach, and for being men regardless of what they do or look like, Kongara breathes new life into a space saddled with tropes. It is Maara’s ability to embrace these aspects of himself that serves to normalise them on a grand scale. It reshapes the “mass hero” filmgoers traditionally worship in Tamil Nadu, and redefines marital dynamics, and what it means to be male, for a new generation and a new era.
About the author
Mythily is a student at IIM Indore with an interest in cinema, South Asian culture and music. Having grown up abroad, she often juxtaposes her experiences of a multicultural upbringing and college life in India. You will most often find her with a protein shake humming AR Rahman songs, or adding to her never-ending wishlist on Amazon.