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Surveillance and subjugation of Tamil actresses

Remember Marion Crane? Remember what Laura Mulvey sought to convey about the patriarchal moorings of the classical film narrative in her defining work, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema? Marion Crane of Psycho stands out from the multitude of Hitchcock’s female stars in one respect. When it comes to defining the victimhood engendered by the male gaze, Marion Crane succeeded remarkably well. She expressed well the trauma of being gazed and pursued by scores of male eyes and finally trapped and subjugated by Norman Bates, a male who was also a female (his mother). As a subject of surveillance, control and subjugation of the patriarchal male order, Marion Crane personifies a leit-motif of not only the oedipal narrative in Psycho, but also the countless number of visible and invisible potential victims of the patriarchal male order in every society.

Despite the powerful manner in which the Marion Crane was etched as a victim of the male gaze, this character did not find mention in Laura Mulvey’s essay. It is a glaring omission, no doubt. But the omission did not spoil the soup Mulvey was cooking up with characters from other Hitchcock films such as Rear Window and Vertigo. Towards the end of her essay, Mulvey said: “The image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man takes the argument a step further into the structure of representation, adding a further layer demanded by the ideology of the patriarchal order as it is worked out in its favourite cinematic form – illusionistic narrative film.”

The central tenets of film feminism have always sought to see a link between women as objects desire and consequently as victims of the acts of surveillance, control and eventual subjugation exercised by the agents of patriarchy, both on screen and off screen. The likes of Marion Crane, who fail to escape from the acts of surveillance, control and subjugation by the overpowering nature of the omniscient male gaze, it seems are not be seen only seen as misplaced figments of feminist imagination going by the vicious manner in which a few Tamil film actresses have been made as subjects of surveillance, control and subjugation by the agents of moral policing who purportedly work as guardians of Tamil culture.

Two recent events concerning Tamil film actresses, Khusboo and Shreya, raise questions that have something to do with the growing tendency on the part of predominantly male dominated communal groups clamouring for moral policing, all in the name of protecting Tamil/Hindu culture from the threats posed by the likes of Khushboo and Shreya. For the uninitiated, Khushboo and Shreya are the Tamil film stars belonging to two different ages of Tamil cinema.

Khushboo reigned as a favourite Tamil star during the late 80s and 90s and eventually became, believe it or not, a deity in a temple constructed for her in Tiruchi district during 90s. She married a well known Tamil film director, Sunder.C and came to be known in the mainstream Tamil press as the daughter in law of Tamil Nadu. Like the majority of Tamil actresses, she has her origins in a cultural and linguistic milieu that is farther from the cultural and linguistic milieu of the Tamil film industry. Her 2005 interview on pre-marital sex and virginity in the Tamil edition of India Today proved to be an unexpected turning point in her public life. A litany of public abuses and legal cases, orchestrated by frontline political parties such as PMK (Pattali Makkal Katchi) and DPI (Dalit Panthers Party of India),sought to push her public profile down the muddied alleys on the ground that she posed a threat to Tamil cultural ethos by her espousal of pre-marital sex. In the now infamous interview, Khushboo said that educated men should not expect their wives to be virgin even as she argued that pre-marital sex was not bad as long as it was safe sex. What she meant in the broader context of our age of modernity and the threats like AIDS got lost in the acts of surveillance and subjugation the predominantly male gaze directed anti-Khushboo campaign fostered. Interestingly, rather unfortunately. subaltern women, whose states of victimhood, are no different from that of Khushboo, were also roped in by the patriarchal male order in victimising Khushboo off screen. Hundreds of women took to streets with broom sticks and footwear in their roles of subjugation against a woman who dared to voice something in opposition to the controlling gaze of the patriarchal order. Without being aware of their subjugation by the patriarchal male order, these subaltern women only helped to perpetuate their subordinate and submissive social roles by what they carried (the brooms) and whom they abused (women like Khushboo who refuse to be marginalised).

Khushboo, who was not even remotely connected to the ideology and movement of Periyar, only touched upon in her own way what Periyar EV Ramasamy said long before India’s independence in his writings such as Social Reform or Social Revolution? and Penn En Adimai Anal (Why Woman Was Enslaved). In the essay Social Reform or Social Revolution?, Periyar said: “Women in general have been treated as subhumans in society. Woman has been taken for granted as man’s slave, even as it is said that cattle have been made to serve as food for the tiger or that rats have been made for the benefit of cats. …The status granted to women all the world over is bad; more so in India. The rules of chastity imposed on them make one shudder. Chastity is held up as the sole criterion of their merit. …In order to ensure freedom for women, all extreme ideas of chastity require to get abrogated. Chastity enforced under compulsion is really no chastity. Love and companionship should alone condition chastity. One standard for men and another for women is totally reprehensible and cannot survive under the principle of equality. It would be moon-shine to expect men to voluntarily grant equality. It is the duty of women to strive for the goal. Government has also a responsibility in this regard. They can no longer take shelter under the plea of tradition and religion, any more than social reformers.”

Interestingly, she had to don the role of Maniammai, Periyar’s wife, in the film Periyar more than a year after her controversial interview.

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