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Male Gaze Gone Astray?: The Case of Surveillance and Subjugation of Tamil Actresses Off-screen and On-screen

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 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,alleged to be supporters of PMK and DPI, 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 as per the dictates of the patriarchal male order).

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 Adimaianal (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, Khushboo had to don the role of Maniammai, Periyar’s wife, in the film Periyar more than a year after her controversial interview and another row with the Tamil director, Thankar Bachan.

The surveillance and subjugation of Khushboo by the collective male gaze continued despite her appreciable performance as Maniammai in Periyar. She ran into trouble on December 01, 2007 with the controlling gaze of a communal group called The Hindu Munnani (The Hindu Front), when it took her to court for wearing slippers on the dais of a film pooja function (held on November 22, 2007) where the idols of Hindu Goddesses were kept. The group claimed that her act of wearing slippers in front of Hindu Goddesses wounded the sentiments of Hindus. Remember there were many males wearing slippers on the dais of the said function and several other similar functions in the past in front of the idols of Goddesses. The acts of the males were not seen as hurting the sentiments of the Hindus. Quick on the heels of this came another attempt to subjugate her when she was engaged in wordy duels by a group of supporters of DPI at a book release function organised by a Tamil publisher, Aazhi on January 06, 2008. In this case, Khushboo was confronted by a predominantly male group for not greeting the leader of DPI, Thol.Thirumavalavn when he entered the meeting premises. It took considerable time for Thol. Thirumavalavan to intervene and pacify his supporters and heal the wounded feelings of Khushboo.

In one respect, Khushboo’s plight is no different from that of Marion Crane of Psycho. Like Marion Crane, Khushboo has been victimised by the collective male gaze that seeks to victimise her by its ceaseless acts of surveillance and subjugation. In Psycho, Marion Crane becomes a person to be charged not only for stealing cash, but also for being a woman. Her boyfriend, whose debt drives her to steal, does not emerge as the villain of the piece. The collective male gaze, as operationalised by her boss (near the traffic signal), the car dealer, the policeman and Norman, chases her relentlessly till she is silenced forever and her lifeless eyes stare at us (the audience) as an admonishment of our helpless gazes (of both male and female spectators).


Many men before Khushboo talked and wrote, like Periyar, about the issues she touched upon in her interview.The collective male gaze could not pursue them as such utterances by the males do not constitute a threat in the perception of the patriarchal male order. It seems the threat for the male gaze always ought to emerge from the object of desire it finds in woman and not from within the ranks of the patriarchal male order. It must also be said that as long as Khushboo remained passive and submissive (on-screen and off-screen) and fitted the bill as the object of desire of the collective male gaze, she was not a threat to the patriarchal moorings of the male order.

Unlike the case of Marion Crane, whose journey as a victim begins and ends on-screen, the real life victimisation of Khushboo does find parallels in her roles as the object of desire of the collective/individual male gaze in her films. The Tamil film which made her immensely popular in 1991 goes by the name Chinna Thambi (Younger Brother). In this film, Khushboo is victimised by the collective male gaze of her brothers which does not want to part with what it holds as its object of desire (Khushboo, the sister) to the individual male gaze (of her lover) which also holds her as the object of desire.

The threat for the male gaze, in both on-screen and real life situations, only grows menacingly when the object of desire displaces itself or displaced by the male gaze. This becomes more instructive when one seeks to relate to the recent plight of another Tamil actress, Shreya. Shreya was the co-star of Tamil super star, Rajini Kanth, in his recent mega hit, Sivaji.


She attracted the wrath of the collective male gaze of the Tamil patriarchal order when she was shouted at and admonished for wearing ‘inappropriate’ dress at the function organised to mark the celebration of the 175th day running of Sivaji. It must be remembered that Shreya was not seen as a threat by the collective male gaze as long as she existed on-screen in all sorts of revealing costumes in the film Sivaji. In fact, one of the three cuts recommended by the censor board before the film’s release pertained to shots showing her navel. The same person became a ‘cultural threat’ when she appeared in a much more decent dress, compared to what she wore in such scenes in the film.

Another reason that could be attributed to the plight of the likes of Shreya and Khushboo is their uncanny location in the psyche of the Tamil males.Their uncanny location is borne of the peculiar industrial practice of Tamil film industry for the past few decades to source fair skinned actresses from Western and Northern India on the ground that Tamil actresses are not fair skinned and not liberal in doing certain intimate and glamorous scenes. Unfortunately, this is not seen as demeaning to the self-respect of Tamil actresses and Tamil women by the collective male gaze that seeks to only punish the likes of Shreya and Khushboo and not those who have made millions from the practice of employing only fair skinned imports in their films. This patently racist practice of Tamil film industry is no different from a similar practice in Bollywood which also makes it a point to glorify the fair skin as the ideal and runs down the dark skinned characters. Surprisingly, rights groups and feminists have not raised their decibels in this regard yet.

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1 The Culture and Politics of Tamil Cinema » Laura Mulvey, Marion Crane and the Victimisation of Tamil Film Actresses { 01.24.08 at 6:23 pm }

[…] In our times, some may find Laura Mulvey’s essay as very dated. But her work still evokes a strong sense of relevance in the myriad contexts film feminism seeks to address in contemporary times. The central tenets of film feminism have always sought to see a link between women as objects of 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 Tamil film actresses have been made as subjects of surveillance, control and subjugation by the collective male gaze of the patriarchal order. Two recent events concerning Tamil film actresses, Khushboo and Shreya, raise questions that have something to do with what Laura Mulvey wrote and what Marion Crane suffered. These questions relate to the growing tendency on the part of the predominantly male dominated political and communal groups clamouring for the surveillance and subjugation of Tamil film actresses like Khushboo and Shreya, all in the name of protecting Tamil/Hindu culture from the threats posed by them. For the uninitiated, Khushboo and Shreya are the Tamil film stars belonging to two different ages of Tamil cinema. Khushboo is a yesteryears’ star and is presently doing roles in Tamil television programmes. Shreya acted as the heroine of the reigning Tamil super star Rajini Kanth in the blockbuster film, Sivaji. Both the actresses are now being hounded by the collective male gaze on the specious plea that they pose a serious threat to the yet undefined Tamil/Hindu cultural mores. Their plight is also a story of the collective male gaze that has gone astray. I will focus on the same in my next post. […]

2 Global Voices Online » India: The Male Gaze { 02.26.08 at 7:08 pm }

[…] The Culture and Politics of Tamil Cinema on how actresses in Tamil film industry are subject to the male gaze off screen. Share This […]

3 Kishore Budha { 03.02.08 at 9:18 pm }

Good observation Ravi. Zizek differentiates between subjective and objective violence. Subjective violence is the one that we can see (e.g., physical assaults, racism, poverty, hunger); Objective violence is of the Systemic kind (e.g., social relations defined by capital and political systems) and the Symbolic kind embodied in language (creating dominance through everyday use). In this case, we see the play of both subjective and objective violence.

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