The Space of Amma Sentiment in Tamil Cinema
By R Rohit
Cinema has been monumental in the construction of gender ideologies and gender identity, understanding caste, sexuality, ethnicity and nationality. Cinema plays the role of a mediator due to its position of being an relatively more accessible form of communication to the public. In Tamil Nadu, even today, cinema remains one of the most favoured forms of leisure and recreation. Due to the widespread acclaim and popularity of Tamil cinema, these films contribute to the construction of meaning on the representation of a woman. A dichotomy is often established in terms of a good and bad woman. The characterisation of the mothers, sisters, educated women and vamps engage in this contrasting exercise which is achieved through visualisations and songs.
The Mirage of Space for Women Characters
Tamil mothers (Amma) in the films are idolised and projected to have a false sense of superiority, while being marginalised under the protection of a male figure ultimately. The Amma is seen as the backbone of the family, the one who is beloved for her sacrifice, the one who takes the mantle of raising children, ultimately becoming a part of the cycle. In hindsight, nothing of their contributions has been acknowledged, on screen or in life.
The fact that there are always two male stars clashing each other in their prime is consistent across the Tamil Cinema timeline. At the same time, there is no single woman fixated as the heroine but often juggled from a lead role to character roles, ultimately ending up with them playing mother roles. While this churn in the change of roles happens for female actors, the male actors still play the role of a young/middle-aged man. Sometimes their one-time romantic interest in a movie occupy a maternal role later on in their careers. They continue to be the protector of women in their life and their chastity and the family honour.
In “Hegemonic Femininity in Tamil Cinema”, Premalatha Karupiah illustrates how the plots that play out on our screen are also focused on and dedicated to a male. It deals with their dreams, their troubles, their conflicts and provides an arena to display their heroism. In this well-crafted messy order of life in the movies, the woman is attached with a tag on the male lead. As a mother, a sister, a wife or a friend, the woman is attached to the hero as part of his actions in life. In a sense, their identity becomes a forced tagged carry-on baggage.
The Amma becomes the body of worship but as a person, to survive, she has to contribute to the reverence and adoration received by the male lead. The Tamil man’s masculinity is only acknowledged when he protects his women and is humiliated when his women are humiliated. The figure of Amma morphs into a personification of sanctity stripping off her independence, behaviours and habits that would make them human.
The Emergence of the Space
One of the Amma roles the Tamil cinemagoers continue to remember is that of Mahalakshmi in M. Kumaran S/O Mahalakshmi. A 2004 film directed by M. Raja is a remake of a Telugu film, Amma Nanna O Tamila Ammayi (2003). The film continues to evoke strong positive memories due to the relationship portrayed between the mother and the son.
Mahalakshmi is characterised as one who is well aware of her situation and practical in her decisions. It also demonstrates the concept of single motherhood in a simple and relatable manner by invoking the role of the goddess in the Hindu faith.
The scene is set in a principal’s office where the parent and child have come to secure admission to the school. The principal starts by praising his school and says that prospective parents resort to paying donations to obtain a seat in the prestigious school. He then moves to ask about the absence of a father’s name in the form, while saying that the school does not worry about the same. He goes on to enquire how they will be able to afford the fees, thereby insinuating that the absence of a male authority figure could spell financial problems. Mahalakshmi takes a deep breath, looks at the looming frame of Goddess Saraswati – the goddess of knowledge – and enquires who it is. After receiving an answer, she asks why Saraswati’s husband is not present in the frame. She proffers that if the entire world’s education is taken care of by Saraswati, she can take care of her son’s education and life.
This is not the first instance of single motherhood being depicted on screen in Tamil cinema. It is often presented through the life of a widowed mother struggling to make ends meet, forced to deal with the uncertainties with no support. But M. Kumaran S/O Mahalakshmi breaks the notion of dependency right at the start. It shows how Mahalakshmi is preparing for her examinations that would help her teaching career. Being a stern yet caring figure, her relationship with her son turns into a friendly one.
There are two scenes in the film that encapsulate the changing notion of masculinity. When Mahalakshmi wants some miscreants to be thrown out or to teach a lesson to some sexist students, Kumaran beats them up black and blue. He is heroic but it still continues to be overshadowed by the fact that it is something his mother wants him to do. When he discovers that his stepsister is pregnant with the child of her boyfriend who is also his rival, he immediately tries to patch up with him for the sake of the unborn child. There’s an emotional undertone when he says he does not want the child to grow up without a father because he knows the struggles a single mother goes through.
In M. Kumaran S/O Mahalakshmi, Nadhiya effortlessly brings in the confidence and charisma she is known for. While her character’s death is used as a plot point that makes the son travel to his estranged father, she continues to be the catalyst in bridging and resolving the conflict between the two male figures.
The Consolidation of the Space
Saranya Ponnvannan has consolidated the title of being everyone’s Amma in the Tamil film industry in recent times. Her fun demeanor and mannerisms that remind one of a maternal figure in our lives has made many of her characters a very memorable one. She can play a fun, clueless mother as in Oru Kadal Oru Kannadi (2012) and also project the vulnerabilities faced by a mother and the emotions that revolve around her in Thenmerkku Paruvakkatru (2011), for which she won the National Award for Best Actress.
Released in 2014, the movie Velaiilla Pattadhari (VIP) was a commercial blockbuster. One of the pillars that contributed to the success of the film was the friendship and the bond between the Amma and her son in the film. Bhuvana is the mother who is willing to rescue and safely escort her drunken son to his room but would also not hesitate to slap him if he disrespects.
In a way, Bhuvana, the character played by Saranya, acts as a diffuser. When the hero believes that he is invincible and unstoppable and takes himself seriously, her sarcastic, innocent quips are enough to clear out the smokescreen and cut down the heroism otherwise rampant for the ‘protective man’ for women from bad guys. Compared to other films, the Amma sentiment is a key trope in building the narrative and advancing the plot of VIP. Emotions run high in the film but at the same time the characters are grounded that makes the viewer invested in the film because they can identify with the relationship on screen.
Saranya who was a leading star in the 80s having acted alongside all major movie stars is now more popular for her current roles as a mother. However, in an interview with journalist Subha J Rao for the New Indian Express, she says that married women “don’t often get to play romantic leads in cinema…Our industry folk think that marriage ruins our desirability. So heroines end up forced to commit to a lot of projects before their wedding.”
In a way she encapsulates the double-edged sword of the Amma sentiment showcasing the massive age differences being seen but also the lack of space and investment done for a female character. The ‘Amma’ character has been a lifeline for a few female actors and they are consolidating their space while ushering in new narratives and depth in a script.
Kaala (2018), directed by Pa. Ranjith, opens up discussions ranging from politics, ideology, identity to current political discourse. The director, who is well known for the political undertones in the film, is also praised for the awareness with which he writes the female characters in the film. In particular, the character of Selvi, played by Easwari Rao. The matriarch of the family, she is the one who towers over her on-screen husband, Rajinikanth. Not only is she fierce but extremely funny and her presence is a dynamite of awareness – one of the well-written female roles in recent times.
Two scenes establish the impact of her character. In her introduction scene, right after Kaala steps in and resolves a conflict to establish the power he holds in the area, the setting shifts to the kitchen as Selvi expresses her concern about the actions of the day. In this two-minute-long scene, Selvi walks to different parts of the house as she laments about her old husband while keeping an eye on everything happening at home and interacting with the family. This sequence shows how she is the biggest supporter of Kaala but also the first one to call him out if something goes wrong. In the scene, the viewer is aware of her importance in the household, the joyful camaraderie she shares with her daughters-in-law, the stern mother but also a jokester to her sons. At the end of that sequence, the director establishes that this mother is the one who makes this house a home, despite the problems around them.
In another scene, where Kaala and his son, Lenin, have a disagreement and the son decides to move out of his house, Lenin steps out hoping to be stopped by his mother but only to be greeted with, “Please make sure you eat on time”, before sending him away.
The sense of awareness and the way she carries herself make Easwari Rao a delight to watch in the movie. It is refreshing to see emotions of jealousy, anger, love and innocence come out naturally, supplementing the Amma role.
She evokes a sense of fear but the audience cannot help but love her in the scenes she appears in. The independence with which she functions and holds the family together seems very natural. The role of the mother here is radical as it competes effortlessly with a male figure in parenting and otherwise. Selvi shows how space can be consolidated with well-written roles that not only accentuate the scenes but the movie as a whole, providing a distinctive, personalised feel to the audience.
In the run-up to the release of Kaala, Easwari Rao had given few interviews to newspapers and web portals. She was asked about her reaction on being approached for the role of Rajini’s mother. The actors have an age difference of twenty-two years and yet the thought of playing the role of a mother to a much older man has been normalised. This is not an isolated incident but rather a well-known trend for actors forced to play mother roles. Many of these characters end up being a placeholder to compliment the setting and the situation. Some films don’t even have a character sketch nor a name for the mother role.
Despite the demand and expectation of the Amma sentiment in the movies, the makers continue to stick with an ill-conceived template, rarely exploring the relationship dynamic despite the space being present. This is not surprising considering the fact that the majority of ‘Amma’ roles are written by men and some residue of their patriarchal thinking seeps in. At the same time, over the decades, some films directed by K Balachander embody a more progressive narrative and strong female characters who do not fall under the binary of vamp or a housewife.
Tamil cinema is taking its baby steps amidst the unanimous appreciation and love that some reel mothers have received. With more focus on stories, instead of star power, and the advent of the OTT space, mothers will have a role beyond a Devi or a devil. Rather, as an Amma.
Films referred to:
Kaala. Directed by Pa. Ranjith, Wunderbar Films, 2016.
Kumaran Son of Mahalakshmi. Directed by M. Raja, Jayam Productions, 2004.
Mother India. Directed by Mehboob Khan, Mehboob Productions, 1957.
Thalapathi. Directed by Mani Ratnam, G. V. Films, 1991.
Thee. Directed by R. Krishnamoorthy, Suresh Arts, 1981.
Velayilla Pattadhari. Directed by R. Velraj, Wunderbar Films, 2014.
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R Rohit is currently pursuing his Masters in Journalism and Mass Communication at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India. He has finished his Bachelor’s in English, Journalism and Psychology from St Joseph’s College (Autonomous), Bengaluru. His interests lie in politics, cinema, journalism and literature from the South Asian region.
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