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"[We should get out of the] outdated thinking that a woman has to be a virgin at the time of her marriage. [Women] should know to protect themselves from pregnancy and AIDS if they chose to have sex before marriage. Educated men these days do not expect their spouses to be virgins at the time of marriage."

o you find something offensive in the above quote? Ok, it implicitly condemns childbirth out of wedlock, and suggests that only pre-marital sex can cause AIDS, but I can't think of anything else. However, some empty minds in Tamil Nadu have deemed that pre-marital sex is against Tamil culture, and been indulging in (Bal) Thackeray-ish acts in Tamil Nadu. Once a reigning deity of Tamil filmdom, actress Khushboo has suffered a steep fall after her (above) comments on pre-marital sex. Much has been said about this controversy, but like they say, strike while the iron is hot! While the din seems to have died down, the underlying tensions need to be brought out into the open and certain misconceptions -- that Chennai has only now slipped into illiberalism and the causes of the current furor are unique to Tamil Nadu -- need to be clarified.

The genesis of the current furor can be traced to Khushboo's status as a former film actress and the sexual prudery and patriarchy of the Tamil society. Her status made her an easy target, and the reigning attitudes on sex and female chastity ensured her isolation even though the protests against her were staged by a few and lacked a mass base.

I believe that much of the anger has got to do with the fact that the comments were made by an actress, formerly a glamour doll and hence an immoral person. Opposition to her remarks, in the form of "How dare you impose your depraved morals on us?" would easily resonate with a large section of the public. Thanks to the rampant sexism in Tamil filmdom, the same profession that made her a public figure also disempowered her. Let me explain.

Actresses in Tamil films are largely meant only for visual sexual gratification; Thankar Bachan, a Tamil film director, recently called film actresses prostitutes (this raises a question on who the pimps are, but I will leave it aside for the moment), and while such intemperate remarks are unusual, they aptly capture the underlying sentiments. Tamil filmdom considers a thinking heroine a contradiction in terms. Arrogant heroines afford an opportunity to be tamed, bubbly/childish/cute/chirpy (yes, these are actual descriptors used for the female leads) heroines that lack a perspective on life afford an opportunity to be lectured, frightful/whimpering heroines give ample scope for the hero to play the knight in shining armor and homely heroines bolster fragile male egos, but independent thinking women pose a challenge to the male director's intellect. He doesn't know what to do with such a woman, so he avoids her.

If heroines are portrayed smaller-than-life, heroes typically take on larger-than-life roles. The assent to power of MG Ramachandran (MGR), a lousy (but charismatic) actor who routinely played the larger-than-life good samaritan in almost all his films, bears ample testimony to the deep impact of cinema on popular psyche and its success in constructing and/or reinforcing gendered stereotypes. Sure, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha was also a former actress, but her film life helped her only because she happened to play the (devoted) female lead to MGR in several films and so could lay claim to being his successor. No other former actress has been able to use her reel life to launch her political career; in this regard, their screen lives are often a liability and ensure that they are not taken seriously. Actresses who are still in their prime face even more of a credibility issue, almost as if the public mistakes them for the bimbettes they portray on screen. In contrast, several former and current male actors have used their films to launch their political careers and have never been hounded for their views [1].

Though the protests against Khushboo are being stage-managed by a few, there are strong reasons to believe that pre-marital sex does not enjoy popular support in Tamil Nadu [2]. A large part of the blame goes to Tamil films for normalizing female subordination, celebrating female chastity and marriage, and facilitating a social milieu where frank discussions on sex are taboo.

Patriarchy has for long been a recurrent theme in most Tamil films; while male actors have flourished and male valor been glorified [3], talented female actors were reduced to mere sideshows -- as the devoted wife/lover, the loving mother and the childish younger sister etc, none of whom have an existence independently of a man. On the rare occasions when the hero -- rather than the heroine -- is deficient in some sense, he is still portrayed sympathetically so that the audience can empathize with him. In short, male perspectives reign supreme in Tamil filmdom! Patriarchal attitudes are even more pronounced when it comes to sex. When amorous love is deemed beneath the dignity of the John Wayne-ish male lead, he would coyly allow himself to be pursued while affecting a cool indifference. When he is the pursuer, his sexist pranks (often bordering on molestation) reinforce the male/female hierarchy and fuel public fantasies about chasing and aggressively courting women. While the virile hero clearly relishes his elaborate petting of the heroine (allowing for some vicarious pleasure for the males in the audience), the heroine is almost always portrayed as sexually innocent, diffident and subservient; she rarely initiates let alone enjoys sexual acts. Female sexuality in Tamil films is strictly confined within the realms of procreation and male gratification, and when Khushboo dared to extend these boundaries, patriarchal guardians of morality took it upon themselves to put her in place.

One of the main arguments being advanced against pre-marital sex is that it would destroy families. For those uninitiated with the bizarre logic of Tamil filmdom, this line of reasoning requires some explaining. For, extra-marital affairs might induce jealousy and friction between possessive couples and cause breakdown of families, but how does pre-marital sex break up families? It does so by cutting the umbilical cord connecting every woman with her FUTURE husband. According to Tamil film logic, woman's beauty is meant for her husband's (and only his) enjoyment, so even when she is not married, she belongs to her future husband. Such sentiments (and variants thereof) abound in Tamil films. For instance, in a film (Manal Kayiru ) by a progressive director Visu, one of the criteria listed by the hero for his prospective bride is that she appear beautiful to him but ugly to everyone else (in other words, someone un-polluted by the male gaze!) In another film (Vandicholai Chinraasu), lyricist Vairamuthu -- who had in his earlier days written a moving eulogy to Karl Marx and is arguably the poet laureate of Tamil filmdom -- admonishes (through the film's hero) the immodest heroine for her dress and comport and "for exhibiting publicly (her) beauty whose enjoyment should have been the sole privilege of her husband." [4]

Another film (Azhagarsamy) has Satyaraj, who has publicly expressed his desire to play the part of Periyar if ever a film is made on him, advising the heroine to give up revealing attire so as not to arouse the lust of the sex-starved villagers. In his notorious anti-reservations film, Gentleman , director Shankar blames an attempted rape of a woman on her glam doll persona! Wisen up and dress conservatively, the hero orders her, after bashing up the ruffians. Superstar Rajnikant's films are among the most sexist and have typically involved the taming of an arrogant woman (an allusion to Jayalalitha). In a recent film, when he sees his coterie ogling at the heroine and her sisters working out, he promptly requests the women to go indoors! If Rajnikant is the John Wayne of Tamil films, young lieutenant Vijay has got to be native version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. His films too are notoriously sexist; in his latest film (Sivakasi ), he launches into a lengthy monologue abusing the heroine (in full view of the public) for her short skirts and not-opaque-enough tops! Worse still, the heroine's father realizes the truth in Vijay's accusations and the heroine immediately switches to a saree! In yet another recently released film (Majaa), after the hero forcibly ties the mangalsutra around a shocked heroine's neck, she unreservedly accepts him as her husband. Turns out that the hero doesn't really love the heroine, but finally yields to the latter's devotion. Interestingly, the heroine in this film is submissive to both her husband and her father, so much so that even when she disagrees with her father's ways, she has to wait for the husband to take him down (at which point she silently rejoices!).

One notable feature of most Tamil films is that heroines are portrayed as sexually repressed (thereby posing no challenge to males) and sexually available. This sexualized image becomes their liability, and is exploited to run them down. The chain of logic runs like this: Sex is sin, the woman peer is sexual, her sexuality falls under the purview and exclusive control of her husband, so the husband (the film's hero) can treat her with contempt [5]. This is in stark contrast with the respectful treatment of desexualized women (the hero's mother etc.). Respect for desexualized women and contempt for sexual women, while due to sexual prudery, has resulted in a deification/subjugation binary treatment of women [6]. Since all women peers (except those in a sisterly relationship) are sexualized, this also sustains the husband/wife hierarchy since the only woman worthy of respect is the mother (who belongs to the previous generation). How different is this from the Sangh Parivar's views on women?

In old films, the deification/subjugation binary is more or less the norm, but in all fairness, recent films have shown sexually expressive heroines. While this seems to be a step forward and such heroines are hailed by the tabloids for their boldness , a closer look reveals that this is only a consequence of predatory capitalism's thirst for new (or for expanding the current) markets for the commodification of women as sex objects. In the 1990s, the increasing consumption of western images created a local market for sexually expressive heroines (the native versions of the Demi Moores and Sharon Stones), a market that the entertainment industry has served to satisfy. In market terms, we now have two kinds of women peers -- the sexually submissive and the sexually expressive, both of them very much dominated by patriarchy but catering to different audiences (the prudes and the dudes). This in no way is women's liberation, but lest women start getting subversive, a recent film (Manmadhan) has the hero kidnap and murder "young girls for whom morals mean little"! In his latest film (Vallavan), though, the same hero stops with slapping the offending woman! Here is how he describes her punishment: "In the scene where I slap the girl who plans to make a cuckold of me, the hall reverberated with applause only because I allowed her to feign innocence for some time. I knew the audience would want me to hit her hard. I got them worked up to a frenzy and when I finally did what they were waiting for, they cheered. It's plain psychology ... [This film is a] story that shows how the hero emerges winner in love." Perhaps smitten by this logic (of hero speaking up for men to the womenfolk: We rule, you stray at your own risk!), his interviewer also notes that the actor "dared to show girls as nymphomaniacs". Dared, my foot!

One could cite similar instances from every film of major actors like Vijaykanth, Sarathkumar, Ajith etc., but I think the point has been made -- Tamil filmdom is in one mind on the desirability of female subordination to the male (sexually and otherwise) and socializing women to become Pativratas . When such regressive views escape unscathed, they become normalized and set the tenor for future discussions to the point of silencing dissenting opinions [7].

Last year, a Tamil film (New) that had two sexually expressive heroines -- one of them a Brahmin in revealing attire -- attempting to seduce the hero sparked protests [8]. The vulgar portrayal of a Brahmin woman didn't go unnoticed and a reviewer wrote in exasperation: "Where on earth do you see a 'Kumbakonam Mami' in that kind of see through material? The aim obviously is exploitation." Fair enough, the aim obviously was exploitation of the said heroine as a sex object. But then, such concerns seem to vanish when a non-Brahmin heroine is similarly exploited or when the heroine is shown to be sexually submissive/diffident. For instance, while discussing another film, the same reviewer casually refers to a "vamp and the hero dancing on the street" and describes the vamp as rotund . No denunciation of female sexual exploitation here! It is as if sexual exploitation of a lower caste woman (in the case of the rotund vamp , someone from a nomadic tribe) doesn't count as such [9]. Ironically, while sexually submissive images of women don't usually spark organized protests, sexually expressive images of women also seem to ruffle sections of the Left [10].

Given such fear of unbridled female sexuality, it is no surprise that Tamil filmdom has by and large condemned Khushboo's comments. One of the rare voices of support, actress Suhasini, had to backtrack and request that her support for Khushboo be forgotten as a bad dream ! Once the controversy snowballed, Tamil filmdom perhaps feared that it could get caught in the crossfire and cop some well-deserved and long-overdue criticism for commodifying women, so it jumped on the "Tamil culture" bandwagon [11]. Needless to say, such publicly orchestrated hysteria reinforces male control (exercised through the patriarchally ordered family and society, and husbands in particular) over female sexuality. It also cleverly co-opts/contains public anger over the commodification of women as sex objects, pins the blame on the transgressing women, and uses this to regulate the sexuality of all women. Who said you can't have your cake and eat it too?

In hindsight, it is clear that Tamil filmdom has played the conventional role of religion in enforcing sexual morality. Its role in contemporary Tamil society has been analogous to the role played by the Christian Church in the past, as is evident from the following excerpt from Bertrand Russell's Marriage & Morals [12]: "The Christian ethics inevitably, through the emphasis laid upon sexual virtue, did a great deal to degrade the position of women. Since the moralists were men, woman appeared as the temptress; if they had been women, man would have had this role. Since woman was the temptress, it was desirable to curtail her opportunities for leading men into temptation; consequently respectable women were more and more hedged along with restrictions, while the women who were not respectable, being regarded as sinful, were treated with the utmost contumely."

An interesting, but hardly surprising aspect of the current furor is the complete silence on male sexuality. Is this because it is Ok for men to whet their sexual appetite irrespective of their marital status? While men do enjoy greater sexual license and patriarchy ensures that their sexual behavior is rarely a subject of public discussion, I believe the sexually prude public opposes pre-marital sex for both men and women (though with greater vigor for women). Marriage lends respectability to sex, and sexual intercourse within marriage could be justified as a procreational imperative thereby cleansing the sexual act of all its shame. Such an unhealthy attitude toward sex is in stark contrast to the numerous references to sex in ancient Tamil literature and the erotic sculptures in several temples in Tamil Nadu, and is perhaps a relic of Victorian morality.

As Bertrand Russell explains in Marriage & Morals , "Marriage in the orthodox Christian doctrine has two purposes: one, that recognized by St. Paul (as a legitimate outlet for lust, as opposed to the deadly sin of fornication. St. Paul commanded: "Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband"), the other, the procreation of children. The consequence has been to make sexual morality even more difficult than it was made by St. Paul . Not only is sexual intercourse only legitimate within marriage, but even between husband and wife it becomes a sin unless it is hoped that it will lead to pregnancy. The desire for legitimate offspring is, in fact, according to the Catholic Church, the only motive which can justify sexual intercourse." [13]

The current controversy is an eerie reminder of the exalted status of female chastity in conventional morality [14]. The last few decades have been witness to several positive changes toward gender equality -- abolition of child marriage, reforms in divorce, child custody and property laws, strengthening women's education and participation in the economic, political and social life etc. -- and if patriarchy has still managed to maintain its stranglehold on society, the blame rests primarily with the jarringly anachronistic notion of female chastity [15]. Control of women's sexuality through notions of female chastity is central to their subordination; for, as Periyar asks, isn't Pativrata "infused with slavish connotations"?

If female chastity is so deeply entrenched in our society, needless to say, a lot of effort goes into enforcing it at the personal and institutional level (several schools and colleges in Tamil Nadu gender-segregate students). And women are always under the needle of suspicion and need to go through considerable pains lest their chastity be stained! Periyar aptly denounced female chastity as one of the most hateful practices in human society and the institution of marriage as the cause of women's slavery [16]. From far away, it is easy to condemn the intolerance of the Tamil Protection Movement and dismiss the current furor as specific to Tamil Nadu [17], but lets use this opportunity to question the forces that sustain patriarchy.



1 As veteran actor Charuhasan, Suhasini's father and KamalHasan's brother, says : "Some time back I gave an interview to a television channel that chastity attributed to women is a figment of male imagination. While there was no reaction to what I said, people are protesting now. This clearly establishes that women do not have the same freedom of speech that men have." Disempowered by her former profession and her sex, Khushboo was vulnerable to ridicule. Some commentators have attributed the witch-hunt to Khushboo's role in extracting an apology from director Thankar Bachan for his derogatory remarks against actresses.

2 This is probably why even sections of the Left have not come out swinging in favor of Khushboo's views but have taken the free speech line, as if support for and opposition to the notion of female chastity are equivalent!

3 If there's one role that the all-conquering Tamil film hero has shied away from, it's that of a Dalit in love with an upper caste heroine. Playing a macho is all fine and good, but confronting caste taboos even in reel life takes some courage.

4 The Anna University Vice-Chancellor seems to hold a similar view, for he recently imposed a dress code banning sleeveless tops, jeans, T-shirts and "tight-fitting clothes".

5 Often times, violence in films is also sexualized; the hero's lover or sister get molested to provide some titillation to the male audience (or, is the director playing out his fantasies?) and also to afford an opportunity for the hero to flex his muscles. The heroine becoming polluted (by rape) would leave the hero without a suitable match, so she is more often molested than raped. And when the hero's sister is raped, she either commits suicide (unable to bear her loss of honor) or is murdered so that the hero doesn't have to confront her impure existence. For after all, if Maryada Purushottam Lord Shri Ram couldn't bear the indignity of aspersions being cast on his wife, how can a mere mortal (our film hero) be expected to suffer daily indignities on account of his polluted sister (who now is also unfit for marriage)?

6 The deification/subjugation binary has a long history, and one can find several instances in the films of MGR, Sivaji Ganesan and Rajnikant. This was not just a monopoly of the prudes -- actor/director Bagyaraj, credited with breaking the taboo on sex in Tamil films, used it in several of his films to degrade the sexualized heroine.

7 Some commentators have expressed shock at Chennai slipping into illiberalism; their diagnosis is several decades late, for the current furor is a consequence of deeply entrenched conservatism.

8 According to the director, the Brahmin heroine wasn't attempting to seduce the hero, but this hardly assuaged upper-caste prudes.

9 Sexual exploitation of lower caste women is invisible not only in reel life but also in real life. If frank opinions on sex are against "Tamil Culture", how about sexual assaults on Dalit women by upper-caste men?

10 For instance, sections of the Left have protested against the film New , but have remained silent about far worse exploitations so long as the heroine is portrayed as sexually diffident. Similarly, while much is made of -- and rightly so -- the commodification of women in beauty contests (that most people cannot directly relate to), subordination of women in films that are more in touch with immediate reality (and hence, can influence public opinion to a greater extent) goes unquestioned.

11 Actor Sarathkumar, General Secretary of the South Indian Film Artists Association (SIFAA) faulted Khushboo and Suhasini and warned: "There is a limit. Let us not extend freedom of speech and expression too much." Veteran actress Manorama condemned Suhasini for supporting Khushboo and "bringing the whole controversy alive." The Tamil Film Producers' Council urged SIFAA to "end the problem and ensure that [Khushboo and Suhasini] apologise through the association" and threatened serious action against Khushboo. Support for Khushboo was far too muted and came in the form of condemnations of "unruly" protests and assertions that Khushboo's AIDS-awareness comments had been misunderstood.

12 Bertrand Russell, Marriage & Morals , p.60

13 Bertrand Russell, Marriage & Morals , pp.52-53

14 Not surprisingly, Tamil films have also glorified female chastity. Lyricist Vairamuthu asserts that "female chastity is not a retrogressive concept, but a protective armor." Female assertions of chastity are common in Tamil films; in a film ironically titled Kaadhalukku Mariyathai (Respect for Love), when the repentant heroine returns home after a brief elopement with the hero, she takes an oath on Christ asserting her purity and her family then accepts her!

15 By and large, societal demands for women to be Pativratas (i) constrains their education so as to maintain their inferior status relative to their husbands, (ii) binds them to their husbands since a woman who leaves her husband becomes an object of contempt; as an early Indian patriarch asserted: "I have never known a chaste Indian wife refusing of her own free will to go and live with her husband", (iii) keeps them economically insecure since their careerism is discouraged and (iv) severely constricts their social life.

16 According to Periyar: " Karpu [the Tamil word for chastity] connotes such ideals as integrity, honesty and purity. The English equivalents -- chastity and virginity -- refer to a sexually pure state, applicable to both men and women. However, the Sanskrit equivalent of Karpu , Pativrata, introduces ideas of enslavement. Since this word connotes a woman who holds her husband as God, who is devoted to being her husband's slave, and who will think of none but her husband, and the word Pati connotes overlord/leader, the word Pativrata is infused with slavish connotations ... Karpu being equated with Pativrata and men being wealthier, physically stronger and earning larger incomes have created conditions favorable for the enslavement of women and men stupidly assuming that Karpu does not concern them. Furthermore, the absence of words in our languages to connote male chastity is solely due to male hegemony and nothing else."

"[The slavish status of women] cannot solely be attributed to religion and laws, for womenfolk have also contributed to this imbroglio. Just as years of practice causes the so-called lower-caste people to accept a lowly status and readily obey and let themselves be ordered, similarly women too consider themselves as properties of men, and are too concerned with obeying them and keeping them in good humor to contemplate their own freedom. If women are to be really free, the practice of female chastity should be replaced by a voluntary chastity equally applicable to both men and women. Forcible marriages that condemn (for the sake of chastity) women to partners they don't like should be abolished. The cruel religions and laws that force women to endure her husband's barbarity should die. The social wickedness that forces, in the name of chastity, a woman to suppress her real feelings of love and live with a man who has neither love nor kindness for her, should go ... I cannot find a more hateful practice in all of human society than the imposition of female chastity." [Translated excerpts from chapter 1 of a 1971 edition of the book, Why did the woman become a slave? ]

Elsewhere, Periyar says: "The words Patni and Pativrata are borne out of stupidity! These words are antithetical to nature, justice, equality and freedom." [Translated excerpts from an article dated May 5, 1973 in Viduthalai (Freedom), a Tamil rationalist daily founded by Periyar]

On marriage, Periyar said: "There's no difference between the Brahmin/Sudra institution and the husband/wife institution. Through enslavement of women, we're laying waste to (their) intellect that could have benefited humanity. The way out of this would be to illegalize the institution of marriage! It's the institution of marriage that engenders the husband-wife relationship and the (consequent) enslavement of women. Once a woman becomes a wife, that's about it -- she has become a proper slave! Besides, it's the institution of marriage that causes humans to procreate, and accumulate wealth for their progeny by all means possible." [Translated excerpts from an article dated June 28, 1973 in Viduthalai]

17 The current controversy has provided an opportunity for making crude jokes against Madrasis , but the Hindi heartland is no less prudish or patriarchal. Obsession with female chastity is a pan-Indian phenomenon, though bold views on sex might find favor with a larger section of the elites and tabloids in other metros in India . As for Hindi films, the less said about them the better. Some of the biggest blockbuster films are also notoriously sexist (and most of the rest are no better if not worse). Let me quote a few instances.

  • Sholay portrays Jaya Bhaduri as a perfect moral exemplar for widows; not only does she transform from a carefree chirp to a chaste widow (as if in obeisance to a celestial injunction: "if you don't commit sati, at least have the decency to remain in perpetual mourning"), but also hides her love for Amitabh Bachchan. Is it wrong for widows to desire?
  • Dilwale Dulhaniyan Le Jayenge celebrates the enslavement of Kajol and her mother to Amrish Puri; why can't a daughter or a wife speak their mind to a father/husband? The enforced happy ending of the film does more disservice and establishes the dangerous ideal of benevolent patriarchy on a firm ground.
  • Hum Aapke Hain Koun establishes the sacrificing/masochistic ideal for women -- why does Madhuri Dixit's uniting with her lover need to depend on a letter ending up in the wrong hands? Should women not participate more actively in shaping their future?


First published in Ghadar []