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Home > Contents > Article: Joyojeet Pal
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Between Goddesses, Vamps and Software Engineers:
Women and jobs in Tamil cinema in an era of Economic Liberalization

Joyojeet Pal Phalanx Spacer

The recently released Rajnikanth blockbuster Enthiran (2010) came with a bonus feature during the interval, the song Tamil Semmozhi Maanadu. The music is composed by AR Rehman, the video is shot by Gautham Menon, and the lyrics of are penned by DMK headman M. Karunanidhi himself, fashioned as the Tamil Anthem following the World Classical Tamil Conference in 2010. The visuals of the music video are intended as a showcase for the state and its people, featuring several iconic images from ancient tablets of classical Tamil text to modern urban infrastructure, a range of lush images of the hinterland, and several popular performers singing various parts of the anthem. We see images of a wedding, religious ceremonies, classical performances, and children being taught in school. Outside of the performances themselves, there are only three images one could explicitly think of as vocations: a farmer, a teacher, and a computer programmer. The selection of the images is keen, and captures the political message of DMK through the anthem - earth, knowledge, and modernity.
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The computer programmer gets the most footage in the film. She is shown as a middle-class girl, awed by the environment in which the company is housed, but instantly content with her surroundings as she settles into her cubicle. As she enters the building, others entering around her are women in salwaar kameezes like her, and around her cubicle we also see women at work. There is then a close-up of her computer screen, and we see her do a search using on a Google Tamil interface, which leads her to a Wikipedia page in about computing in Tamil. Further down in the film, we see people use cellphones to send messages, typing in Tamil.
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The symbolic visualization of the computers in what is ostensibly a broad-based call to Tamil Nationalism for speakers of the language from across the economic and regional spectrum speaks a great deal to the prevalent environment of enthusiasm over technology. The use of Tamil script on the screen of the computer and phone signify the compatibility of the language and tradition with high technology. The office of the computer company is intended to show modernity - it is housed in a glass tower with computers and spacious modern furnishings, but the woman in the office is pointedly middle-class, as are the others we see in the images. There are no men in suits walking about and the focus is much on the accessibility of the space to the average Tamilian. She is a young girl, presumably unmarried - given that the married women through the rest of the video wear sarees - and has a career. A woman's career is no longer incompatible with the ideal of Tamilness, at least not until she gets married.
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The video is important, given that it comes from the mouth of the Tamil establishment and presumably calibrated to a message that is sufficiently populist, though a look through cinema from the last ten years in the southern states tells us that this is not far from a reflection of what is already tried and tested on the silver screen. Since the earliest appearances of computers in Tamil cinema in the 1980s, they are now a common theme, especially with women at the helm.
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In 1973, K Balachander made Arangetram. In the film, the eldest daughter of a rural orthodox Brahmin family moves to the city to get a job. She is forced by circumstances to earn a living as a prostitute, but works her family out of poverty. In 2000, Rajiv Menon made Kandukondain Kandukondain. A rural Brahmin family is likewise impoverished, and the eldest daughter must negotiate life in a city to earn a living. She gets a job as a software engineer, and works her family out of poverty.
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A lot has happened in the public space in three decades. Women are getting married later - in the urban upper middle classes, the median age for marriages padded in a breath after college graduation, and even in small towns, the trend of working in the manufacturing or service sectors is increasingly common. Though, the idea that this is a historical anomaly is untrue. Females have traditionally been part of the agricultural workforce throughout South India, and yet, in half a century, hundreds of films around rural farm life almost always focus on the male farmer. The aggrandizement of the rural male's work ethic, contrasted against the female's symbolic purity has been a consistent theme of Tamil nativity cinema[1], thus obviating the female farmer or laborer to blend into the verdant scenery.
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Yet, the tendency towards an imagined traditionalism where the woman is excluded from the professional sphere is largely distanced from the reality of the labor force. Though the female worker in the self-contained agricultural tract or place of residence may not represent a visible mark in the public sphere, the presence of the female worker in public transit, offices and factories has increased significantly in the last decade alongside high school graduation rates and female attendance in higher education. Much of the software and BPO sector in Chennai, Hyderabad, and Bangalore is comprised of women, many of who are from the hinterland, and probably the first in their families to get white collar jobs. Employment data for each of the four states shows that in a number of sectors - including health, education, administration, and local bodies - women have near parity or more representation than their male counterparts. Despite this, the work life or careers of women for several decades have remained ill-defined if not entirely absent from mainstream cinema.
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One critical factor has historically shadowed the working woman - the missing man. This, if anything, ties Arangetram and Kandukondain. While Kandukondain features a social milieu where a woman has both the option (software) and the means (a pleasant work environment) to succeed professionally, she nonetheless has one thing in common with Pramila of Arangetram. They must work because there is no male provider at home. It is in this context that the video Tamil Semmozhi Maanadu is of particular significance.
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To contextualize these portrayals of female characters in professional situations, we may look back briefly through the history of women's jobs in Tamil films down the years.
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The Goddesses
One of the most important symbolic heroines in Tamil has been the mythological Kannagi - the long-suffering virtuous wife of a wayward husband in the 5th century epic Silappatikaram. When her husband is killed unjustly, Kannagi uses righteous anger to destroy the entire city of Madurai by throwing her breast at it, thereafter ascending to the heavens. Between dialogue in films where she is referred to in passing as a paragon of virtue and strength to her symbolic images in films where righteous female anger is about to be unleashed, the Kannagi/Durga prototype that combines chastity with anger has been a consistent element of female power on Tamil screen. At the most obvious level, this includes women with jobs such as female police officers, but at the symbolic level, this includes women who fit the broader persona of Kannagi, irrespective of the jobs they hold.
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At a symbolic level, the avenger includes roles including the spiteful governess played by Sridevi in Moondru Mudichu (Three Knots: 1976) who marries her obsessive tormentor's father in a brooding act of retribution for her dead love, Nanditha Das in Kannathil Mutthamitaal (A Peck on the Cheek: 2002) who goes back into a war zone in Vavuniya for her missing husband and becomes an LTTE commander, or the incensed journalist Madhavi from Nirabaradhi (Innocent: 1984) who kills rapists by night to avenge her outrage (symbolically, she walks past the Kannagi statue by the Marina beach before she bumps off one of her tormentors).
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As in the case of the mythological Kannagi, such characterizations typically end badly for the woman, usually alongside a twisted logic of righteousness that requires an ultimate sacrifice on part of the protagonist. For a woman who transcends the law in aid of justice, there is typically the untoward hassle of incarceration or death, as for numerous cases of chaste protagonists who kill the classic blackmailer and go to jail, or as in the case of Nirabaradhi, the honourable suicide. As in Arangetram, where the inconvenience of the munificent hero having to marry a woman who is not a virgin is neutralized by her own sudden and presumably incurable insanity, in Nirabaradhi, the heroine must eject herself from the proceedings through suicide not just because she has killed a bunch of people (that part is in fact okay), but more importantly because she had lost her virginity in the process. Had the two women not moved to the city for jobs, none of this need have happened.
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The second goddess prototype is what may fall under the 'Parvathiamma' or classic mother categorization of work. In this, we see the range of caregivers such as doctors, nurses, or domestic childcare. The gold standard for motherhood in Tamil Cinema, is the honour of playing MGR's mother. But typically, MGR's mother's job is precisely to be MGR's mother, and nothing else. One of the few times MGR's screen mother has had a job was in Deiva Thai (Mother Goddess: 1964). Here, the father (Ashokan) is mistaken for dead, and the mother (Pandari Bai) raises her son working as a nurse, a job that is socially respectable, aligned with domesticity, and allows her the innocuous ability to wear her widow's white.
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The motherliness factor works both ways - just as the job is worthy of a woman, a good Tamil woman has the appropriate trappings for forwarding the medical/caregiving profession as a whole, because of her inherent qualities of generosity and selflessness. In the prominent nurse/doctor caper Paalum Pazhamum (Milk and Fruit: 1961), Sivaji Ganesan plays a doctor researching a cure for cancer, aided by nurse/romantic interest Saroja Devi. When she is afflicted by tuberculosis, Sivaji turns his attention away from his socially relevant research. In an ultimate act of self sacrifice, the nurse takes off and disappears so that his work won't get affected. In doing so, the character emphasizes that while her job is both honourable and useful to society, she is instinctively driven to sacrifice herself and her job for the larger social good. By the 70s and 80s, as lady doctors themselves became more publicly visible in Tamil Nadu, several films including Puthiya Mugan (New Face: 1985) and Vetri Vizha (Vetri's Fate: 1989) featured female actresses as doctors. The doctor in her godliness also engenders the values of being demure, with the trappings of modesty including conservative dress, tied hair etc. In those films featuring an exception to the case, such as Simran's role as a haughty, man-hating surgeon in Pammal K. Sambandham (2002), the film ends with the woman being appropriately tamed.
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The third and perhaps most complex symbolic heroine is the goddess Saraswathi who represents knowledge and the arts. Thus school teachers such as Sumathi (Vijayalakshmi) from Teacher Amma (Madam Teacher: 1968) represent the values of knowledge but also the motherly values of humility, sacrifice, and the ability to suffer with a smile. She gives up the man she loves for a friend, and then takes on the responsibility of an orphan, despite the grief of social stigma. In being both the caregiver and the upholder of culture, the teacher represents an idealized Tamil womanhood. In Bharatiraja's Kadhalora Kavithaigal (Love Poems: 1968), we see this therapeutic femininity, as an urbane teacher (Rekha) works to slowly transform the former jailbird and village brute Chinappa (Sathyaraj) to a kind and sociable man. In the process, he becomes her protector, and she his moral mirror, thus reinforcing the notion that neither is complete without the other.
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The Saraswathi personification extends to the artist - thus the Carnatic singer/performer or the Bharatnatyam dancer. Most screen depictions of female classical musicians or performers tend to be demure women and exemplify a true Tamilness. The classic example is that of Padmini in Thillana Mohanambal (Mohana's Performance: 1968), who despite her prodigious talent accepts being second-fiddle to her musical accompanist Sivaji, and almost commits suicide to reemphasize her placing the man over her art. A more complex example is that of Suhasini in Sindhu Bhairavi (1985). In this film about a classical musician's travails between home and art, Suhasini plays the 'other woman' - whose knowledge and mastery of the arts draws the protagonist away from his home. The duality of her characterization forms the basis of her 'other woman' status as being sympathetic, and what we eventually have is a character closer to the talented mythological courtesan Madhavi from Silappatikaram who woos away the usually righteous husband of Kannagi. In a critical scene, Suhasini is portrayed as able to bridge the gap across the exclusivity of art, which she does by translating Carnatic music into understandable Tamil, which in turn leads to the married protagonist falling head over heels in love with her. Thus the illicit nature of the relationship is made more palatable by the fact that the woman has Saraswathi-like qualities, and in a sense transcends caste by making art accessible outside of social/cultural/caste elite. At the end of the day however, the depravity of her affair dictates that she ends the film by sacrificing her love-child to the legitimate wife of her lover, but her status as an expert at the artist maintains her as a sympathetic character. The use of classical music as an indicator for the virtue of a girl is by no means passé, two of the biggest hits in the last decade - Chandramukhi (2005) and Anniyan (2005) both had female protagonists that were classical music teachers.
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The non-Goddess
The Saraswathi personification is further emphasized by what does not qualify as legitimate art. The skills involved in dancing a cabaret may be comparable (and it may also be commercially more valuable to the film), but the 'western' dancer has by no means the same cultural approval as the classical artists. The western performer - dancer, actress, or model, irrespective of evil intent, makes a living by her feminine wiles, one that typically ought to be restricted to the realm of the home. The performer is defined by her audience. So while the classical performer enjoys a mixed-gender audience of intellectuals, aficionados, or visiting family-members of grooms at an arranged marriage hook-up, the western dancer's audience is men - men whose masculinity she inevitably stimulates, thus engineering the conditions for the consequences to follow. The female performer is therefore portrayed as 'rightly at risk' from her audience and colleagues alike. In Viduthalai (1986), Rajnikant's dancer girlfriend Madhavi is frequently approached by lecherous men who take liberties since she is a dancer, and it takes the alpha male to protect her from the men as long so she continues in the occupation. In Duet (1994) Priya (1978), and Puthu Puthu Arthangal (1989), the risk is closer to home, from co-workers. Choreographer Meenakshi in Duet has to contend with the advances of a hostile director, in Priya actress Sridevi gets exploited by her manager, which is roughly the same fate as the dancer Sithara in Pudhu Pudhu Arthangal. In each case, the woman performer is eventually rescued from her situation by another man.
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The contrast between the 'Tamilness' of a classical dancer and the 'foreign' nature of a western dancer is fundamentally irreconcilable. In Parthiban's Ivan (2002), the classical singer Soundarya is chaste, soft spoken and strives for musical perfection, whereas the other woman vying for the hero, Meena (while not a dancer, but shown as the contrast nonetheless), is loud and boorish, wears bright lipstick, tells lies so that the hero will marry her, and most importantly - she loves film star Chiranjeevi. Ironically, a good woman in a Tamil film rarely watches films. Finally, Meena speaks Tamil with a smattering of Telugu, instantly puncturing any claim to purity.
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The performer can be a source of lustful temptation and consequently a thorn in the path of a virtuous life even when the impetus is primarily that of a wayward man. Thus in Meendum Kokila (1981), lawyer Kamal Haasan toys with the idea of an affair with movie star Deepa. His wife, Sridevi, possesses all the artifacts of tradition - she plays classical music, dresses conservatively - while the actress is a corrupter just by being herself. In a telling scene, the husband tries to get his wife to recreate at home the physical moves of the actress' dance routines, which fail, implying that the fantasy played out by a western performer is fundamentally incompatible with the good wife, even behind closed doors.
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The idea of money as the corruptor, deliberate or unintentional, of a good woman is among the most common of themes. In MGR's Ulagam Sutrum Vaaliban (1973), the traditional (but poor) Tamil girl Ratna (Chandrakala), takes a loan and a job abroad as a dancer at a hotel to support her family. In a song sequence, her dance starts as Bharatnatyam, but with each dress change gets racier. Eventually, she is required to dress down to a skimpy outfit, which she refuses. The hotel manager attacks her, and points at a white woman in a bikini, telling her he must look like her, to which she responds: "I have left Tamil Nadu to earn a living, but I won't bring disgrace to my nation." As would be the case, this is a situation for a Tamil man's intervention, and MGR conveniently appears to pay off her loan and saves her.
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The base nature of western culture is not only emphasized in characterizations, but sometimes directly dealt with in a straight contest for artistic superiority. In several films, there is a face-off between western dance and classical or folk dance. In such cases, as in Puthiya Bhoomi (1968) where a sprightly Jayalalitha throws a home grown challenge at her swinging rival (who is also a contender for the hero MGR's attention), the western dancer is vanquished effortlessly. Through much of the 60s and early 70s, films featuring a 'western dance' would frequently be accompanied by fair skinned Anglo-Indian extras, thus emphasizing the alienation of such scenarios from what is authentically Tamil. This is, of course, disturbing in itself, in terms of the potential suggestion of Anglo-Indians as incompatible with Tamilness. In Panam Padaithavan (1965), while his fiancée Sowcar Janaki is dancing to a western tune with another man, MGR sings an allegorical song "Can people do as they wish, can they forget the path from which they came."
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The Vamp
One of the most enduring images of the woman-at-work in Indian cinema claims the undisguised slur of 'vamp', a title certain actresses stereotyped their entire careers to. Vampitude here is defined as the intent of a woman to undermine the rectitude of a man, usually with her sexuality as her primary weapon. The mythological nymph Menaka who helped trip over the sage Vishwamitra with her wiles is our exemplar. Thus the classic though unwitting vamp of Tamil literature is Madhavi, the dancer who Kovalan, the husband of the virtuous Kannagi moves in with in Silappatikaram. In the epic, the dancer is herself an intellectual, and a deeply complex character who eventually gives up her life for monkhood, though RS Mani's popular pre-independence screen adaptation (Kannagi, 1942) of Madhavi was that of a seductress, and the bête noire of Kannagi, the iconic heroine in waiting. In short, the literary Madhavi is the starting point Tamil screen vampitude.
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The Tamilness of Madhavi is in most vamps replaced with the westernization of the professional screen seductress. Much like Helen and Bindu did in the Bombay film industry, actresses like Silk Smitha made entire careers in vampitude, working on the villain's behalf to test the hero's resolve. Occasionally, there was the non-vamp 'Menaka', one whose wiles were needed to good purpose. Examples include many films that feature a shy lonesome hero, brought into the fold of a conjugal Vedic life by a homely temptress. An example would be as Radhika in Moondru Mugan (1982) who helps fix a temporarily pious Rajinikanth who decides to take up monkhood - incidentally, much in the format of a marriage custom that involves a Bride's father wooing away a groom from a life of abstinence - i.e. 'Kasi Yatra' by presenting his daughter as an option. But for the most part, the vamp had the job of dressing in some garish imagination of western decadence, smoking, drinking, and being lascivious.
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The gangster's moll was and remains an important symbolic litmus test of the virtue of the male lead. MGR, in line with his political image, always held his own against the onslaught of the vampish temptation. In Kudiriyintha Kovil (1968), there was the unusual case of the vamp/moll Vijayalakshmi actually ending up with MGR, but the caveats were plenty. First, there were two MGRs - one good, and one bad, with a blackened face. Despite being in the gang, the 'bad' MGR is repentant (once he is embarrassed to see a photograph of Annadurai during a heist), and never responds positively to Vijayalakshmi's advances. The two do eventually end up together, but primarily because there are two MGRs in the film, and the good one gets the worthy, fair skinned and virtuous Jayalalitha. Marrying the professional vamp is thus only the dark faced MGR's penance.
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Male stars like Sivaji and Jaishankar, who were less burdened by their image, could occasionally have looser morals and indulge a vamp in dance or have brief affair. By the time Rajnikant came to fore, his origins as a screen villain made it easier for him to have a vamp on each side, but in time, he went back to the puritanism of mass movies in which the hero's uprightness requires that he never fall pray to an evil woman (unless, conveniently, it is in a dream sequence). To date, 'mass films' aimed at rural audiences starring Vijaykanth or Vijay will rarely have the hero waver when confronted by the wiles of a vamp. The completeness of the Tamil superhero is tied up to his incorruptibility at the hands of the vamp. The vamp, for her inopportune choice of career, is doomed to a guaranteed comeuppance. If she's fortunate, she can, like Silappatikaram's Madhavi, pick her own punishment, which is often monkhood.
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One of the most disconcerting features of being employed in any way within the broad category of a westernized woman, vamp or not, is the sanctioned violence. Not only is the vamp regularly done away with, but the audience is made to expect it and enjoy it. When a woman is murdered in a Tamil film such as in Kalaignan (1993), Pulan Visarai (1990), Oomai Vizhigal (1986) or Tik Tik Tik (1981), the victim is frequently a model or a dancer. The working woman in Tik Tik Tik, for instance, is shown as dressing suggestively, fantasizing about men while lying on a swing, living a lonely, debauched life that includes entertaining men inside the home and disturbing the neighbors. In Silambarasan's Manmadhan (2004), even though the protagonist is a psychopath who murders 'westernized women', the tag line of the film is "Only God can judge him" - implying that it is arguable whether or not the women got what they deserved. The implication in many such films is that a westernized demeanour has causal relationships with violence, in films such as Puthiya Paarvai (1964), Sivappu Rojakkal (1978) and Manmadhan the narrative entreats the audience to empathize with the guilty male driven to the act of desperate violence.
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Service and the Home
From the days when most Tamil cinema was mythological, there have always been 'underclass' jobs available to screen women. Thus early Tamil film had the princess' attendants; by the 1940s, when secular cinema started to grow, the first few films with urban maid servants began to appear. One of the early instances was Velaikari (1949), a film about the scion of a rich household who falls in love with a servant maid. The film, written by Dravidian movement icon CN Annadurai himself, came to present a cinematic personification of good and bad women, and also of the tension in inter-class romantic relationships. Importantly, the bad woman here was a fashionable, westernized woman who claimed to take part in social work activities. The negative 'social worker' stereotype of the idle rich woman wearing sunglasses has persisted years after Velaikari. Two critical negatives are implied here - first, the westernized dress and behavior, and second, the interest in matters outside of the threshold of one's own home.
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The primary protagonist as a domestic maid servant in Tamil cinema has declined thematically over the years. There are two propositions here - first the domestic worker offers little by means of aspirational value to the predominantly male audience that consumes these films, as opposed to the more glamorous alternatives such as the heiress, college student, or as we discuss here, the software engineer. Second, even when the film does feature a 'poor' female protagonist, the rural belle makes a superior alternative to the urban maid, since the former is infused with a greater quantity of earthy Tamil authenticity. As a result, the few cases of lead actresses as maid servants in the last few decades - such as in Padaiyappa (1999) - have tended to be domestic helps in large rural households. Most screen domestic workers have been in the supporting cast or the comedy track. Character actress Manorama practically made an art out of this back in the 1960s. The Manorama domestic servant routine often featured Nagesh as a romantic double and a lesser male relative of the hero or the patriarchal family. This routine has continued with comedians like Vadivelu, Senthil, and Goundamani replacing Nagesh in these scenarios. Putting the maid servant in a comedy routine in part helps dehumanize the class relationship and, especially where romantic connection with a male relative is involved, there is also a broader insinuation of class equity. The insinuation of equity is typically in the mode of benevolence from the master, such as the range of films in which an old servant is treated as a family member based on his/her years of loyalty. A closer approximation of the prevalent view of servants comes from Nagesh's monologue to Manorama in En Kadamai (1964). On her first day of work as a cook, she is given three conditions for her employment - 1. She will remain a servant, and not try to become a master, 2. She will not cook for herself, 3. She will not steal money when buying vegetables.
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s An unusual class occupation in Tamil cinema has been the secretary-at-home. Examples include Lakshmi as Manorama's secretary in Kasethan Kadavulada (1972), Rambha as Khushboo's secretary in Minsara Kanna (1999), or Vanisri as Sivaji's secretary in Vasantha Maligai (1972). Such a character also mediates between classes, since the secretary is herself educated, and thus able to traverse class, she frequently offers a personality contrast to the haughtiness associated with wealth. The at-home-secretary is not only virtuous, but also changes those around her for the better, and usually ends up in a romantic relationship with the male lead. However, the blurring between work and home spaces invariably causes tensions. Take, for instance, MGR's Idhaya Kani (1975). In this film, a scene features his new-found home all-purpose assistant (Radha Saluja) being grilled by villagers for living in a man's home without a formal relationship. Instead of shooing away the villagers because it is none of their business, MGR allows them to start to drag her away for a beating, and then stops them only to ask her if she will marry him. She agrees. Now, at this point, their relationship is officially acceptable, thus denying anyone the right to question her legitimacy in his home. Her tormentors now back off.
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Though the secretary in the office facing discomfort is frequently treated with disdain, the same is not true for the secretary in the home. Being a woman, being in a home and running the affairs of the home, she is still within her designated status as a good woman. In the latter case, the eventual union of the secretary-at-home with the male lead, such as in Vasantha Maligai or Kannan en Kadhalan (1968), is the final justification of the woman's thus far alien presence in his family's home. This cross over to respectability, i.e. marriage, is critical, since without it the woman's position remains tenuous in the home.
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The at-home secretary is significantly different from the at-office secretary. The latter is in a space for men, and consequently in an unstable space for a respectable woman. The first office scene of Bharatiraja's Sigappu Rojakkal is indicative of this tension. A group of women are waiting to be interviewed - an administrator comes into the room asking the girls for pre-interview details in a lewd manner. None of the girls is offended at his behaviour, implying thus that such treatment of women in an office space ought not to be seen as surprising. Further, one of the girls is confident and outspoken, and in the interview comes across as modern and goal driven. This girl gets the job, and is swiftly murdered later on. In Vasantha Maligai, Vanisri, looking for a job as a secretary approaches a hotel manager for an interview; his first question to her is, "Are you married?" which the manager explains as stemming from the fact that married women cannot work properly as their home is always on their minds. Upon appointment, Vanisri is expected to show up at a party as part of her duties, and the manager thereupon tries to rape her. There are two implications here - first, a job at an office automatically means negotiating the possible extension of duties. Second, married women cannot hold jobs since they are (rightly?) occupied with matters of the home. An alternate interpretation would be that since the job is fundamentally a means for the manager to take advantage of a woman, it is necessary that such a woman be unmarried - since a married woman is necessarily unwilling, or protected by a man from such threats. Perhaps the most convoluted plot was that of Priyamnavale (2000), in which a secretary agrees to a one-year marriage arrangement with her boss' son because of her family's poverty.
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In all three cases here, the absence of an able and authentic Tamil male justifies the woman's search for the secretarial job - in Vasantha Maligai, the girl's father is disabled, in Priyamanavale the father is dead, and in Sigappu Rojakkal, the brother is an airline pilot - established as a modern thinking man who is absent a lot of the time and letting his sister work. This last case is in fact a very important means of establishing a lack of Tamil values in a working woman's family. Through much of the 70s and 80s, where a woman held a job despite the lack of economic need, the male authority figure was shown as an indulgent westernized man open to new ideas - like women working - like Sarath Babu in Duet, or the stereotypical boorish or nouveau riche indulgent father of an arrogant and spoilt college girl, as was typical in the 60s. Both types fail to fit the ideal Tamil male who astutely watches over the well-being of the women of the family, thus unwittingly allowing the conditions for the woman's exploitation.
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The office secretary however is not only the target of mischief, but often also the source. In Uthama Purushan (1992), Bharata Vilas (1973), and Thodarum (1999), an attractive office secretary is the starting point for the husband's indiscretion. In Ulagam Sutrum Vaaliban, scientist MGR's has a secretary called Lily, and it turns out she is working for the villains, trying to steal his 'formula.' In MGR's films, where the focus on female virtue is particularly sharp, this secretary stands out as everything that is not the authentic Tamil woman - she has an English name, dresses in western clothes, works for evil, and gasps lustfully when she sees MGR. Even before she has committed her act of treachery, everything about her personality has already condemned her to a demonized status of non-Tamilness.
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The woman who tries to be a man
One look at the depiction of women driving cars and two-wheelers in Tamil cinema, and one needs little further evidence that a woman ought not to cross into a man's domain. The office secretary is a traditionally gendered occupation and easy to depict sexually and trivialize. In fact, the secretary poses no serious threat to the supremacy of a man in the workplace, since, at least in office scenarios, the secretary reports to a man. An area of greater contestation is jobs where women replace men. Here, the focus is not only on the sexual complexity of a woman in the male domain of offices, but also on her neglect of her feminine duties through holding a job.
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The first kind of male-replacement situation is when a woman runs a business. In such cases, she has usually inherited the business from a husband or father (thus did not build it by her own sweat). She is frequently unable to run it by herself and this is probably exploited by a corrupt manager or greedy relative, as in Vettaikaran (1964). Alternately, the businesswoman/heiress is a rich conceited person such as Nadiya in Sandai (2008), Ramya Krishna in Arumugam (2009) and is eventually tamed by being pushed into greater femininity by the hero. Running a business also means widespread contact with men, which in turn can be another source of trouble to existing stable relationships - as in Sathi Leelavathi where the outgoing businesswoman Heera causes marital strife for the protagonist, or Anbe Aaruriye (2005), where heroine Nila's restaurant business and consequent interaction with men triggers jealousies at home.
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The second kind of male-replacement is the woman who has a white collar job. This is the more complicated because this is the motif which is evolving the most. Rudraiah's 'forward' film Aval Appadithan (1978) which can be translated as 'That is how she is' where the liberated, self-driven protagonist works in an advertising agency is an example. Ad agencies were a convenient target for class dissonance, since they were seen as places where upper class women were visibly part of the workforce and with relative equality. In the film, the lead protagonist is portrayed as a man-hater, who drops relationships and moves on when it does not suit her. Her attitude is explained by her background -growing up in a dysfunctional family with a mother who had affairs with other men. This idea of the multi-generational negative outcomes of a married woman's poor judgment is a frequently repeated theme, including with Sigappu Rojakkal.
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Even when the woman is generally well behaved, her stepping into the threshold of an office complicates her life at home, especially where a marriage is involved. In Iru Kodugal (1969), Sowcar Janaki is a collector, and in a scandalous reversal of gender roles, her husband Gemini Ganesan, reports to her. In Kudumbam Oru Kadambam (1981), a married woman Sumalatha has an office job, and her promotion makes her husband insecure both professionally and personally as he starts imagining she is having an affair with a white man (i.e. a position of authority he cannot possibly challenge!). Worse, her being at work causes her daughter to suffer, she eventually gives up her job and the family regains its happiness.
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Over the years, lead actresses playing working women have been assigned positions portrayed in the film as 'low-skilled' or temporal - from telephone cleaners such as the eyelash fluttering Saroja Devi in Aasai Mugam (1965) to saleswomen such as Jayalalitha in Raman Thediya Seethai (1972), KR Vijaya in Bharata Vilas (1973). Such a job, i.e, one that cannot be called a career or something that economically sustains a household, is a convenient foil to reinforce the male star's professional supremacy. Thus MGR generously buys Jayalalitha's sales products in Raman Thediya Seethai. Sivaji, also a salesman in Bharata Vilas, goes on to become a magnate, while Vijaya settles as his wife. Thus the 'job' ends when the appropriate man steps into the picture to take charge of the situation. It is truly rare that a woman has a successful white collar career in Tamil cinema.
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The 1986 film Vikram was truly a path-breaker in many ways. Here, the lead actress Lizy plays a nuclear engineer. The hero of the film, Kamal Haasan, is an adventurer/spy type, and Lizy eventually falls for his masculine charms, but it is significant that the woman plays the character with the greater intellectual qualification. In the aftermath of Kandukondain Kandukondain, this would cease to be a rarity.
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The computer woman
Arguably the most significant turnaround in the depiction of women with jobs has been created by the onset of the technology sector jobs. To understand this, we must look more broadly at how technology as a whole has been portrayed in Tamil cinema. For most of the young, especially urban Tamilians, the earliest discussions of computers came from the science-fiction works of author Sujata, who scripted the Singeetham Srinivasa Rao futuristic caper Vikram. This film featured the fantasy form of computers, much in the vein of the button-pushing dystopian machines that early western cinema used.
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One of the first films that showed computers in matter-of-fact light was Sathyaraj's Airport (1993), where scenes featured rooms full of people using computers as part of their daily jobs. Mani Ratnam's Roja (1992), roughly made at the same time, was the first blockbuster hit that featured a computer engineer as its central lead. In featuring the protagonist as a newly-married Tamilian cryptographer working in Kashmir, Roja emphasized technology as a marker of middle-class economic and social aspiration (the hero is, for instance, a perfect groom), and one of deep significance to the future of the nation state.
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There are two broad threads that are implicit in the depiction of computers and computer users in Tamil cinema, and these are defined primarily by the audience for which the films are intended. The first thread, mostly related to urban and comparatively upper class audiences highlights rather positively the aspirational value of technology. Thus, as successors to Roja, several films feature computer engineers as socially respectable and representative of a young upwardly mobile generation. A host of films feature marriageable computer-using gentlemen like Madhavan in Alai Payuthey (2000), Vikram in Kanden Seethaiyai (2000), Prithviraj in Satham Podathey (2007), Surya in Jilunu Oru Kadhal (2006) and the general underlying theme for all of these is that white collar engineering jobs are socially very desirable, and frequently a ticket to living and working in the US.
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The second thread is what one may call a 'mass film' depiction of computers and computer users much more fantastic, pushing the idea that the computer is an almost magical instrument, the mastery of which is not for the average person. The 'mass film' is typically one made for consumption outside of a strictly urban elite population, and these tend to be more formulaic and frequently oriented to a specific actor's star appeal. Thus the idea of a talking computer, such as Rajnikant's in Sivaji, or a computer that can predict from a child's picture what he/she will look like when he/she grows up, such as in Vijaykanth's Dharmapuri (2006) or Sarathkumar's Vaitheeswaran (2008). Given that many such 'mass films' are oriented around a single protagonist's heroic attempts to fix social ills, the computer has been well integrated as a tool for the star vehicle. Thus Rajnikant uses the computer to launder money for the betterment of the country in Sivaji (2007), Vijay uses the computer to figure out a calculation to resolve India's external debt in Tamizhan (2002), and Ajith and Vijaykanth uses computers to keep track of their evil adversaries in Paramasivan (2006) and Ramanna (2002). The purpose of maintaining databases of people one plans to bump off is not to assist the plot but to show Ajith, Vijaykanth or Rajnikant using a computer. To allow the star to master the computer - or append it as another wonder for the audiences to sample - is itself the purpose of the computer.
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The films with women playing computer users tend to be in the first category of films, typically aimed at urban audiences. Two successful films in this realm are Yaradi Nee Mohini (2008) and Unnale Unnale (2007). The films can be categorized as 'A-sector' films, an industry term for films that are produced to appeal primarily to the first round of print screenings at major urban centers. In both films all the leading protagonists are software professionals, both films have a fairly glossy visual feel and are extensively shot abroad, in Australia. The girls in both films are shown as shy and god-fearing but they frequently change their sarees for western office suits; they are portrayed as effective professionals who manage people working under them, and place their careers at par if not above their relationships with men.
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In Yaradi Nee Mohini, the male protagonist (Dhanush) is a jobless alcoholic and somewhat of an embarrassment to his family. On falling in love at first sight with his soon-to-be software engineer supervisor (Nayanthara, the female lead), the boy is immediately transformed. He trains under her, but quickly proves himself to be a competent engineer. The idea of a wastrel being 'fixed' by a good woman is a fairly common idea in Tamil cinema, but its combination with 'technology' is a very interesting new motif. In the film, the hero is shown struggling with spoken English but also being an exceptional programmer, more so than his urbane female boss. Inherent in the motif is the discourse that between the two critical aspirational factors for the middle classes - knowledge of English, and command over technology - the latter is more accessible to the average Tamilian. In a song sequence in the film, we see the transformation of the man and the society around him when he gets a job - he hands his salary over to the family and his father walks proudly down the street. In short, technology is perfectly aligned with tradition.
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One critical aspect differentiates the technology sector employee in Tamil cinema from women working in other sectors discussed in the section above. The motif of the risk in being in the same professional space as men is rarely central to the film. Indeed, the thin line between modernity and tradition is frequently part of the discussion - for instance, the characters' affiliation to middle class families, the seamless association of the saree and the laptop bag or the lanyard in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaya (2010) or Yaradi Nee Mohini, the lingering demure manner contrasting starkly with the office secretary of yore. The on-screen secretaries tended to be from the same middle classes but were more likely to be in urgent need of the money than careers; they often had to dress in a manner unusually modern for the times there was a defensiveness in this because they were obviously out of place as working women. Modernity pulling the software professional to the West because of her career is the common theme in each of the films discussed above. In Kandukondain, although the actress is depicted as a fairly headstrong woman, the ending is happy precisely because she surrenders her engineering career abroad to be with the man of her dreams.
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Following the vanguard of women as computer engineers, the doors have arguably opened to a vast number of white collar careers on screen. In Jilunu Oru Kadhal, Jyothika has a job, dresses in western clothes, and has a daughter, who seems perfectly happy growing up with a working mother (her father cooks for her), unlike Sumalatha's daughter in Kudumbam Oru Kadambam. Media jobs have also turned respectable - Jyothika is an actress in Mayavi (2005), Nayanthara is a TV journalist in Thalaimagan (2006), Kajal Aggarwal is a filmmaker in Bommalattam (2008), Jyothika and Asin work in advertising in June R (2005) and Ghajini (2005) respectively - and in none of the films is the job and the corresponding stress used to show the characters in poor light. The exercise of power is not an issue either. In Ayirathil Oruvan (2009), the heroine plays an archaeologist who commands a ship of labourers.
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So are we seeing a renaissance in the depiction of professional women in Tamil cinema? If it is yes, it is only with a significant caveat. Consider, closely, the kinds of jobs that are seen as more accepted - practically all of these are what one may describe as upper middle class jobs and not jobs that the economic median in Tamil Nadu can hope to end up with. Tamil cinema is informally segmented within the industry into what can be called 'mass cinema' which appeals to rural and urban low-income audiences and 'class cinema.' A vast majority of the working women such as software engineers or white-collar professionals in the movies above tend to be characters one sees in the 'class cinema', made for the associative consumption of audiences from similar classes, or the aspirational consumption of poorer audiences with what are perceived as different value systems and corresponding tastes. With the exception of the occasional bank employee such as Simran in 12B (2001) or Meena in Rhythm (2000), the middle-class job and consequent career remains of little interest to 'mass cinema'. For that, we need to move into television soaps - where the female audience is of immediate economic concern. A rare exception to this rule is Angadi Theru (2010), which features women who work as sales staff in departmental stores.
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Below the surface, there is still much to be skeptical about. Comical as it may sound, in a film culture so reliant on masculinity and the expression of violence as a certification of that masculinity, it would be more revolutionary to see believable and accepted female thugs gainfully employed in the Tamil cinema mafia. Aligned with this, a fascinating theme to emerge in the past decade is the idea of a crass lower-class female antagonist, such as the Swarnakka (Nalini) character in Dhool (2003), and Sivakasi (2005), who is a loud and brutal crime boss, who in both films needs to be dealt with not by an urbane hero, but by a rugged son-of-the-soil who is capable of inflicting visceral violence on his adversary. This character, reincarnated in Paruthiveeran (2007) as a lower-caste drug ring boss, is bound in a gunny sack and beaten with a voyeuristic ferocity that raises a range of gender and class issues. Although we are ready to accept the woman as a boss in the software industry or advertising agency, in the true realm of testosterone masculinity, the trespassing woman will be disposed off with self-righteous cruelty.
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One especially interesting comparison is that between north Indian cinema - both Hindi and regional, and southern cinema in this period. Although much of the basic 'trends' in the depiction of women's jobs would be more or less comparable across the country, the recent spurt in women in technology is almost a uniquely south Indian phenomenon. Even within the south, the general pattern of women as technology sector workers in film is much more pronounced in Tamil and Telugu cinemas. Malayalam cinema has historically had a somewhat greater incidence of portraying women in professions, so the explicit rise in depictions is perhaps not as striking. And yet, the state boasting Bangalore, the Indian headquarters of the technology industry, barely shares this trend.
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Consider the case of Yaradi Nee Mohini. The film is a remake of a Telugu film Aadavari Matalaku Ardhalu Verule (2007), and was later remade in Kannada as Anthu Inthu Preethi Banthu (2008). Both the Telugu and Tamil version were very successful but in Kannada, the film did not do very well. Although the production values of the Kannada version are significantly lower than the Tamil and Telugu films, the film's failure in Karnataka is telling of a larger issue. Kannada cinema is not consumed by middle- and upper-middle class urban audiences. In contrast, it has increasingly come to be associated with lower-middle class urban youth, frequently migrants. It is arguably this group that incidentally tends to be the most disaffected by the growth of Bangalore that it sees the city as the territory of non-Kannadigas. As a result, a look through the most successful Kannada blockbusters of the last few years rings up a number of violent action flicks that draw on this idea of urban alienation and vigilantism, and are almost entirely centered on a male protagonist.
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The Telugu film industry, which draws its audience heavily from the Godavari belt, the entire period of the last two decades have been a story of middle-class success as huge numbers of young men and women from the region have moved to Indian metropolises or abroad, thanks to the technology industry. Likewise, for many residents of smaller cities in Tamil Nadu, the same period has brought a sea change in opportunities and pressures, as the technology job cements itself as the ultimate ticket to social ascendancy. It is no surprise that the DMK chose technology as a central theme in its self-styled anthem. The 'India Shining' discourse has crept well past the business schools and political pundits. It is bouncing off the silver screen in small towns throughout South India even as we speak.
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Addendum: Table of reference films
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Gender-neutral white collar work: eg. Raman Thediya Seethai, Bharata Vilas, Sivappu Rojakkal

Raman Thediya Seethai

P Nilakandan 



She goes door to door selling women’s products, the father is weak/old – the protagonist Ramu (MGR) buys all her products as charity


 Sundar C.



Rambha plays an accountant who supervises the protagonist’s spending, thus holding power over his ability to access his inheritance


‘Feminine’ white collar work / Secretarial: eg. Uthama Purushan, Priyamnavale, Kangalal Kaithu Sei

Ulagam Sutram Valeban




MGRs secretary Lily, has a western name and manners, and attempts to steal his scientific formula

Vasantha Maligai

 KS Prakash Rao



Has to deal with drunken, misbehaving passengers, comes home late at night due to flight hours.


Domestic ‘office help’: eg. Kannan en Kadhalan, Vasantha Maligai, Kasethan Kadavulada

Minasara Kanna

 KS Ravikumar


At-home secretary

Rambha is the arrogant Khushboo’s at-home secretary

Kasethan Kadavulada



At-home secretary

Rama (Lakshmi) is secretary to a difficult rich woman, who thinks she is mentally deranged


Domestic Labor: eg. Sivagamiyin Selvan, several Nagesh/Manorama films, Kutty


 ASA Sami

MV Rajamma 


Virtuous maid-servant, works in the landlord’s home and is courted by the landlord’s son


 KS Ravikumar



Soundarya plays the ‘simple’ maid of an arrogant heiress, and she eventually wins the hero’s affection.


Caregiver: eg. Palum Pazhamum, Puthiya Mugan, Pammal K. Sambandhan, Samurai, Alai Payuthey, VasoolRaja

Deiva Thai

 P Madhavan

Pandari Bai


After her husband disappears, a woman has to raise a son, thus taking up a job as nurse

Vetri Vizha

 Prathap Pothen

Sowcar Janaki


Sowcar Janaki plays a doctor who operates on the hero and nurses him back to health


Education: eg. Kadhalora Kavithaigal, M. Kumaran s/o Mahalakshmi, Kaaka Kaaka

Teacher Amma

 SR Puttana Kangal



She is a devoted teacher, who gives up her man for a colleague and raises an orphaned child


 KS Sethu Madhavan


College Professor

Gowthami teaches a college of unruly students, who are eventually tamed by strong-willed professor played by Kamal Haasan


Musician / performer (classical / Indian): Sindhu Bharavi Salangai Oli, Azhagan, Vishwa Thulasi, Anniyan

Thillana Mohanambal

 AP Nagarajan



Padmini is a classical dancer whose success gets in the way of her relationship with her accompanist




Classical singer

Soundarya is one of two women in love with the Parthiban – she is shown as traditional contrasted with the film loving, Meena


Musician / performer (western): eg. Thanga Magan, Viduthalai

Ulagam Sutrum Valeban




Rathna (Chandrakala) is a dancer who modestly refuses to wear skimpy clothes, despite a persistent manager.

Thiruda Thiruda

Mani Rathnam

Anu Agarwal


Chandralekha (Anu Agarwal) is a dancer / femme fatale, who is sexualized on screen by the advances of the protagonist


Agriculture / fishing / street vending: eg. Mudhal Mariyadhai, Iyarkai, Jaganmohini

Mr. Bhaarath

S.P. Muthuraman


Quarry Worker

Hero’s mother is a quarry worker who is exploited in a city

Mudhal Mariyadhai




The film centers around a low-caste woman’s relationship with a sensitive village headman


Crime: Pithamagan, Dhanam, Perumaal, Gangster’s molls

Charlie Chaplin

Shakti Chidambaram



Tilottama (Monal) is a prostitute who causes marital strife, and eventually commits suicide – unable to live with herself


D. Sabapathi 


Petty thief

Coquettish Indu (Ramha) makes a living picking pockets, and eventually charms simple-minded heir


Govt. Official / Crimefighter: eg. Citizen, Vanavil, Snegithiye, Pandian, Kadalan, Bhavani IPS 

Iru Kodugal

K. Balachandar

Sowcar Janaki

IAS Officer

Sowcar Janaki’s father works hard to make her a collector after her husband leaves her for another woman

Pen Singam

Bali Srirangam 

Meera Jasmine

IPS Officer

This Karunanidhi script has women in ‘social’ professions. A cop (Meera) and a lawyer (Rohini) save the hero in a murder investigation


Social Crusader / Journalist: eg. Indran Chandran, Nirabaradhi, Unnaipol Oruvan, Sathyam, Vel, 1977

Moondru Mugan

 A. Jagannathan



When the hero returns from abroad as a determinedly celibate saint, his father urges a woman reporter (Radhika) to tempt him back to normalcy


 Salangai Durai


Social worker

Malathi (Vithesha) is an anti-alcohol crusader who gets the hero in trouble and jailed; he eventually becomes her savior.


Businesswoman: Kaadhal Parisu, Arumugam, Sandai, Naan Avan Illai

Sathi Leelavathi

 Balu Mahendra

Heera Rajagopal

Real estate agent

The real estate agent (with whom the protagonist has an affair) is fashionable, a contrast to the protagonist’s housewifely spouse

Anbe Aaruriye

 SJ Suryah



Madhu (Nila) starts a restaurant business with her friend’s brother, which causes strife as it makes her boyfriend jealous.


Specialized white-collar occupations: eg. Unnale Unnale, Kandukondain Kandukondain, June R, Yaradi Nee Mohini


Singeetham Srinivasa Rao


Nuclear engineer

Preeti (Lizy) is a nuclear engineer who is on the trail of a man who has stolen a bomb.


AR Murugadoss 


Advertising executive

Kalpana (Asin), an ad-executive bluffs her way into her boss’ good books by pretending to be friends with an industrial scion (Surya)


Unusual one-off careers

Asai Mugam

 P. Pullaiah

Saroja Devi

Telephone cleaner

Saroja Devi goes office to office cleaning telephones and falls in love with one of the clients

Adimai Penn

 K Shankar

Cast of extras

Plough-pullers / slave

All the women in the town are condemned to slavery and whipped to perform tasks by male guards

Sirithu Vazha Vendum

 SS Balan


Knife sharpener

Latha is a knife sharpener who deals with shady customers and lives under threat from gangsters whose activities she witnesses


Modelling/Acting: eg. Tik Tik Tik, Pon Manan, Vellithirai, Kodambakkam, Iruvar



Reema Sen


Swapna (Reema) is a model and one of two girls vying for the attention of Vikram. She loses to the traditional village girl (Jyothika)

Meendum Kokila

 G Rangarajan



The film shows a lawyer’s extra-marital indiscretion with a glamorous actor, Deepa, who is contrasted with his traditional wife

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Kaali, S., Narrating Seduction: Vicissitudes of the Sexed Subject in Tamil Nativity Film. Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, 2000: p. 168-90.

Joyojeet Pal is an assistant professor at the School of Information at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His research is primarily on technology and development. In the recent past, he has been working on the impacts of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on the availability of assistive technologies in the developing world. He is also interested in the media representation of technology, especially in mainstream south Indian cinema. Joyojeet received his PhD in City and Regional Planning from the University of California at Berkeley and his Bachelor's in Commerce from Sydenham College, Mumbai.
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