A potion made of Bakkiyam’s uprightness, Mariamma’s endurance and Lakshmi’s frustration is what made Kabilan who he is. These women of the 70s North Madras were as tempestuous as the sea. The women in Pa Ranjith’s creations are always assertive and vocal. In the Tamil film industry, where women are portrayed as railings on the side of a man’s ladder to success, Pa Ranjith writes women characters with a voice. A voice very loud and clear – literally and figuratively. Kalaiyarasi played by Kathrine Tresa in Madras and Kumudhavalli played by Radhika Apte in Kabali are women who were not the railing, but the wind that pushes their men down in the beginning and pulls them up in a swift movement. Kumudhavalli, who is not seen in frame for a long time also convinces the viewers as a woman of vigour.
To watch the women of Sarpatta Parambarai is satisfying. It was these women who demanded respect from all the men authoritatively. “I am servant in your house, not your slave”, Bakkiyam bursts out in anger while Mariamma demands little things from her husband – like appreciation for a curry she made by herself or for the way she dresses up. On the other hand, what Lakshmi looks for is her family to pay heed to her anger. The medley of the three women was a separate game with no ring, no single opponent but just fight.
From frightening Kabilan with her stubbornness to fiercely warning Rangan Vaathiyar for teaching Kabilan to box and not accepting to carry a messed up Kabilan’s daughter, Bakkiyam held herself together with a certain kind of morality that we understand but could not explain. To her, the anguish of the loss of her husband because of his knowledge in the sport is something that is unhealed. In her journey of protecting her son from falling into the pit right next to his father, she does not disrespect anyone, but only asserts authority over her son’s life. Initially, she draws a clear line between what happens when her son is seen in the boxing ring and what happens in the world outside. When Rangan Vaathiyar decides to walk to Raman’s house and Bakkiyam & Kabilan are in the middle of distributing wedding invitations, she immediately asks Kabilan to take Vaathiyar along with him on his bicycle. When she understands that boxing is Kabilan’s calling, she does not easily give in, but waits until he becomes vulnerable to her and to himself.
When Kabilan and his family go to meet the prospective bride and perform the engagement ceremony, Mariamma is like a house cat – quiet but sassy. By not letting go of Kabilan’s hand and almost ragging him, she tells us what kind of a wife she is going to be. She found her release in the intense dance behind the closed doors and the fervid kiss that followed. Mariamma remains a woman of resilience and the owner of high strength. But, she is not only that. She is a woman who realistically and openly expresses her need for small, medium and large pleasures. By picking a fight with Kabilan when he is about to leave to the ring and only letting him go out of the house having fed her rice and curry with his own hands, she conveys that she takes her husband’s dreams seriously but puts herself first. She puts her life at stake to save her drunk husband, then yells at him and says she is better off without him and the next day, she says to him angrily that he would be a no one if she was not there. Her love is savage. The way she casually addresses her mother-in-law as ‘di’ and sometimes as ‘Bakkiyam’ makes some people scrunch their nose, and a lot of people smile in sheer disbelief. Mariamma is a package of surprises that pops open not once but multiple times.
It is through Vetriselvan’s wife, Lakshmi, that we enter into Vetriselvan’s world of pain and despair. “I am the only person who helplessly watches him cry every night”, she says. From the beginning till the end, she fights for her husband’s happiness. She is the alpha female who constantly nudges her husband to fight for what he believes in. When Vetri kisses her in their room, she initially pushes him away and after he leaves, she smiles. Lakshmi’s desire is to see her husband feel acknowledged and appreciated for what he does. What makes you want to beg for forgiveness from Lakshmi, for judging her sputters, is her morality that tries to pull Vetri back when he goes off course. The North Madras green chilli that Lakshmi is, is what kept Vetri sane.
These three women in the movie were so influential in the film. They had a place for themselves independent of the men. Amidst portraying women, over the years, as submissive characters or with a vast difference between their mental and physical age, the women in Sarpatta Parambarai stand out.
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