If We’re Good Learners, We’d Look Elsewhere After The Futile Outrage Over ‘Varane Avashyamund’

Poster of Varane Avashyamund. From clockwise, top: Suresh Gopi, Shobhana, Kalyani Priyadarshan and Dulquer Salmaan. (Source: www.nowrunning.com)

he Malayalam comedy-drama movie Varane Avashyamund, which released in the theatres and streaming platforms early this year, had the danseuse Shobhana reuniting with veteran actor Suresh Gopi after more than a decade. Normally, that should have been its talking point but outrage-filled, testosterone-themed social media had other ideas.

A scene in the film, produced by Mammooty’s son Dulquer Salmaan, who’s also a part of its ensemble cast, has one of its characters calling a dog “Prabhakaran”. And that was enough for a section of Tamil netizens to assume it was a slanderous reference to the slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran — necessitating a spitfire online campaign. Some said that Salmaan, a leading actor in film industries either side of the Mullaperiyar, betrayed Tamil sensibilities with his insensitiveness. The actor-producer posted an apology on Twitter soon, clarifying that the scene only references a yesteryear Malayalam movie that’s also a common meme. By then, the attention had shifted away from a heartwarming, even empowering, storyline, to an alleged political stand.

It was around this time that I got to see the movie on Netflix. And discovered that the campaign was grossly misinformed. Here’s why: (Disclaimer no. 1: I’m a Tamilian and not a Malayalam film buff)

Some Tamilians believe that they have bragging rights to the name Prabhakaran. Sure, he died while fighting for the rights of the ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka. But has it ever occurred to us that the name could be common in Kerala too? (Disclaimer no. 2: I’m not here to judge Prabhakaran)

The scene in question, where Suresh Gopi’s character calls a dog “Prabhakaran” isn’t an insult; he calls it fondly by that name and smiles at it compassionately. That’s about it — there’s no malice or sarcasm involved nor does the narrative even necessitate it. Salmaan said the scene was inspired by the yesteryear movie Pattana Pravesham, and even put out video clips from the film to soothe frayed tempers. But by then, herd mentality of social media had taken over, leading to an avalanche of abuse and tasteless comments.

Varane Avashyamund is deeply rooted in the Tamil milieu, with Chennai being its canvas and nearly half its dialogues in Tamil. Some of its actors are either established Tamil actors or Malayali actors who are household names in Tamil Nadu too, like Shobhana or Urvashi. Such being the case, why would anyone risk it all and insert a scene that hurts Tamil sensibilities?

The movie’s portrayal of Chennai is refreshing — highlighting some of its prominent landmarks such as the Besant Nagar beach and the Dutch war memorial, the Chennai Metro or the famed College Road in Nungambakkam.

Where was this outrage when the movie was released in theatres nearly two months before the national lockdown was imposed following the novel coronavirus outbreak? If the scene was deemed offensive, it should have made waves then. The outrage brimmed over only after someone posted screenshots of the scene on social media. India has, after all, established its reputation for imagining slight to communities or religions. Remember Padmavat, Viswaroopam?

(SPOILER ALERT BEGINS) I’d have loved if other aspects of the movie had gained attention: such as the stark contrast between a single mother who’s a die-hard romantic and her daughter who believes the key to her right match is a matrimonial website. As love blossoms between Suresh Gopi and Shobhana, we get a romance that doesn’t turn ageist one bit. That’s something worth cherishing at a time when everything is branded and packaged for the youth. Shobhana breaking into an impromptu dance or Gopi’s understated performance as a retired military personnel dealing with anger issues are the movie’s highlights. (SPOILER ALERT ENDS)

Now that we’re on insensitive portrayal of Tamils in Malayalam cinema, we’d do well to examine how far has Kollywood, the Tamil film industry, returned the favour. Despite a steady influx of leading actors over the decades — from Mammooty, Mohanlal, Geeta, Jayaram to Nayanthara, Asin, Prithviraj and Nivin Pauly — Tamil cinema has fallen back on stereotypes for Malayalis that would even put the Hindi actor Mehmood’s cringeworthy portrayal of the ‘Madrasi’ to shade.

In the case of Varane Avashyamund, it’s safe to surmise that the slight to Tamilians was imagined at best.

Some dominant stereotypes of a Malayali in Tamil cinema include the Nair who’s usually a tea seller; the buxom Malayali woman, who refuses to wear an overgarment and who’s purpose is to only titillate audiences; and the “manthiravathi” — a regular in horror comedies. Phrases like “Malayala padam” to this date are shorthand for soft porn. The movies that have utilised these tropes are far numerous to be catalogued, but I’d stop at one: Run, starring Madhavan, Meera Jasmine and Atul Kulkarni, is famous for a song with lyrics implying that if she’s large-hearted (ahem!), she must be from Kerala. And let’s not even get started on the roles stripped of dignity that get written for Shakeela in mainstream Tamil movies.

And then there are numerous instances of Indian cinema being grossly insensitive — such as Bhumi Pednekar’s blackface in the Hindi film Bala, or the Tamil films Draupathi or Devarattam that shamelessly regurgitate caste superiority.

Aren’t these what we need to look out for — and oppose vehemently?

Deputy editor at BloombergQuint. Writer by passion, turned to journalism after disenchantment with IT. Bylines in The Times of India, New Indian Express.

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