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Review: Tamil Cinema’s Women Scientists – Sassy, Nerdy, and Still Tamil

Pooja Kumar plays a female scientist in Tamil movie 'Viswaroopam'.

Looking through the prism of Tamil cinema, a female scientist distorts the simplistic, straightforward portrayal of women that most movies adopt. Her knowledge and authority on a subject enable her to challenge the hero (gasp!) in areas that he may not know about. Often, she flaunts her sexuality; it’s brash, open and departs from norms. Nothing stops her, however, from eventually succumbing to the unwritten ‘rules’ of male-centric Tamil cinema.

The July theme of In Plainspeak got me thinking about how many Tamil movies I’d watched or heard of that had female scientists. My criteria were strict: she must be a scientist or a researcher in her own right, no doctors or lab assistants, and she must be one of the lead characters. With these criteria, I could count a grand total of three movies: Vikram (1986), 7aum Arivu (Seventh Sense, 2011) and Vishwaroopam (2013).

Vikram (1986)

Poster of Tamil movie 'Vikram' (featuring a female scientist)

Vikram, the oldest of the three, tried to be ahead of its times in Tamil cinema with its James Bond-esque theme. Lissy plays Preethi, a computer scientist, who is asked to help Vikram (Kamal Haasan), an agent deployed by top Indian military officials to recover and disable a stolen nuclear missile.

Preethi hates Vikram the moment they meet; I would, too. Vikram makes it known that he doesn’t think highly of Preethi because she’s a woman. To her credit, though, Preethi is always up in arms, fighting every inch of the way. When he says, amused, that it’s great that “even women these days” can study what they want, Preethi jumps up; what on earth does he mean by “even women”? “Women can do anything that men can,” she says, only to be asked if she could roam around topless in summer like Vikram can. Although she calls him uncultured in frustration, she melts when she hears that his pregnant wife was shot dead by goons (cue for beginning of romance).

Just when you think it’s all downhill from here, Preethi surprises the viewer with her street smarts. When Vikram drops his gun during a chase on rooftops, she grabs it, follows the fighting duo and tosses it up to him at the right moment. At a crucial point, in the clutches of the villain, she passes Vikram the code to disable the missile, while pretending to be working on the villain’s side.

She’s also not just a nerdy scientist, but a sassy one. When she sees Vikram flirting with the princess of the country where the stolen missile is hidden, she loses it and starts fighting for his attention. She sings a song, confronts him as to why he doesn’t like her back, and calms down when he kisses her (just to shut her up, I think!) She doesn’t hide her desire for him and brings it up whenever they have a moment alone.

Although I was relieved that eventually Vikram stopped insulting her intelligence, I wondered if she meant anything in his grand scheme of things. At the end of the day, Vikram is the saviour: despite losing the secret code, he manages to make the missile deviate from its path to Delhi to explode over the Bay of Bengal. How did that happen?

7aum Arivu (Seventh Sense, 2011)

Poster of Tamil movie '7aum Arivu' ('Seventh Sense') (featuring a female scientist)

7aum Arivu told me maybe there’s some truth to the sassy scientist theme. Shruti Haasan plays Suba Srinivasan, a genetics engineer whose research project prompts China to send an assassin to kill her and nip her research in the bud so that India can rely on them to solve a medical catastrophe they plan to create. Suba’s research entails tracing the lineage of a Pallava king, Bodhidharma, who had travelled to China and was an expert in martial arts and medicine. She has conclusive proof that Aravind, who works in a circus, is Bodhidharma’s descendant (both played by Suriya).

Enter Suba’s manipulative, nerd-who-will-do-anything-for-science mode. She befriends Aravind, who easily falls for her charms and merrily accompanies her wherever she asks. When he eventually realises she’s been using him, he accuses her of leading him on. In a stroke of brilliance that I won’t forget, Suba says she never told him she likes him, and he must be silly to think every woman who holds his hand loves him (slow clap). Aravind sulks for a while, but in a clever move, Suba takes him to a museum highlighting the valour of his distant ancestor, convincing him of his role in restoring Bodhidharma’s glory.

What’s astounding is how much screen time – and voice – Shruti Haasan gets throughout. I think she even has more lines than Suriya (that she says in her deadpan, emotionless voice). She’s always ready to take command of the situation, and comes up with calm solutions in stark contrast to Aravind’s hot-headed, we-need-to-fight-for-Tamil-culture-type kneejerk reactions. She runs the mile with Aravind, and never relies on him for physical or emotional support. Knowing that the Chinese assassin is hard to take on, she focuses on the research to make Aravind’s DNA ‘remember’ the skills of Bodhidharma to combat the medical catastrophe that’s plaguing the country. And she is unapologetic about not being in love with Aravind, although in a video log in her phone she says she likes to spend time with him and feels safe in his presence. Never does she say ‘love’, and never, throughout the movie, do her emotions come in her way of research. This, to my mind, is unheard of in a mass-masala Tamil flick.

Her research, even though interrupted at an unfortunate moment, is successful: fortunately for India, Aravind is able to use his newfound genius in solving the medical crisis, and his name is splashed all over the newspapers. Unfortunately for Suba, there is no acknowledgment of her effort in making this happen: not the fact that it’s her idea, not her dogged hardwork, not the friends she lost in this valiant fight. In the last scene, as Aravind extols on TV the importance of keeping Tamil society’s scientific contributions alive, Suba sits quietly beside him, watching the man she helped create lead the show.

Vishwaroopam (2013)

Poster of Tamil movie 'Viswaroopam' (featuring a female scientist).

Vishwaroopam starts off with Nirupama (played by Pooja Kumar) speaking to a therapist in an obvious Tamil Brahmin accent – a clear nod to the mixture of extremities most associated with the community: a rigorous faith in education, moral self-righteousness, and flexibility with what religious and moral codes one wants to follow. Nirupama establishes early on that she married middle-aged Vishwanath, or Viz, simply because it was a passport for her to reach the USA and pursue her Ph.D. Making it clear that it’s a marriage of convenience, she tells him she isn’t interested in a sexual relationship with him.

Now, as a nuclear oncologist working in a private research firm, she’s attracted to her boss, and hires a private detective to find some ‘secrets’ about Viz so she can make a stronger case to divorce him. She’s put off by everything about Viz: his mannerisms that she associates with his being a Kathak dance teacher, which makes her think he might be gay, and weirdly, the way he puts her interests before his. When the therapist asks about her “affair” with her boss, Nirupama makes it clear that she’s not a ‘bad woman’, implying she hasn’t slept with him…yet. Some kind of moral high ground makes her want to get divorced before she does so. Yet, she steers clear of stereotypical portrayals of a Brahmin woman in Tamil cinema: she confidently flaunts her cleavage in her low-cut blouses and risqué night clothes, and she also loves chicken, which her husband cooks for her out of sheer love, even as he doesn’t eat it.

As the movie progresses, she realises she’s a piece in the elaborate puzzle set up by Wisam (Viz, in a different avatar!) and his team to fight the Al-Qaeda in the US; her specialised knowledge is subtly mocked at every minute. “You can’t just scrape off caesium to make a bomb, you know?” she says when they tell her how the terrorist outfit has been creating a bomb. They roll their eyes and smile as if they’re humouring a smart, over-enthusiastic child and tell her, “We know.” The only saving grace is that at the end of the movie, Nirupama comes up with the solution to stop the bomb from exploding, by simply creating a Faraday cage with a microwave oven. The end credits of the movie show her in bed with Wisam; now that he’s shown his ‘male and macho’ side, she’s happier being his wife. Oh, and did I mention that there’s no moral conundrum because her boss-boyfriend is conveniently killed early on?

Tamil + Female + Scientist + Cinema

The female scientist in Tamil cinema is quite the multi-faceted character. Her specialisation in science means she can command respect in a topic that (mostly) the male protagonist can’t question her on; he’s somewhat likely to (even if grudgingly) take instructions from her. This also means he trusts her with implementing some significant steps of his grander scheme to save the country/world. Sadly, even if she thinks through the crucial element that helps solve this huge problem, the hero hogs the limelight for having implemented it.

I wonder if the confidence that stems from her education also puts her more in control of her sexuality; she’s not afraid to speak up about her desires or use it to achieve her ends. All the same, this control operates strictly within the boundaries of what’s acceptable in society. Even in a marriage of convenience, Nirupama thinks it’s bad to have an affair. Suba of 7aum Arivu has to justify to both Aravind and the audience that despite her manipulation of Aravind for the research, she still likes him – she is a good woman, after all. With Preethi, I wonder if she was attracted to Vikram only because she saw him flirting with the princess! Is that the trope of jealous women at play?

It’s rather easy to discuss how sexuality is portrayed in movies if the character is a young female scientist. What’s it like when she grows older? Does she continue working? How much of her eccentricities is she ‘allowed’ to have, compared to her male counterparts? Does she have kids, does she get married, how does she manage it all? If she’s grown in stature as a scientist, how much easier is it for her to drive the entire operation, and be credited with being the brains? I wait for the day I can watch one such Tamil movie.

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