Art evolves when artists evolve. And a community evolves when its art evolves.
The way queer people and their relationships are represented in Pa Ranjith’s recent release Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, and how it is being received well by the audience, reminds me of a Tweet by filmmaker Venkat Prabhu exactly a year ago, in September 2021.
Kalidas Jayaram’s transwoman character in the Thangam episode of the Paavakadhaigal web series had received huge accolades from the film-watching community and critics.
“Really wish the critics were open like this then!! #Sampath from #Goa deserved more accolades! But never got recognised for the role he played!! Sad but true!! All we got was cheeeeeee from reviews and reviewers for the role he portrayed,” he had Tweeted then.
Apparently, Venkat Prabhu’s Goa in 2010 was the first Tamil film to show an on-screen gay couple in a dignified and normalised way.
After a decade, Paavakadhaigal hit the OTT space in 2020. And now, two years later, Natchathiram Nagargiradhu has made its way to the big screens from Venkat Prabhu’s very own associate Ranjith.
Really wish the critics were open like this then!! #Sampath from #Goa deserved more accolades! But never got recognised for the role he played!! Sad but true!! All we got was cheeeeeee from reviews and reviewers for the role he potrayed ?happy for u @kalidas700 ?? https://t.co/XstyWMCEcq
— venkat prabhu (@vp_offl) September 21, 2021
LGBTQIA+ community in Tamil films
In the century-old Tamil film industry, where gender equality is hardly achieved even in the binary gender format of male/female, what the future of LGBTQIA+ representation would be, was always a question.
But the million-dollar question was: How would the audience perceive it?
Over the years, trans people and homosexual characters have always been shamed, trolled or shown in a bad light in Tamil films.
There was a time when male villains playing trans roles, or at least having feminine shades, was considered a trait of villainy. Prakash Raj’s Maharani in Appu and Jayam Ravi’s Bhagavan in Aadhi Bhagavan are the best examples.
On the other hand, filmmakers like Gautham Menon, who have a reputation for portraying dignified women characters in their films, have slipped when it comes to representing the queer community.
The dialogues of Kamal Haasan’s Raghavan IPS character in Gautham’s Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, towards the climax of the film, still make me cringe. Raghavan mocks the villains — serial killers and rapists — by calling them “homosexuals”.
Even legendary comedians like Goundamani and Vadivelu, who are otherwise praised for their performances, have left this black mark behind, by either bullying transgender characters on screen or through the infamous “Avanaa Nee?” dialogue. It loosely translates to: “Are you a guy of the other kind?”.
This dialogue was later carried forward for almost a decade by the Tamil industry, in mainstream films like KV Anand’s Ko, starring Jiiva, and Shankar’s Nanban, starring Vijay.
The influence of this dialogue is the most toxic of the lot, as it is still in use among the public.
Venkat Prabhu took the leap with Goa
Venkat Prabhu’s Goa changed the course of Tamil films to a large extent, through Sampath’s Danny character. Despite attracting harsh criticism for portraying a homosexual relationship on screen, the film was a huge hit at the box office.
Though it didn’t break any conventions overnight, it gave hope to a few filmmakers who wanted to show the LGBTQ+ in positive, hopeful and dignified roles.
At least 10 films and web series featured homosexual characters in the past decade. Vanjagar Ulagam, Thozha, My Son is Gay, Tharamani and Thittam Irandu are a few that can be named.
Likewise, there are several films like Super Deluxe, Dharmadurai, Onaayum Aattukuttiyum and Peranbu. Of these, Super Deluxe and Peranbu need to be truly appreciated.
An A-list actor like Vijay Sethupathi played the transwoman Shilpa in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe. Similarly, superstar Mammootty’s Amudhavan character finds love and life’s fulfilment in a transwoman in Ram’s Peranbu.
These two films are huge steps taken toward greater gender equality in society.
Natchahtiram Nagargiradhu: A game changer
Now, let’s talk about the giant leap: Natchahtiram Nagargiradhu.
I believe this Pa Ranjith film will be a game-changer. Not only does it represent LGBTQIA+ relationships extensively, it also initiates a conversation with its social commentary.
Among other things, one aspect I loved the most about this film was how it empathises with those who cannot understand gender, caste and class differences.
Kalaiyarasan as Arjun in Natchahtiram Nagargiradhu takes care of this. Arjun is from a privileged background. He is introduced to this world where a guy falls in love with a guy and kisses him. He sees two women in love being intimate. He witnesses a transwoman and a straight guy celebrating their anniversary. Everything is new to him. He isn’t ready for this as the patriarchy he was raised in didn’t prepare him for LGBTQIA+ relationships.
At one point, Arjun loses his cool and reacts. He mocks, trolls and strongly criticises his world and its people, exactly as Tamil films have been doing all these years.
He becomes the representation of all the regressive practices of the Tamil film industry and the entire Tamil community. This is when his world gives him a second chance.
Now, he is shown making sincere attempts to understand the “whys, whats and hows” of the people he coexists with. He finally reaches the point of inclusivity.
All of this were possible only because Arjun’s world was empathetic enough to accept his political incorrectness. It was giving him a chance to right the wrong. I think this empathy is all we need.
Sadly, the reality is humorous
There is a scene when Arjun travels back to his hometown, after all of his experiences and realisations. This is when he goes through the most difficult time of his whole life.
This scene is tagged as “humour” or “dark humour” by critics. But what I see through his eyes is the reality, because the reality is humorous.
In a lot of patriarchal, regressive and conservative households, a major change like Arjun’s is impossible. For them, cross-culture (LGBTQIA+) or inter-caste love is always Naadaga Kaadhal, which translates to staged love.
To them, same-gender love is not even part of their patriarchal curriculum. If two men are in love, who will dominate whom? And if two women are in a relationship, there is no one to dominate.
So, patriarchy is confused about homosexual relationships. And this reality is, indeed, laughable.
Before Arjun had all of those inner debates and transitions, he was part of the custom-cultural structure. But when he goes back to his hometown, he’s able to witness the idiocracy from a third-person perspective.
From that perspective, he clearly sees how regressive his upbringing was. That becomes the final act of his character arc where he pushes himself completely into inclusivity.
What Venkat Prabhu seeded through Goa in 2010 has been sowed again by Ranjith in Natchathiram Nagargiradhu. But Ranjith didn’t stop there.
He has taken this debate to the next level. It’s time for society to see Danny through Arjun’s eyes, and that would be the next step in the community’s evolution through art.
(The views expressed are personal.)