The complex trinity of women in Parasakthi

Shakila Zamboulingame analyses the representations of women in this iconic Tamil film from 1952.

9 min read

Odinaal, odinaal, vazhkaiyin orathukka odinaal” [She ran, she ran, until the frontier of life, she ran]. Today, this dialogue which takes place in the famous court scene has become as iconic as Parasakthi itself. We remember Sivaji Ganesan’s acting (as Gunasekaran), and M. Karunanidhi’s writing, but this monologue highlights an important specificity: Gunasekaran’s sister, Kalyani (played by Sriranjani), is actually the heart of the film. Parasakthi, after all, is the name of a Goddess. This film, like others endorsed by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is obviously rooted in the then nascent party’s political ideas. It also sketches the outlines of the ideal woman in its ideology. Even though the title credits reveal more actors than actresses, the movie revolves around a nebula of significant female characters. Some of them appear for a short while, like elder brother Chandrasekaran’s wife, the neighbour who is a family friend, the wealthy employer’s wife so used to her husband’s infidelity, or even the harsh fruit seller. Above all, three women are fundamental to the story, and each one is an incarnation of a certain shade of womanhood: Kalyani, the widowed sister, Vimala (Pandari Bai), the educated lover, and Jolly (Kannamma), the dangerous vamp. This female trinity, oscillating between good and evil, purity and impurity, tradition and modernity, reveals a complex and conflicting representation of womanhood.

Names of actors and actresses appear separately in Parasakthi’s opening credits
The other women of Parasakthi (clockwise from top left): the neighbour, the fruit seller, the wealthy employer’s wife, and Chandrasekaran’s wife

Parasakthi is the story of a family who have to survive an incredible accumulation of misfortunes in the context of World War II. Three brothers who are part of Tamil diaspora in Burma try to join their family in India for their sister Kalyani’s wedding. The sister and father are in Tamil Nadu, desperately waiting for the brothers to come. Thus, Kalyani’s first appearance on screen is an indication of her character’s arc throughout the film: she is crying because her brothers are absent, and, somehow, she never stops crying until the climax. This character is obviously an epitome of the traditional katanayaki’s [heroine] attributes, as theorized by Sathiavathi Chinniah: acham (fear), madam (tenderness), naanam (coyness), payirppu (modesty). Above all, as soon as she becomes a widow, she appears as an unprotected, helpless and fragile woman, threatened at any moment by indecent and lustful males, whether it’s a local rowdy, her wealthy employer or even a temple priest. Thus, her character is built around her chastity, which has to be defended against all odds. This chastity is intimately associated with the sacredness of traditional Tamil womanhood, which is all the more emphasised by motherhood: indeed, throughout the film, Kalyani appears on screen with her baby in the arms, and, interestingly, as the difficulties keep mounting, the final sequence of the film is marked by the decision of this desperate mother to kill her child and herself. Moreover, these words of Chinniah also help us understand Kalyani: “Dominant ideology states that a Tamil female elevates herself to a higher level by possessing patience and endurance, thus strengthening her power or sakti (…) therefore, in the Tamil context, it is precisely the woman’s passivity that provides her with power, making her a ‘passive subject’.” Kalyani is written as a passive subject who endures hardships without rebelling, she lacks any agency, except when she tries different ways to earn money to feed her child, by owning a little idly shop, working as a house servant, and begging.

Kalyani’s evolution, from bride to being tried in court
Kalyani and the men who abuse her: the local rowdy, her employer, the temple priest
The motherhood of Kalyani

However, Vimala, who enters the film mid-plot, brings with her a significant shift in the representation of women, in this propaganda film by DMK. She is the archetypal ‘new woman’, the educated and politicized young lady, inspired by her ‘sisters’ in the Nationalist and Dravidian movements. Far from the traditional katanayaki, her behaviour is more modern. She calls her lover by his name and addresses him with the casual Nee [you, informal/singular] rather than the Neenga [you, respectful/plural]. She is the one who contributes to the political education of Gunasekaran, who is until then simply an innocent, privileged, young man from Rangoon, who has fallen into poverty. One can recall how he, who used to carelessly throw tips to every subaltern worker, now has to roam the streets and beg for survival. In a crucial scene, where he is telling her his story and sorrows, Vimala, instead of offering him comforting words as expected of a sweet heroine, scolds him by pointing out his egocentric behaviour and selfishness. “Anbu irukkira alavukku unnidathil arivu illai (…) Ezhayaakka padavillai endral, ezhai ulagathai ninaithukooda parthirukka maattai (…) Nee oru suyanalavaathi” [You don’t have as much intelligence as you have love (…) Even if you haven’t experienced poverty, you wouldn’t have even spared a thought for the poor (…) You are a selfish man]. She even compliments the woman who cheated Gunasekaran and stole everything from him, as she is the reason this privileged man could finally experience poverty, and could be made aware of social inequalities. Moreover, she defuses his obsession to find his sister, by saying that there are many ‘sisters’ to help in the society. Thus, Vimala, who is clearly the voice of DMK here, pushes Gunasekaran to see beyond his family’s hardships, and to have a political approach to his personal experience.

Gunasekaran’s political education by Vimala

As analysed by C.S. Lakshmi, Kalyani and Vimala are like two different aspects of Silapathikaram’s Kannagi: one is the epitome of chastity and the other is the epitome of will power. Just like Kannagi, deified as the Chaste Goddess, they both appear as flawless characters, and the embodiment of purity. When Parasakthi was made in 1952, the recently formed Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (1949) chose the medium of cinema to project its identity and political ideas. Some of the party functionaries even became scriptwriters, like C.N Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi, in the case of this film directed by Krishnan-Panju. Parasakthi was meant to be a reflection of DMK’s core, such as the fight against exploitation, a socialist outlook, and anti-religious rationalism (in fact, the scene showing the temple priest abusing Kalyani created controversies in 1952). But it was a tool, on the one hand, to show how disadvantaged women were in society, through the long-suffering sister (the film was based on another stage play/film titled En Thangai [My Little Sister]), and on the other hand, to define ideal womanhood through the fiery lover.

The dangerous vamp and hustler Jolly

To promote these shades of pure and positive womanhood, Parasakthi also highlights a third woman as a negative antithesis, embodying impurity and evil. Jolly, the dangerous vamp, is a turning point in the plot, as she is the reason the hero falls into poverty. She first stalks Gunasekaran, then introduces herself, before taking him to a dance performance where the dancer and herself steal everything from him. Her characterization lays bare the dominant dual narrative of womanhood, between Vimala’s acceptable modernity, and Jolly’s dangerously modern, sexualised womanhood. Jolly is bossy, manipulative, provocative. She differs from the homely Kalyani and Vimala through her behaviour and body language—she crosses her legs in front of a man, she seems to appreciate the sexy dance performance while Gunasekaran watches uncomfortably, she drinks (just like men), she brazenly lies down on the bed in Gunasekaran’s room after trespassing. She goes so far as to ask Gunasekaran if it is wrong to go out with a girl, and if he wouldn’t do it with his sister. Just like Kalyani and Vimala reflect facets of Kannagi, Jolly seems to be a modern derivative of Madhavi, the harlot in Silapathikaram. In other words, in this narrative, there is a clear distinction between the good and bad woman, pure and impure womanhood, acceptable and unacceptable modernity. As C.S. Lakshmi says, “Good and bad women, in clear black and white divides, have been the divides, have been the obsession of Tamil cinema in a way. (…)The good woman embodies all that Tamil culture stands for where women are concerned. She is chaste, intelligent, motherly and divine. The bad woman is a coquette, a temptress and a loudmouth who finally gets her dues.”

Even though these women are pivotal to the plot, Parasakthi remains a hero-centric movie. The women’s actions and thoughts are directed towards men, especially the hero Gunasekaran. Moreover, both Kalyani and Vimala appear in the shadow of a powerful brother. Kalyani is desperately waiting to be protected and saved by her brothers; she wipes her constant tears only when she is reunited with them in the climax. Similarly, after Vimala’s speech on social revolution, Gunasekaran immediately asks her who has taught her all this, as if she couldn’t learn it by herself. Her answer “Ellam anna thaan” [It’s all because of my elder brother] is revealing. We see that even the most independent woman in the film depends on her brother to teach her rationalist and socialist ideology. It underlines the fact that Parasakthi is rooted in the typical vocabulary of DMK activists, where people are referred to as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ (film’s dialogues are written by M. Karunanidhi). It is also quite interesting to observe how the politics is neatly handed over from Vimala to Gunasekaran in the end—the revolutionary Vimala becomes a quiet lover, yet-to-be wife of Gunasekaran, who explains to her why the manjal kayiru [the yellow string/the ‘thaali’] is an unnecessary superstition for marriage. In this hero-centric movie, Vimala’s political voice is stolen by Gunasekaran. Men have the final say.

The handover of the political voice from Vimala to Gunasekaran
Jolly outside, looking in / Vimala inside, looking out

Furthermore, there is a clear spatial segregation between men and women in the film. Whereas women are safe and protected inside, within the domestic space, men are outside, singing and wandering like Gunasekaran, or participating in political meetings like Vimala’s brother. The streets, or even the court, remain spaces for men; women are marginalised or threatened. There is a significant reversed symmetry between Jolly and Vimala in two different scenes: Jolly first appears on screen looking in through a barred window, stalking Gunasekaran from the outside, and Vimala, when she first sees Gunasekaran, also appears on screen behind a barred window, but from the inside. Good women may be educated and modern, but they remain in the domestic space, while bad women are found outside, on the streets, that is to say spaces for men, criminals, and female sinners. This gendered segregation manages to negate the real actions of women in the National, Self Respect, and Dravidian movements. A number of politicised women used to protest and sing in the streets against British rule, they were brought to court, accused and condemned for their activism. In addition, many women like actress/director T.P. Rajalakshmi, fought for widow remarriage. These aspects of political life in Tamil Nadu in the pre- and post- Independence era are totally silenced in Parasakthi.

In the (in)famous temple scene, Gunasekaran berates the temple priest for venerating the stone goddess Parasakthi, while simultaneously disrespecting his sister Kalyani (the word ‘stone’ was eventually censored from the movie’s sundtrack due to backlash). Yet, in the film, female characters are idealised in the most simplistic and stereotypical way, that one could wonder if they aren’t just like the carved-in-stone goddesses. Disappointingly, this Goddess Syndrome persists in Tamil cinema, often leading to a contradiction in so many films: under the pretext of showing empowered female characters, women are simply idealised on screen, relegated to distant fantasies, remaining one-dimensional, and perceived as goddesses rather than humans.

Further Reading

[1] Chinniah, Sathiavathi. 2008. “The Tamil film heroine. From a passive subject to a pleasurable object.” In Tamil Cinema. The Cultural Politics of India’s Other Film Industry, edited by Selvaraj Velayutham, 29-43. London: Routledge.

[2] C.S Lakshmi. 2008. “A good woman, a very good woman: Tamil cinema’s women” In Tamil Cinema. The Cultural Politics of India’s Other Film Industry, edited by Selvaraj Velayutham, 16-28. London: Routledge.

Images: Reproduction

About the author

Shakila Zamboulingame is a history/geography professor from the Tamil diaspora, born in Pondicherry, and living in France since she was a child. After a Masters in French History and research on war photojournalism, she is now beginning a PhD project on Tamil Cinema. Since 2016, she has been running a blog and an Instagram account, where she analyses Tamil cinema, especially through visual culture and gender representations.

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