The short film version of Karthik Subbraj’s third film – Iraivi (Goddess) – happens sometime before the halfway mark. All the main characters – all men – are in the hospital where Arul (SJ Suryah) and Jagan’s (Bobby Simha) mother is in coma and their father (Radha Ravi) is quiet and brooding. With them are Michael (Vijay Sethupathi) and his uncle (Cheenu Mohan aka IOB Mohan as Chitappa). They are all lost in their thoughts as Arul is in a trip of his own – as he is throughout this film – whining about having to apologize to the producer who is refusing to release his film. The woman in the room is stretched flat on the bed and if it wasn’t for a hospital, you’d think she’s resting after a hard day’s work, a glint of peace betraying her closed eyes. She is not even in hospital robes and there are idols of goddesses behind her. Arul is so loud that a nurse steps in from the other ward to reprimand them all. It doesn’t work as Arul picks it up right where he left off and she barges in once again. Then, they make a plan to make some quick money to buy off Arul’s film. It starts again and therefore she breaks in again only this time to be shouted back at by the patriarch. A group of men with tunnel vision plotting their life with a suffering woman in their midst and oblivious to the other women suffering second hand effects of their actions. That’s what Subbaraj gets at with his 160 minutes.
It would be great to sit Subbaraj down and ask him if he made Iraivi knowing that, as feminist as it could be, it is still a product of the male gaze. It is made by a male director with the three protagonists being Arul, Michael and Jagan. It is their actions that dictate the state and fate of the three women characters, Yazhini (Kamalanee Mukherjee), Ponni (Anjali) and Malarvizhi (Pooja Devariya). Each one of them is impulsive in nature and a couple of swear words away from an act of violence. This is less a film about feminism and more about holding a mirror to the men. Even the seemingly well-intentioned Jagan’s definition of feminism has a problem and we can debate endlessly about whether this was deliberate or the product of the male gaze.
The film begins with talk about marriage and as soon as that happens, parked cycles fall down in the rain and the wind. Oh the rains! Rains are something Subbaraj has made his own. Jigarthanda had several portions in the rain, especially the superlative pre-intermission part. Rains are all over here in Iraivi. They fall down during the joyous moments and they also lash down during discomfiting times. The women keep talking about wanting to get drenched in the rain and give it a pass saying, the clothes will get wet. Then we see what Ponni – who speaks those words first in the film – has been reduced to – she runs out in the rain, only to collect the clothes put to dry.
Second film in a row where Subbaraj has a filmmaker protagonist unable to get a move on with his film. This gives him ample opportunities to throw some shade on the industry. The other conceit has to do with the title itself – Iraivi – the Goddess. It is there thanks to the film’s subplot – stealing Radha Ravi (who is a sculptor) character’s old Goddess statues from their decrepit places of worship and sending them to foreign lands where they are better cared for. The obvious allegory holds but I am not so sure about the larger role of Goddess – putting the woman on a pedestal in order to respect her and treat her as a woman. Now that’s problematic and an obvious byproduct of the male gaze. This is not necessarily a flaw – it is fleshed out even in Jagan’s character, the film’s only feminist man. Or so we think. He rallies his troops to go against his classmate who was getting a bit physical with a girl. He is the one who wants to flip the role of Kannagi in Silapathikaram. But then he also keeps talking about giving a new life, a happy life to the woman he loves. That they’ll be bound in marriage. He promises to treat her well and all of this happens like a monologue in front of his comatose mother, who still doesn’t look comatose, it’s as if she’s just closed her eyes to listen to all these men blathering. He also acknowledges the suffering his mother went through in the hands of his father. Jagan’s feminism is ultimately a misunderstood one and I half expected Vadivukkarasai to break into a smile at all the mansplaining. But Subbaraj’s craft and filmmaking allows us to take the high road here. He is in complete control of the characters and he’s made a film about all kinds of men – the violent ones, the twisted ones, the dogmatic ones and even the garden variety feminist. And breaks all of them down to show how wrong they are. That makes for a solid third film, warts and all.