Does Poo really respect its heroine's true desires?

Everyone said: “You must see Poo.” Whenever I hear that a new Tamil movie is heroine-centric, I greet the news with both hope and apprehension. Hope that it will really do justice to the character the heroine is playing, and apprehension that it will only be another heroine movie told from a very traditional perspective, and not from a woman’s inner life. (Vallamai Thaaraayo came close to representing its heroine’s desires- and this is not surprising since it was written and directed by a woman). How does Poo- a new Tamil movie written and directed by Sasi- fair? I’ll come to Poo in a bit. I’d like to quickly explain what I mean when I say movies with heroines in the central role are often betrayed by the script. Parthiban Kanavu and Pirivom Santhipom are two good examples of this. I enjoyed both films, and think Karu Pazhaniappan is a very fine, absorbing storyteller and a director who can tease subtle, understated performances from his leads. But the place that he finally takes his heroines to is not progressive but regressive for women (and indeed for men as well).

I’m grateful there is a director like Karu in Tamil cinema for the way he comes back again and again to a heroine centric story. (I wish director Priya would do this instead of making generic romantic comedies). However, the choice that he forces on his women characters are really what most men might want for or from them – not what these heroine characters themselves might desire. Let me illustrate: At the end of Parthiban Kanavu, Srikanth is persuaded that the traditional, conservative Sneha is even a better wife than the modern, independent Sneha. For the women in the audience the message is: to be a traditional housewife who cooks and pleases her husband is as librating a choice as the independent woman with a career. For the men in the audience, the message is: urge your wives, daughters in law and sisters to be more like the conservative, traditional Sneha.

In Pirivom Santhipom, the housewife Sneha plays becomes lonely at the hill station where her husband (Cheran) is transferred, and longs to return to the large join family she left behind in Chennai. Earlier we see that she comes from a small family; an only child who misses sisters and brothers. So she longs for a large family. Fair enough. However, is the solution to her loneliness a return to family or does it lie elsewhere- in areas the film does not explore? She could perhaps have found fulfillment in work (she’s educated and smart) or found something that interests her deeply and immerse herself in it. More significantly, if she is to do none of these things and stay a housewife, the most creative and constructive thing she could do is reflect on her solitude, on her loneliness and see that it is a gift of time with her husband, to deepen the marriage instead of running away from it.

Poo, I am pleased to report, is respectful of its heroine’s desires – and indeed the desires of women. It is not only entertaining but it is also responsible filmmaking. Sasi is an enlightened director. Poo is a triumph in so many ways, doing so many new things in Tamil cinema that I can hardly count them. Though I had my heart in my mouth as I watched it, thinking- ‘I only hope it doesn’t get regressive all of a sudden’-, I did begin to feel some nervousness at the end. Mari realizes she can never return, even in her mind, to her one great love – Thangarasa. It will only lead to unhappiness for everyone. She is waiting at the bus stop for her husband, weeping. He arrives, we see him walk to her from a distance. What is going to happen? I surely thought: she will run to him and embrace him and cry tears of gratitude. Thus telling us that a woman should never hope to follow her heart but return to the security of marriage. Mari continues to weep anguished tears. I thought: ‘Okay, this is it: he will embrace her and she will cling to him and cry’. But it didn’t happen. Amazingly enough, and gratifying enough, she simply sits there weeping. Her husband looks on bewildered. He is clueless. She cries as the camera pulls away and up and fades out. As the credits roll, the only sound you hear is Mari sobbing.

It’s possibly the first Tamil film –may be even the first Indian film –where the end credits are accompanied solely by a heroine crying. This is only one first among many firsts that writer-director Sasi should take credit for in Poo. Many stereotypical scenes are subverted by reversing them or not turning them melodramatic. All the stock figures of a village themed movie are there, and yet none of them behave in predictable ways. None of them say the usually traditional, conservative things villagers say. They all sound sensible and level headed. A potential rape scene is averted, the hero does not beat up the offender -but Mari does with a broomstick. To not have item songs is something the newer directors are doing, but it is brave of Sasi to chuck out fight scenes along with item songs.

When Mari and Thangarasa’s father meet at the end, he says something startling: “You had a dream. I had a dream. Now both are shattered. But I never thought that that rich, educated city girl would have her dreams too.” It is remarkable for a character in a mainstream Tamil movie to recognize this – that the rich city girl is not the villain but another person trapped by and made unhappy by tradition, patriarchal values and what others – namely men – want for them.

I also admired how Sasi stayed away from prettifying the interiors of the huts, and instead made them contemporaneously accurate. There are no earthen jars of water inside the huts, for instance, but green and pink plastic buckets. His homework on location and setting is impeccable. Above all, I am happy that Sasi does not betray his heroine but takes us deeper into her desires. It ends in sadness, and this is the strongest criticism Poo makes against patriarchy: that the desires and dreams of women are often dashed by what men want for them. And with that, the happiness of both men and women. Poo is full of poetry, wit, passion, and inventiveness. It is genuinely heroine-centric, and is a must see.

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