Serial Chiller is Ranjani Krishnakumar’s monthly column about all things Tamil television. Read more from the series here.
At the audio launch of the film Gurkha, Tamil film director, public speaker and television host Karu Pazhaniappan made a rather strange speech. He was grasping at stray thoughts, stringing together a bunch of unrelated ideas to place around the film, which he was present to ‘bless’. In a matter of five-and-some minutes, he claimed to have been the first to talk about Raja Raja Chozhan, made a dig about Pa Ranjith’s priorities, brought up methane extraction, made some Chowkidar jokes, criticised the state government’s hypocrisy, praised SP Balasubrahmanyam’s humility, and tangentially wished the film well.
Thankfully, his television show Tamizha Tamizha on Zee Tamil is better constructed. It follows the now popular format of television debates in Tamil: two groups of people with opposing ideas on the chosen topic sit on either side of a hall filled with bookshelves and motley posters (from Joseph Stalin to Mother Teresa). Pazhaniappan stands at the centre, moderating the conversation. He introduces the topic, invites his participants to share cutesy personal experiences, fuels some debate, invites an expert guest to opine, wraps up with a non-committal conclusion and gives away a ‘best speaker’ prize.
Even looking beyond the genre that Solvathellam Unmai has now come to notoriously represent, most of the ‘debates’ on television are about personal preference — modern attire vs. traditional, love marriage vs. arranged marriage, shampoo vs. shikakai, leggings vs ulpaavaadai and the like. Neeya Naana did that for years on Vijay TV, and much ink has flowed on paper about it. Anu Hasan’s Vaanga Pesalaam on Sun TV began in the same vein a couple of years ago, and seems to have been now abandoned after discussing things like “Which is tastier: Street food or air-conditioned restaurant?” [sic].
What caught my attention about Tamizha Tamizha, which I began watching recently, was the curious female-orientedness of it. Three out of the four episodes I followed in June were about women and their experiences. The episode that aired on 9 June was about doting fathers and their post-marriage-separated daughters. Next week was makeup vs natural beauty. A week later: working parents and their school-aged children.
Unlike conversations of the Solvadhellam Unmai variety, Tamizha Tamizha rests on the belief that personal is political, and therefore worthy of debate. I might even be inclined to agree, on the grounds that much of what informs personal preference is the social, cultural and political fabric of the time in which that choice is asserted. In that, discussing everyday phenomenon and exploring what causes them should make for invigorating television.
But it mostly doesn’t.
More often than not, Karu Pazhaniappan treads a centrist line — superficial and never going deep enough to offer any truly eye-opening insight to the audience, even as he asserts his liberal values repeatedly. He hardly even ventures into the politics of everyday life. Blessed only are those episodes where special guests bring that perspective. Otherwise, Pazhaniappan draws clear boundaries that appear to keep socio-political discussions out.
For instance, the idea of a woman leaving ‘her father’s home’ to go to her ‘husband’s home’ is a cruelly patriarchal idea that diminishes her selfhood. Yet, the show focuses on the emotional stuntedness of the fathers. It treats the inequality of marriage and the casual uprooting of a woman like a benign idiosyncrasy — Pazhaniappan presides over an idli oottum padalam (idli feeding ceremony), as if to break the ice between father and daughter. This is like Duraisingam resolving disputes by asking people to hug each other in Singam (2003) — people might do it on camera to avoid standing out, but it changes little in terms of the fundamental thought process.
In the next episode, while discussing why they use makeup, women repeatedly claim that they face social pressures to appear a certain way — a woman narrates a story about being victim of body-shaming and classism for looking the way she does. Pazhaniappan takes no cue from that experience. Instead, he lets a woman on the other side pass moral judgments about confidence. There is no conversation about the beauty industry, nothing about popular culture that influences the ideas of beauty, zilch about how the notion of beauty unfairly affects women. Instead, the show gives a woman a makeover, a small sidebar about whether a shade of lipstick is too dark, and they all get to share their “beauty secret” and so it goes.
The one about working parents is especially painful. Even though the show is supposed to be about ‘parents’ and Pazhaniappan, for his part, says ‘amma-appa’ together consciously, the weight of having a career lands heavily on the women in the group. One after the other, as kids line up stories of returning from school to no food on the table, no one to talk to, watching TV to pass time etc., the mothers wince in pain.
While the show aims to explore child-rearing in modern era, it ends up being a conversation about what’s more important for a woman: career or child-rearing. Every time a child talks about ‘food’ in the show, it’s used to underline a mother’s inadequacy, never the father’s. Between the lines, a woman’s employment is treated as secondary either to the father’s employment, or to her role as a mother.
At one point, he goes around asking children, “Should your mother quit her job to raise you?” Never are the children asked what life choices their fathers should make. Moreover, when a child shares that she talks to her fish because her parents are always at work, the show gives this rather ordinary and regular occurrence — imaginary friends, anyone? — Chandramukhi flashback level build-up. To add fuel to such fire, the ‘expert’ on the show brings up Westernisation and children becoming psychopaths (my word, not hers) when both parents go to work.
This benevolent guilt-tripping of working mothers is bizarre and counter-productive. The men, few as they were to begin with, seemed to get away easy though. They expressed sorrow over not having enough time to be with their children, but unlike the women, there was no guilt about being a ‘bad father’. Mothers found themselves justifying their actions and defending themselves, instead of asserting their own ambition outside home.
In that, Tamizha Tamizha is numbly centrist. It does many of the right things — Pazhaniappan stays away from the sexist jokes and ‘kalaaikkardhu’ (teasing) that pass for comedy in Tamil television these days. He seems to stand for equality for women, social justice, annihilation of caste and the like. You’ll see women speaking with the mic in one hand and an infant in another. Children run around the sets like they would in the real world. Pazhaniappan encourages women to speak about menstruation. In one episode, he suggests that the one with the lower paycheck must stay home and care for children — be it the mother or the father (just about liberal given this idea that employment is merely for immediate remuneration itself is troublesome).
But, the show does little to shake things up. He doesn’t question authority forcefully. His experts don’t elevate the debate to a better-informed level. He doesn’t even admit the socio-political underpinnings of our lives that cause the phenomena he’s debating.
Overall, he’s just generally happy seeing everyone eat idli. And maybe, sometimes, that’s enough.
Updated Date: Jul 02, 2019 09:50:32 IST