Three Tamil films that perfectly capture middle-class life of the 1990s

A still from Viralukketha Veekkam.

The 1990s of the Tamil film industry was dominated by Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth, who delivered some of the most memorable films of their career. Director Mani Ratnam was carving a niche for himself with his distinctive style of filmmaking in commercial space. Shankar, who just had started, was taking everyone by surprise by the sheer size of his imagination and budget of his films. New entrants like Vijay, Ajith and Suriya were years away from finding their X-factor that would make them the stars that they are today. The same decade we saw a greater influx of stories that tackled big ideas like extremism in Kashmir (Roja, Dil Se), corruption in high places (Indian, Mudhalvan), caste politics (Thevar Magan), Mumbai underworld (Baasha) and Hindu-Muslim riots (Bombay).

Amid the seismic shift in the industry’s landscape, some filmmakers explored the most mundane and yet very relatable themes within a family setup.

Director V Sekhar is one such filmmaker who beautifully and endearingly reflected on the lives of ordinary people. He was fairly realistic in his depiction of the struggles of middle-class families, their growing aspiration and changing gender dynamics in evolving India. I believe he is an underrated director of the 90s, whose work we hardly discuss now. His films will provide the current generation a vivid picture of a decade that changed the face of the country’s middle class.

Varavu Ettana Selavu Pathana, which roughly means, “if income is eight, expenditure is ten” is one of Sekhar’s work that I can never get tired of. More than 25 years later, the humble observational study of the middle-class still feels relevant.

Sivaraman (Nassar) is a government official who is honest as the day is long. He is not greedy, just an ordinary man, who heads home straight after office. And he hands over the entire salary to his wife Lakshmi (Raadhika) at the beginning of every month. They have two kids and the picturesque family has resigned to the limitations of their moderate household income. So is their next-door neighbours, Peter (Vadivelu), an auto-rickshaw driver and Elisabeth (Kovai Sarala). As long as these families manage to have three square meals a day, a roof over their head and can provide their children with a decent education, they are thankful for their lives. But, things change when Marudhapaandi (Goundamani), a local politician, moves into the neighbourhood with his family. His wife makes no bones about flaunting her riches and her ability to buy things that her eyes desire.

Lakshmi and Elisabeth are no longer content. And they won’t settle for hand-to-mouth existence that their husbands expect them to be grateful for. They need a television set, mixer-grinder, refrigerator and washing machine at home. Also, a weekly visit to film theaters and beach. Sivaraman’s son wants to celebrate a birthday with a big cake similar to that of his rich neighbour. Oh yes, the kids should now go to an English convent. All these desires are fairly minimal, no? Actually, not. Back in the day, for a family with a single earning member, these were luxuries that were earmarked for households with deep pockets.

Just consider the scene where Sivaraman is persuaded to take his family to a movie. He needs to make a lot of calculations before hiring an auto-rickshaw ride. A simple day out with the family which may seem exaggerated to the generation, who grew up in the era of BookMyShow and Uber. The scene is still funny as much as it was the fact of the day at the time.

In hindsight, the film sort of reflected poorly on Sivaraman’s family when its members demand a better life. Their growing desires pushed Sivaraman to take some bad decisions. But, when we look at it from where we stand today, Lakshmi was educated and Sivaraman could have simply asked her help instead of making wrong choices. She could have taken a day job that would have increased the household income. But, mind you, the story is set in the time when sending women to work was touted as an insult to the man of the house. So the only provider of the house enjoys the complete supremacy and our collective empathy.

Sekhar’s later films like Kaalam Maari Pochu (Times Have Changed) dealt with the regressive thinking of parents considering a daughter as a liability and a son as an asset. The film examined how women gaining financial independence changes gender dynamics in a household. In a run-up to an iconic comedy scene, Kovai Sarala’s Sundari tells her husband Sekar (Vadivelu): “I have also started earning. So henceforth let’s share the chores of the house. And don’t touch me without my permission.” Sekar, with a bruised ego, does not take Sundari’s first step towards independence lightly. He decides to teach her a lesson in an old-fashioned way. But, he was not aware of what self-reliant Sundari was capable of. Sundari gives Sekar a good beating that makes him run for his life. The scene is a riot and became a huge hit at the time. So much so that almost all the films that came after had one scene where Kovai Sarala whipped Vadivelu for comical effect.

Sekhar further explored a similar theme in Viralukketha Veekkam, which advises that our spendings should be proportional to the size of our income. The 1999 film revolves around three men who believe that they are superior to their wives because they are earning. All hell breaks loose when men lose their jobs and wives start earning. The film, which came out at the end of the 20th century, was prophetic as it showed stopping women from achieving financial independence was extremely foolish and also detrimental to progress.