Tuesday Tamil: 16 Vayathinile, Sridevi Grows Up Onscreen

Happy Tuesday!  Did not mean to make this another Sridevi week, I was looking for something intelligent and intense and on youtube with subtitles, and I landed on this film.  And then later learned it was Sridevi’s second major role.

One thing I found out was that the producer and director had a big back and forth over whether to include the intro flashforward sequence or not.  And there was a last minute decision to put it in.  So far as I can tell, the thinking was “the 1970s Tamil film audience won’t bother sticking around if they think there is a chance of a happy film, we better reassure them from the start that this is yet another depressing bittersweet human drama”.  No, that’s really what the opening is!  Sridevi sad as the voice over says “Oh yes, now she is sad.  In the past she was happy, but even so, now she is sad.”

I really cannot believe this was Sridevi at age 14 in only her second major role.  She is just phenomenal, the center of the whole film.  Rajinikanth is there too, and Kamal Haasan, but it is Sridevi’s movie.  She opens it and she closes it.  And she is the title, the 16 year old one, and her struggles are the unique problems of a 16 year old girl.

That’s the other thing that’s amazing, how female focused and sensitive this film is.  It’s not an idealized view of a 16 year old girl, she is neither pretty and simple or pretty and magically wise, she is just 16 years old, shallow in some ways, smart in others, much too confident and ready to make mistakes through that confidence.

That’s another thing that is wonderful about this film.  Sridevi’s character makes mistakes, but they aren’t unforgivable and they don’t destroy her life.  She keeps going just like a hero would, surviving and adapting and moving on.  There is no passive giving in and accepting of her fate.

 

 

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

 

 

 

 

Like I said, we open with Sridevi being sad.  She is on a train platform and a voice tells us that her sad eyes are waiting for someone to return, but will he ever?  “Oh yes,” thinks the 1970s Tamil film audience, “this is the kind of film we like!  An open ending and a miserable lead character with a kind of greyish sad rainy feeling to it!  Throw in some rape, suicide, misunderstandings leading to tragedy, bitter irony, artsy freeze frames, a pair of bellbottoms and a couple bad mustaches, and it is the Perfect Film!”

And lo, it comes to pass!  In flashback, we see Sridevi, happy and youthful.  She is desired by the men of her village, rapey Rajinikanth and mentally retarded innocent Kamal Haasan.  And also by the recently arrived suave bellbottom and style glasses wearing Sathyaraj, the doctor from the city.

Okay, I am writing it out, and I am having a hard time telling if this is a real film or a spoof description of a fake Tamil film from that era.  Because, REALLY????  Kamal Haasan as the mentally retarded innocent, Rajinikanth as the lustful rapist, Sridevi as the teenage girl desired by both, evil city suave doctors, and so on and so on, it’s like the platonic ideal of depressing 70s Tamil cinema!

Image result for 16 Vayathinile

(Come for Kamal playing a damaged soul, stay for Rajini playing a rapist!)

But there are some things that are different, a lot really.  For one, it is not just set in a village, it was filmed in a village.  This is no small thing.  Having the actual village setting makes everything feel that much more “real”.  Rajinikanth isn’t a terrifying all powerful rapist, he is sitting there by a tree stump with fields in the background, as human and equal as anyone else in the village.

It is this seeming equality which tricks Sridevi, and also saves her.  She sees the suave city educated Sathyaraj and assumes he loves her as truly and sincerely as he would love anyone, because how is she any less than he?  And later, she sees Kamal, and in the world of this village, sees that he is as good as any other man, he is kind and caring and trustworthy, and strong, and that is all she needs.

Before all of that though, Sridevi has to make her peace with being as good as any villager herself.  At the start, she has recently returned from school, and dreams of being a teacher.  She looks down on her loud mother who is always embarrassing her and her drunkard gambler father.  When her school friends come to visit, she pretends to be better than she is, she wants money to sit on the bench seats instead of the floor at the movies, she pretends that Kamal is their servant not just an orphan who lives with them and works for food, she giggles and enjoys this feeling of being superior.

What starts the process of bringing her down to earth is the arrival of a true “superior”, Sathyaraj from the city.  She is already dreaming of her mother’s promise to marry her to a man from the city, and now he seems to have arrived.  Better than her teacher’s dreams, she can now dream of marriage and an exciting life outside of the village.  But before she can get it, she has to embrace her village identity, give up the teacher training course she is offered in order to stay and flirt with Sathyaraj.

The flirtation scenes are handled with great delicacy.  We can see that Sridevi is so young, she is barely aware herself of what she is feeling and doing.  She just knows that it makes her laugh and smile and feel happy when she is with Sathyaraj.  He tells her later that he didn’t even like her, just her age, 16, and we can see in retrospect what he means.  There is something specifically teenage about how she is trying on the adult guise for the first time, experimenting with these new feelings inside her boy.  It’s endearing and also difficult to watch, because we can see, although she does not, how these new feelings are carrying her away and making her lose her own good sense.

This film is remarkable for how it handles female puberty.  Through out the first half, Sridevi is referred to over and over again as “the girl in the half sari” signifying her state as half woman and half girl.  We see the moment her first period arrives, her clutching her stomach suddenly and later her mother washing her skirt, followed by the woman’s ceremony in her honor.  And it is after that she begins to flirt with Sathyaraj, aware that she is now qualified to be married but unaware of the less obvious changes in her body, the new desires and sensitivities she is feeling.

Sridevi escapes rape twice in this film, but it is two very different experiences for her.  The first time, she has sought out Sathyaraj in his room, using a sick chicken as an excuse for more flirtation.  She sense that she should not stay, but Sathyaraj easily keeps her using the excuse of showing her how reflexes work.  He suggests she touch him, on his hand and his chest and then his lips, to see how some parts are more sensitive than others.  She doesn’t want to, but is too innocent to understand why she doesn’t want to or know how to extricate herself.  And when he offers to do the same, touch her hand and then her shoulder, she can’t figure out a way to say “no”.  Until finally he grabs her waist and she leaps in shock, clearly feeling a pleasurable thrill.

In another movie, this scene would be played out from the man’s perspective, it would be sexy and exciting to “trick” a woman into touching you and letting you touch her.  And after her first response to the hand on the waist, we would cut to a fun fantasy song, implying that they have hot fun sex now that her defenses are down.  But this film plays from the woman’s perspective.  And one involuntary response of pleasure does NOT mean consent.  Or even desire.  Sridevi can’t control what her body feels, but she doesn’t like it.  She tries to leave and Sathyaraj drags her back, throws her on the bed, until she shoves him off and runs out looking confused and conflicted.

This would have been rape, yes.  The camera work is careful to show how Sridevi is fighting to get off the bed and Sathyaraj is holding her down.  But it would have been a rape that is what we now call “date rape”.  She was with him up to a certain point, he could argue that she “wanted it” because she came to his room, she touched him when he asked, she let him touch her and even responded to his touch.  But then he went somewhere she did not want to go, even if her body desired it, she wasn’t ready for that and so she fought him off and ran away.

But it is a complex situation to understand and explain.  Sridevi has a hard time even explaining to her mother that, although she was seen leaving Sathyaraj’s rooms in a disheveled state, nothing happened.  And the village certainly cannot understand this, cannot understand how a girl (not a woman, not really) could enjoy some things but want to stop before others.

And that is what gives Sridevi her first real defeat, the battle between the woman’s body that desires sex and the girl’s mind that is not ready for it, or even able to understand what her body wants and how it is controlling her.  Sathyaraj tells her casually that he was only interested in her because of her age and of course he is marrying another girl.  And when her mother brings in a potential groom, Rajinikanth shares the rumors of the village and her engagement is ended.  Worst of all, in shame at the false stories spreading, Sridevi’s mother dies, leaving her all alone.

And now is when Sridevi begins to wear the full sari.  She is in the worst place of her life, but has also now found the strength to survive it.  She is in control of herself, fully, no longer ruled by her own body, her own silly childish fantasies.  And this is when she begins to see Kamal for what he really is.  Yes, he is silly and not quite right in the head.  But he is also kind, and safe, and the one person she can rely on.  And just as she changed from the half to the full sari, she gives Kamal adult clothes as well, and directs him to only answer to his real full name from now on, not to do demeaning labor for others, to be her “family”.  From being a weak girl clinging to dreams of being like her beloved teacher, to being a silly teenager dreaming of a perfect man, she has now become a woman who knows that nothing is perfect, it is up to you to make the best of what you have.  Even if what you have is a mentally damaged laborer whose greatest virtue is that he is kind to you.

And then even that weak reed is taken from her.  Rajinikanth attempts to rape her (naturally), in vengeance for her spitting on him earlier.  Kamal interrupts and at first doesn’t know what to do, is stunned by the violence and horror of it.  But then pulls himself together and kills Rajinikanth with a blow by a stone.  And now we reach the end of the film, Kamal taken away to jail, and Sridevi promising to wait for him, meeting every train in hopes that he will be on it.

This was Sridevi’s first real lead role and now I am thinking about it in comparison with her last role, Mom.  Things have come full circle.  In this film, she was the confused and fragile and snobbish and sensitive and childish teenage girl, whose mother was dismissed as embarrassing and insensitive until her childishness got her into trouble, and then her mother was the only one she could rely on.  In Mom, she is the mother, who is understanding and forgiving of the childishness, and also the only one who truly trusts her daughter, knowing that something must be wrong when she is late coming home since she is never late.  Most of all, in this film she is the rape victim, in that one she is the rape avenger.  The mother is no longer fading away from shame, but rather taking action and fighting back.

Of course, not much has changed for the poor teenage rape survivor.  She will still struggle to grow up, to find strength, to resolve how her body can be turned against her, to fight her way to a stronger happier adulthood once the pangs of growing up are over.  This film and its title, “At Age 16” are still tiresomely accurate.

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20 thoughts on “Tuesday Tamil: 16 Vayathinile, Sridevi Grows Up Onscreen

  1. `
    Wait — she’s 14 in real life and playing a 16-year-old? That’s impossible judging by all the 14-year-olds I’ve known. Plus, what about her school homework?

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    • Sridevi was amazing! I had the same thought, based on the 14 year olds I’ve known, there’s no way she would obey the director, or show up to set on time, or any of that. But I guess if you’ve already been a movie star for a decade, age 14 isn’t quite the same.

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          • I was just watching an interview of Sridevi on some Canadian show, I think, at the time of English Vinglish. The host had really done his homework, and one of his questions was, during one five or six year period, Sridevi acted in 100 films! He asked how it was possible to do that. She replied that she worked “four shifts” every day — she’d start working at 6 am, and end at 3am the next day! And then back to the grind again. OK, now I remember this was between 1977 and 1983, so basically when Sridevi was about 15 to 20. No wonder when she started a family, she didn’t want to “balance” that with acting, too.

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  2. This is a good review, as usual, but am slightly cringing on no mention of the director, Bhartiraja, especially when this was his debut and he was only 25 at that time. He made movies that were way ahead of the times for Tamil Nadu/Andhra Pradesh.
    Please watch his other movies too – my favorites are – Sigappu Rojakkal (Kamal-Sridevi; Red Rose in Hindi), Nizhalgal, Alaigal Oivathillai remade as Seethakoka Chiluka in Telugu (Telugu version has Silk Smitha in a complete homely role), Kadalora Kavithaigal

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bhartiraju along with K. Balachandar, was the other really innovative and pioneering director in Tamil, who shaped the careers of Sridevi, Kamal, and Rajni. I have a nagging feeling there was a third one, too, but if so, I’m blanking on the name right now.

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      • I second Kadalora Kavithaigal, because that starrs the real Satyaraj and not Satyajit who plays the doctor in this movie (16 vayathinile)

        https://www.thenewsminute.com/entertainments/580

        also as you noted movie is debut of Bharati Raja and is shot in a real village, not a set.
        I beleive bharati raja was the first to introduce this to Tamil cinema
        his camera lovingly captures the outdoors, and he ushered in the age of Ilaiya raja who created a new era of music to match songs set in real villages, where melody is the kingn

        Later ManiRatnam introduced stylish dances and AR Rahman to Tamil movie songs that were dominated by the beat/rhythm

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  3. I didn’t read past the spoilers warning, because I intend to watch this movie, but I wanted to mention something I discovered during the Sridevi tribute week, but didn’t post at that time. I did indeed watch Sridevi’s first “heroine” role, in the Telugu film Anuragalu, where Sridevi is playing an 18 year old girl (and thus an “adult” role). She did this when she was actually 11 years old! However, there’s nothing inappropriate in either the role, the film, or the way Sridevi was portrayed on screen, or “handled” by the actors. I found an interview with her where she herself mentions this as her first “heroine” role (while she was still playing children’s roles in other films), so there’s no question about the authenticity. I couldn’t find the film online anywhere; all I could find was this one song, which pretty much shows all the main relationships in the story. So you see that, while Sridevi ostensibly has a “love interest”/hero in the film (he’s the guy that looks adoringly at her), he is shown as someone who loves and respects her, and wants to take care of her (she is blind) and there wasn’t even a hint of sexuality anywhere. The main relationship in the film is between Sridevi’s character and the little boy who is sitting next to her. I am saying all this because there was some discussion of this in another forum, and one person was going berserk about how Sridevi was “exploited” sexually by the film industry. Having seen the film myself — a very sweet one — I can state categorically that there was nothing of the sort going on. So anyway, 16 Vayithinile would be Sridevi’s third adult role film, while Moodru Muduchu would have been her second.

    Anyway, enjoy this song, if not the whole movie.

    Guess what, when I went to get the link for the song, I found that the whole movie is also on Youtube now! Alas, no subtitles, though.

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    • There were a couple movies between this one and Moodru, but they didn’t make many ripples and, of course, I haven’t seen them.

      In terms of her age, it was disturbing that a 14 year old would have needed to enact rape and stuff, but on the other hand, I didn’t find it exploitative at all. They didn’t sexualize her or objectify her in any way. I think I might prefer this realistic story of the troubles a teenage girl goes through to a happy movie in which she played older than her age and was put in more sexual clothing? And, at least in this film, her youthful looks added a lot to the plot, the role played by someone older would have felt very different.

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      • Yes, the point about “youthful looks” reminds me about a current controversy. Are you following the discussion about the remix of the song Ek Do Teen with Jacki Fernandez dancing now instead of Madhuri in the original? A lot of people are getting very excited about the “travesty”, so I went and watched the new teaser, as well as the original song. Now I’ve never seen what was so great about Madhuri’s version, beyond introducing a pretty new actress. Most people are complaining that Jacki’s version is “vulgar”, “trashy”, etc. But the only difference I saw was that Madhuri did that song when she was 17 or so, and Jacki is doing it when she is 30+. I didn’t see much difference in the dance moves — both are sexualized. But, when a teenage Madhuri is doing the steps, the youthful innocence in her face lets you ignore the sexual aspect, while a mature woman like Jacki doing the same moves cannot be thought of as “innocent” in any way. It’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just the difference between seeing an unfledged girl and a fully mature woman. What’s your take on that?

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        • yes, that is very similar to what I was thinking! Madhuri’s version is essentially the same, but her innocence, and the innocent way it is filmed (focusing on the dance as a whole, not just her body), makes it feel different. There were a few other small things I noticed, Madhuri’s version has male and female back-up dancers and male and female audience members for instance, but it is certainly not just about the costume and the dance moves. It’s about the feel of the song, through a variety of small elements, being different. Madhuri’s version feels innocent and silly, Jacqueline’s feels kind of trying too hard. It’s just a bad song, even if it weren’t a remix, it would still be a bad song.

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      • Sorry, back to your actual comment. Was the rape and stuff from this movie or Moodru Muduchu? There was absolutely nothing of that kind in Anuragalu, which, as I said, is a very sweet movie, and everyone in the film is only worried about doing the best for Sridevi’s character. There’s not a singe negative character.

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        • In Moodru Mudichu, rape and other bad things are implied as a threat, but Sridevi-the-actress never has to actually play them out, in theory the director could have just told her “Rajinikanth did a bad thing in the last scene” and left it at that. In this movie, she survives two attempted rape attempts explicitly shown (held down on a bed, and later the floor, screaming, struggling, and so on), so Sridevi-the-teenage-actress would definitely have known what was supposed to be happening and had to act it out.

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  4. Strong negative opinion alert!
    I always cringe when teenage actors are cast in adult roles. How is it any different than child pageantry? I don’t care if she (or he. Lets face it, it’s most often she) is the most brilliant actress in the entire planet. Because heroines aren’t cast just for their talent, are they? And when actresses themselves glorify being a teenager in the most sexualized industry, it baffles me. This is just how they’re portrayed on screen, I don’t even want to think about stuff happening off camera.
    And someone between 15-20 years of age should be going to college, doing internships or part-time. Nobody should be jumping into full time careers. It’s heartbreaking if that is the only economic option for the kid and if not, what the hell is the parent doing? 21/24 hour shifts every day is something nobody should be proud of.
    I don’t get all the criticism about Jacqueline’s version of “Ek Do Teen” being tantalising, I don’t believe even for a second that that’s not what the original was Intended to be. Madhuri might be a dancer without par, Jackie’s version pains me less because even if it a shitty decision, she is old enough to sign for it herself.
    Coming to this movie, I get the point that it is not particularly safe for young girls (let alone an orphan), girls (unfortunately have to) grow up faster because they are somehow made responsible for not just their but everybody else’s actions, and this girl actually being able to rise to that challenge and get her happy ending on her own terms. But somehow all that is muddied, when the (generally) male movie going population comes out of the movie fantasising about a 13 year old playing a 16 year old. And whatever the hell is with Indian pop-culture’s creepy obsession with sweet sixteen!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was interested that at least one of the remakes changed the title to “18” and cast an older actress. The plot explicitly involves her getting her first period and so on in this one, so they really had to go young, but then you have the question of, “couldn’t they change the plot?” Which presumably they did for the “18” remake, keep the idea of her having just finished school and figuring out what to do next but make her through puberty instead of just beginning it.

      On Wed, Mar 21, 2018 at 7:48 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. Yay! I’m glad you had a chance to see this! This movie was huge in that it launched so many careers. The 3 actors but also Barathiraja (his first film) and it really cemented Ilaiyaraja as the musician to watch. You really didn’t see a something like that again until Rahman after Roja.

    Barathiraja, to me, is analogous to Mani Rathnam. Not that they have similar styles or anything nut Mani Rathnam is emblematic of urban, middle class Tamil Nadu in the 80s. Barathiraja is emblematic of rural Tamil Nadu of the late 70s and 80s. He always had very interesting characterizations of women in his films. They maybe weren’t feminist in the sense that gets discussed now – the focus on marriage as the ultimate goal for example- but they have agency within the patriarchal society the live in. They seem real in a way a lot of roles for women today dont. He also introduced a lot of really good actresses in his films. He had a penchant for renaming his actresses with a name starting with R – Revathy, Radhika, Radha and a few more. A lot of his assistant directors went on to be pretty prominent directors too.
    Mudhal Mariyathai is probably one of the few films I’ve seen that presents an older man/younger woman romance that addresses the age difference and also makes it seem plausible; I got why this particular woman would fall for this particular man. Nizhalgal had issues but was a different take on the angry young man films of they time. Kizhakku Cheemayile addressed the idea that once a woman marries, she stops being a part of her family and must adopt her husband’s family. Ive seen that trope in a lot of films but this addresses the cruelty of that line of thinking.

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    • I’m glad I had a chance to see it too! Interesting that Moodru Muduchi and this movie weren’t just important Sridevi films, but important for many artists involved. It seems like there was some kind of watershed moment in Tamil cinema just then which made an opening for many new artists to get their start.

      On Wed, Mar 21, 2018 at 10:08 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Didnt BharatiRaja play the villain in Aayutha Ezhuthu? At that time my Tamil friends were talking about what a huge deal it was for Mani Ratnam to cast him. Now I get the full picture of that excitement.

      Liked by 1 person

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