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.
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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!
(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.