“Is a girl’s life all about her body? Are we not allowed to think beyond that?” asks Tamil, the teen protagonist of Ayali, a new Tamil web series streaming on Zee5 from January 26, 2023. The show resolutely seeks answer to this singular question in its eight-episode runtime by creating a web of conversations around puberty, child marriage, education, teenage pregnancy, and related issues.
Ayali is the name of the clan deity in the fictional village of Veerappannai in tamil Nadu’s Pudukottai district, Tamil Nadu, and the series is set in 1990. Similar to the history of most of the nattaar deivangal (“country gods”) and siru deivangal (“small gods”) of the State, Ayali is also a god made out of a person who lived many years ago, someone who resisted caste dominance and was killed for defiance.
Veerappannai has a 500-year-old practice tradition that the men of the village keep reinforcing in different words, of “marrying off” its girls as soon as they attain puberty. Tamil, a class 9 schoolgirl (played by Abi Nakshatra), challenges this practice through her sheer will to appear for the SSLC exams, a milestone yet to be set in the village.
As every classmate and friend of Tamil starts dropping out of school one by one on attaining puberty, she sees their freedom of movement getting curbed and herself pushed into a pitifully sad life with no friends. How Tamil charts out her own plan and whether she succeeds in her battle forms the rest of the story.
By placing puberty at the heart of the narrative, the show takes a hard look at the inter-generational trauma of women in India. The bodily and social intricacies around menstruation are discussed in detail through experiential accounts of the female characters, which is a rarity in Tamil films. No matter how hard the village’s caste apparatus schemes to keep women “under control”, no matter how rigid the conservative orders and social demands are, the women of the Ayali universe do not hold back their empathy for each other in the face of adversity.
Muthukumar, director of Ayali, told Frontline: “When I was talking to a friend 4-5 years ago, he said he came across a girl who was ‘married off’ immediately after puberty in Pudukkottai. We were shocked as to how something like this could happen in a State like Tamil Nadu, which has high social and development indicators. And then we wondered what would have happened if the girl hadn’t informed her family about her coming of age. That was my lead for the story.”
Prior to this, 35-year-old Muthukumar assisted late Tamil director Thamira in a film called Aan Devathai (2018) and written content for advertisements. Ayali was shot in Pudukkottai over 55 days, where Muthukumar says he met a 20-year-old woman who told him that she was married at 15.
Speaking to Frontline, Anumol, who played the role of Kuruvammal, the protagonist’s mother, said: “I have seen girls getting married early even in my own family. Even at the place where we were shooting, many mothers came up to me and asked me to advise their girl children to study, because they didn’t want their daughters to become like them.”
She added that even though we proudly claim that today our girls are getting education, parents making the roadmap for their children was not real freedom. “Parents should not bring up their children as ‘marriage material’,” she said.
Tamil Nadu and child marriage
Despite being a pioneer in incentivising education for children and introducing welfare schemes that empower girls and women, Tamil Nadu continues to be plagued by the issue of child marriage. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) 2019-21, 12.8 per cent of women in the age group of 20-24 years in Tamil Nadu were married before they turned 18; the national average was 23.3 per cent.
Last year, RTI data from the Department of Social Welfare and Women Empowerment of Tamil Nadu showed that more than 2,200 cases of child marriages had been stopped in the State in 2019. The number was 3,208 in 2020. A report by the Centre’s Samagra Shiksha programme showed at least 511 minor schoolgirls in Tamil Nadu were married off during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harry Jeyakaran, associate general manager of Child Rights and You (CRY) and its Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in-charge, said: “This contradiction can be addressed if the State government also works towards bringing attitudinal shift among communities alongside incentivisation of education.” Jeyakaran emphasised that child marriage had to be necessarily viewed through the lens of patriarchy, along with the aspects of caste and economy.
Kalpana Karunakaran, associate professor of Science and Humanities, IIT Madras, who teaches gender studies, said: “More ‘sensational’ cases [of child marriage] are recorded from rural areas. But the phenomenon is not entirely absent in the cities. Since public transportation is good and there is availability of schools and colleges nearby one’s house in urban areas, these are possibly helping in putting off the idea of ‘marrying off’ one’s child.”
She also said that in the last couple of decades, a climate of anxiety in Tamil Nadu has been in existence, and girls, especially from OBC and MBC communities, are married off soon. “Factors like campaigns against inter-caste marriages and ‘honour’ killings are not helping the matter either.”
There are few Tamil films that discuss the issue with such diligence, and there were only stray references to the issue inmovies such as Ko (2011) and Varuthapadatha Valibar Sangam (2013). This is where Ayali comes in as a full-fledged story on the theme and fills the gap.
Talking about the male characters of the show, Muthukumar said: “The father character from writer Imayam’s novella Pethavan might have also influenced me when I wrote Tamil’s father.”
Ayali is the kind of show that can be used as a campaigning tool for women’s education. “An NGO called Aware India has already screened Ayali near Salem for people from communities living in mountains,” said a proud Muthukumar, adding that for now he does not have any plans for the second season of the show.