Playmate to wife: The double lives of women, from ancient Tamil poetry to Bollywood
Unlike the male double role, it focuses on the threat of open female sexuality versus the traditional virtuous one.
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The idea of coming face to face with our mirror image, our doppelgänger, is an old and compelling one — the ancient Egyptians, for instance, talked about a spirit double who carried the original version’s memories and feelings. It is also too much to resist for the movie camera: the Indian film’s "double role" is an iconic, frequently used tactic, one that often helped double a superstar’s star power for audiences (or most recently, make it 100 times, when the movie Enthiran filled the screen with hundreds of robot replicas of Rajinikanth).
The double role is not a new tool. A hunt through our ancient literature uncovers its use many years before, especially in the context of female characters.
In ancient Tamil poetry, there is a specific type of love verse that uses such role play. Akam poems that date back to the third century often create a threesome: the hero, the heroine, and the heroine’s "playmate" who is usually a friend or servant.
In these poems, the playmate is designed as a "go between" between the heroine and the hero. She is the one who gets to have all the frank conversations with the man. And it is often the playmate who conveys the heroine’s desires.
The rare exception here may be the Telugu film Police Lock Up, where the women in both avatars are triumphant.
And what is it that the heroine desires? Everything a sexual woman would: “Her desire for your broad chest is like the craving for tamarind,” the playmate tells the hero in verse 51 of the Ainkurunūru. The heroine in these poems does not give vent to her emotions openly, directly. But there is the playmate, who can praise the heroine’s beauty (“she is beautiful like the pretty fields with white water lilies”), scold the hero for his wandering eye, talk about the heroine’s needs on her behalf.
“You have been coming to our house when everyone is asleep,” the friend says to the hero in another verse. This plural emerges with surprising frequency in these verses. Does the playmate too live in the same house as the heroine, or is she the heroine herself?
In ancient Tamil poetry, there is a specific type of love verse that uses such role play. Photo: Tamil Vedas/Independent Blog
The veil lifts further in other verses, until the playmate is revealed for what she is, a ventriloquism: “The man who embraced our breasts with desire has left us, making our arms thin like bamboo.”
“If he can forget us, we can forget him.” The heroine-playmate sings in another poem. The playmate and the heroine describe themselves as twins. They are both “women with bright, cool, sprout-like pretty bodies and bright bangles”.
And so all at once, it becomes impossible to tell the two of them apart. Still, the role of the friend/playmate is essential to the poems. The playmate is the distancing tactic between the heroine’s words and her virtue. It is like the modern, ironic “asking for a friend” comment you see online, that people use on the internet while posting a public, embarrassing question. Everyone knows it is pretence.
In these old verses, the heroine’s virtue is safe, since it is the "friend" who is talking about desire with the hero. So these poems have conventional women, while discussing desire and sexuality.
Sridevi in Chaalbaaz.
Fast-forward a millennium, and here we are again — on the silver screen we see doubling, or two identical women, that is quite literal, in the form of twins separated by birth (Chaalbaaz), or two sisters (Dushman) or just women who look inexplicably like each other (Tamil film Parthiban Kanavu, Telugu movie Police Lock Up).
The effect of the double role on the story is similar to what happens in the Tamil akam poems: one woman, the assigned heroine, fits the idealised heroine role while the other woman — Kajol’s Sonia, Sridevi’s Manju, Sneha’s Janani — is an outspoken, sexual, "modern" woman, somebody who may be viewed with some sympathy but is often not offered the happy ending.
While male double roles are constructed as lawbreakers/law-abiders and wealthy/poor, the woman’s double role focuses on the threat of open female sexuality versus the traditional virtuous one.
This allows these films a "cheat" similar to that in akam poetry, where women characters can explore a broader identity without hurting the perception of the heroine. Still, it is often the traditional woman who wins. The double role allows these films to present a sly lesson to its viewers. In these movies, the same person is essentially both a "good" girl and "bad" girl, and the parallel fates are a cautionary tale, making the argument that all women need to police themselves in order to be one version and not the other. It’s a zero-sum outcome where for one woman to thrive, the other must suffer — unless as seen in some cases, the "bad girl" transforms herself into a virtuous version.
The rare exception here may be the Telugu film Police Lock Up, where the women in both avatars — the aggressive police officer and the dutiful wife — are triumphant. But mostly, as in the past, it is not the playmate who gets the guy.