As news trickled in that Samantha had won the award for best performance in an OTT show for Family Man 2 at the Indian Film Festival in Melbourne (yes such things exist and they make their way onto my timeline), I realized the creeping and undying growth of the Ummanamoonji Acting School in recent Indian cinema. This seems to be a problem.
You might have heard about the Stanislavski school of acting, you might have even heard of Lee Starsberg or Stella Adler- who further developed method acting. Sadly Indian cinema does not have a proper noun led category definition for professional acting. The truth is professional acting itself is not studied or exposed to the audience, except of course the odd toss around of abbreviations like NSD and FTII.
While we might not have our own ‘method’, the films that we have made have given rise to different schools of acting – there may not be a name to these schools but you will recognize it when you see it, especially in mainstream films.
The Ummanamoonji School is one such, exclusively for Indian heroines. The perfect playground for the Ummanamoonji school is when heroines, at different points in their career – “go serious” hence the name ‘Ummanamoonji’.
A heroine’s life in mainstream Indian cinema is considerably shorter. From being introduced in their teens as college (or high school) sensations, very few graduate to become blockbuster heroines and even few make it to the level of influencing projects and having their own markets. The life of the Indian mainstream heroine is much like any start-up scene, 90% of them fail.
Within the short available time, they would need to progress from being launched aside some producer’s son (or some director who insists on ‘fresh talent’) to being paired opposite ‘up and coming heroes’ for a few years before ultimately making that one film with a superstar hero or superstar director.
If the heroine is lucky, she gets to repeat the same cycle in a neighbouring wood (Kollywood/Tollywood/Sandalwood) but highly unlikely due to many unforeseen factors- a flop affects a heroine more than the hero, while a hit benefits the hero more than the heroine.
Yes all this is known, but we would like to give a perspective about how less the chance for growth is for heroines and place all this in context before we expand on the Ummanamoonji Acting School.
As stated before there are unnamed acting schools within the existing mainstream, these acting schools advocate heroine types- kind, cheerful, pet loving yet glamorous type broadly grouped under “bubbly” roles which slowly evolves into the dutiful-kind-supportive yet glamorous type for the senior heroes.
Generations of writer- directors have used these ‘types’, most of the time not even providing specifics for the heroines to explore-these are not written in character or within the story, as you may have guessed with the survival rate, these roles are replaceable. Highly replaceable.
Heroines for at least 20 years have adapted themselves to this ‘type’ so much so we don’t look at it as acting, our collective consciousness driven primarily by bad writing tell us,that this is how heroines on screens should be in a big film. Do a little bit of dance, some comedy and act cute when they are not in those four songs.
Such limited scope. Much improvement needed.
It’s tough to survive and when you do survive, you go to the Ummanamoonji School.
Having danced around flowers, pots and background dancers for close to a decade, the survivor heroine naturally gravitates to the ‘serious part’ or as often reported in chennai times as ‘heroine driven roles’.
The sad fact is that, no one really knows (ok barring few) how to write serious female roles in mainstream films, as usual they do the easier thing of having to substitute a male led film with a heroine- a powerful role.
And with no frame of reference of their own kind, them heroines have to put up ‘serious’ faces to umm look the part in a serious film. Tada- the Ummanamoonji Acting school.
They put on a frown for the entire length of the film, they love with a frown, they kick ass with a frown and they mouth punch dialogues with a frown. The writer- directors think of a frown whenever they think of a strong female lead and our actresses follow through. The parts are woefully underwritten that no other emotion can be expressed and they go into a robotic serious face which is often praised as good acting (ahem). Emotion can only expressed on screen if it has its roots on a page.
Look around it you, the fingerprints of the Ummanamoonji school are everywhere, it’s there in Nayanthara’s Aramm (and many other Nayan films), it’s there in Jyothika’s Pon Magal Vandhal (yikes and others), it’s there in Family Man 2 Samantha (more about this in another post), it’s there in November Story Tamanna and such. You get the story.
Sometimes it’s not even a heroine led film, but a serious role in a generic hero driven film, the mind thinks up the likes of Sri Divya from Marudhu etc. Other times, these movies are lost in time like Sneha’s Bhavani IPS or Trisha in Paramapadam Vilayattu.
Before we comment on the quality of the acting school, we wanted to recognize there is one such and the context as to how it evolved, this is in necessarily not a new phenomenon, a sort of Ummanamoonji acting can be seen in P Bharathi Raja’s Pudhumai Penn, which incidentally also has the girl getting brushed on a bus by lecherous man like in Family Man 2.
The first signifier is the ‘seriousness’ of the role and the second signifier is that the actresses’ seem out of their depth, which is a combination of sketchy writing (root cause) and poor understanding on part of the actor. All this affects the movie, big time and it hurts us that people don’t talk about it enough.
But you may wonder, that most of these roles that have been mentioned have been embraced by the audience and we even began with the fact that Samantha was feted for Family Man 2, why is this even a problematic acting school then?
The fetes, the praise and the awards for these ‘attempts’ are in reality for the attempt itself- glamorous heroines going against the grain.
You can notice this even in the reviews, there would be talk about how deglamorized they look and how the insistence of ‘no makeup’ is helping the movie, these thoughts find their way to public discourse as well (which is again a call for better reviewing) .
To summarize, this praise does not reflect the quality of the performance and is automatically lapped up by the audience because of the lack of discussions on acting quality in the larger society.
Yes, maybe we are complaining, maybe we should be happy that there are more heroine-led movies than ever in the larger scheme of things.
But also look at our angle, when things are nascent it is always best to advocate for quality and higher standards- this arai kooval comes from a group which enjoys Alien/ Aliens Kill Bill and Sarah Connor which are standing examples of doing serious female led action the best possible way.
Maybe we should be looking at writing more in depth parts for women and not just replace genders in mainstream films and maybe only then our heroines can put their hair down, erase the frown and move towards an Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor school of acting- an admirable gurukulam with inspiring female characters that has resulted in 100% non boring films.
No no, this is not the look how-Hollywood-is-doing-it type post. We recognize that there is a need for indigenous mainstream Indian heroine films, we are just pointing to successful templates which can be tinkered around with, till our own emerges.
Templates, adhu dane yellam.
Yes to female led ‘serious’ and exciting films but less Ummanamoonji in them please.