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Published on: 12/16/08 9:08 AM

Feature: Tamil Cinema, That Vicious Circle

The vicious circle

When it comes to Chennai city, is it art imitating life or the other way around, asks Sheila Kumar.

Reel to real 

The other day, someone close to me was accosted on a dimly-lit lane off Greams Road. The road was deserted, and the young woman was returning home when a motorcyclist blocked her path. He was belligerent, and kept asking why she was ‘giving him attitude’. No immediate help was in sight, and she took out her cellphone. When she pretended to call the cops, he sped off, leaving the girl limp with relief.

Changing times

Now, most readers, definitely, women, will shrug, albeit in fleeting sympathy, and ask: “So, what’s new?” The fact that women are harassed daily does not make for breaking news. Not unless something tragic befalls these women, as it did the young journalist Soumya Vishwanathan in Delhi.

And, even in the Madras I studied all those years ago, covert gropings and lewd suggestions were common. However, that was years ago, and back then, a loud shout would immediately scare the ‘eve teaser’ away or bring a responsive crowd to the woman’s aid. That is no longer the case in Madras-turned-Chennai. And, I blame the cinema of the day for that.

Back in my college days, it was the hey day of Kamal Hassan, post “Sigappu Rojakal” and pre- “Nayagan”; the time of classics such as “Varumayin Niram Sivappu” and “Meendum Kokila”; and the time of filmmakers such as K. Balachander, Bharathiraja and Balu Mahendra. It wasn’t that cinema then ignored the problems of the people — far from it. It educated and entertained.

But things changed. From “Thevar Magan” to “Aaru”, both films with violence as the pivot, Tamil cinema has come a long way. Remember the hoardings that loomed large all over the city till just a while ago? Just about every hero stood in a menacing stance, the ubiquitous aruvaal in his hands. The spectator knew that violence was the film’s leitmotif. Romance, humour, item numbers, would be mere side tracks.

Though the violence of Tamil cinema today is reflective of the thinly repressed frustration seen on the streets of the Chennai city, the big screen glorifies this violence as a way of life. Can’t get your due at work? Abuse the manager. Your scooter blocked by a big car? Use your fist on the driver. Can’t get the girl? Play rough and she’ll come round to seeing things your way. You do see why the man with the aruvaal has become a sign of the times?

An intelligent woman I met on a train once had her own take on social justice. According to her, it was but a natural progression, when the man-on-the-street is promised the world. Then real life intervenes, and there he is, nothing in hand, rage in his heart. He is a walking tinderbox, and it is just a matter of time before the conflagration starts. And, then, the powers who set off the whole doomed process in the first place, flail helplessly. A vicious circle, indeed.

Film after film, the theme is repetitive, almost simplistic. You don’t think pounding people to pulp will work in real life? Try telling that to the fellow in the process of transforming, who is full of hope that his new aggressive avatar will do the trick. Even the heroes whose visage and physique don’t lend themselves readily to the scruffy, actors such as Madhavan and Ajith, have no option but to tap into their baser bank of histrionics. And thus, what could otherwise have been dismissed as blatant devices of commercial cinema become lodestones.

Getting physical

Let’s come back to ‘eve teasing’. Here too, movies serve as a primer on ‘how to get your girl’. We see a loafer winning an uncommonly pretty and ‘modern’ college girl or a doctor. He doesn’t woo her with flowers, take her to see an ‘aruvaal’ film or a dinner at the bistro. Instead, he bashes up people while she watches horrified, strides into her house, storms past her cowering parents and rough-houses her. He lectures her on her role as an Indian woman. Sometimes, he slaps her. This, you see, is the way to true love, in Tamil films! Cases in point, films such as “Devathaiyai Kandein” and “7G Rainbow Colony”.

When a woman says no, Tamil cinema has its own interpretation: that she will come to mean yes. Pity the woman in Chennai whose tastes may not run to rough rowdies.

This ran in THE HINDU of 16 Dec 2008.

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Sheila Kumar • December 16, 2008

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