Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Dominance of a few Rasas in Tamil Cinema

Tamil cinema, from its earliest days of silent feature films, maintained a ‘Cinema of the Other’ stance in the Indian film scenario. The industry practically started in 1917, with the silent film Keechaka Badham (The Slaying of Keechaka) produced and directed by R Nataraja Mudaliar. He made another film, Draupadi Vastrapaharanam (Unrobing of Draupadi), in the same year. It is significant to note these first two films, made in South India, concentrated on particular portions of Mahabharata, that dealt with the obnoxious, producing an emotion with Bibhatsa rasa in the audience’s mind. However, the ventures met with applause and were financially very successful.

In the other two hubs of erstwhile Indian filmmaking, Bombay and Calcutta (as they were spelt those days), the stress was on the mythological, and sometimes the historical, but never so much on the portrayal of the grotesque and the abhorred. Does this fact point to a particular tendency of Tamil Cinema, and in general to Tamil cultural psyche?

Tamil people, even under the British, were very keen to keep an identity separate from that of the people from the North. And any part of India northern to the Madras Presidency in the east, Hyderabad in the Central, and  Mysore in the Western side was considered North India, probably excepting some southern portions of Bengal (ie, modern Orissa) and that of Konkan and Bombay Presidency. During the British period, specially before World War II, modern Tamilnadu became too pro-British, and actually helped in motivating Indians to join the War by making propaganda features in favour of the rulers. Films like Manasamrakshanam (1944), or Burma Rani (1945) represented a common trend in Tamil film industry those days.

The politics of we and they, the concept of the significant other, was always in Tamil civilization. That raised its head in a big way, however, immediately after independence. In 1949, the germ of Tamil independence took a bigger form in Periyar Ramsami’s pro-Dravidian (and anti-Aryan) identity movement, culminating in the formation of DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam). A new batch of filmmakers joined the industry at this time, who would appropriate the pro-Dravidian sentiment in their own respective ways, for political gains. Among them the most notable ones were the charismatic scriptwriter and playwright C N Annnadurai, the story and scriptwriter M Karunanidhi, Matinee Idol M G Ramachandran and his protégé the screen goddess J Jayalalitha.

It is a general tendency of human mind to search for a leader, in the void. Once begotten, the leader is unquestionably followed till the individual can be kept in the mass-hysteria. Organized religions work on this principle. So do magic and politics. South Indians rarely came under any direct outside ruler before the British. Even the Maurya or the Gupta Empire never directly influenced them, and everyone knows how the Delhi Sultanate’s and the Mogul Emperors’ attempts at capturing South India kept on failing for six hundred years. So, it was not surprising that the Tamil would want an autonomy after their sole conqueror in history, the British, left. When that did not happen as per their choice, they revolted. Part of the revolution centered on carving out a strong cultural identity in the name of Tamilalakam (Tamil land) which upheld Dravidian culture using stage drama, poetry, literature, myth, history, musicals, dance and, most importantly, cinema.

Tamil society, an ideal example of an unchanged patriarchal one, maintained a very strong identity of the male, almost opposite to the one maintained in the rest of Indian screens. How is the ideal Tamil hero? He must have moustache, physical prowess, authority, sexual virility and the capacity to control women. It is to be noted that, except for moustache, the other character traits are not really different for the rest of India’s heroes. However, the portrayal and the political purpose were probably very different.

Tamil hero of the pro-Dravidian camp rejects all finesse that he considers to be parts of Aryan culture, and hugs the grotesque instead. In that way, Tamil heroes can be equated, albeit too simplistically, with the villains of the North Indian myths and epics. An obsession with the denial of the other (ie, the Hindi speaking North India), and embracing the grotesque and the violent uprooting of all non-Dravidian values from culture, led to a cinema of sophisticated violence and other basal instincts in Tamil nadu.

While in films like Velaikari (1949) and Ratha Kanneer (1954), both penned by Annadurai, showed the hero’s faults as the result of his encounter with other cultures, especially North Indian culture (the vamp’s character had to die in the second film as she was trying to get into relationship with a Hindi-speaking character from Bombay), it was Parashakti (1952) which was made to show the superiority of Tamil culture to others. In this film, more than any other, women were given an unambiguous role of knowledgable, spirited, intelligent support to their male counterparts. That never meant, interestingly, women were independent. They were just supports, like totally obedient servants, who should find their places inside home.

This made a great difference between the progressive heroine from the North Indian screens (mainly Bombay and Bengal) and that in the Tamil. While the former wanted an equality and freedom in the outer world with education and free will, the latter accepted the choice of family making. In effect, this made the outside world a jungle for man-hunting, literally, for the Tamil hero.

And the heroines, unlike their North Indian counterparts, went through literal purification, punishment, or even death if they chose real liberation, wrongly. In Rudraiah’s 1978 film Aval Appadithan (That is the Way She Is), the heroine ends up on the road, in the end, and the way her journey through the film is portrayed is nothing short of obnoxious. So, we see a very strange concoction of Shringara and Bibhatsa rasas at work even sixty years after it started!

In Modern Tamil Cinema, the trend continues in a different guise. In a celebrated film like Veyil (2006), or the Kamal Hassan starrer Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu (2006), the hero always achieves his target through extreme violence. But, is it not violence and grief that lead to a purification of soul? 
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