In the introduction of Naan Sigappu Manithan: shots of newspaper articles about the rising crime rate.
In Unn Kannil Neervazhindhal: shots of newspaper articles on police brutality and crimes committed by policemen.
At the college function to celebrate India’s Independence Day, Professor Vijay sings the song Gandhi Desame!
The visual montage evokes the mythic figure of ‘Mother India’ who is the personification of the nation.
Efforts of the nationalist leaders have gone to waste as corrupt men in power have now enslaved Mother India.
When she goes to the politicians, for help, Mother India is laughed off and ignored.
The mythic dispenser of justice claims that the bloodshed on-screen is employed to achieve a utopian end. Is violence in the ‘AYM’ genre, an atavistic return of the repressed?
Sivappu Malli, overtly postured the angry heroes as communists.
Director S.A.Chandrasekar also made cameo appearances in his films. In Naan Sigappu Manithan he appears as a male nurse who helps Professor Vijay get his final revenge because “he would have done the same thing.”
In Neethiyin Maruppakkam, director Chandrasekar appears as a good cop who tries to help Vijayakumar but has his authority overwritten by the corrupt commissioner.
Neethikku Thandanai was remade in Hindi as Kudrat Ka Kanoon (1987). Neethikku Thandanai was a rare ‘Avenging Woman’ film in Tamil cinema, a genre more popular in Hindi cinema and Telugu cinema, where agency for revenge lay with the female victim.
In Oru Kaidhiyin Diary, Kamalhaasan plays David, a poor slum dweller. David is also a party worker for a local politician by organizing party rallies and taking part in demonstrations and protests.
Oru Kaidhiyin Diary, spawned a remake in Hindi starring Bachchan in a double-role as both the aged vigilante David and his policeman son.
Narrative tension in Oru Kaidhiyin Diary is inflated by the fact that David’s infant son has now grown up to become the suave cop Inspector Shankar, also played by Kamalhaasan, who is assigned to investigate the murders committed by David, unaware that David is his father.
This connection to social reality is affirmed in visual iconography, which meticulously constructs verisimilitude. As established earlier, films in the “AYM” genre are social films, where the narrative is situated in the present of the film’s production. In Gopalan’s analysis of the “Avenging Woman” in Indian cinema, a genre that shares a common gore-aesthetic space with the “AYM” genre, she argues that elements such as shots of real newspapers, photographs of Gandhi on courtroom walls, and footage of the Indian flag are “vociferous stagings of ‘reality’ that heighten the viewing pleasure of the spectator.” [open endnotes in new window] Comparable images were extensively used in the film Unn Kannil Neervazhindhal (“When Your Eyes Tear,” Dir. Balu Mahendra, 1985) where the central theme of police corruption is enhanced by screenshots of newspaper reports on police rape, brutality and bribery. A similar strategy is employed in the introduction of Naan Sigappu Manithan where screenshots of Tamil newspaper articles about the rising crime rates are accompanied by the extra-diegetic sound effect of gunshots. In Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu, Sattam Oru Iruttarai, Naan Sigappu Manithan, and Manithan, documentary footage showing decadent urban life, extreme depravity and violence, unrelated to the narrative, are edited with melancholic theme songs to arraign state and society. Through authentic details a scathing view of the present is relayed across films.
Aspects of the realist mise-en-scène are also used to emphasize a stifling and oppressive view of the state. For example, in a scene from Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu Rangan takes a final try for a government clerk job after countless rejections.
The government office is staged as a claustrophobic, Kafka-esque space through the use of a small and badly lit room shot with a tight angle. The bureaucrats reject Rangan after a series of irrelevant questions. At the end of the interview he shouts:
It is not just the dialogue in the scene but other semiotic elements in the mise-en-scène that remonstrate against the state. Anticipating Rangan’s final outburst, the camera zooms out for a panoramic view of the whole room to capture a portrait of Gandhi in the background, over which the lighting casts a symbolic shadow. This invocation of the “father of the nation,” bapu, adds another dimension to Rangan’s tirade. Some suggest that after the Emergency, Gandhi and Nehru no longer provided frameworks for value but became just pictures stuck on the wall, implying that the state has become distanced from the ideals of the freedom movement.  The euphoria of freedom and the wave of idealism which Independence brought have worn-off to become distant memories, as the realities of governance by decaying post-colonial institutions dominate national consciousness.
Portraits of founding fathers also legitimize the discourses enunciated by the angry hero—displacing historical and moral weight from icon to rebel. This connection is further instantiated in Naan Sigappu Manithan through the patriotic song Gandhi Desame! (Gandhi’s Nation!) sung by Professor Vijay at his college’s Independence Day function. Both aurally and visually the song epitomized India in 1984 (when the film was in production), a year believed to be possibly the worst in the history of the Indian republic, when it almost became a “non-functioning anarchy.” Gandhi Desame! is visualized with a montage in which documentary footage of Indira’s funeral is spliced together with fictional scenes of rape, murder, and caricatures of politicians. These cinematic caricatures show politicians fighting over a chair (the proverbial seat of power) as a woman carrying the Indian flag, “Mother India,” flees in horror. The lyrical depiction of a nation in peril is also interpolated with historical footage of nationalist heroes like Gandhi, Nehru, and Subhas Chandra Bose. Matching elements were also found accompanying the theme songs of Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu and Sattam Oru Iruttarai. Using cinematic technique the ghostly visages of former nationalist heroes, sharing space with the angry heroes, appear to “endorse” and support the characters’ rage against the state’s failures.
The “AYM” genre also introduced hitherto unseen levels of cinematic brutality, which accounts for the increased depictions of violence in Tamil cinema from the 1980s. This alarming trend was noticed by Sinivaasan, who describes the period from 1986 to 1993 as an era of excessive sex and violence. According to Pratt, of the 172 films made in 1992, 74 (43 per cent) were action-oriented; statistics that led some journalists to suggest that Tamil cinema “soaked in the era of violent, explosive death with relish.” In contrast, Rajini—the mythic dispenser of destruction—accounts for the violent content in his action films by stating that the display of brute-force onscreen is employed to achieve an utopian end, rather than to glorify evil. Perhaps, violence in the “AYM” genre should be read counter-intuitively, less as a gratuitous spectacle and more as representing the atavism of cyclical violence in times of crisis.
In particular, Nayakan was attacked for its emphasis on violence and gore. Such criticism obfuscates the larger modalities of violence that Nayakan captures visually. To understand this idiom better, we need to look back to India’s history during the colonial period where annihilation of the oppressor was a new means through which the peasant reconstituted his identity. As Ranajit Guha states, the identity of the peasant
By destroying the oppressor, the peasant ends his subordination and “creates a new identity for himself.” Relating this psychology of violent action to the late 1960s, Sanjay Seth explains the violent strategies of the renegade Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or CPI (ML) cadres, known in popular parlance as Maoists and Naxalites. The Naxalites placed varying gradations on the method of annihilation, weaponry used, and degree of violence employed. Seth suggests that for the Naxalite
Transposing this subaltern paradigm onto representing the slum dweller’s desire to transcend his inferior status, the cinematic violence becomes less gratuitous and more a conscious aesthetic choice—shared by other films of the genre—through which to display the subversion of authority.
Accompanying the performative idiom of violence is the leitmotif of “red,” which binds the films of the genre in a semiotic unity. A substantial number of films in the genre are signified by sivappu (red), Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu, Sivappu Malli, Sivandha Kangal (“Red Eyes,” Dir. Ramanarayanan, 1982), Kann Sivanthal, Mann Sivakkum (“When Eyes Redden, the Soil Reddens,” Dir. Sridhar Rajan, 1982), Sivappu Sooriyan (“Red Sun,” Dir. V. Srinivasan, 1983) and Naan Sigappu Manithan are amongst the most prominent. The semiotic significance of “red” in the “AYM” genre is best understood as a conflation of the symbolic, corporeal, and ideological. In the Indian dramaturgical tradition, the rasa (sentiment/emotion) of raudram (fury) is symbolized by the color red on stage and is even used in makeup to create red eyes. Such a theatrical referent still remains relevant in modern cinematography where characters express their rage through red eyes or red lighting shone on their faces. Reinforcing this performance cue is the blood, gore, and high body count shown onscreen as the angry heroes violently dispose of their adversaries. Consolidating the symbolic and corporeal is the ideological function of the color red as the signifier of revolutionary communism. This is most prominent in Sivappu Malli where the two angry proletarian heroes agitated, with the communist flag and portraits of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, in a demonstration against the oppressive industrialist-landlord combine. The final melodramatic scene of Sivappu Malli conflates all three semiotic functions of red. We see the murder of one heroes, a union leader; that causes the bundle of jasmine he carried for his wife to be bloodied, which explains the film’s title. Then the remaining hero (Vijayakanth) gathers the villagers to burn the fleeing landlords and industrialist alive.
These virulent representations, which film directors intended to signify real political issues, collapse categories of art and politics into a protest against state failures. These film auteurs came from the whole spectrum of political opinions. Director, scriptwriter, and known communist sympathizer Ramanarayanan assembled the collusion of rage, violence, and Marxist ideology that made Sivappu Malli a box-office success. Similarly, director S. A. Chandrasekar, referred to by one newspaper as “Ketchup King” for his violent films, intended most of his films to be a form of social commentary. Chandrasekar states in an interview:
According to Chandrasekar the theme of Sattam Oru Iruttarai, which lambasted the liberal-bourgeois state, was so controversial that most producers were unwilling to sponsor the venture. The eventual producer of the film was Vadaloor Chidambaram, a former Marxist party member and an independent trade unionist. That same year, Chidambaram also produced another communist-themed film called Saathikkoru Needhi (“Justice for My Caste,” Dir. S. Sankaran, 1981) about a fiery and frustrated harijan (untouchable) leading the subaltern classes in a revolution against upper-caste and upper-class landlords. The “AYM” genre thus became a vehicle for the propagation of Marxist-Leninist ideology by some filmmakers.
Especially significant was the input of then opposition leader and MGR’s bête noire, former Chief Minister Karunanidhi. Karunanidhi scripted and wrote the screenplay for a number of “AYM” films, many of which were directed by Chandrasekar. In Chandrasekar’s Idhu Engal Needhi, Karunanidhi appears before the film and explains that he wrote the film after being convinced that
Their association had earlier produced an “Avenging Woman” film, Neethikku Thandanai (“Justice is Punished,” 1987), which was critical of MGR’s rule. This led MGR’s government to attempt to pass a bill, albeit unsuccessfully, to curb the screening of films critical of legislators and ministers. Considering that Karunanidhi had earlier written another hit film Palaivana Rojakkal (“Desert Roses,” Dir. Manivannan, 1986), about the struggle between corrupt politicians and angry heroes, it is obvious that the MGR government tried in vain to halt Neethikku Thandanai’sdistribution before it became just as successful.
Complementing such claims from the Left were directors like K. Balachander whose oeuvre of films center on the middle class. Balachander states in an interview that he did not intend to make fully political movies but “wanted to touch a political backdrop” while foregrounding human relationships. Still, Balachander’s vociferous distrust of politics is palpable, an excess of which was seen in the family melodrama, Achamillai Achamillai (“No Fear,” 1984)where the life of an ideal married couple is turned upside down by the husband’s venture into politics. The husband’s transformation from an honest social activist into a double-dealing politician culminates in his wife murdering him as he unveils a statue of Gandhi. Though such plots were normative and skewed by ideological imperatives, the success with which these images proliferated offers powerful documentation of what people accepted and what some filmmakers felt to be pertinent issues facing the nation.
If as Gopalan suggests, gangster films are a site of writing the nation and performing it, then director Mani Ratnam has retrieved an underground history of the Indian nation-state through Nayakan. In an interview, Ratnam revealed that Nayakan was inspired by the real-life career of Mumbai’s Tamil gangster and slumlord Varadaraja Mudhaliar or Varadabhai. The way Varadabhai created a “parallel system” in his role as a slumlord indicates the degree to which the state has failed to register and deal with the discontent of communities on the fringes of society. These slum dwellers are in fact marginalized sectors surviving in conditions of extreme economic deprivation. For the occupants of slums eking out a living, the state has been a constant tormentor that threatens to evict them and demolish their settlements as well as denying them basic facilities. It is in this vacuum of legitimate authority that Mudhaliar, like his filmic clone Velu Naicker-Ayya, existed. Mudhaliar provided the Tamil migrant workers with protection from official tyrannies like the demolition of their settlements; and he functioned as a private adjudicator, dispensing justice where the official legal system failed to deliver. Though this assistance came at extortion prices, unaccounted for in Nayakan, Mudhaliar’s role as a private dispenser of justice nonetheless accounted for his popularity. While Ratnam has been accused of attempting to “commodify history” in his other films, in Nayakan he stages with much verisimilitude a past outside the official histories of the nation-state.
The conventions and depictions from the “AYM” genre now extend beyond Tamil cinema. Such a spread of style and theme suggests a consensus among filmmakers and consumers of the genre’s validity. The construction of villains, appealing to a pan-Indian audience, affirms that the ills of a failed state are not just parochial but national. In particular, the emergence of the politician-goonda as villian in Hindi films from the mid-1980s onwards was influenced by the first depictions of this figure in Tamil and other southern cinemas. While themes of revenge were not new to Hindi cinema, the politician as the ultimate antagonist was a new kind of character at that time. Political potboilers like Andhaa Kanoon (“Blind Law,” Dir. T. Rama Rao, 1983) and Akhree Raasta (“Last Option,” Dir. K. Bhagyaraj, 1986) were popular Hindi remakes of Sattam Oru Iruttarai and Oru Kaidhiyin Diary respectively. This was just as Sathyaa was an adaptation of the Hindi film, Arjun (Dir. Rahul Rawali, 1985). The interaction between Hindi cinema and southern cinema continues in the hit Pratighaat (“Revenge,” Dir. N.Chandra, 1987) a remake of an earlier Telugu film in which a woman takes revenge against a thug—backed by the ruling party and politicians—who had raped her. In this period, Telugu cinema also began to develop its own vigilante genre with angry heroes and avenging heroines played by stars like Chiranjeevi and Vijayashanti respectively. Malayalam cinema in the late 1980s also turned to overtly political themes through films like Avanazhi (“Quiver of Arrows,” Dir. I. V. Sasi, 1986), which was remade in Tamil as Kadamai Kanniyam Kattuppaadu (“Duty, Dignity, Discipline,” Dir. Santhana Bharathi, 1988) and in Hindi as Satyamev Jayate (“Truth Shall Triumph,” Dir. Raj Sippy, 1988). That this intertextual dialogue between the various film industries in India, which often have developed their own trajectories, occurred at around the same time, underscores a shared sense of malaise addressed by these films.
The Tamil film industry is largely predicated on a dialectic between fact and fiction, where fantastic resolutions are given to authentic anxieties. As such, these au courant film texts of the “AYM” genre can be reconstituted as alternative historical material. Echoing Michel Foucault’s premise that “history is that which transforms documents into monuments,” a distinct filmic “monument” of India’s 1980s surfaces after extrapolating the discourses embedded within these films.