Naan Sigappu Manithan: Professor Vijay shoots a group of robbers down and returns a briefcase of money to an old man robbed of money he desperately needed for his daughter’s wedding.

The old man is so overwhelmed by gratitude that he blesses Vijay and also put his hands together in supplicant reverence to Vijay.

A woman whom Professor Vijay had rescued from rape points to the images of Hindu deities in her home when the CID Inspectors asks her to reveal the vigilante's identity.

Close-up shot paying homage to MGR’s heroism in Nam Naadu, coincides with lyrics glorifying the struggle of the poor in Sattam Oru Iruttarai.

Thevar Magan recontextualizes the Godfather story in the caste-struggles of rural Tamil Nadu. The film also stars Sivaji Ganesan as Sakthi’s father in a role similar to Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone.

Returning to tropes from the ‘AYM’ genre, the Indian is a septuagenarian fighting corruption in the era of economic liberalization.

Rajini returns to playing vigilante in the recent Sivaji. Through special effects and razzmatazz, the anachronism of the film’s theme was overlooked and Sivaji became a blockbuster.


The “double-bind” of rage

In an editorial for Cahiers du Cinéma, Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni theorize the ways in which film texts are products of the dominant ideological system out of which they are produced. Certain texts have an explicit political content but do not effectively criticize the ideological system in which that content is embedded because such films “unquestioningly adopt its language and its imagery.”[159] [open endnotes in new window] Many of the films in the “AYM” genre that propound violent subversion are caught in the very system they wish to break down.[160] This circularity is implied in the vigilante solutions that action films appear to endorse in a populist way.

In a period of crisis, the vigilante demands adherence to virtuous moral and political behavior from others while he abandons it till the threat is liquidated. Donald MacRae refers to this kind of narrative—found in numerous action films—as an “asymmetry of civic principles.”[161] Angry heroes typically justify their vigilantism on the basis of a temporary deviation from the law to uphold justice; they quote the sacred Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. While the date and authorship of the scripture cannot be confirmed, the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, written in the form of the Hindu deity Krishna’s counsel to the warrior Arjuna, are held to be timeless. Especially relevant is Krishna’s injunction to Arjuna to do his duty and take arms against evil. In many instances, justice qua dharma—the transcendental principle of Hindu jurisprudence—is recast in film as a nationalist ethos.[162]

The angry hero’s asymmetry of principles is not dissimilar to populist rhetoric employed by Indira during the Emergency. Indira suspended the Constitution based on a nebulous threat to national security. In order to implement her own solipsistic vision, Indira abrogated the nation’s democratic traditions. While Indira turned authoritarian, she expected the rest of India to continue in dutiful citizenry through slogans such as “‘Discipline Makes the Nation Great” [or] “Talk Less, Work More.”[163] Seen in this light, the angry hero operates using the same discourse that set in motion the decline of the political system imprimis. On the subtextual level, therefore, the real and reel mutually affirm each other.

For Peter Wiles, populism is any creed or movement based on the premise that

“virtue resides in the simple people, who are the overwhelming majority, and in their collective traditions.”[164]

Similarly, an important tradition in Tamil society is that

“daily well-being or relief is dependent on discrete acts of mercy and generosity from superior beings, human or divine.”[165]

This explains the worship expressed towards the vigilante who intervenes with superhuman determination, where the state did not, to bring justice to the helpless masses. For instance in Naan Sigappu Manithan, a woman whom Vijay rescues from being raped by some thugs brings the investigating Central Investigation Department (CID) Detective into her prayer room and points to the gods when he compels her to reveal the vigilante’s identity. In Nayakan, years after Velu becomes the aging don Naicker-Ayya, the police begin a witch-hunt to bring him down. Naicker-Ayya’s supporters go to the extent of immolating themselves to prevent his arrest (an uncanny portent of how some would respond to MGR’s death) and they look upon him as a god. Likewise, MGR was imbued with a divine image in Tamil Nadu’s folk tradition where people “deify the good, the troublesome and the heroic” and was revered as Ithaya deivam (God of the heart).[166] Because many action films do not offer an alternative model of activism or contravene the cultural presuppositions that made MGR a political untouchable and maintained his corrupt government in power, the radicalism of the genre is muted.

Pandian observes that the political bond between MGR and the poor in Tamil Nadu was always portrayed as an element of realism in South Indian films.[167] Rather than dismantling this bond, by way of intertextuality, many films in the “AYM” genre sustain this connection. In the theme song of Sattam Oru Iruttarai, a vagabond sings of the inequalities of the law. In one sequence, the vagabond passes by a street corner with a wall plastered with various MGR posters. Homage is paid to a poster of Nam Naadu that occupies the entire frame of one shot. This prominence coordinates with lyrics that valorize the strength and courage of the poor. Such instances of homage to the icon can also be found in Naan Sigappu Manithan, Neethiyin Maruppakkam and Sathyaa. By conjuring memories of MGR’s on-screen heroism to legitimize criticism of the state, an ambivalence arises. Films in the 1980s always targeted middle level mandarins or petty politicians but never “revolutionary leader” MGR at the apex of corruption and malpractice. This ambivalence undermines the films’ dissenting message because rather than challenging MGR’s cultural hegemony that translated into political dominance, these films celebrate his superordinancy.

This effacement of any difference between the real and the virtual continued even after MGR, with the Rajini himself anticipated as the next star to make the transition from mass culture to mass politics. The cumulative effect of Rajini’s rebel persona was to make him an alternative locus of popularity. By the 1990s, he emerged as the most popular hero or new “mass hero” after MGR.[168] In Thalapathi (“Commander,” Dir. Mani Ratnam, 1991) Rajini plays a brooding young gangster who maims corrupt policemen, kills a politician, and wages a war against the District Collector. Despite this hyper-violent life, the gangster is depicted as a munificent leader and protector of slum dwellers.

In Thalapathi, Rajini gives one of his finest performances as Surya. Surya is the key henchman and lieutenant of the city don, Devaraj (played by Malayalam star Mammooti).
Though Surya maims corrupt cops … ... kills the local politician …
... and is at war with the dashing District Collector (who happens to be his step-brother) ...

... Surya is still viewed as the benevolent protector of the slum dwellers.

When Thalapathi was released there was a flurry of fan posters promoting Rajini as the next Chief Minister.[169] Sensationalist print media gave these posters extensive coverage, speculating on Rajini’s possible political entry.[170] According to K. Muralidaran, the ruling AIADMK were worried enough by Rajini’s popularity and the fan posters to send out spies to gather information on his fan clubs.[171] This speculation was reinforced by the media’s reading of the Rajini-hero’s actions within the films, as in Annamalai (Dir. Suresh Krissna, 1992) when his character lectures an irresponsible government minister, and even in films outside the “AYM” genre, as when his character tames a domineering shrew in the family melodrama Mannan (“King,” Dir. P. Vasu, 1992). The media interpreted these scenes and performances as rebukes directed toward then Chief Minister, J. Jayalalithaa (herself a former actress in many of MGR’s films).[172] Such symbiotic relations between the virtual and the real led to imbuing defiant characterization with alternative political potential.

Rajini’s later direct political opposition to Jayalalithaa also served to reinforce his on-screen irreverence. In the blockbuster Baashha (Dir. Suresh Krissna, 1995), Rajini plays an everyman forced to become a ferocious vigilante-Mafioso to stop the criminal rule of an evil underworld kingpin. On the extra-cinematic plane, at a function in 1995 to celebrate Baashha’s box-office success, Rajini made a speech indicting the Tamil Nadu government for lawlessness in the state.[173] Chief Minister Jayalalithaa fired the film’s producer R. M. Veerappan, who was also a minister in her cabinet, suspecting that he was grooming Rajini for a role in politics.[174] Jayalalithaa’s suspicions were not unfounded as Baashha is replete with scenes of the eponymous hero running a “parallel government” with ministers and politicians kowtowing before him. Moreover in 1996, Rajini supported the opposition DMK-Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC)’s alliance against the AIADMK. During the campaign, Rajini is said to have issued a famous statement: “Not even God can save Tamil Nadu, if Jayalalithaa came back to power,” lines  which might very well have come straight out of a Rajini film in their rhetorical flourish.[175] In light of these developments, A. Ramasamy suggestion that Rajini’s “anti-authority” stance augmented his fantasy persona is poignant.[176]

Politicians bow-down and kiss the hand of the crime boss Baashha. Rapid tracking movement of the camera follows...

...the point-of-view of Baashha as he presides over a meeting. First the Heads of the Police Department are revealed.

Then the camera tracks left in a circular motion to reveal the politicians, officials and government ministers. Finally, a track back shows that Baashha has, in fact, been holding court with state officials.

Yet, intellectuals like Pandian argue that the Opposition victory over the AIADMK in 1996 had more to do with the general feeling of discontent against the corrupt Jayalalithaa government then Rajini’s intervention.[177] They suggest that Rajini merely rode on a tide that was already against Jayalalithaa. However, given Tamil cinema’s history where the “mass hero” translates his popularity from mass culture to mass politics, the media and even the AIADMK cannot be blamed for suspecting Rajini’s ambitions during that period of time. That speculation by media and fans continues unabated till today, despite Rajini’s intransigence in entering politics, reveals the extent to which cinema is enmeshed with Tamil Nadu’s politics.

By the time he starred in Panakkaaran (‘Rich Man’, Dir. P.Vasu, 1990), Rajini had clearly emerged as the most popular star in Tamil cinema compared to his rival Kamalhaasan. In this scene in Panakkaaran, Rajini tells a Trade Union leader to act responsibly. However, the use of the medium close-up and the dialogue reveals that he is not just addressing the union leader but Tamil Nadu politicians as well. Rajini says, “If I want, I too can become a leader very easily, but I have no interest in politics…”

Conclusion: “the value of trash”?

My venture into studying Tamil films is premised on the notion that films are palimpsests upon which dominant ideologies are inscribed or disputed. The argument here is that the failure of the state, set in process by changes in national and regional politics, influenced the representations of an “Angry Young Man’—a trope that constituted a popular genre in itself in the 1980s. The postulation, based on a textual study of the genre, is that while these films targeted the state for acrimony, they were inundated with the same corrosive populist ideology that the state used.

In the 1990s, new kinds of Tamil films became popular. These films existed in the interface between a middle-class renaissance brought about by India’s economic liberalization and an atavistic return to caste-based politics, mirroring developments in Tamil Nadu’s recent history. One model of script depicted the archetype of the village patriarch and upholder of caste virtues after the success of Chinna Gounder (Dir. R.V. Udhayakumar, 1991) and Thevar Magan (“Thevar’s Son,” Dir. Bharathan, 1992).

Thevar Magan tells the story of London-educated, westernized Sakthi. As played by ... Kamalhaasan, the hero becomes village patriarch, leader of the martial Thevar caste.

Developing concomitantly was a new breed of tech-savvy yuppie hero—the beneficiary of liberalization—who dealt with issues such as Kashmiri terrorism in Roja (Dir. Mani Ratnam, 1992) and religious riots in Bombay (Dir. Mani Ratnam, 1995).[178] There was also a revival of glossy romance films after the success of Kadhalan (“Lover,” Dir. S. Shankar, 1994), which culminated in the Tamil Diaspora film, Jeans (Dir. S. Shankar, 1998) and the middle-class romance Alaipayuthey (“Waves,” Dir. Mani Ratnam, 2000).

Director Mani Ratnam’s Roja and Bombay celebrate the middle-class yuppie hero’s nationalistic fervor. Both films position the anti-national communalist terrorists in Kashmir (Roja) and radical fundamentalists (Bombay) as the key threats to the Indian nation, and not the state.
Kadhalan was a hit film that began a trend in 1990s Tamil cinema for mega-budget musical spectacular about teenage romances.

Jeans is mega-budget musical comedy foregrounding the lives of overseas Tamils and the romance between an Indian Tamil girl and U.S. Tamil boy.  The film's song segments are staged in grand and opulent settings.

Tamil film studies have ignored a significant development in the 1990s, Vijayakanth’s domination of the Cop film genre. Vijayakanth-starrer cop films were another genre through which Indian nationalism was valorized. In the early 1990s, Vijayakanth redefined his image and abandoned vigilante roles to play an incorruptible police officer in a string of hit cop thrillers like Pulan Visaranai (1990), Chatriyan (1990), Captain Prabhakaran (1991) and Sethupathi IPS (1994).

Under threat from caste films, middle-class romances, and nationalistic films, the “AYM” genre began to bottom out. In response, director S. Shankar intervened to begin a process of a generic evolution and recoding. He appropriated the discursive and stylistic techniques that entered Tamil cinema in the aftermath of liberalization, globalization, and the proliferation of MTV through cable. By fusing extravagant music videos (not just song sequences), digital graphics, and spectacular fight scenes, while retaining a serious political message, Shankar revitalized the genre through mega-budget masala blockbusters. But high production costs and the shift in collective consciousness away from the crisis of the state meant there were only occasional releases and not a full cycle as in the preceding decade. Shankar made his directorial debut in Gentleman (1993) but it was his Indian (1996) that has since become an iconic vigilante film.[180] What makes Indian’s protagonist different from the erstwhile angry young heroes of the previous decade is that this vigilante is a former freedom fighter. He is an angry septuagenarian, murdering bureaucrats as means of weeding out the all-pervasive corruption in the state that ruined his family.The most recent addition to Shankar’s oeuvre is the blockbuster Sivaji (2007) about an Non-Residential Indian software engineer, played by Rajini, who returns to India from the United States; he has a philanthropic mission but is forced into vigilantism by unscrupulous politicians and bureaucrats backed by industrialists.[181]

Continuing the process of reformation, the “AYM” genre has undergone another phase of transmutation and updating. Of late, narratives about angry protagonists disavow spectacle in favor of blunt realism. The anti-heroes in offbeat films like E (Dir. Jhananathan, 2006), Evano Oruvan (“Someone,” Dir. Nishikanth Kamat, 2007), Kattradhu Thamizh (“Learned Tamil,” Dir. Ram, 2007) and the recent Unnaipol Oruvan (“Someone Like You,” Dir. Chakri Toleti, 2009), engage with the anxieties of India today, such as exploitation by multinational corporations, growing social inequality, call-centre culture, and high tech terrorism. These narratives are part of a “New Wave” in Tamil cinema, which “fuses the entertainment of a mainstream film with the sensitivity of an art film.”[182] Of this “New Wave” the sleeper hit Subramaniyapuram (Dir. M.Sasikumar, 2008), a period film set in 1980, revisits the historical conjunctures from which the genre originated. Rather than singling out the state for attack, this revisionist film about the manipulation of the lumpen unemployed by powerful men interrogates the dark world of the young, impulsive and violent. The young men in Subramaniyapuram engineer their own downfall.

Chidananda Das Gupta describes the corrupting influence of Indian popular cinema as having the “value of trash.”[183] This essay has challenged this to imply that even potboilers can act as vestibules through which to access popular consciousness. When melodrama, violence and kitsch are stripped away and the deeper ideological functions extracted, a compelling narrative of changing historical circumstances—shaped by forces such as politics and the state—emerges from beneath.

Subramaniyapuram constructs verisimilitude to the period through film songs, film posters and the films from the year 1980. A poster of the Rajini film, Kaali from the ‘AYM’ genre, figures in the background, in this shot. The lumpen youth in Subramaniyapuram go to catch the opening of Rajini’s Murattukkalai and a shot of the film’s poster is captured. References to Rajini’s films establish an intertextual link between the rebellious protagonists in Subramaniyapuram and the rogue Rajini-persona.
The celebration of the film Murattukkalai — with the audience breaking into dance and cheers during the screening — highlights the appeal of Rajini to the underclass youth of that period.

However, there is also an important difference. Unlike the ‘AYM’ genre of the 1980s that targets the state, political system and power structures for blame, Subramaniyapuram suggests that wayward youth who act out of impulse engineer their own doom.

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