copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

Rage against the state: historicizing the “angry young man” in Tamil cinema

by Kumuthan Maderya

This essay examines the conventions and ideology behind the “Angry Young Man” genre in Tamil cinema. Despite the genre’s popular run in the 1980s, these films about volatile anti-heroes remain an unexplored dimension in Tamil film history. The genre’s popularity and the idioms that it introduced into Indian cinematic discourse lead to the question of how such narratives address the anxieties of their times. This is especially so given that scripts at that time dealt with failed bureaucracies, corrupt politicians, crooked cops and a feeble justice system in fictional films that intended to “expose” social conditions. Critically using feature films as a kind of historical text, I hope to show how this genre enunciates a vitriolic critique of the Indian state. At the same time, the films also display the same populist proclivities that crippled the state in the first place, perpetuating a cycle where the cinematic and the real reinforce each other. This amalgamation of fantasy and political reality is an idiosyncratic legacy of this era of popular Tamil cinema.

Introduction: popular film as history

In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin elaborates a cogent interface between politics and cultural products. Benjamin suggests that through mass production, art is detached from its basis in ritual to become based on political praxis.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Just as significant is his argument that films are able to create a heightened consciousness of the world in ways that other art forms are unable to effect.[2] Popular Tamil cinema, from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, has notoriously exploited this visual-aural dimension of film for propaganda and political mobilization. The stimulus to write this essay comes from viewing specific Tamil films from the 1980s. That decade saw the popularization of a pulp trope that developed into a mainstream genre—“Angry Young Man” (henceforth, “AYM’) films. Through using picturesque and at times grotesque representations—especially of excessive violence—these films painted a chaotic image of their times. Promoted as rebellion against the establishment, the “AYM” cycle opened up a new representational space, which from our perspective offers unique access into understanding the popular consciousness of that time.

To view Indian history through the lenses of Tamil cinema is to do so through a plurality of narratives. With an annual production of around 800-1000 films, India is at present the world’s largest producer of films.[3] What is often unnoticed is that “Bollywood,” as Hindi cinema is known globally, is but one of the many language cinemas in India. Of these, the Tamil film industry is Hindi cinema’s biggest competitor for the title of the “most well-known and widely appreciated beyond the country’s borders”—a label often applied to Bollywood which has led some to call Tamil films “the Significant Other.”[4] On one level, this critical discussion analyzes how Indian cinema outside the Bollywood hegemony mediates between national and regional concerns to address a heterogeneous audience. On another level, criticism has deconstructed Hindi cinema’s “AYM” genre, epitomized by screen legend Amitabh Bachchan, to the extent that the academic study of this trope leaves little here to explore. However, critics have not yet considered how the “AYM” trope in India’s other cinemas can provide a new perspective for Indian historiography. I hope to advance an understanding of how the significant other angry young hero, personified by superstar Rajinikanth in Tamil cinema, addresses the collective concerns of the period in which it was made.

Existing paradigms for examining Tamil cinema were shaped by early English-language criticism that gave greater credence to the study of film stars’ political activism. Such studies in political sociology tended to focus on interactions between social structures, charismatic personalities, and political parties. Political scientist Robert L. Hardgrave Jr., writing in the 1970s, highlighted how the luminaries of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Dravidian Progressive Federation or DMK), a key political party in Tamil Nadu, used Tamil film as vehicle for propagating Tamil nationalism and critiquing the caste system as the cause of social inequality.[5] Drawing heavily from anthropology, these studies reveal how the star persona of the two biggest film stars who dominated Tamil cinema between the 1950s and the 1970s attained a cult following that allowed them to enter politics. These two were M. G. Ramachandran—famously recognized by his initials MGR—and V. C. Ganesan—more popularly known as Sivaji Ganesan or Sivaji after his outstanding role as the 17th century Marathi warrior Shivaji Bhosle in a stage play early in his career.[6] More significantly, empirical evidence has proven that the success the DMK and Indian National Congress respectively had in utilizing MGR and Sivaji was evident in their fans’ voting patterns, which coincided with the party their idols represented.[7] In this way, the earliest academic work on Tamil cinema concretized a link between electoral politics and film culture.

Another facet of the complex relation between Tamil film and politics, which has been the subject of recent academic work, is fan club participation. Owing to the popularity of joining rasigar manrams or fan clubs for movie stars, such studies are important in understanding this subculture as a social phenomenon. Anthropologists like Sara Dickey and Martyn Rogers have analyzed how fans consume and make meaning out of films as well as how these fan clubs are politicized through association with the parties that film stars are aligned with.[8] By identifying fan clubs as a form of subcultural political mobilization, Dickey and Rogers reaffirm a connection between democratic participation and fandom.

Compared to the sophistication of research from political sociology and anthropology, discussions of Tamil film history remain inchoate. Film history could either refer to the development of the medium over time or the usage of documentary and fictional films as historical source material. For S. Theodore Baskaran, the insufficiency of film studies scholarship is explained by two factors, a general apathy towards using visual material in Indian historiography and, more important, indifference towards cinema by the educated in India.[9] Despite these limitations, there have been a few pioneering works on Tamil film history. Stephen Hughes has written on the exhibition practices, government regulation, and technology behind the early Tamil film industry from the first silent films of the 1910s to the arrival of sound in the 1930s.[10] Baskaran himself studied the newsreels, documentaries, and films produced until the 1940s that were used as nationalist propaganda in the anti-colonial struggle against the British.[11] Judging from these limited but valuable studies, it is clear that there is a need for a more comprehensive research into the history of Tamil films.

Given the academic apprehension towards film history, M. S. S. Pandian’s The Image Trap: M. G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics is a foundational attempt at using Tamil feature films as historical source material.[12] In this book, Pandian studies the construction of the immensely popular cinematic image of MGR. The argument is that MGR’s on-screen persona conjoined with working class cultural idioms to constitute an ego ideal that MGR consciously constructed as he rose to power as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu (1977-1987), the highest office in the federal state. To reach this conclusion, Pandian dissected MGR’s films to analyze the ideological functions of the mise-en-scène, characterization, and dialogue that appealed to the subaltern classes. Through combining film studies strategies with historical analysis, Pandian established a new dimension for historiography.

Despite the “AYM” genre’s popularity in Tamil cinema during the 1980s, it has received scant academic attention. Though some writers indicate that such a cycle existed, they have not been able to suitably categorize or historicize it. For example, though Dickey uses Tamil films from the mid-1980s in her fieldwork, those films she chooses are clearly depoliticized. Favoring the family melodrama, she does not explain why she avoids the genre of what she calls a new type of political film, which specializes in stories of revenge against corrupt politicians.[13] David B. Pratt builds his own compelling account of Tamil Nadu politics around the film, Idhu Engal Neethi (“Our Justice,” Dir. S. A. Chandrasekar, 1988) that bears all the elements of films in the genre, but which Pratt vaguely categorizes as a “political film.”[14] Pratt’s study also ignores the production of similar films since the late 1970s.

Recent research by scholar Sathiavathi Chinniah has corrected this paucity of attention to the genre. In her essay on the changing representations of the Tamil movie heroine, Chinniah provides a brief but vital reference to the “AYM” genre of Tamil cinema. She writes:

“The “angry young man” genre attained importance in Tamil cinema in the 1980s. This type of film, made popular in Hindi cinema through Amitabh Bachchaan, was represented in Tamil cinema largely through the superstar Rajinikant. In many of these films, the hero, initially an honest person, turns into an angry young man when faced with the attempted or actual rape or murder of his sister, girlfriend or mother.”[15]

However, Chinniah’s gendered analysis falls short in accounting for the role of the state as a contested site within the narrative, which I will explain later.

The methodology employed in this essay is based upon a premise articulated by Marc Ferro:

“Each film has a value as a document, whatever its seeming nature.”[16]

Films from the past, offer a new frontier of historical study beyond the ambit of print literature. As Ferro suggests,

“Cinema and especially the fictional film, open a royal way to psycho-socio-historical zones never reached by the analysis of [written] ‘documents.’”[17]

Via popular film texts, the scholar gains an audio-visual access to the ideological polemics and political concerns underpinning society.[18] When a study combines this cinematic analysis with details culled about the film’s production background and political function, a more comprehensive picture emerges.[19] Thus, popular film texts have the potential to shape our historical understanding of a particular period in different ways from written documents from the same timeframe.

A retrospective study of cinema in Tamil Nadu has much value because there is a tradition of a vibrant film culture there. Prior to the widespread diffusion in the 1990s of satellite televisions, cinema was the mass medium in Tamil Nadu with the greatest audience; even radio was “limited as a disseminating medium” since most people only listen to film songs.[20] In 1986, there were 2,153 cinema halls—of which 320 temporary cinemas were “touring talkies” located in rural and semi-urban areas for the poorest people.[21] This made Tamil Nadu the state with the second largest number of cinema halls in India.[22] Moreover, the extensive venues for exhibition matched the growing output of the Tamil film industry. According to the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, the number of sound features produced annually in Tamil rose from 105 films in 1978 to 194 films in 1990.[23] Based on her fieldwork on the consumption of Tamil films between 1985 and 1987, Dickey adds that 85 percent of the adults she spoke to went to the movies at least three to four times a month.[24] Such an extensive proliferation and consumption of films in the 1980s affirm the value of studying Tamil cinema historically as a kind of cultural production with great social potency.

There is an inter-connectedness between the different language cinemas in India. Thus the radical and subversive themes from Tamil cinema’s “AYM” genre permeated into Hindi cinema and other regional film industries. Since the end of the silent-film era in the 1930s and arrival of the talkies, successful Hindi films have been dubbed or remade into other Indian language versions such as Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam and vice-versa. [25] Remakes tend to be more popular because using a cast of local stars and making changes to fit differing cultural contexts ensure familiarity for the local audience while retaining the original screenplay. This practice persists today in Indian cinema. As it would be evident below, films in the Tamil “AYM” genre have not only been remade into Hindi and Telugu, but also certain films in the genre were remade from films originally produced in Hindi, Telugu and Malayalam. The synergy achieved through creative fusion and adaptation of plots from other film industries in India ensured the sustainability of the genre for an entire decade. More important, the conspicuous propagandistic potential of the “AYM” genre is not limited to Tamil Nadu in its mode of address.

I have found that the films in Tamil cinema’s “AYM” genre enunciate a sustained indictment of the Indian state by valorizing unconstitutional, vigilante approaches to justice. By privileging verisimilitude over allegory, these films blatantly visualize state failure in a kind of social commentary. Yet ideologically these films appropriate the same brand of rabid populism that crippled the state in the first place, perpetuating a cycle where the reel and the real reinforce each other.

There is a history of the failures of using populism in Indian political discourse. The origins of the crisis of the Indian state can be traced to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s leadership. Under Indira Gandhi, populist measures permeated the political system, and because they did not solve problems, they often undercut the government and subsequently accelerated state corruption. The corresponding political backdrop in Tamil Nadu was the corrupt but popular government under the aegis of Chief Minister MGR, a key practitioner of populist discourse. Because populism serves as a palliative rather than offer a remedy to the problems faced by the state, when the palliative wears off, the state unleashes its coercive power to suppress dissidents. In the 1980s, the visibility of the state’s shortcomings and its resort to violence led to a loss of legitimacy that found filmic expression in the conventions of the “AYM” genre. Furthermore, when these films are reexamined through oppositional readings, it becomes apparent that the genre’s cinematic codes appropriated the same populist discourse to the extent that even Rajinikanth, the angry hero himself, later became ascribed with extra-cinematic political potential. Such a circular and ambivalent relation to state functioning amalgamates fantasy and reality in a way that characterizes Tamil cinema.

A caveat: I am not offering here a sociological study of film but am attempting to use popular film texts as historical evidence. While it might buttress my analysis to include data on specific mass audience responses to these films, such data is not available. And so I cannot provide a definitive end to the study of the “AYM” genre in Tamil cinema but hope to offer a fresh perspective on a hitherto unexamined political/cultural phenomenon.

State and populism in India

Before considering the “AYM” genre’s radical dimensions, it is instructive to ask: what precipitated the atrophy of the state—as portrayed in Tamil cinema? The causes of this decline become clear when one views the period 1971-1977, which saw the rise of populism under the leadership of Indira Gandhi. Manipulated by India’s political elite mostly for expedience and electoral gain, populism led to the destabilization and subsequent corruption of the Indian state.

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru thought the state should transcend traditional roles of maintaining territorial integrity and sovereignty. According to Sunil Khilnani, the Indian state was envisioned by Nehru—its chief architect—to become a “developmental agency” that would penetrate all areas of society while being subject to democratic circumscription.[26] Nehru was convinced of the state’s ability to remold Indian society as a trustee when India became a Republic on January 26, 1950. At that point the state took upon itself a myriad responsibilities: “from patrolling borders that stretched across glaciers, to abolishing untouchability, from constraining religious passions to building nuclear reactors.”[27] The key historical legacy of Nehru’s leadership was therefore to lay upon the Indian state highly inflated and wide-reaching duties.

Nehru’s daughter Indira effectively institutionalized populism. Her slogans in the lead-up to the 1971 general elections reveal the large-scale operation of populist rhetoric, encapsulated in a direct appeal to the rural and urban poor. Consider, for example, her emphatic and successful election slogan: Garibi Hatao! (End to Poverty!) The limits of this kind of political thinking were obvious to a journalist writing at that time:

“The instant poverty-removal slogan was an economic absurdity. Psychologically and politically...it was however, a decisive asset for a community at war with reason and rationality.”[28]

This rhetorical assert was converted into resounding electoral gains for Indira’s party as it won 350 seats won out of 523 seats. Indira was so glorified as the source of success that her Congress faction became known as Congress (I) for Indira.

For historian Ayesha Jalal, such a recourse to populism is a symptom that a state's institutional competence and legitimacy is either eroding or eroded.[29] Populism utilizes a seductive appeal to the masses by

“giving voice to the frustrations of the dispossessed…[with] its declared aims to dent the existing structures of domination and privilege.”[30]

What differentiates this political temperament from other ideologies is that it resorts to empty sloganeering with a rhetoric of revolution transmitted by a charismatic personality, rather than being premised on any systematic analysis of social inequities.[31] Consequentially, Indira’s resort to populism would diminish any remaining legitimacy the Indian state had.

Through such kinds of populist mobilization, the nature of politics in India was transformed. The centralization of power according to Indira’s whims implied that those placed at the head of regional Congress (I) party organizations were of her own coterie: “mere clients rather than supporters of the central authority.”[32] The Congress system was undermined by the absence of experienced and committed cadre who had risen up from the grassroots.[33] People pressed into political service were now political contractors who would go to any length to dragoon votes.[34] The language of money replaced open debate around issues and programs, indispensable to the operation of democratic systems as effective registries of discontent. This kind of politics and corruption of representative democracy found representation in 1980s Tamil cinema. Here the scripts developed the character of the suitcase-politician (one who has received suitcases of bribe money) as villain, and such a trope effectively appealed to current resentments against politics.

The underworld-funded suitcase-politician in the “AYM” genre was not just an imaginative characterization. With the social contract established between the electorate and the Congress’ political elite in tatters, black money became the means through which the government bought support.[35] T. V. Sathyamurthy reveals that many politicians and leaders from the early-1970s onwards had a talent for making the right contacts with black market barons, as the black economy became the “demi-goddess presiding over the fortunes of the ruling party.”[36] Furthermore, legal institutions did little to stop the black economy, so a new political dispensation based purely on money came to the fore.[37]

Between 1973 and 1975, the failure of democracy became pronounced as politics spilled on to the streets with violence. Student youth movements in Gujarat and Bihar felt that there was no other way to get grievances redressed than through demonstrations, strikes, gheraos (encircling a government building or politician’s office in protest), bandhs (general strikes), and street violence.[38] They protested rampant inflation and shortages of essential goods, compounded by an unresponsive administration. These protests coincided with National Railwaymen’s Union’s attempt at a nationwide strike in May 1974. At a rally in Patna in October 1974, prominent Gandhian, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), called for Sampoorna Kranti (Total Revolution) and threatened to “establish a parallel government” with a “People’s Assembly.”[39] In this way, India saw the development of a “parallel” politics that challenged the very legitimacy of state institutions.

The Emergency was imposed on June 26, 1975, as an authoritarian reaction to a severe challenge to Indira’s leadership. The specific trigger came on the eve of the Emergency declaration when JP urged the army, police and government workers not to obey orders they considered wrong, as the Opposition parties organized nationwide strikes against Indira.[40] Indira’s justifications for imposing the Emergency were ostensibly framed in nationalist-populist terms, as a measure to defeat

“the deep and widespread conspiracy which had been brewing ever since [she] began to introduce progressive measures of benefit to the common man and woman of India.”[41]

The Indian Emergency therefore came about through process in which a crisis-laden ruling elite drew the party, governmental system, and eventually the state itself, into a crisis.[42]

From 1975 to 1987 the general tone of people’s thinking in India became darker, moving from “political disquiet to a deeper historical pessimism.”[43] Sudipta Kaviraj attributes to the Emergency years of 1975-1977 this sense of apprehension about Indian democracy and gloom over the tasks that Nehru’s state had undertaken.[44] During these two years, the state unleashed the full measure of its coercive powers against the populace. Under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) and the Defense of India Rules (DIR), from 1975-1977 nearly 110,000 people were detained.[45] For the first time since Independence, freedom of speech and press were severely curtailed. Emergency rule became a virtual “bureaucracy-cum-police raj” with many instances of blatant misuse of power.[46] The forced sterilizations of around 8.2 million men and women between 1976 and 1977 and forced slum clearances, organized by Indira’s son Sanjay Gandhi and the Youth Congress, became among the worst memories of the Emergency.[47] Such draconian actions aroused strong opposition to the government after a brief period of support for the stability that the Emergency brought.[48]

 By January 1977, the authoritarian interlude ended. But politics and the state, “once seen as the prophylactic that would invigorate the country, were now seen as the disease,” a disease set in process by the expedient politics of populism.[49]

The MGR phenomenon

Indira faced a political backlash from the Emergency in the elections of 1977. For the first time in the history of independent India, a non-Congress government under the Janata party alliance captured power at the center. However, in Tamil Nadu, Congress (I)’s position was strengthened through a coalition with the “Robin Hood of Tamil movies,” MGR.[50] Matinee idol MGR exploited the film-politics nexus like no other before him, and he rose to the highest office in Tamil Nadu, only to entrench a regime mired in corruption.

The cinema industry occupied an influential position in Tamil Nadu’s post-colonial history. When the DMK dislodged Congress from the helm in the Tamil Nadu state’s Fourth Legislative Assembly elections in 1967, the widely acknowledged reason for the DMK victory was that its intimate association with both theatre and cinema helped the party to spread its ideology and gain mass support.[51]

During the silent film era (1917-1931), films produced in the South Indian film production capital of Madras (now known as Chennai) were mostly mythological films, which brought stories from Hindu myths and epics to the screen. After the first Tamil sound feature, the mythological film Kalidas (Dir. H. M. Reddy, 1931), the introduction of talkies accelerated the Tamil film industry's development. However, by the mid-forties, the public’s interest in mythological films began to fade.

For fresh ideas, the film industry capitalized on the popularity of playwrights from Tamil theatre, who were associated with the Dravidian movement. Tamil Nadu’s first non-Congress Chief Minister, C. N. Annadurai, was a scriptwriter who had first established the DMK in 1949. The DMK was a political offshoot from the anti-Brahmin, anti-Congress and anti-North Indian cultural and social reformist movement Dravida Kazhagam (Dravidian Federation). From the late 1940s, Annadurai and his successor as Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi—who held the view that “art should be for propaganda”—scripted a series of socially themed melodramas heavily politicized in their rejection of North-Indian domination and Brahmin supremacy.[52] In these ideological films, such as Nallathambi (“Good Brother,” Dir. Krishnan-Panju, 1949), Veilaikaari (“Servant Girl,” Dir. A. S. A.Samy, 1949) and the controversial Parasakthi (“Goddess,” Dir. Krishnan-Panju, 1952), DMK’s themes centered on issues such as

“widow-remarriage, the injustices of untouchability, the self-respect marriage, zamindari abolition [zamindars were members of the landed gentry who were absentee landlords], Prohibition and religious hypocrisy.”[53]

Thus, since its early history, Tamil movies have politicized art.

The DMK propaganda machine found an emblematic figure in MGR. First, the red and black DMK party flag and the party symbol of the rising sun inspired anagrammatic references placed in MGR films.[54] Typically, MGR’s characters appeared in a red shirt and a pair of black pants in the opening scenes of color films like Nam Naadu (“Our Country,” Dir. Jambulingam, 1969) or in important scenes in films like Rickshawkaran (“Rickshaw-man,” Dir. M. Krishnan, 1971). In black and white films, MGR’s characters had names like uthaya suriyan (rising sun) and kathiravan (sun) as in Chakravarty Thirumagal (“Princess,” Dir. P. Neelakantan, 1957) and Puthiya Bhoomi (“New World,” Dir. Tapi Chanakya, 1968) respectively. In addition, the Manichean Weltanschauung of MGR’s films often centered on the conflict between the upper-caste men/women or the feudal landlords/rich industrialists versus MGR, the proletarian representative of the subaltern classes and lower castes.[55] MGR was also the archetypal Tamil hero: irresistibly handsome, brave, warrior-like, and unselfish.[56] As such a hero par excellence, MGR monopolized popular imagination as the swashbuckling champion of the downtrodden while allegorically representing the DMK.

Though MGR was strongly linked to the DMK for most of its history, he left the party in 1971 and was able to thrive independently as a politician with his own offshoot All India Anna-DMK (AIADMK) party. MGR’s success stems from the “symbiotic relationship” between cinema and politics in Tamil Nadu.[57] MGR was able to employ performative idioms within his campaign rhetoric. For instance, an important motif in MGR films was that the thaaikulam (mother community) was regarded as preeminently weak and especially worthy of protection.[58] Consonant with characterizations in popular MGR films like Thai Kaatha Thanaiyan (“Son who Protects his Mother,” Dir. M. A.Thirumugam,1962), Enga Veetu Pillai (“Child of Our Home,” Dir. Tapi Chanakya, 1965) and Adimai Penn (“Enslaved Woman,” Dir. K. Sankar, 1969) MGR in his election tours depicted Indira

“as a poor mother wanting to do good to the downtrodden being hounded on all sides by evil men.”[59]

Through the effective fusion of the virtual and the real, MGR became an active promoter of Indira’s populism and thrived in the new political environment that she created as Chief Minister.

Having nurtured his image as an exemplar of “paternal populist” values through his work in film, MGR was able to successfully translate this into a political idiom.[60] Paternal populism encouraged party cadre and supporters to believe that the leader’s munificence directly brought them the benefits they received.[61] The spirit of paternalist populism was exemplified by “The Chief Minister’s Noon-Meals Programme” ushered in July 1982 by MGR. Under this program at least one meal each was provided for over six million underfed children; and it later included, pensioners, military veterans and destitute widows—totaling up to over twelve million beneficiaries by 1986.[62] As a result, MGR’s image was greatly enhanced by praises such as the “benevolent god of the masses” and metonymic sobriquets like Annam itta kai (the hand which has given food)—incidentally also the name of an MGR film from 1972.[63] This program was accompanied by other populist schemes such as the availability of rice at subsidized prizes for low and middle-income earners in ration shops.[64] Puratchi thalaivar (revolutionary leader) MGR’s populism solidified his cinematic imago from films to create a formidable political image —these films included Nadodi Mannan (“The Vagabond King,” Dir. T. V. Sundaram, 1958) where a revolutionary becomes a benevolent king. The successful fusion of cinema and politics ensured that only death in 1987 would end MGR’s term in office.

In spite of any populist efforts to end poverty, research by the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) suggests that over 40 percent of the people in the State continued to languish below the officially defined poverty line.[65] Furthermore, between 1972-1973 and 1983, the rural male unemployment rate in Tamil Nadu increased by 86 percent, higher than the 17.8 percent national level, while the urban unemployment rate from 1977-1978 to 1983 increased in Tamil Nadu at the same time it decreased at an all-India level.[66] To use film terms, populist measures by the MGR regime only gave the “illusion of change” as MGR continued to “perform” even while in office.[67]

Many see MGR’s eleven-year rule as one of the darkest periods in Tamil Nadu’s contemporary history.[68] MGR created a despotic regime that violently repressed trade unions and opposed NGOs.[69] The state of Tamil Nadu also acquired the “distinction” as a “ruthless police-raj” amongst other shortcomings.[70] Unchecked police rule was further granted legal sanction by the Goondas (Thugs) Act of 1982, which empowered the District Collector (the most powerful government official in the district of a state) to detain anyone suspected to be a potential violator of the law for a whole year without trial.[71] Any restive opposition that used newspapers as its mouthpiece to criticize the AIADMK government was silenced through the Anti-Scurrility act of 1982 or illegally by party thugs. Atul Kohli shows that MGR and his entourage “ruled the state as a personal fiefdom” and brought it to near economic and administrative collapse.[72] This personal form of rule compounded the large-scale corruption that belied the anti-corruption platform upon which MGR rode on in the 1977 election campaign against Karunanidhi.[73] All-pervasive corruption, from MGR at the top to the police at the local level, crippled effective state functioning. Contrary to the radiant aura that surrounded his filmic incarnations, Chief Minister MGR instituted a dark period in the state’s history.

Any resentment held towards politicians targeted middle-level mandarins for condemnation but never the charismatic figure of MGR, who successfully deflected criticism away from himself. He could

“distribute the causes for the ever increasing corruption and oppression in his rule among others—the officials, ministers and lower-level party functionaries.”[74]

Most people continued to glorify the cult of the leader but blamed their woes on his underlings. The obvious state corruption that the poor faced every day, in fact, allowed MGR to escape accusations of irresponsibility because of his incorruptible film image.[75]

Despite his government’s shortcomings, the cumulative effect of MGR’s paternalist populism granted him a god-like stature. This kind of deification was aided by his fan clubs and “popular biographies” that obliterated any difference between his film imago and actual life philosophy.[77] When he suffered a paralytic stroke in October 1984, at least twenty-two people immolated themselves or cut off their limbs, fingers, or toes as offering to various deities, praying for the ailing leader’s recovery.[78] When MGR died in December 1987, thirty-one of his followers committed suicide in grief.

For a decade, MGR had perfected the truism of ruling with an iron fist in a velvet glove—aided by his image as cinematic superego. By exacerbating what Indira activated, MGR’s leadership contributed to the conjunctures that delegitimized the state. The political situation had its effects on the cinematic realm as film narratives, through the persona of an angry young hero, exposed the state as an atrophied system.

Historicizing the “Angry Young Man” genre

I hope that my somewhat tedious analyses of the preceding sections serve to situate the reader firmly in the socio-political context in which the “AYM” genre thrived. I am using a “reflectionist” perspective, which considers a genre’s popularity as depending on the extent to which it addresses and negotiates contemporary concerns.[79] The “AYM” genre clearly operates within the matrices of the “social film,” a typology that varies from the mythological and historical films of Indian cinema. The social film seems based on life “as it is lived at the present time.”[80] As such, the genre encourages vicarious identification with the righteous indignation of an anti-hero. Through its kinds of characterization, narrative forms, iconography, idioms, ideology and auteurship, the genre’s conventions were used to develop fictions symptomatic of its time.

First, I want to justify using the term “AYM” genre. I find the term “social film” or "political film" to define a genre too broad because almost all contemporary films are social. With genres such as the historical and mythological all but gone by the mid-1970s, the “social film” lacked these as a counterpoint to differentiate itself as a genre on its own. The term genre is appropriate in describing the “AYM” films because only genre simultaneously addresses

“the industry’s investment in standardized narratives for commercial use on the one hand and the spectator’s pleasure in genre films with their stock narratives structured around repetition and differences.”[81]

While each individual film may fit into traditional categories of genre such as "melodrama," "drama," "action," "thriller" or a fusion of a number of categories of genre (a common practice in Indian cinema), the repetition of key conventions and/or shared thematic preoccupations that appear to relay similar messages film after film, also legitimizes the use of the term genre to describe the "AYM" films.

In his book on the history of Tamil cinema, film director and industry insider Muktha V. Sinivaasan categorizes four phases of development in Tamil films between 1931 and 1993:

The changes the Tamil film industry underwent between the second and third stages are necessary to understand the "AYM" genre. The star-system, dominated by the swashbuckling hero MGR and the thespian Sivaji since the 1950s came to an end in the mid-1970s—as the former took office as Chief Minister and the latter’s films began to fail at the box office. According to Sundar Kaali, the end of the star-system that had thrived for twenty years unabated, affected the studios and the producers, and plunged the industry into a “period of profound crisis.”[83] However, by the early 1980s, a new star-system based on the duopoly of the superstar Rajinikanth and the method actor Kamalhaasan revived the industry. During this intervening period, from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, new modes of representation emerged that introduced hitherto unexplored characterizations.

New modes of representation—defined by increasing narrative realism—were a hallmark of the genre known as neo-nativity films. Nativity films are stories set in rural Tamil Nadu, valorizing the rustic and foregrounding the lives of villagers. Neo-Nativity films like Annakkili (Dir. Devaraj-Mohan, 1976), Pattinaru Vayatinile (“At the Age of Sixteen, Dir. Bharathirajaa, 1977), Rocappu Ravikkaikkari (“Woman with the Rose-colored Blouse” Dir. Devaraj-Mohan, 1978) and Puttata Puttukkal (“Dysfunctional Locks, Dir. Mahendran, 1980) were popular in this period.The Old Nativity films, prior to the period, were distinguished by the phallic affirmation of the rustic hero and his victorious journey to eliminate social evils in the village and the city, while triumphing over the modern woman whom he successfully tames.[84] In contrast, the male protagonist in the Neo-Nativity film evidenced arrested development, mental inadequacy, physical failure and needed to be supported by a dominant female character. The portrayal of the village also changed in the Neo-Nativity films with greater care for verisimilitude and detail, as directors like Bharathirajaa, R. Selvaraj, K. Bhagyaraj, J. Mahendran, Balu Mahendra and the duo of Devaraj-Mohan took the Tamil film out of the studios and into the countryside for location shoots in searching for more authentic cinematography.

A by-product of the shift away from melodrama after the embrace of the Neo-Nativity film was a transition towards more controversial interpretations of heroism and bolder subjects. New genres were explored and fresh new directions were taken in Tamil cinema to reinvigorate it after the crisis that occurred with the end of MGR-Sivaji star system. Young actors like Kamalhaasan—who was starting his career at this point—were willing to experiment and move away from hackneyed ideas of heroism. The success of the suspense thriller Sigappu Rojakkal (“Red Roses,” Dir. Bharathirajaa, 1978), a film ahead of its time, introduced as protagonist the hitherto unseen figure of a psychotic and demented anti-hero (played by Kamalhaasan).[85] The avant-garde drama Aval Appadithan ("That’s How She is," Dir. C.Rudraiah, 1978) was another critically acclaimed film released during this period. An unsentimental feminist film about a fiercely independent woman, and her difficult relationship with men, Aval Appadithan uses a fluid narrative style and music to “[mix] flashbacks with vox-pop and glossy pictorialism.”[85b]  Such stylized techniques of story telling were a new innovation in Tamil cinema. By shedding its melodramatic excesses, Tamil cinema became more receptive to unorthodox themes and unconventional filmmaking.

The representational space opened up by Rajinikanth, or the Rajini-persona, similarly recoded conventions of heroism in Tamil cinema. Rajini introduced the figure of a forceful, menacing, macho anti-hero, as seen in the drama films Mullum Malarum (“Thorn and Rose,” Dir. J. Mahendran, 1978) and Thappu Thalangal (“Wrong Beats,” Dir. K. Balachander, 1978). Having begun his career as a stylish villain with gimmicks such as flicking a cigarette into his mouth, catchy one-liners, quick movements and swaggering mannerisms, Rajini fit into the mould of what was known in the industry as a “negative hero.” [86] Sinivaasan explains that the “negative hero” was celebrated because he was a refreshing change from the melodrama’s use of the self-sacrificing hero who renounces every personal advantage.[87] The audience, it seems, no longer found such representations believable. Rajini instead excelled in glamorizing and humanizing the lumpenproletariat in roles such as these—alcoholic, local gangster, gambler, henchman—but always a man with a fundamentally good character beneath a tough exterior.[88]

The popularity of the Rajini-persona was such that even when this stylized “negative hero” made a cameo, albeit an important one, as in Naan Vazhavaippaen (“I Will Sustain You,” Dir. D. Yoganad 1979) audiences thronged to watch. One journalist noted that many who bought tickets for the thriller Naan Vazhavaippaen only arrived after the interval (or intermission)[89] when Rajini appears as Michael De Souza, the chain-smoking thief with a heart, even though Sivaji was the leading actor and hero.[90] This persona was manipulated to great effect in Rajini’s first blockbuster Billa (Dir. Balaji, 1980), a shot-for-shot remake of the Hindi film Don (Dir. Chandra Barot, 1978). In Billa, Rajini plays both a ruthless mafia don and a virtuous but unpolished street-dancer who takes the former’s place to help the police infiltrate the underworld. Rajini’s capacity to straddle convincingly both illegality and benevolent innocence ensured Billa’s box-office success. His idiosyncratic display of anti-heroism thrust Rajini from the status of fringe actor towards superstardom.

The multiple levels of signification that encode the Rajini-persona bestowed it with legitimacy and accentuated its enunciation of defiance against established power relations. Despite being an outsider—Rajini was an ethnic Marathi born in the city of Bangalore in the neighboring South Indian state of Kannada—he became a superstar because the Rajini-hero closely adhered to the definitions of appropriate Tamil masculinity. Markers such as “wearing of a moustache, physical prowess, authority, sexual virility and the capacity to control women” epitomize Tamil masculinity.[91] Rajini’s characters displayed these localized markers of manhood with panache. Another factor, which made Rajini unique, was his dark complexion. Dark Rajini was strikingly different from his predecessors like MGR and Sivaji, who were fair heroes whose radiance on celluloid was assisted by thick pancake make-up. If MGR, for instance, did appear as a dark-skinned character, it was to portray a criminal doppelganger in films like Kudiyiruntha Kovil (‘Temple of Refuge’, Dir. K.Shankar, 1968), and Naalai Namadhe (‘Tomorrow is Ours’, Dir. K.S.Sethumadhavan, 1975), usually alongside another fair-skinned, good MGR character as foil. Even Rajini’s contemporary, Kamalhaasan, was fair in complexion. The socio-cultural significance of skin-color is that for a long time Tamil cinema, like other cinemas in India, perpetuated the stereotype that black is blemish, where dark skin is thought to be the skin color of the lowest castes, lower classes and the traditionally subjugated people. In contrast, fair skin, is associated with the ruling elites (the Mughals and the British were fair skinned rulers), upper castes and a higher social class.[91b] Rajini broke the deeply entrenched colorist stereotypes to become the first dark-skinned superstar and the true representative of the oppressed. Rajini’s entry into cinema also allowed another dark-hued actor Vijayakanth to become a star. Film academic Rajan Krishnan recounts that Vijayakanth—who also played mostly vigilante roles in the lower budget films of the “AYM” genre—was considered to be a “low budget substitute to Rajini” in the initial phases of his film career.[92] The Rajini-persona hence, embodied an authentic, subaltern Tamil masculinity that would become a potent symbol of rebellion.

To understand the trope of the “AYM,” it is essential at this juncture, to look at the ur-text, Amitabh Bachchan. Bachchan first acted as the brooding loner hero in Zanjeer (“Chains,” Dir. Prakash Mehra, 1973) and epitomized it after the success of Deewaar (“Wall,” Dir. Yash Chopra, 1975), Sholay (“Ember,” Dir. Ramesh Sippy, 1975) and Trishul (“Trident,” Dir. Yash Chopra, 1978). The Indian press at that time gave the title of “Anti-hero” and “Angry Young Man” to this character, which became synonymous with Bachchan after other similar portrayals in later films.[93] This anti-hero character time and again was scripted for actions that went against institutional norms but were the right thing to do.[94] In that way Bachchan’s characters represented a

“unified understanding of civil society after the Emergency that institutions have failed [and] that old paradigms of civility will not work.”[95]

The angry hero’s violence and rebellion against the state made these films "anti-establishment."[96]

Significantly, the Rajini-persona also became the voice of a new sensibility, best described as cynical and anti-political. Where Bachchan was laconic in his articulation of rage, Rajini was sardonic. In the drama film, Mullum Malarum, the protagonist Kaali’s status as subaltern accounts for his distrust of all forms of establishment and so he sings:

“Raman aandalum raavanan aandalum enokkoru kavalai illae” (I don’t care if the epic hero Ram rules or or the evil demon Ravana rules).

The counter-hegemonic principles embedded within these lyrics and the song's popularity and widespread distribution were said to have earned the ire of the ruling AIADMK party.[97] Likewise, in another dramatic film, Thappu Thalangal, the lead character Devu begins the narrative as a lumpenproletariat hireling of politicians. He does their bidding, intimidating and injuring opponents, and from this position he sardonically praises the political system that sustains him. The first indications that Tamil cinema was responding to popular political skepticism began to be registered in terms of the irreverent Rajini-persona.

The subversive charisma of the Rajini-persona found an especially willing audience amongst marginalized men. Art historian Preminda Jacob’s informs us that the Rajini-hero was an object of fantasy and desire for “thousands of economically disenfranchised youths,” many of whom watched the same Rajini-film a number of times over.[98] While more concrete empirical evidence needs to be gathered to affirm this point, there is a possibility that Rajini’s being dark-skinned enabled male fans from the subaltern classes and lower castes in Tamil Nadu, most of whom are dark-skinned, to relate with ease to Rajini’s characters. The dark Rajini-hero’s stylized irreverence encouraged what anthropologist Frederick G. Bailey calls the

“supreme trick of identification in which the [masses] see the [the hero] not only as an ideal above them but simultaneously as one of them.”[99]

This manner of relating to the characters effectively contributed to the idealization and subsequent idolization of the superstar, as Rajini became known as thalaivar (leader) to his legions of fans. Vicarious identification for the audience is therefore facilitated when phenotypical signifiers reinforce the screenplay to demarcate the hero as an everyman or man from the masses.

Concomitant with his performances as an anti-hero, Rajini acted in films that reconfigured this persona as an avenging hero driven by sheer rage. “AYM” genre narratives focalized around two motifs. One was the metamorphosis of either a virtuous idealist or an innocent simpleton into a hardened, vengeful vigilante. This metamorphosis into militancy is justified as a necessary transformation the hero must undergo in his fight for justice in a time of social disintegration and moral decay. Themes centering on vendetta that were hitherto the mainstay of the sub-genre of “idli westerns” like Ganga (Dir. M. Karnan, 1972), an indigenized pastiche of Hollywood Westerns, were reconstituted in mainstream action films.[100] The “idli western” was briefly revisited in Thai Meedhu Sathyam (“Upon Mother I Promise,” Dir. R. Thyagarajan, 1978) in which the protagonist Babu, played by Rajini, is a village hick whose parents are murdered by bandits. Under the tutelage of another cowboy gunslinger, Babu becomes a sharpshooter who pursues and ruthlessly executes the perpetrators. Though the “idli western” ended after the less successful Naan Potta Savaal (“The Challenge I Made,” Dir. Puratchidaasan, 1980), motifs of metamorphosis and vengeance were reworked from “idli westerns” to became the dominant narrative device in action films like En Kelvikku Enna Bathil (“What is the Answer to My Question?” Dir. P. Madhavan, 1978), Kaali (Dir. I. V. Sasi, 1980), Polladhavan (“Ruthless One,” Dir. V. Srinivasan, 1980), Garjanai (“Roar,” Dir. C. V. Rajendran, 1981), and the martial arts film Paayum Puli (“Springing Tiger,” Dir. S. P. Muthuraman, 1983). With the success of these films, Rajini carved out for himself a niche in vendetta roles.

A corollary motif in the “AYM” genre was that of a pathologically obsessive protagonist whose lost innocence festers into a need for revenge. This was first explored to some extent in Rajini’s inception as solo-lead in the rural melodrama-thriller, Bhairavi (Dir. M. Bhaskar, 1978) but with limited box-office success. It was the hit film Dharmayuddham (“Righteous War,” Dir. R. C. Sakthi, 1979) that best elaborated this theme and effectively inaugurated the “AYM” genre. In Dharmayuddham, the hero Vijay, played by Rajini, turns into a lunatic every full moon night because as a child he witnessed the brutal murder of his parents on a full moon night. While the audience is informed of this through the linear narrative, the adult Vijay does not understand the cause for his trauma until he finds out that it was the same mobster who also murdered his foster sister. An enraged Vijay hunts the criminal gang down to avenge the deaths of his family and exorcize his personal demons. This trope of a traumatized child growing up to seek revenge was revisited in Rajini-films like Thee (“Fire,” Dir. R. Krishnamoorthy, 1981), Mr. Bharath (Dir. S. P. Muthuraman, 1986) and Siva (Dir. Ameerjan, 1989) and in Vijayakanth films like Parvayin Marupakkam (“The Other Sight,” Dir. K. M. Balakrishnan, 1982) and Theerpu En Kaiyil (“Judgement is Mine,” Dir. V. P. Sunder, 1984).

The blockbuster Murattukkalai (“Rogue Bull,” Dir. S. P. Muthuraman, 1980) truly cemented Rajini’s status as superstar.[101] This visually spectacular film juxtaposes the rustic beauty of the Tamil countryside against the atrocities perpetrated by a powerful landlord and his henchmen on the poor. Sundaralingam is a haughty and malicious zamindar out to eliminate an equally wealthy but simple landlord Kaalaiyan (played by Rajini), who avoids village politics and lives as a recluse. Sundaralingam’s devious accountant prods him to destroy Kaalaiyan by portraying Kaalaiyan as a threat to his zamindari power. After Sundaralingam and the policemen in his payroll frame Kaalaiyan for a murder he did not commit, Kaalaiyan escapes and becomes a fugitive on the run from the law. Driven by rage, Kaalaiyan clears his name and gets his revenge. The scenes where Kaalaiyan successfully engages in jallikattu (bullfighting) and numerous thrilling fight sequences made the film popular in both rural and urban areas. (Jallikattu is a popular rural sport played during the harvest season in Tamil Nadu, in which an unarmed participant must remove a bundle of coins tied to an extremely aggressive and powerful bulls by taming the bull.) Kaalaiyan’s fearless participation in jallikattu emphasizes his ferocious masculinity and signals the end of the castrated protagonist in the Neo-Nativity films. Murattukkalai has since acquired an iconic status and is considered to be a classic in the genre of action films in Tamil cinema.

After Murattukkalai, a new formula for heroism entered Tamil action film aesthetics. In contrast to the MGR film that centers on the struggle of the hero to protect the vulnerable, uplift the poor and emancipate society from social evils, Kaalaiyan’s struggle is a personal vendetta. Echoing similar shifts in Hollywood's modes of representation, the angry young hero in Tamil cinema “ceased to be a clear agent of the community” unlike the archetypal MGR hero who acts because he shares their values.[102] Rather, this new anti-hero exists in a dystopic setting but survives because he sees through the political and bureaucratic fallacies upon which the system depends and acts out of a personal motive, which may unwittingly serve a social purpose.[103] For M. Madhava Prasad, it is not identification but instead the dynamic of counter-identification evoked by the rogue Rajini-persona that distinguishes him from the law-abiding MGR hero, who battles to restore a better-improved version of the existing system.[104] In the action melodramas starring MGR, the hero invariably establishes what is just within the system and thus affirms the current social order rather than advancing a critique of it.[105] The new generation of anti-heroes in the “AYM” genre, led by Rajini, expose the political superstructure of the state behind the “system” as degenerate and incapable of delivering justice.  The angry hero must now achieve his own justice and establish a new social order, independent of the state.

This does not mean that all the angry heroes in the genre become social bandits by default. Eric Hobsbawm coined the term “social banditry” to describe

“peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation.”[106]

Most of the vigilantes in the genre are neither considered as social bandits nor elevated to that level—as delineated by Hobsbawm—in their struggle against the state. The only exception is the protagonist in the action drama, Malaiyur Mambattiyan (Dir. Rajasekar, 1983). The film details the criminalization of a young blacksmith Mambattiyan (played by actor Thiagarajan), who massacres the village landlord and his henchmen, to avenge the murder of his parents by the landlord. Mambattiyan becomes a bandit, hiding in the jungles of the fictional hill area of Malaiyur, stealing from the rich to give to the poor and defending the poor villagers from oppression. The police, however, pursue Mambattiyan as an outlaw who must be caught. After Mambattiyan is killed in a gun battle with the police, he is venerated as a folk deity, who still continues to protect the village.

Another crucial disjuncture from films of the preceding era is that in the “AYM” genre, narratives no longer end with negotiation and the reformation of the antagonist. Before the “AYM” genre arrived, it was common for a malevolent landlord or usurious industrialist to be represented as repentant for his errors and turning a new leaf, or a smuggler being rightfully tried by the law at the end of the narrative. A new trend emerges whereby films end with a bloodthirsty denouement and the villain’s annihilation by the angry hero who acts as judge, jury and executioner.[107] This recurrent patterning of the narrative around a violent dispenser of justice becomes a successful formula in the 1980s that exists alongside other genres like the nativity films, romances, family melodramas, comedies, cop films, and action comedies.[108]

The definition of what constitutes the “AYM” genre can be extended beyond action films to include art films. This refers to films like Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu (“The Color of Poverty is Red,” Dir. K. Balachander, 1980), Nizhalgal (“Shadows,” Dir. Bharathirajaa, 1980) and Ezhavathu Manithan (“The Seventh Man,” Dir. K. Hariharan, 1982). Different from the commercial films that seek to provide wholesome entertainment, art films exclude such elements as comic interludes, fight/stunt sequences, cabaret dances, or stock villains. However, unlike other language film industries in India, in Tamil cinema there has been no split between commercial cinema and art or “parallel” cinema.[109] Working within the same mainstream matrix, even art films have had to ensure some kind of commercial viability and so retain popular song segments. In the melancholic Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu, the lead character of Rangan (played by actor Kamalhaasan) has a postgraduate degree in philosophy but remains jobless in the city of New Delhi. Rangan’s anger against the political system that cannot provide jobs and a decent living for its people is expressed through his recital of the Tamil poems of early 20th century Indian nationalist Subramania Bharathi. The film vividly captures the penury that Rangan and his two roommates live in as they struggle for their next meal. Without recourse to sentimentality, the experimental films of the genre dramatize the harsh realities of unemployment and poverty in a world of broken dreams.

Besides the angry hero’s rage around which the entire plot pivots, there are other compositional elements that give a sense of coherence to the subversive functions of the genre. Central among these are the much-maligned figures of the politician and the policeman, synecdoches for a corrupt state. K. Naresh Kumar, argues that it was South Indian cinema that first introduced films with politicians and government ministers as the central villains and added vile policemen to the repertoire.[110] This was a recent development because prior to the 1980s, there were almost no negative portrayals of ministers and policemen in Tamil cinema. Targeting the figure of the politician and the police for acrimonious fantasy suggests cinema’s alacrity in responding to shifts in mass consciousness.

Politicians’ corruption, as depicted in films of the 1980s, is an image that reflects many viewers opinions, which accounts for its popularity.[111] The critique of politics evolved from satirical dialogues to a displacement of resentment onto a personified figure. An example of the use of satire in Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu is the scene after the protagonist Rangan and his roommates lose 100 rupees to the landlord. They bitterly mimic the political sloganeering of zindabaad (long live) and stage a mock protest in their home:

“100 rupees zindabaad! Bharath sarkar zindabaad! University zindabaad! B.A. degree zindabaad! Unemployment suffering zindabaad! Congress party zindabaad! Congress (I) zindabaad! Congress (U) zindabaad! Congress (X) zindabaad! Congress(Y) zindabaad! Congress (Z) zindabaad!”

The clever play on Indira’s Congress (I) party name with other alphabetical variants emphasizes a disdain for democratic politics in India. Using satire, Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu suggests that factional politics are the root cause of poverty and unemployment. This intensified into a vociferous indictment in the rural drama film Thanneer…Thanneer (“Water…Water,” Dir. K. Balachander, 1981) based on Komal Swaminathan’s play. This film can be considered the cinematic moment after which the suitcase politician entered popular imagination as antagonist. The realism with which Thanneer…Thanneer portrayed the pitiable state of the rural poor at the hands of politicians” compelled the ruling MGR government to try to ban its release.[112]

After Thanneer…Thanneer, politicians were consistently lampooned as unscrupulous characters committing mass deception beneath their façade as public leaders. In Sivappu Malli (“Red Jasmine,” Dir. Ramanarayanan, 1981), Thanikattu Raja (“Lone-Forest King” Dir. V. C. Gohanathan, 1982), Sathyam Neeye (“You are Righteousness,” Dir. P. Madhavan, 1984), Pagal Nilavu (“Day Moon,” Dir. Mani Ratnam, 1985) and Oorkkavalan (“Village Guardian,” Dir. Manobala, 1987), the angry protagonists who had earlier been victims of the landlord-smuggler-politicians’ machinations, struggle to awaken the villagers’ consciousness against the rural power structures that oppress them. In Neethiyin Maruppakkam (“The Other Side of Justice,” Dir. S. A. Chandrasekar, 1985) the government minister abets the crimes committed by the landlord who sponsors him. The more scathing representations from Oru Kaidhiyin Diary (“A Prisoner’s Diary,” Dir. Bharathirajaa, 1984), Oomai Vizhigal (“Mute Eyes,” Dir. R. Aravindraj, 1986), Makkal En Pakkam (“The People are on My Side,” Dir. Karthick Raghunath, 1987), Sathyaa (Dir. Suresh Krissna, 1988) and Urimai Geetham (“Song of Liberation,” Dir. R. V. Uthayakumar, 1988) unveil venal politicians and their hoodlums as the primary cause of social unrest and crime. While figures such as the landlord, industrialist, and smuggler still remain enduring villains, the politician as scoundrel has entrenched a new cinematic convention.

Similar symbolic assaults were often launched against the police, an institution that marks the legal state’s sovereign presence most widely in India. According to the Third Report of the National Police Commission more than 70 per cent of the public in 1978 believed the police to be corrupt as well as partial towards the rich and influential.[113] The film Sattam Oru Iruttarai (“The Law is a Dark Room,” Dir. S. A. Chandrasekar, 1981) used this perception of the police and the law. The film’s title is a phrase from a popular dialogue in the Annadurai-scripted film, Veilaikari (1949):

“Sattam oru iruttarai, aathil vakeelin vadham oru vilakku. aanal adhu ezhaikku ettadha vilakku” (Law is a dark room where the lawyer’s argument is a lamp. But it is inaccessible to the poor).

Sattam Oru Iruttarai, depicts the struggle between a vigilante Vijay (played by actor Vijayakanth) and his elder sister Sheela, who is a cop, over how best to avenge the murder of their father and rape and murder of their sister when they were children.[114] Vijay justifies circumventing the law to his sister, who seeks to punish the criminals legally, by stating that the law and the police are in the “shirt pocket” of the rich. Through Vijay’s triumph, Sattam Oru Iruttarai celebrates the efforts of the vigilante while discrediting the work of the cop as cumbersome and slow. This binary was celebrated in other hit films like Moondru Mugam (“Three Faces,” Dir. A. Jagannathan, 1982), Sattam Oru Vilaiyattu (“The Law is a Game,” Dir. S. A. Chandrasekar, 1987), Manithan (“Human,” Dir. S. P. Muthuraman, 1987), Kaliyum (“Age of Strife,” Dir. K. Subash, 1988) and the dark comedy, Aboorva Sagotharargal (“Amazing Brothers,” Dir. Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, 1989) as a means of discrediting the police on celluloid.

The mounting distrust of the police in Tamil cinema since the early 1980s reached a violent crescendo in Nayakan (“Hero,” Dir. Mani Ratnam, 1987). Time magazine’s Richard Corliss praised the critically acclaimed Nayakan as a “terrific gangster epic in the Godfather style.”[115] This classic Indian gangster film chronicles the mythic ascent of a poor Tamil immigrant Velu (played by Kamalhaasan) in the Bombay slums; he moves from tortured child to petty smuggler to underworld don and later ageing patriarch Naicker-Ayya. Despite evading the law throughout the narrative, Velu is finally killed by one of his own henchmen disguised ironically as a cop.

For Lalitha Gopalan, Nayakan exhibits a strong “preference for vigilante justice in the absence of the legitimate authority of the state.”[116] In Nayakan, a “transfer of power” from state to subaltern is achieved through a violent ritual battle between Velu and the Hindi inspector Kelkar. Kelkar is depicted as a cruel cop, described variously as a mirugam (animal) or kaattaan (barbarian), who terrorizes the migrant Tamil populace of the slums. The confrontation between subaltern and inspector is staged in a past that is neither clearly dated nor stated, but Gopalan infers based on her study of the film’s automobiles and setting that it references the 1950s.[117] Significantly, the narrative projects the anxieties of the present onto its imagining of the past. For much of the 1980s, cases of malfeasance like rape in the police station, police torture and inhuman jail conditions became widely publicized and debated.[118] By building up intense hatred for the police and allowing Velu to eliminate them, Nayakan

 “enlists our sympathy to see the police as brutal and incapable of delivering justice, a role that Velu better fulfills.”[119]

The manner in which it undermines police authority establishes semantic continuity between Nayakan and other “AYM” films.

Explicit rape scenes are another important plot mechanism in many films in the genre paralleling an increased public awareness of rape cases and crimes against women. Chinniah’s study suggests that the violent exposure of the female body was incorporated into rape scenes to an unprecedented extent in Tamil cinema from the 1980s onwards, which she attributes to the staging of these scenes in the “AYM” genre.[120] Chinniah also observes that films prior to this decade did have rape scenes but intercut these scenes with symbolic images of the act.[121] The move away from theatricality to brutal realism coincided with the increased visibility of violence against women, brought about by the arrival of women’s issues into the public agenda.[122] This came especially after the Mathura rape case (1979-1980) which brought crucial aspects of women’s oppression to the fore.[123] Mirroring the court’s initial acquittal of the two policemen who raped a tribal girl, the way perpetrators of rape escape from sentence in films mobilizes the vigilante. who must act to punish with retributive justice where the courts could not.

Seen retroactively, Naan Sigappu Manithan (“I am a Red Man,” Dir. S. A. Chandrasekar, 1985) is an exemplary text for the manner in which all the basic conventions of the genre intersect in its diegesis.[124] Based on the Hollywood films Death Wish (Dir. Michael Winner, 1975) and its sequel Death Wish II (Dir. Michael Winner, 1982), Naan Sigappu Manithan tells the story of a young Professor Vijay, played by Rajini, whose perfect middle-class family life is destroyed after his mother’s murder and sister’s rape; the sister then commits suicide. Because the thugs who committed the crimes escaped an earlier rape conviction through political connections, Vijay decides against engaging the law. He then becomes a reluctant, embittered vigilante roaming the city streets armed with a gun, hunting not just the gang that ruined his family but all criminals. After he eliminates the mafia responsible for crime in the city, Vijay surrenders.

Where Naan Sigappu Manithan deviates from Death Wish is in its unleashing of nationalist angst in a climactic courtroom drama scene. In Indian cinema, the court is a

“highly dramatic space in which personal, public, and even national issues collide.”[125]

All three realms converge in the film to inspire the angry young hero’s tirade against the state. In court Vijay testifies:

“In this Independent country, I grew very fast but unfortunately, ruthlessness, murder, robbery, bribery, corruption, political conniving, and rape seemed in competition with my growth and grew faster then me. I believed that the law and those responsible to defend and upkeep it would correct this sorry situation. But I realized that the law I once respected could not do anything. Which is why I decided…to take the law into my hands.”

Such lines resonated strongly in a society where the judicial system was weakened by being privy to partisan politics and manipulated by vested political interests. By the 1980s, the question of whether the judiciary and legal apparatus were even capable of delivering justice became a matter of national concern.[126] This situation was mimicked in films like Naan Mahaan Alla (“I am No Saint,” Dir. S. P. Muthuraman, 1984), Vetri (“Victory,” Dir. S. A. Chandrasekar, 1984) and Jallikattu (“Bullfight,” Dir. Manivannan, 1987) where the courts are helpless in the face of the political and financial prowess. In this way, the popular genre echoed popular sentiments of that era.

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.”[127] 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:

“Sir! You think you people have interviews to employ people? You just give excuses to reject them. Look here! (Reaches for his file) My degrees and certificates! (Tears the certificates before the bureaucrats and shouts) Bureaucracy down down! Nepotism down down! Favoritism down down! Redtape-ism down down! (Leaves the room saying bitterly) Long live India!”

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. [128] 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.”[129] 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.[130] This alarming trend was noticed by Sinivaasan, who describes the period from 1986 to 1993 as an era of excessive sex and violence.[131] 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.”[132] 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.[133] 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.[134] 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

“was the sum of his subalternity…he learnt to recognize himself not by the properties and attributes of his own social being but by diminution, if not negation of those of his superiors.”[135]

By destroying the oppressor, the peasant ends his subordination and “creates a new identity for himself.”[136] 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

“the greater the violence and display with which he [killed his enemy]…the greater the distance he put between himself and his previous identity as subordinate.”[137]

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.[138] 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.[139] 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.[140] Chandrasekar states in an interview:

“I wondered whether law was meant only for the poor and decided to throw light on the inequalities of the system through films. I always wanted to create social awareness through my films. As a filmmaker you have to reflect what is happening in society.”[141]

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.[142] The eventual producer of the film was Vadaloor Chidambaram, a former Marxist party member and an independent trade unionist.[143] 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

“the state is desperately lacking justice… [and] when the law doesn’t provide justice there must be those who go beyond the law to create their own.”[144]

Their association had earlier produced an “Avenging Woman” film, Neethikku Thandanai (“Justice is Punished,” 1987), which was critical of MGR’s rule.[145] This led MGR’s government to attempt to pass a bill, albeit unsuccessfully, to curb the screening of films critical of legislators and ministers.[146] 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.[147] 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.[148] 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.[149] 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.[150] 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.[151] 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.[152] While Ratnam has been accused of attempting to “commodify history”[153] in his other films, in Nayakan he stages with much verisimilitude a past outside the official histories of the nation-state.[154]

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.[155] 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).[156] 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.[157] 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.[158]

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] 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.

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]

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.

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). 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).

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.


1. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations. Harry Zohn, trans. Edited and with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt(Suffolk: The Chaucer Press, 1983), pp. 228-229. [return to text]

2. Ibid., pp. 238-239.

3. Asha Kasbekar, Pop Culture India! Media, Arts and Lifestyle (California: ABC-CLIO, 2006), p. 179

4. Soudhamini, “Tamil Cinema—The Significant Other,” in Behind the Scenes of Hindi Cinema, ed. Marijke de Vos (Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2005), p. 118. See also: Selvaraj Velayutham, “Introduction: The Cultural History and Politics of South Indian Tamil Cinema,” in Tamil Cinema—The cultural politics of India’s other film industry, ed. Selvaraj Velayutham (New York: Routledge, 2008); and Duncan Forrester, “Factions and Filmstars: Tamil Nadu Politics since 1971,” Asian Survey 16, 3 (March, 1976).

5. Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr., “Politics and the Film in Tamilnadu: The Stars and the DMK,” Asian Survey 13, 3 (March, 1973).

6. Robert L. Hardgrave Jr., Essays in the Political Sociology of South India (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 1993).

7. Robert L. Hardgrave Jr. and Anthony C. Neidhart, “Film and Political Consciousness in Tamil Nadu,” Economic and Political Weekly 10, (January 11, 1973).

8. Sara Dickey, Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Sara Dickey, “The Politics of Adulation: Cinema and the Production of Politicians in South India” The Journal of Asian Studies 52, 2 (May, 1993); Martyn Rogers, “Between Fantasy and “Reality’: Tamil Film Star Fan Club Networks and the Political Economy of Film Fandom,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 32, 1 (April, 2009).

9. S. Theodore Baskaran, History through the Lens—Perspectives on South Indian Cinema (Hyderabad: Orient Black Swan, 2009), p. 17.

10. Stephen P. Hughes, “Policing Silent Film Exhibition in Colonial South India,” in Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, ed. Ravi S. Vasudevan (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000). See also, Stephen P. Hughes, “The “Music Boom” in Tamil South India: gramophone, radio and the making of mass culture,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 22, 4 (2002).

11. S. Theodore Baskaran, The Message Bearers: Nationalist Politics and the Entertainment Media in South India, 1884-1945 (Madras: Cre-A, 1981).

12. M. S. S. Pandian, The Image Trap—M.G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics (New Delhi: Sage Publications Inc., 1992).

13. Dickey, Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India, p. 56.

14. David B. Pratt, “‘We Must Make the Government Tremble’: Political Filmmaking in the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu,” The Velvet Light Trap 34 (Fall, 1994), p. 10.

15. Sathiavathi Chinniah, “The Tamil Film Heroine—From a passive subject to a pleasurable object,” in Tamil Cinema—The cultural politics of India’s other film industry, ed. Selvaraj Velayutham (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 35.

16. Marc Ferro, Cinema and History (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988), p. 82.

17. Ibid., pp. 82-83.

18. Dudley Andrew, “Film and History,” in The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, eds. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 183.

19. John O” Connor, "History in Images/Images in History: Reflections of the Importance of Film and Television Study for an Understanding of the past," The American Historical Review 93, 5 (December, 1988), p. 1205.

20. Dickey, “The Politics of Adulation: Cinema and the Production of Politicians in South India,” p. 342.

21. Pandian, The Image Trap, p. 78.

22. Ibid.

23. Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema (New Revised Edition), (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 31-32.

24. Dickey, Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India, p. 3.

25. Velayutham, “Introduction: The Cultural History and Politics of South Indian Tamil Cinema,” p. 5.

26. Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 30.

27. Khilnani, The Idea of India, p. 38.

28. Thought, 20 May 1972, cited in Guha, India After Gandhi, p. 447.

29. Ayesha Jalal, Democracy and authoritarianism in South Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 67.

30. Jalal, Democracy and authoritarianism in South Asia, p. 67.

31. Ibid.

32 Sudipta Kaviraj, “A Critique of the Passive Revolution,” in State and Politics in India, ed. Partha Chatterjee (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 74.

33. Sudipta Kaviraj, “Indira Gandhi and Indian Politics,” Economic and Political Weekly 21, 38/39 (September 20-27, 1986), p. 1699.

34. Ibid.

35. T.V. Sathyamurthy, “Impact of Centre-State Relations on Indian Politics: An Interpretative Reckoning, 1947-1987,” Economic and Political Weekly 24, 38 (September 23, 1989), p. 2137.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid.

38. Bipan Chandra, In the name of Democracy: JP movement and the Emergency (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 39.

39. Chandra, In the name of Democracy, p. 47.

40. P.N. Dhar, Indira Gandhi, the “Emergency” and Indian Democracy (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 258-259.

41. Ramachandra Guha, India After Gandhi (London: Pan Macmillan Ltd., 2008), p. 493.

42. Kaviraj, “A Critique of the Passive Revolution,” p. 79.

43. Ibid., p. 78.

44. Ibid.

45. Chandra, In the name of Democracy, p. 157.

46. Ibid., p. 189.

47. Chandra, In the name of Democracy, p. 157.

48. Ibid., p. 207.

49. Khilnani, The Idea of India, p. 55.

50. “Glamour Politics in Command,” Economic and Political Weekly 12, 26 (June 25, 1977), p. 1009.

51. Karthigesu Sivathamby, “Politicians as Players,” The Drama Review: TDR 15, 2 (Spring, 1973), p. 217. See also: Hardgrave, “Politics and the Film in Tamilnadu,” p. 100.

52. Hardgrave, “Politics and the Film in Tamilnadu,” p. 292.

53. Ibid., p. 290.

54. Pandian, The Image Trap, p. 36.

55. Ibid., p. 42.

56. Sivathamby, “Politicians as Players,” p. 216.

57. Pandian., p. 33.

58. Narendra Subramanian, Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization—Political Parties, Citizens and Democracy in South India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 249.

59. “Glamour Politics in Command,” pp. 1009-1010.

60. Subramanian, Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization, p. 247.

61. Ibid., p. 310.

62. Ibid., p. 285.

63. Brindavan C. Moses, “Noon Meals Scheme,” Economic and Political Weekly 18, 4 (January 22, 1983), p. 101.

64. Subramanian, Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization, p. 286.

65. Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), Tamil Nadu Economy: Performance and Issues (Madras, 1988), p. 345, cited in Pandian, The Image Trap, p. 23.

66. Ibid.

67. “The MGR Myth: An Appreciation,” Economic and Political Weekly 23, 1/2 (January 2-9, 1988), p. 23.

68. Pandian, The Image Trap, p. 36.

69. See: “NGO’s Strike,” Economic and Political Weekly 13, 12 (March 25, 1978) and “All-Out Attack on Working Class,” Economic and Political Weekly 13, 43/44 (October 28, 1978).

70. Between 1977-1981, “once every ten days an under trial died behind bars…the fate of the convicts was also more or less similar.” Pandian, The Image Trap, p. 25.

71. Pandian, The Image Trap, p. 26.

72. Atul Kohli, Democracy and Discontent: India's growing crisis of governability (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 162.

73. Ingrid Widlund, Paths to Power and Patterns of Influence—The Dravidian Parties in South Indian Politics (Uppsala, Sweden : Uppsala Universitet, 2000), p. 80.

74. Pandian, The Image Trap, p. 124.

75. Pandian, The Image Trap, p. 124.

76. Dickey, “The Politics of Adulation: Cinema and the Production of Politicians in South India,” pp. 357-359

77. Pandian, The Image Trap, p. 121.

78. Another hundred more people attempted self-immolation but were prevented from killing themselves. Ibid., p. 18.

79. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), p. 327.

80. Bombay Chronicle (27 October, 1951), p. 3, cited in Ravi S. Vasudevan, “Shifting Codes, Dissolving Identities: The Hindi Social Film of the 1950s as Popular Culture” in Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, ed. Ravi S. Vasudevan (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 105.

81. Lalitha Gopalan, “Avenging Women in Indian Cinema,” in Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, ed. Ravi S. Vasudevan (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 218.

82. Muktha V. Sinivaasan, Thamilzh Thiraippada Varalaaru (Chennai: Gangai Puthakka Nilayum, pp. 25-26.

83. Sundar Kaali, “Narrating Seduction: Vicissitudes of the Sexed Subject in Tamil Nativity Film” in Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, ed. Ravi S. Vasudevan (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 168-169.

84. Kaali, “Narrating Seduction,” pp. 173.

85. After Sigappu Rojakkal there was a resurgence of the suspense thriller/horror genre in Tamil cinema through films like Moodupani (‘Dew’, Dir. Balu Mahendra, 1980), Tik Tik Tik (Dir. Bharathirajaa, 1981) and Nooravathu Naal (“100th Day,” Dir. Manivannan, 1984).

85b. Rajadhyaksha and Willemen, Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema (New Revised Edition), pp. 435.

86. J.Ramki, Rajini: Sapthama? Sagaapthama? (Chennai: Kizhakku Pathippagam, 2005), p. 22.

87. Sinivaasan, Thamilzh Thiraippada Varalaaru, pp. 129.

88. Ibid.

89. Tamil films are typically close to three hours long and are designed with a break in the middle, at a high point of interest or suspense in the plot, to allow for an interval or intermission.

90. V.Ramamurthy, Nenjil Nirkum Nayagargal (Chennai: V. R. Pathipagam, 2008), pp. 151-152.

91. Velayutham, “Introduction: Thea Cultural History and Politics of South Indian Tamil Cinema,” p. 8.

91b. Jagpreet Luthra, “Black is Blemish in India” Al-Jazeera.Net (7th October, 2003). Web version. Accessed 27th February 2009.

92. Rajan Krishnan, “Rajini’s Sivaji: Screen and Sovereign,” Economic and Political Weekly 42, 27/28 (July 14, 2007), p. 2861. For a discussion of Vijayakanth’s recent foray into politics vis-à-vis Rajini’s reticence, see: Krishnan, “Rajini’s Sivaji: Screen and Sovereign,” p. 2863.

93. Susmita Dasgupta, Amitabh—The Making of a Superstar (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2006), p. 13.

94. Ibid., p. 13.

95. Shiv Viswanathan, “Popcorn Nationalism,” India Today 33 (August, 2007), p. 92.

96. Fareeduddin Kazmi, “How angry is the Angry Young Man? Rebellion in Conventional Hindi Films” in The Secret Politics of Our Desires—Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema, ed. Ashis Nandy (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 138.

97. Ramki, Rajini: Sapthama? Sagaapthama? p. 34.

98. Preminda Jacob, Celluloid Deities (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2009), pp. 138-139.

99. Frederick G. Bailey, Humbuggery and Manipulation (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1988) p.119.

100. M. Madhava Prasad, Ideology of the Hindi Film (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 157.

101. Krishnan, “Rajini’s Sivaji: Screen and Sovereign,” p. 2861.

102. James Combs, “Pox-Eclipse Now: The Dystopian Imagination in Contemporary Popular Movies,” in Crisis Cinema: The Apocalyptic Idea in Post-Modern Narrative Film, ed. Christopher Sharrett (Washington: Maisonneuve Press, 1993), p. 21.

103. Ibid., pp. 21-22.

104. M. Madhava Prasad, “Cine-Politics: On the Political Significance of Cinema in South India,” Journal of the Moving Image 1 (Autumn, 1999), p. 42.

105. Pandian, The Image Trap, p. 70.

106. Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (Harmonsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 17.

107. Soudhamini, “Tamil Cinema—The Significant Other,” p. 125.

108. I use the term action comedy to refer to a genre of action films different from the “AYM” genre. What differentiates many of the films in the “AYM” genre from the action comedy films is that in the latter, the films are neither gritty nor gory, and are largely light hearted. Even the over-the-top violence is presented in an almost cartoon-like manner to appeal to children for family viewing. The heroes in the action comedy films are mostly comic heroes, different from the anti-heroes in the “AYM” genre. Some action comedies were hit films like: Sagalakala Vallavan (‘Jack of all Trades, Dir. S. P. Muthuraman, 1982), Pokkiri Raja (‘Rogue King’, Dir. S. P.  Muthuraman, 1982), Thoongathey Thambi Thoongathey (‘Don’t Sleep Brother’, Dir. S. P. Muthuraman, 1983), Veilaikaran (‘Servant’, Dir. S. P. Muthuraman, 1987), Rajathi Raja (‘King of Kings’, Dir. R. Sunderajan, 1989), Raja Chinna Roja (‘Raja and the Small Flowers’, Dir. S. P. Muthuraman, 1989).

Soudhamini, “Tamil Cinema—The Significant Other,” p. 118.

110. K. Naresh Kumar, Indian Cinema—Ebbs and Tides (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 1995), p. 87.

111. Dickey, Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India, p. 56.

112. MGR’s government tried to get the Union Minister for Information, Vasant Sathe to ban the film. When the request went unheeded, the police pressurized cinema theatre owners, and within weeks the film disappeared from circulation despite its popularity, Pandian, The Image Trap, p. 27.

113. Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, Third Report of the National Police Commission (Delhi, 1980), p. 26, cited in Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, In Pursuit of Lakshmi (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 91.

115. Richard Corliss, “Hooray for Bollywood” Time (16 September, 1996). Web version. Accessed 27th February 2009.

The film also found its way into Time’s Top 100 Films of all time in 2005: Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel, “All-Time 100 Movies” Time (2005). Web version. Accessed 27th February 2009.

Besides this international recognition, Nayakan also won numerous awards at India’s National Film Awards in 1988: Kamalhaasan won the award for Best Actor, P.C. Sriram won the award for Best Cinematography and Thotta Tharani won the award for Best Art Direction. The film was also nominated as India’s entry into for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in 1988.

116. Lalitha Gopalan, Cinema of Interruptions—Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Cinema (London: British Film Institute, 2002), p. 115.

117. Gopalan, Cinema of Interruptions, p. 117.

118. See: Special Correspondent, “Deaths in Police Lock-Up,” Economic and Political Weekly, 16, 39 (Sep. 26, 1981), p. 1568; P. A. Sebastian, “Deaths in Police Custody,” Economic and Political Weekly, 19, 11 (May 17, 1984), p. 447—448; A. G. Noorani, “Deaths in Police Custody,” Economic and Political Weekly,20, 28 (Jul 13, 1985), p. 1161 and P. A. Sebastian, “The State and the Police,” Economic and Political Weekly, 23, 43 (October 22, 1988), p. 2210-2211.

119 Gopalan, Cinema of Interruptions, p. 114.

120. Chinniah, “The Tamil Film Heroine—From a passive subject to a pleasurable object,” p. 35.

121. Ibid.

122. Indu Agnihotri and Vina Mazumdar, “Changing Terms of Political Discourse: Women’s Movement in India, 1970s-1990s ,” Economic and Political Weekly, 30, 29 (July 22, 1995), pp. 1870.   

123. Ibid.

124. The popularity of the film is evident in fan appreciation of the film. In an online poll, Naan Sigappu Manithan was voted as “Rajini’s best killer revenge film.” The film received more than half of all the votes cast. The poll can be found on the biggest Rajini fan website. Accessed: 27th February 2009:

125. Corey K. Creekmur, “Bombay Bhai: The Gangster in and Behind Popular Hindi Cinema” in Cinema, Law and the State in Asia, eds. Corey K. Creekmur and Mark Sidel (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p.  30.

Rudolph and Rudolph, In Pursuit of Lakshmi, pp. 121-122.

Gopalan, “Avenging Women in Indian Cinema,” p. 224.

128. Viswanathan, “Popcorn Nationalism,” p. 92.

129. Ramachandra Guha, “The Axis Year,” Outlook 49, 41 (October 19, 2009), pp. 12-15.

130. Dickey, Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India, p. 56.

131. Sinivaasan, Thamilzh Thiraippada Varalaaru, p. 26.

132. Salil Tripathi, “Epic Spin-offs,” India Today (15 July, 1988): 150-151; Vasanthi and M. Kalyankumar, “Arms and the Men,” India Today (30 April, 1993): 72-73.

133. “Interview with Rajini” published in the Tamil-language magazine, Kalki (15 January, 1989), cited in Ramki, Rajini: Sapthama? Sagaapthama?, p. 48.

134. Venkatesh Chakravarthy, “Eliminating Dissent: The Political Films of Mani Ratnam,” The Toronto Review 17, 3 (Summer, 1999), p. 22.

135. Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 18.

136. Sanjay Seth, “From Maoism to postcolonialism? The Indian “Sixties’, and beyond,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 7, 4 (2006), p. 596.

137. Seth, “From Maoism to postcolonialism?” p. 596.

138. Manomohan Ghosh, The Natya?astra—Ascribed to Bharata-Muni (Calcutta: The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1950), pp. 107-108; 112-113.

139. Aranthai Narayanan, Thamizh Cinemavin Kathai (Chennai: New Century Book House Pte. Ltd., 2008), p. 716.

140. “Politicians and Films,” Aside (November 1-15, 1988): 49.

141. M. Allirajan, “Holding sway with Social Themes,” The Hindu (21  March, 2005). Web version. Accessed 27th February 2009.

142. Ibid.

143. Narayanan, Thamizh Cinemavin Kathai, p. 714.

144. Pratt, “’We Must Make the Government Tremble’: Political Filmmaking in the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu,” p. 10.

145. Pandian, The Image Trap, p. 27.

146. MGR initiated the Tamil Nadu Cinema Regulation (Second Amendment) Bill, which banned the exhibition of films “deemed derogatory to legislators and allowing for the imprisonment of the producers and directors of any such films.” Though the Bill was passed by the Assembly in May 1987, the Governor refused to sign it into law, “seeing it as a dangerous expansion of state powers,” Pratt, “’We Must Make the Government Tremble’: Political Filmmaking in the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu,” pp. 30-31.

147. “I Don’t Like to Rest—Interview with K. Balachander,” New Sunday Express (September 10, 2006).

148. Gopalan, Cinema of Interruptions, p. 109.

Maria Giovanna, “Making Movies with Mani Ratnam,” Rediff.com (30 April, 2008). Web Version. Accessed 27th February 2009.

150. M. S. S. Pandian, “Varadaraja Mudhaliar: Counter-Obituary,” Economic and Political Weekly 23, (April 23, 1988) p. 831.

151. Ibid.

152. Pandian, “Varadaraja Mudhaliar: Counter-Obituary,” p. 831.

153. Venkatesh Chakravarthy and M. S. S. Pandian “‘Iruvar’: Transforming History into Commodity,” Economic and Political Weekly, 32, 47 (November 22-28, 1997), p. 2997.

154. Nayakan’s art director Thotta Tharani claimed that “nothing less than verisimilitude would satisfy him and his director Mani Ratnam.” Lalitha Gopalan’s analysis of vehicles in the film attests to this claim. “‘Cinema” Sunday, 21-27 February 1988” cited in Gopalan, Cinema of Interruptions, p. 112.

155. Madhu Jain, “Political Pot-Boilers,” India Today 22, 17 (September 1-15, 1988), pp. 82-83.

156. Sreedhar Pillai, “Malayalam Films—Reel Life,” India Today 12, 4 (February 28, 1987), pp. 78.

157. Dickey, Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India, pp. 69.

158. Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge. A.M. Sheridan Smith, trans. (New York: Pantheon, 1982), p. 7.

159. Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” in Movies and Methods: An Anthology, ed. Bill Nichols (California: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 26-27.

160. Comolli and Narboni, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” pp. 26-27.

161. Donald MacRae, “Populism as an Ideology” in Populism—Its Meanings and National Characteristics, eds. Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1969), p. 158.

162. Vijay Mishra, Bollywood Cinema—Temples of Desire (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 15.

163. Guha, India After Gandhi, p. 494.

164. Peter Wiles, “A  Syndrome, Not a Doctrine: Some Elementary Theses on Populism” in Populism—Its Meanings and National Characteristics, eds.  Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1969), p. 166.

165. Pamela Price, “Kingly Models in Indian Political Behavior: Culture as a Medium of History,” Asian Survey 29, 6 (June, 1989), p. 571.

166. Pandian, The Image Trap, p. 132.

167. Ibid., p. 20.

168. Rajan Krishnan, “Rajini’s Sivaji: Screen and Sovereign,” Economic and Political Weekly 42, 27/28 (July 14, 2007), p. 2861.

169. K. Muralidaran, “Arasiyalil Minnuvara Rajni?,” India Today Tamil—Rajini SpecialIssue (August, 2007), p. 19.

170. Ibid.

171. Ibid.

172. Muralidaran, “Arasiyalil Minnuvara Rajni?,” p. 19.

173. Krishnan, “Rajini’s Sivaji: Screen and Sovereign,” p. 2861.

174. Krishnan, “Rajini’s Sivaji: Screen and Sovereign,” p. 2861.

175. Ibid.

176. A. Ramasamy, “Rajinikanth: Cinema Arasiyal” in Olinilal Ulagam-Thamilzh Cinema Katooraigal, eds. A. Ramasamy (Chennai: Kalachuvadu Pathippagam, 2004), p. 78.

177. M. S. S. Pandian "LEADER ARTICLE: Why Rajini Rules.” The Times of India (23 June, 2007). Web Version. Accessed 27th February 2009.

178. For a discussion of the latent and manifest nationalist message in Roja, see: Tejaswini Niranjana, “Integrating Whose Nation? Tourists and Terrorists in “Roja’,” Economic and Political Weekly, 29, 3 (January 15, 1994), pp. 79-82; Venkatesh Chakravarthy and M. S. S. Pandian, “More on Roja,” Economic and Political Weekly, 29, 11 (March 12, 1994), pp. 642-644; and Rustom Bharucha, “On the Border of Fascism: Manufacture of Consent in Roja,” Economic and Political Weekly, 29, 23 (June 4, 1994), pp. 1389-1395.   

179. For the rise of the new Indian citizen-consumer, see: Vivek Dhareshwar and Tejaswini Niranjana, “Kaadalan and the Politics of Resignification: Fashion, Violence and the Body” in Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, ed. Ravi S.Vasudevan (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 191-214.

180. For a study on the Telugu dubbing of Indian released as Bharateeyuddu, see: Tejaswini Niranjana and S.V. Srinivas, “Managing the Crisis: “Bharateeyudu” and the Ambivalence of Being “Indian’,” Economic and Political Weekly, 31, 48 (November 30, 1996), pp. 3129-3134.

181. For a critical study of Rajini’s recent blockbuster Sivaji and the star’s dalliance with politics see: Krishnan, “Rajini’s Sivaji: Screen and Sovereign,” p. 2861 and, M Vijayabaskar and Andrew Wyatt, “The Many Messages of Sivaji,” Economic and Political Weekly 42, 44 (November 3—November 9, 2007).

182.   Pradeep Sebastian, “Beyond Old Kollywood,” The Hindu (13 January, 2008). Web version. Accessed 27th February 2009.

183. Chidananda Das Gupta, The Painted Face: Studies in India's popular cinema (New Delhi: Roli Books, 1991), pp. 262-284.


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Name of Movie Director Lead Actor Production Company Year
Bhairavi M.Bhaskar Rajinikanth Valli Velan Movies 1978
Thai Meethu Sathiyam R.Thyagarajan Rajinikanth Devar Films 1978
En Kelvikku Enna Bathil P.Madhavan Rajinikanth Arun Prasad Movies 1978
Dharmayuddham R.C.Sakthi Rajinikanth Charu Chitra Films 1979
Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu K.Balachander Kamalhaasan Premalaya 1980
Kaali I.V.Sasi Rajinikanth Hem-Nag Films 1980
Naan Potta Savaal Puratchidasan Rajinikanth Ganga Saranga Films 1980
Polladhavan V. Srinivasan Rajinikanth Vidhya Movies 1980
Murattukkalai S.P.Muthuraman Rajinikanth AVM Productions 1980
Nizhalgal Bharathirajaa Ravi Manoj Creations 1980
Thee R.Krishnamoorthy Rajinikanth Suresh Arts 1981
Garjanai C.V.Rajendran Rajinikanth Hem-Nag Films 1981
Sattam Oru Iruttarai S.A.Chandrasekar Vijayakanth Vadalooran Combines 1981
Parvayin Marupakkam K.M.Balakrishnan Vijayakanth Kanmani Creations 1981
Sivappu Malli Ramanarayanan Vijayakanth Bala Subramanian & Co. 1981
Ezhavathu Manithan K.Hariharan Raghuvaran Lata Creations 1982
Kann Sivanthal Mann Sivakum Sridhar Rajan Rajesh Cine India 1982
Thanikaattu Rajah V.C.Guhanathan Rajinikanth Suresh Productions 1982
Moondru Mugam A.Jagannathan Rajinikanth Sathya Movies 1982
Sivantha Kangal Ramanarayanan Vijayakanth Umakannu Creations 1982
Paayum Puli S.P.Muthuraman Rajinikanth AVM Productions 1983
Sivappu Sooriyan V.Srinivasan Rajinikanth Muktha Films 1983
Malaiyur Mambattiyan Rajasekar Thiagarajan SriDevi Bahavathi Films 1983
Naan Mahan Alla S.P.Muthuraman Rajinikanth Kavithalayaa 1984
Vetri S.A.Chandrasekar Vijayakanth P.S.V. Films 1984
Theerpu En Kaiyil V.P.Sunder Vijayakanth Manjunatha Cine Creations 1984
Sathyam Neeye P.Madhavan Vijayakanth Kanmani Creations 1984
Oru Kaidhiyin Diary Bharathirajaa Kamalhaasan Janani Art Creations 1985
Mangamma Sabadham K.Vijayan Kamalhaasan Suresh Arts 1985
Pagal Nilavu Mani Ratnam Murali Madras Talkies 1985
Naan Sigappu Manithan S.A.Chandrasekar Rajinikanth Lakshmi Productions 1985
Unn Kannil Neervazhindhal Balu Mahendra Rajinikanth Kalakendra Movies 1985
Neethiyin Marupakkam S.A.Chandrasekar Vijayakanth V.V. Creations 1985
Mr. Bharath S.P.Muthuraman Rajinikanth AVM Productions 1986
Palaivana Rojakkal Manivannan Sathyaraj Poompuhar Production 1986
Oomai Vizhigal R.Aravindraj Vijayakanth Thirai Chirpi 1986
Nayakan Mani Ratnam Kamalhaasan Muktha Films 1987
Oorkkavalan Manobala Rajinikanth Sathya Movies 1987
Manithan S.P.Muthuraman Rajinikanth AVM Productions 1987
Makkal En Pakkam Karthick Raghunath Sathyaraj Suresh Arts 1987
Kadamai Kanniyam Kattuppaadu Santhana Bharathi Sathyaraj Rajkamal Films 1987
Jallikatt Manivannan Sathyaraj Seethalakshmi Films 1987
Sattam Oru Vilaiyattu S.A.Chandrasekar Vijayakanth V.V. Creations 1987
Sathyaa Suresh Krishna Kamalhaasan Rajkamal Films 1988
Kaliyugam K.Subash Prabhu Anandhi Films 1988
Ithu Engal Neethi S.A.Chandrasekar Ravi Lalithanjali Fine Arts 1988
Apoorva Sagodharargal Singeetham S.Rao Kamalhaasan Rajkamal Films 1989
Urimai Geetham R.V.Uthayakumar Prabhu Sivashree Pictures 1989
Siva Ameerjan Rajinikanth Kavithalayaa 1989
Dharmadorai Rajasekhar Rajinikanth Kalaamandhir 1991
Thalapathi Mani Ratnam Rajinikanth GV Films 1991
Annamalai Suresh Krishna Rajinikanth Kavithalayaa 1992
Gentleman S.Shankar Arjun K.T.Kunjumon 1993
Mahanadhi Santhana Bharathi Kamalhaasan Amman Creations 1993
Airport Jhoshi Sathyaraj Madhu Films International 1993
Amaidhi Padai Manivannan Sathyaraj Kavithalayaa 1994
Baashha Suresh Krishna Rajinikanth Sathya Movies 1995
Indian S.Shankar Kamalhaasan Sri Surya Movies 1996

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