After watching ‘Dharmapuri’ (a throwback to the sixties when evil landlords usurped land from the poor), ‘Vallavan’ (with Simbu proving he can do better than Chinni Jayanth in mimicking Rajnikant and Kamal Hassan and also following Vijay’s footsteps for dance — the little ape that he is) and ‘Varalaaru‘ (that glorifies the male chauvinist type and of course has Ajith’s attempt to pay tribute to ‘Netri Kann’ Rajni), I am pretty sure that Tamil Cinema is indeed is caught in a time warp.
Well, one of the reasons is probably that in Tamil Cinema, the hero is all-powerful.
The star believes and promotes himself as a Demigod. Which means that it is blasphemous for him to get abused or hit, anything he says is a punch-line, anything he does is a style-statement, a lame swagger requires a slow motion and even the stupidest poses need a circular trolley shot worshipping him.
Why have stars always tried to be Demigods?
Probably because the need for an idol/hero is deep-rooted in the Tamil psyche for centuries now. Right from the days when every little village had a giant Ayyannaar statue or their local village deity, armed with assorted weapons, the aruvals and the like, people here have been believers in idol worship.
In times of trouble, they believe the Saamy would come and save them, if they offered a small sacrifice. They believed their idol protected the good from the evil.
The need for an idol and protector is so deeply ingrained in the Tamil mind over generations, that they put anyone who they believe would come to save them, on a pedestal. They have seen kings fiercely protect their culture, erected statues for leaders who fought for their causes and even today, many believe that MGR is still alive.
For years, the man has been celebrated as the protector, the bread-winner, the hunter.
The woman has been celebrated as the protected, the bread-maker, the hunted.
The man represents the courage to protect and the woman represents the sacred chaste that needs to be protected.
These have been roles assigned to the sexes for centuries, blindly adopted by the movies too.
Literature and mythology have had a significant role to play in re-inforcing these stereotypes. Since, cinema evolved from stage and stage evolved from literature, the types sneaked into cinema right from its genesis.
Conformity and endorsements of these types has always worked with the masses. So, over the years, even if the heroine was shedding clothes, she still was essentially virgin (if raped, of course, assigned to her conqueror). Which is also probably why a married woman doesn’t sell as a heroine here.
Legend has it that they built a temple for Khushboo, when she represented the stereotype.
When she broke it (probably unintentionally) by giving an interview, asking women to practice safe sex, the same people burnt her effigies.
Thanks to mythology, our stories have always revolved around love and revenge, as Rajeev Menon once told me. That’s probably one reason our themes haven’t changed.
Also, cinema reflects the collective conscious of the society. And often, of our times, said Javed Akhtar in another interview I did.
Hence, it is a very difficult task to change role stereotypes overnight because they have been deeply ingrained in the Tamil mind for centuries together.
Also, Tamil has been a closed culture, fiercely protective of their identity and literature, refusing to allow outside influences. Extremely conservative, to say the least.
Madras, however, being the capital has been more liberal. Which is why the Madras Baasai has a flavouring of multiple cultures. Over the years, an urban sensibility has evolved with global influences, television and world cinema.
With the increasing gap between the rural and urban sensibility, the needs from cinema too changed. Cinema meant different things to different people with different sensibilities. And people from different classes.
The poor wanted a savior. The messiah of the masses. The one who is always politically correct. The hero. The star. MGR, Rajnikant or Vijay.
The elite wanted an entertainer. The artiste who was willing to explore the Navarasas. The one who is willing to break the mould for the sake of art. The actor. Sivaji Ganesan, Kamal Hassan or Vikram.
The dichotomy between being a star and an actor lies in the fact that a star is built around a type and is identified by the repetition of the type whereas actors are recognised by their versatility and the non-conformity to the type.
Which means, Superman needs to wear the same costume in every comic book. James Bond needs to say, “Bond. James Bond.” Shah Rukh Khan needs that half-smirk, the nervous stammer and his arms spread wide in film after film. Rajnikant needs to toss up the cigarette/ now biscuit. Simply, because, these are the superheroes. The matinee idols. The stars.
Every era had a demi-god/matinee idol. And also an actor known for his range of histrionics.
We had MGR and Sivaji rule the sixties to mid-seventies.
And for a while, we didn’t have anyone because these guys were on the wrong side of 50. The directors used this opportunity to flourish. Soon, we had K.Balachander, Balu Mahendra, Mahendran, Bharathirajaa.
With just the power of radical scripts, they introduced a new bunch of actors. But the thing about adulation and fan-following is that once the devotees believe they’ve spotted the messiah, they believe he’s the Chosen One. Post his 100th film, Sri Raghavendra, Rajnikant just took off with a halo over his head. He had claimed his place as the matinee idol.
Post his 100th film, RajaPaarvai, Kamal established himself as the actor. The classy performer. The successor to Sivaji.
With growing popularity, a star who rises mainly from B and C centres, slowly wins over the A centre audiences too, over a period of time.
Similarly, an actor who rises from A and B centres, slowly wins over the C centre audiences too, over a period of time.
The family and social dramas introduced by the likes of Balachander, Bharathirajaa, Mahendran and Balu Mahendra continued till the mid 80s and early 90s, that saw the birth of a distinctively city-centric urban sensibility with Mani Ratnam, employing the charisma of the star with ‘Thalapathy’ (the commander, read: the protector) after a celebrated outing with the artiste — ‘Nayakan’. (the hero, read: the actor).
The male types were reinvented, but with a touch of sophistication. Both these heroes embraced non-virgin wives in their films, legitimised to the audience as “Gangster going for prostitute” and “Gangster going for widow.” Stereotypes broken. A director had arrived.
And so had cable TV. Also, video piracy.
By the mid nineties, with soap operas (essentially of the family drama genre that directors like Visu were thriving on) catching the attention of the housewife, women monopolised the TV sets. They stopped venturing out to cinema halls.
Films began to flop. Something had to be done.
Cinema, then, got defined by the people in the halls. Men.
Specifically, men from B and C centres who did not have the video player at home.
The political system too had deteriorated.
Goondas ruled the roost. The poor needed a messiah again. The elite were too busy with satellite television and VCD players.
The need for the artiste died.
The movie-goers were largely youth. And a director like Mani Ratnam had to abort the spate of his serious films he did in the nineties (Roja, Bombay) with a lighter subject in ‘Alai Payuthey.’
The metrosexual hero arrived with the consumerist culture.
These spate of youth movies didn’t really help the poor though.
All the poor needed to see on screen, was someone who would stand up for them and beat ten people at a time. Someone who had the balls. Someone who had the Dhil.
The simple aspiring policeman had to turn into rowdy to become the hero, in a system run by the nexus of corrupt policemen and politicians.
Earlier, there was just one city. Now there were many in the state that had an urban population of teenagers and carefree youth who couldn’t spend time at home watching soap operas. What did they do for entertainment? They just chilled, checking out chicks, falling in love, following them, giving them love letters, failing in love and watching them go out with someone more urban than them.
A new type was born. The stalker. The loser. Thanks to this Ugly stereotype to add to the existing Good and Bad, the likes of Dhanush, Simbu, Ravikrishna all got a career. Selvaraghavan, as the creator of the type, had arrived.
With Rajni and Kamal on the wrong side of 50, we have once again come to that stage when directors can finally flourish.
We have a few prospects. There’s Selvaraghavan, there’s Gautham Menon, there’s Cheran, there’s Dharani and Bala. We still have Mani Ratnam.
Then why do we still have the same old plots rehashed?
Because, today, every actor who has made it big thanks to these directors now wants to be a superstar.
The star believes he’s more important than the director. The star believes that to package himself as a superhero, he needs to reinforce the stereotype.
He needs to flesh out his superhero cape, come up with a handful of mannerisms and package them to the idol-worshippers. So if any director wants his dates, the director needs to sing his praise, package him as Demigod.
The stars call the shots. The star salaries are skyrocketing, increasing production costs. The bigger the budget, the safer they play.
With no other options left, directors with genuine stories turn to producers with sons nurturing celluloid dreams.
The latest prototypes, like gangsters and stalkers, are reinvented to suit the ugly young star. A good script makes it big. The one film actor starts believing he’s the star. Shit happens.
Anybody with a script becomes a director. After one hit, the director signs three films in a row. He doesn’t have scripts. So what? No one writes scripts. He recycles his own ideas. Sample: Hari, Perarasu, K.S.Ravikumar, Sunder C, Suresh Krissna.
What can change all this?
First, a system needs to be put in place.
Everything needs to be documented. Starting from business contracts and transactions covering every single aspect of the film business.
The process of making a film must begin from paper. From a bound script. But we don’t have scriptwriters. So now, we need to create a pool of screenwriters, groom them and make them submit scripts for evaluation.
We have enough talented filmmakers. They just don’t have stories to tell. Put Dharani, Gautham, Selvaraghavan, Cheran or Selvaraghavan on a panel to shortlist scripts and review scripts on the basis of the merit of the story that has to be told rather than the star playing it. Prakash Raj is doing a damn good job. Now, I just hope he begins to make money too.
The films that are radical could use lesser-known actors and be shot on Hi Definition. Using HD, a film can today be shot for less than Rs. 5 lakh (production cost alone). Real Image has 110 theatres in Tamil Nadu that can play digital content. A digital revolution is just waiting to happen. Anyone can be a filmmaker. Which is exactly how yours truly got to be one.
So yes, a professionally run studio-system and independent films are the way out of the time-warp.
(This post is loosely based on what I prepared for my panel discussion for the seminar on Tamil Cinema organised by the Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communication. My co-panelists were Khushboo, Dharani and K.Hariharan.)