by D. Karthikeyan
Published in The Hindu, May 02, 2011, Madurai
In one of the public meetings, Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLA N. Nanmaran, a brilliant orator, said: “In Chennai, people, after knowing that I come from Madurai, in a curious tone but reluctantly asked me, do people in Madurai always carry sickles behind their shirts?” “This is what Tamil cinema's representation of Madurai seems to look,” like he candidly remarked.
Film is an important visual medium which has been an integral part of the modern social and political life of Tamils. Prominent film historian Theodere Baskaran says that “over the seventy-nine years of its existence, Tamil cinema has grown to become the most domineering influence in the cultural and political life in Tamil Nadu.”
However, does all that goes in the name of representation in Tamil cinema is inclusive of all social realities or does that have certain forms of codification that becomes indispensable. And it is here one has to explore how Madurai (Madurai Formula films) or 3M films (Murder, Mayhem, and Madurai) came into being and things related to it on cultural, political, and social milieu get represented in films.
The films based in Madurai are increasingly defined by the glorification of ‘Aruval' (the sickle shaped machete) and a corresponding mythology of a society based on martial pride and honour. Even though some of the films do not explicitly signify caste but the everyday markers provide us with an idea to read it symptomatically.
Sundar Kaali and Ravi Srinivas in an article titled “On Castes and Comedians: The Language of Power in Tamil Cinema” in Ashis Nandy (ed) book ‘ Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema' say that Tamil cinema as a secondary modelling system with highly developed and conventionalised codes has over the years evolved particular modes of representing configurations of caste, class, and gender. And it is no surprise that only a few castes and occupational categories are represented and these representations hardly ever correspond to actual social categories.
Rajan Krishnan, PhD scholar in Film Studies from Columbia University, says that it was Kamal Hassan who brought that sickle bearing genre. He says, “I would like to propose that in recent times, it is a Kamal Hassan film of high authenticity markers called Thevar Magan (1992) —meaning ‘‘Son of Thevar” — that can be said to have inaugurated the era of the south being represented as primarily a sickle bearing space.”
Stalin Rajangam, writer, who has extensively written on the ‘caste component and narrative structures of Tamil films concurs. He says that Thevar Magan was first of its kind with stronger idioms of caste and glorification of caste-based practices.
One of the major observations made by Sundar Kali and Ravi Srinivas relates to the usage of the genealogical praising of Thevar caste in a song that had larger proportions, more than what Kamal claimed, and that was what made it a huge box office success.
Using the patron-client relationship theory, they observe that “the narrative in depicting acts of generosity of the hero as heroic and noble not only mystifies the nature of power but relegates the rest of the village community to positions of either villainy or subservient clientship”
Madurai, which has a strong visual culture, during the release saw a huge 40-feet cut out showing the image of Thevar Magan hero with the extra large sword in his hand. The positioning of the cut out was itself highly significant as it faced the huge statue of Muthuramalinga Thevar. During the guru puja, when objection was raised against the cut out, the sword part was removed and placed behind the structure denoting the concealment of the weapon. However, due to pressure the sword part was restored later, says Sundar Kaali.
Films which came later like Kathal, Gilli, Thiruppachi, Paruthiveeran, Sanda Kozhi, Thimiru, Subramaniapuram, Goripalayam, Madurai Sambavam, Thittakudi, Maathiyosi, Milaga, and the recent hit Aadukalam all have references to Madurai and are full of violence.
Mr. Stalin says that love and valour have long been the basic raw material used by the Tamil cinema. As far as Madurai is concerned the place has a history of festivity and related cultural edifices. This has peeped into the celluloid world and these idioms of valour and honour, which were closely associated with questions of masculinity, found their forms in jallikattu, cockfight, and lifting of stone (Ilavatta kal).
As Madurai is the centre of these cultural practices related to valour, filmmakers had to use cultural practices related to Madurai as part of the narrative. However, the central idea here is that this cultural/ritual space has been for long the space of a particular dominant caste and inevitably this is what gets represented in films.
And even in the context of ‘Pattikada Pattanama' (village vs city, a1972 Sivaji film), Madurai is always chosen as epitomic representation of ‘pattikadu.' Though a pre-modern sphere, but the one which protects the glorious ancient Tamil culture, the city is shown as a space concomitant to all the evils of society.
This encoded social construction was largely done by movie directors who had come from the southern part especially in and around Madurai rather than from the north which is seen as the modern. In fact, most of the filmmakers at the helm of these movies are from Madurai and down south and they bring the small town cultural and caste/class discourse into the narrative centrepiece.
Commenting that Tamil cinemas have failed to project the real conditions, Mr. Stalin says that it always failed to record the Dalit uprisings in the early 1990s which indeed made major cultural interventions and also tried to redefine the spatial norms that were existing in the rural world.
The films based on Madurai formula at a larger level have given a psychological edge to the dominant castes in relation to the questions of caste. However, earlier films like Madurai Veeran, which made M. G. Ramachandran the matinee idol of Tamil cinema and took him to the subaltern masses, have always had a positive effect.
The folklore legend of a subaltern hero who was hired by the Nayak King to restrain the Kallars has been used widely over generations and when MGR acted in the film it evoked huge response making it a blockbuster in 1956.
“We had films like Thiruvilayadal, Adhi Parasakthi, which were based in Madurai, where Saivite tradition and its conflict with other religious forms become the backdrop. Even the other Madurai based films like Enga Ooru Paatukkaran, Enga Ooru Kavalkaran had tints of caste but showed in a more suppressed form. Karimedu Karuvayan deals with issues of class where a local village man takes on the feudal lords.
In the earlier films, like the Bhakthi film era and later, images of Meenakshi Temple occupied the frame whenever there was a reference to Madurai.
It was during the 80's and later 90's in the neo-nativity genre, the narratives and their reference to the place started changing, says S. Ravikumar, Producer, Educational Multimedia Research Centre, Madurai Kamaraj University. He further says that in most of the films where the protagonist belonged to the Mukkulathor caste, the feudalistic caste markers were kept intact and even if the narrative seems to be affirmative while showing an inter-caste marriage or romantic relationship, it was overtly or subtly showed in a way that either way the protagonist dies or the heroine dies thus reiterating the fact that there was no mixture of blood, Bharathi Kannama, Paruthi Veeran, Kaadhal, Mannvaasanai films exactly did that.
Rajan Krishnan sees the narrative construction of southern Tamil Nadu as a distinct entity submerged in pre-modern violence, caste bigotry and anarchy as another trope. This was epitomised in the Madurai- based romantic social drama Kaadhal.
He argues that the successful employment of the trope of the pre-modern south was preceded by a whole range of films and media representations which contributed to its constitution.
In Kaadhal, he sees a classic expression of the trope that Tamil cinema has tried to constitute for the Tamil psyche, which is torn between the threatening pre-modern assertion of caste and an allegedly “egalitarian,” free market space of modern individuals.
This split was further accentuated in films like Gilli where the images of lorry loads of sickle-bearing, country bomb-throwing men chasing the young couple as they drive towards Chennai lend a mythical dimension to the violent south. Rajan Krishnan says that Tamil cinema has always responded to images created in the popular mind.
He argues that the southern caste conflicts of the nineties are the main reason why the south has come to be portrayed as backward, less civic and given to sickles and primordial violence.
He concludes that it is necessary to seriously engage with the real problems of the south, but should also be wary of self-legitimising discourses and narratives of modernity which offer ‘‘progress'' of capitalist modernity as the only alternatives to savagery and caste bigotry.
The filmmakers here need to be informed about the dangers of stereotyping and the limitations of representative practices of cinema, particularly given the salience and circulation of cinema in Tamil Nadu. The idea of the valour in Tamil cinema is nothing but violence which has been unduly glorified thus transporting the other achievements on the literary, cultural and social to the oblivion.