With two of my colleagues, I was on a rollercoaster last week at Sarasvathi cinema hall in Trincomalee, watching the new South Indian blockbuster film by Siva, “Visvasam” (Loyalty).
No escape whatsoever was possible except for a short intermission. I didn’t expect to watch a classic. I settled down for two and half hours to watch what is known as a “masala flick” with its essential ingredients of romance, family drama, violence, singing and dancing. These films are usually based on the good versus evil narratives and they are essentially pre-realist, spectacular, irrational and based on emotion. They are also formulaic, escapist, patriarchal, ultra-nationalist and generally politically reactionary.
Visvasam is done with technical finesse inclusive of all the flamboyance expected of a thriller – with bird’s eye view shots of beautiful scenery, blood-curdling fights, and colourfully dressed women.
In these movies, nobody expects logic or rationality. The hero of the film will fight with endless gangs of goons, and after injuring or killing dozens of people, leave the scene without a speck on his flawless white dhoti and shirt.
When all the decorative paraphernalia has been eliminated, the story line is simply about a female physician falling in love with a man identified in the film as a “benevolent” thug. The film starts with Thookudurai (Ajith Kumar) hailing from Madurai who crosses paths with Dr. Niranjana (Nayanathara). The audience will immediately know that they are going to fall in love with each other. The initial romance is cut short as the film director needs to move the plot forward as soon as possible. The marriage is called for and celebrated, and the birth of a daughter happens soon after.
Only then does the drama begin to happen.
When we closely look at how the film director weaves his narrative from the beginning, we realise that viewers have no choice but to remain glued to their seat. For instance, the way he introduces the hero to the screen is classic. He piques the audience’s curiosity with a side shot of hero’s white dhoti, capturing his strong strides in slow motion, the flicks of his hair and then shots of him from behind – we are still deprived a view of his face. Now the viewer is completely trapped. (In contrast, the heroine is brought to the screen in a relatively mundane way).
The masculinity is obviously exaggerated. And the female character is subject to gender stereotyping even though she is an educated physician. At one point in the film, I got the creeps when the yes-men surrounding the hero demand Niranjana to kneel and ask for forgiveness from Durai for making a police complaint against him. Fortunately, the film director saves Niranjana from this insult – suggesting a faint respect for gender equity.
There is another sequence in the film where Niranjana is trying to enter a Kovil in a shalwar kameez. But she is blocked from doing so, and then in the next second, she appears out of nowhere dressed in a saree. She is now accepted as she has followed the norm and the hero is mesmerised by the sight of the traditionally dressed heroine!
As in many other Bollywood and Hollywood films, the violence perpetrated by the hero is portrayed as justice. The hero has the poetic license to maim and kill anyone in his way. One of the most violent fights in the film is performed by the hero while he is holding hands with his young daughter.
This fight sequence happens in a urinal – of all places. The violence is normalised, eulogised and poetically presented in slow motion in front of a terrified child.
Throughout the film, there are sequences where the audience is presented with melodramatic encounters. The film director wants the audience to cry. I am sure there would have been many people in the primarily Tamil audience of the Saraswathi cinema hall in Trincomalee with tear-filled eyes.
To add insult to injury, the director ends with the moral “parents should not thrust their dreams and passions on children; they should be allowed to live as children”. After showcasing violence, he had the temerity to announce trite aphorisms.
I am neither waging war against this particular film or director nor do I reject this film genre of adventure, the “rural family entertainer” as it is known in South India. Popular cinema is a reality. I am only trying to understand it better. I am trying to understand the larger and entrenched production relations around this film industry.
Let us have a look at the monies involved.
Viswasam’s total budget is supposed to be Rs 980 million Indian rupees including the cost of publicity. According to trade analysts, the main actor, Ajith has been paid Rs 350 million Indian rupees for the film while the female lead, Nayanthara is supposed to have received 40 million Indian rupees (gender equity at its best!). Apparently film director Siva took home Rs. 50 million.
According to trade reports, Visvasam has grossed Rs. 1093 million – mind you – this is only after five days of its theatrical run. This is more than one billion Indian rupees. Word has it that the box office collection will increase further in the coming days due to the ongoing Pongal holidays.
Bollywood and Hollywood need this audience. They need this audience to continue living in fantasy because they must make money.
And the audience in general does not need reality because reality can be dark and painful. A lot of us want to forget reality and we run to the cinema hall. We want a hero to solve our problems, onscreen. This is our escape route. This could be one of ways through which the system prevents people from fighting against real injustice in society. And if these films do provide any impetus for us to fight against social injustice, they tell us that violent means are quite justified and the rule of law is irrelevant.
I rest my case. I am not unsympathetic with Bollywood cinema and its audience, because after all, this film genre is a reality. However, I am not oblivious to its deleterious effect on gullible viewers.
The popular film industry is a powerful ideology. An ideology that the art house film world must deal with. And more than anything else, this is the same audience that art house film world must work with if any transformation of that audience is to happen.
Editor’s Note: Also read “Her, Him, The Other: Exposing Political Realities” and “The Multiculturalism of Sinhala Song: A Review of Sons and Fathers“.