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The Moral-Cultural Codes for Tamil Action Heroes

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Similarly, in Thaandavam (‘Dance of Death’, Dir. A.L.Vijay), the protagonist Shiva is also a RAW Agent, but this time assassinating threats to Anglo-Indian security and cooperation in London. Agent Shiva’s uses violence to prevent Indian WMDs, from falling into the wrong hands, which is implied to not only seriously cool relations with the United Kingdom, but could also compromise India’s safety. Even after Agent Shiva becomes visually impaired after a bomb blast, he uses echolocation to find the terrorists, their sponsors, and traitors to India, and assassinates them before any further attacks occur. 


The regenerated Tamil action-masala genre focuses on macroscopic issues of global concern: the rapidly metastasizing potential of threats, anxieties over lawlessness in the international system, the collapse of hegemonic stability, and fears of a nuclear conflagration, have all generated a sense of impending catastrophe.

The intertextuality between Thaandavam and Vishwaroopam lies not only in the titles that allude to Hindu theophany, but also functions to imbue the Tamil action hero with a messianic-nationalist duty. Thaandavam literally refers to the angry dance of the Hindu deity Shiva, from whom the protagonist gets his name. Agent Shiva’s mission to avenge those killed in a London bombing perpetrated by terrorists, and root them out to be executed is portrayed as a Manichean mission. Like Major Wizam in Vishwaroopam, Agent Shiva’s mission in Thaandavam is elevated by these texts to a higher ideological plane that justifies the transmogrification of the Tamil action hero into a punishing deity. He becomes a divinely sanctioned messiah who would use excessive force or all means necessary, to vanquish enemies of India and establish world peace. Acting in the name of global justice rather than a license to kill appears to legitimize his actions.


The dictates of the action-masala genre necessitate displays of pathos by characters in both films. To avoid criticisms of being a mindless action flick, both films take great lengths to present the mission of the ‘brown messiah’ as an ethically just war, waged not just by a surrogate, but an agent of humanity acting against an insidious threat to all of civilized society. In this way, both Thaandavam and Vishwaroopam merge two philosophies in Indian foreign policy into one heroic persona: the older Gandhi-Nehru internationalism based on moral supremacy with Indira Gandhi’s realpolitik undergirded by military predominance. Therefore, the Tamil action hero becomes a symbolic tool to actualize a Pax Indica based on ethical principles and justice backed by force.


Likewise, both Vishwaroopam and Thuppakki share a martial provenance in justifying extralegal actions by the military to confront the scourge of terrorism. In Thuppakki (‘Gun’, Dir. A.R.Murugadoss), Captain Jagdish of the Indian Army’s Defense Intelligence Agency, represents the pinnacle of India’s technological-defensive-strategic capabilities. Unlike Major Wizam who combats terrorism in its bases in South Asia and sleeper cells in the US, Jagdish wipes out sleeper agents in the northern half of his own country. Leading an army team made up of many Indian ethnic groups, Jagdish ingeniously flushes out potential threats to the Indian nation-state, killing them before they are activated. Mumbai city, the Indian economy’s nerve center and the setting for Thuppakki, is sustained by the protection of the Tamil action hero.


Thuppakki

Thuppakki


The main antagonist and terrorist mastermind in Thuppakki, bent on balkanizing India, and crippling her economy, is at once familiar and alien: the Kashmiri militant. Unlike other Tamil and Hindi films, such as Roja (Dir. Mani Rathnam, 1992) and Mission Kashmir (Dir. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 2000), Thuppakki uses various strategies to demonize the Kashmiris as foreign agents orchestrated by anti-Indian paymasters, not as insurgents fighting for the right to self-determination. By unsubtly naming the Kashmiri terrorists as affiliated to the Pakistan-based terrorist group Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, any political sympathies it may invite is drained.


Here. Thuppakki replicates right-wing films like Vallarasu (‘Superpower’, Dir. N.Maharajan, 2000), Keerthi Chakra (‘Medal for an Act of Valour’, Dir. Major Ravi, 2006), and Velayutham (‘Divine Spear’, Dir. M.Raja, 2011) where the terrorist as freedom fighter association is delinked, and the radicalism of the Kashmiri militant is criminalized as a Pakistan organized subversion of India. The militants in Thuppakki are postured as murderous anarchists, who make no authentic references to Islamism or national liberation, thereby justifying Jagdish’s use massive retaliation via extrajudicial murders, torturing suspects, and forced suicides.


The sequence where Jagdish’s team annihilates the sleeper cells is even constructed in the format of a training video with a montage of synchronous multiple frames. An instructional video by the ‘brown messiah’ on how to prevent threats to national security from sleeper cells, so to speak. The self-assured Jagdish ostensibly commanding the operation describes to the viewing audience the entire process, as though advising the international community on how best to deal sleeper cells otherwise impervious to the reach of conventional counter-terrorist procedures. Jagdish’s unconventional methods to eliminate the Kashmiri terrorists are rationalized as necessary in the war against the dehumanized and deideologized mercenary troops of Pakistan or Al-Qaeda.


Singam II

Singam II


Jingoistic to say the least, the latest action-masala products from Kollywood also make explicit the limitations of the West, exaggerate the threat from rogue states, and situate the unorthodox methods of the Tamil action hero, the synecdoche for India, as the solution to international threats to peace. The murdered senior MI6 commander (an aged James Bond?) in Vishwaroopam, the ritually sacrificed Australian coast guard in Singam II, and the clueless FBI Agents in the former, are fictional constructions of Western ineptitude [“The weakened West”, The Economist, 21st September 2013], which the Tamil action hero must supersede to achieve his mission.


In contrast, the foreign adversary is depicted as a formidable threat, a barbarous villainy unhindered by legal limits, moral paradigms, or ethical concerns. The choice of threats originate from parts of the world where the West has neither the will nor the capacity to enforce international law or establish any influence: Russia, former Soviet Socialist Republics, Sudan, the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China. Here, the Hero’s willingness to transgress international law, sovereignty, violate ethical principles, and escalate violence in excess of what the threat can offer to establish order ultimately accounts for his triumph.


The most astute commentary about the anarchical state of international relations is made in the least gratuitously violent film in the list: Maryan (‘The Immortal’, Dir. Bharatbala). The kidnapping of four Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) workers by Sudanese tribesman in 2008 provided the inspiration for the film’s plot, which melodramatized the event through the travails of a single fictional character Maryan Vijayan Joseph. The titular Maryan is a love-struck daredevil fisherman in the southern-most coast of India, who is pushed out of India due to the high uncertainty of income, migrates to work in the oilrigs of Sudan, and gets caught in the maelstrom of the Darfur conflict.


Sudanese rebels in Maryan

Maryan


Kidnapped by mercenary paramilitia, Maryan’s torment and humiliation at the hands of the paramilitia, and how he escapes from them completes the film’s narrative arch; a messianic monomyth. A recurring leitmotif in Maryan is the contrast between the manageable class and caste related troubles in the idyllic coast of Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, and the dangerous world that exists beyond India’s maritime boundaries. A foreshadowing of international lawlessness is made early in the film when Maryan’s friends are shot by the Sri Lankan Navy, re-enacting a problem that continues to plague Indo-Sri Lankan relations [“Sri Lanka Arrests 64 Indian Fishermen”, Ankit Panda, The Diplomat, 25th June 2014]. 


The bone-dry, arid, and dusty mise en scène in the Sudan sequence in Maryan signifies a post-apocalyptic political landscape, which the Tamil action hero must overcome as part of his heroic journey. Bedlam reigns in the territory where the central authority of the state has collapsed, and the national army no longer holds monopoly over violence. Maryan’s filmmakers have taken great pains to find a desolate desert setting to throw the reluctant Tamil hero into.


Sudan is convincingly staged as a savage world where modernization and development have failed, in which only the fittest survive. A political geography analogous to many parts of the developing world ruined by post-Cold War intrastate wars as retreating superpowers and contracting hegemonic stability destabilized fragile states. Far beyond the hegemony of the West, in Maryan, Darfur represents the hostile wilderness where international law, norms, human rights, and diplomacy, have no reach. Where only the ‘brown messiah’ might have any chance of surviving, and punishing those responsible for perpetrating the atrocities associated with destructured warfare.


In the penultimate scene of the film, the suffering Tamil action hero, escapes from, and kills his hostage taker, thereby completing his heroic journey. Maryan is most unlikely as a ‘brown messiah,’ who nevertheless survives the descent into the hell of genocidal warfare, and returns intact. Maryan’s struggle, takes a leaf from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) as he reaches “into depths were obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revived, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world.” Finding his way into the coastal regions, where the sea meets Sudanese land, Maryan gathers the strength to fight back against his oppressors, and avenge the death of the other kidnapped oil-workers murdered by the tribesmen.


Earlier, Maryan was helpless to retaliate against what is postured in the film as the state-sponsored terrorism of the Sri Lankan Navy killing innocent Tamil fisherman. Now with the option available, Maryan unleashes retributive justice as an emissary of the civilized world on the Sudanese mercenary, an unknowing instrument in service of Pax Indica. The ideological subtext of Maryan appears to once again vindicate the use of armed force against threats to life and liberty in international affairs where the law of the jungle endures.


If the law of the jungle was the prevalent spirit of current international relations, one blockbuster in the new action-masala genre leaves no doubt as to who is king. Singam II (‘The Lion’ Part II, Dir. Hari, 2013) is the apotheosis of the myth of the ‘brown messiah’. The original Singam (‘The Lion’, 2010) made by the same director and lead star team, was declared a super hit when most of the big budget star vehicles sank without a trace at the box-office in the face of the Tamil “new wave”. The cross-cultural appeal of Singam spawned multiple clones in India’s Bollywood, Kannada, and Bengali language industries. The success of Singam lay not only its projection of an ideal law and order apparatus, effective, efficient, and incorruptible in an India where malfeasance is rife, but also in its fast-paced narrative, plot twists, and thrilling action sequences.


The similarly high-octane narrative of Singam II continues to follow Deputy Superintendent of Police Duraisingam, this time on the supercop’s mission to end the drug smuggling network on the southern most coast of India, propped up by maritime piracy from the Indian Ocean ports on Africa’s east coast. The nexus between politics, business, and the underworld is elaborated in Singam II through the local gangster-politician Bhai, and the business moghul Thangaraj. The rogues’ gallery is complete with a villain who globalizes the narrative, colluding with Bhai and Thangaraj: the Nigerian pirate and international druglord, Danny.


Danny’s character fuses the cold-blooded killers in Thuppakki, with the exotic savages in Maryan, into an antagonist who is callous and brutal. The posturing is conscious because it sets up a showdown between druglord Danny, and supercop Duraisingam, allowing the Tamil action hero to triumph where even the collective actions of Interpol failed. Singam II opens with an Australian coast guard being ritually murdered by Danny on board a ship in the Indian Ocean. After the Caucasian who tried to arrest Danny is disposed off, amidst his shipload of celebrating pirates, Danny declares, “I am the King of the Indian Ocean!” The fan, and the filmgoer would expect quite predictably that Duraisingam would have something to say about this at some point in the narrative. After apprehending Bhai and implicating Thangaraj, Duraisingam pursues Danny all the way to South Africa, teaming up with the law and order officials there to arrest and extradite the pirate.


Markedly different from the desolation of Sudan in Maryan, urbanized South Africa also allows multiple opportunities to display the Tamil action hero’s hypermasculinity. Whether in the planning phases of Operation D named after Danny or the execution of the mission, Duraisingam, the idealized epitome of the Indian Police, a tagline used in the promotional posters and advertisements of the film, is differentiated as physically and mentally superior to his South African counterparts who openly acknowledge this fact. In one action sequence, while in pursuit of Danny and his hoodlums, Duraisingam manages to outpace the South African police who are shown to be in awe of the superhuman prowess of the ‘brown messiah’. These tropes are deliberate because the sacrificed Australian coast guard in the opening scene occupy a similar symbolic position to the South African police officers who cannot catch up with Duraisingam: the weakened West. With only the most perfunctory consideration for western institutions, laws, or procedures, which Singam II fascistically professes as the reason for thriving criminality in the world, Duraisingam hunts for Danny.


In the final fight scene on the Indian Ocean, not dissimilar to that between Captain Jagdish and the Kashmiri terrorists on the high seas in Thuppakki, Duraisingam singlehandedly overcomes Danny and his shipload of pirates. Supercop Duraisingam reinvigorates traditional expectations of heroism, not just as an Indian policeman serving a social purpose to rid Tamil Nadu of anti-national elements, but as an agent of the international community, which wants to end maritime piracy, and the transnational drug trade. The soundtrack accompanying the fight scenes is unrestrained in extra-diegetically eulogizing Duraisingam as an ubermensch. The most overtly racist of the action-masala genre, the Tamil action hero in Singam II is shown to be morally superior to the African, and sharper and tougher than the Caucasian (consciously coded as a white person to trigger postcolonial triumphalism). Rearranging global core-periphery power relations between the West and India, and subverting the white saviour myth Singam II feeds into nationalist fascination with a strong Indian nation-state feared and respected by other nations.

Kumuthan Maderya is a historian of international relations, culture, and film based in Singapore after graduating from the National University of Singapore. Believing that the duty of the critic is to save the film from those who created it, like a true Rajinikanth fan, he hopes to make the subaltern speak. He can also be found on Instagram @subalterntalkies.


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