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Confused Action-Masala Par Excellence

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The action-masala genre even reveals clues as to where the core of Pax Indica will be. There are multiple subtle and obvious references to South Asia as an Indian sphere of influence, where unparalleled hard power, and uncompromising political and economic control, must be asserted. At the end of Singam II, when the Tamil action hero emphatically declares to the defeated Nigerian pirate: “Indians are always King of the Indian Ocean! [Sic]” it is just one instance of cinematic irredentism.


Only the ‘brown messiah’ with his almost superhuman strength, irreverence for legal procedure, dedication to defend those who seek his guardianship, and unequivocal willingness to take on a terrifying form to annihilate global ‘evils’ can stop the cataclysms that confront humanity.

  Machismo and ‘trash-talking’ aside, Duraisingam’s unilateral declaration, if it were official, will offend a host of countries sharing the Indian Ocean: Australia, South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Kenya, Somalia, Oman, Myanmar to name a few, and especially Bangladesh, Maldives, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka in South Asia. Maryan’s unilateral reference to himself as the prince of the Indian Ocean, in the eponymously named film, reinforces the irredentist claims of Duraisingam’s impudent rhetoric in Singam II.


Likewise, Wizam’s benevolence towards Afghans in Vishwaroopam who in turn accept the ‘brown messiah’ as one of their own parallels popular pro-India sentiment [“Afghanistan Favors India and Denigrates Pakistan”, Jack Healy and Alissa J. Rubin, The New York Times, 4th October 2011] in contemporary Afghanistan. Afghanistan looks favourably to India for political backing and economic support, compared to its distrust of other foreign intruders. The positive representations of interactions between Wizam and the Afghan locals appears to be symbolized as an inducement for India to continue to extend its influence, supplanting Pakistan and Al-Qaeda presence in the country.


Vishwaroopamuses the iconic figure of Osama Bin Laden as a warning to India against allowing Afghanistan to politically backslide. Osama ‘cameos’ as a character, known as ‘the Sheikh’, not only to authenticate the historical fiction of Vishwaroopam with realist markers, but appears to function as a critique of the blind faith of Al-Qaeda terrorists, who venerate him and risk their lives to protect. In Vishwaroopam’s analysis, the alternative to Indian influence in Afghanistan would be regression into a pariah state ruled by religious fanatics sponsoring jihadist terrorism, as it was under the Taleban. This would be a situation certain to destabilize South Asia and the world [“A Deadly Triangle: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India”, William Dalrymple, The Brookings Essay, 24th June 2013]. The new Tamil action-masala genre melodramatizes the options facing India: messianic leadership to help stabilize a volatile region, or face the backlash of passive non-interference.


7aam Arivu

7aam Arivu


Traditionally, India’s geopolitical imperatives were limited to South Asia, but 7aam Arivu (‘Seventh Sense’, Dir. A.R.Murugadoss, 2011) has a farther strategic imagination. In 7aam Arivu, a Chinese assassin Dong Lee, trained in martial arts, hypnosis, and mind control, is sent by China to spread a deadly virus to destroy India. The Chinese in the film call it “Operation Red”, a hint at the low intensity Maoist insurgency in central and eastern India, supposedly sponsored by China. Starting from Chennai, the contagion quickly spreads throughout Tamil Nadu, and the rest of India. In order to stop Dong Lee and the spread of the disease, a group of young Indian scientists, attempt to revive the ancient knowledge of a Tamil monk, who apparently founded the Shaolin School of martial arts, the Bodhidharma. They attempt to do this by retrieving the genetic memory of his only surviving descendent, the protagonist of 7aam Arivu. Of course, the Bodhidharma’s wisdom and martial arts skills are revived in time, and the Chinese assassin succumbs in a kungfu showdown with the ‘brown messiah’ who also has an antidote to the plague. Part documentary, part mythopoeic, part love story, part nationalist propaganda, part science-fiction, part medical thriller, and part martial arts film, 7aam Arivu is the confused action-masala genre par excellence.


Indulging in more than a cursory reference to history, 7aam Arivu is the most neo-traditionalist of the recent films in the Tamil action-masala genre. Using science fiction, and historical fantasy to mask its atavism, it harkens back to antiquity for a political purpose. 7aam Arivu has a specific historiographical agenda to support the construction of the ‘brown messiah’ myth. The narrative commences with a documentary-style introduction to the Bodhidharma, complete with vox populi interviews, screenshots of a Wikipedia page dedicated to him, and other Internet images, showing common knowledge of the monk amongst East Asians unlike the clueless Indians.


While there are competing accounts about the origins of the Bodhidharma, 7aam Arivu, hijacks him for its ideological project, declaring with certitude that he was a Pallava prince. Using digital simulation, a Tamil kingdom from late antiquity is recreated: a utopian world where all men appear to be gold encrusted and god-like in stature, practicing martial arts, as though implying a genealogy from a glorious martial civilization. The prince leaves his kingdom, renouncing all material trappings, becomes a Buddhist monk, the Bodhidharma, and travels to China where he settles. The myth of the ‘brown messiah’ gains tractions when the Bodhidharma fights against marauding bandits, and cures a child of a deadly disease, anticipating a future plot device. Soon the people of China begin to venerate him as a sage when he imparts aesculapian knowledge and begins training them in martial arts, leading to the creation of Shaolin Kungfu.


The rest of the convoluted story continues in the contemporary times where on multiple occasions, the exalted past is compared with a degenerate present. In an important turning point in the narrative, 7aam Arivu makes allusions to recent political history: the marginalization of Tamils in Malaysia, and the oppression of Tamils in Sri Lanka. In this scene, the auteur uses the camera to make the protagonist directly address the audience. The alienation effect associated with the Brechtian strategy instead has an ideological function: to instill a siege mentality among the Tamil audience that they are no different from the Palestinians or Kurds or Roma or Basques, urging them to be boldly assertive.


The extended metaphor of foreign threats to Tamil Nadu, and India in general, conflates conspiratorial themes from three earlier movies. The medical thriller E (Dir. S.P.Jananathan, 2006) where multinational pharmaceutical companies use slum dwellers in Chennai as unwitting guinea pigs for human medical experimentation, Peranmai (‘Hypermasculinity,’ Dir. S.P.Jananathan, 2009) featuring foreign mercenaries trying to stop India’s scientific progress by destroying a space shuttle launch, and the blockbuster Enthiran (‘The Robot’, Dir. S.Shankar, 2010) in which European weapon manufacturers attempt to reprogramme an Indian androhumanoid, the world’s first, into a killer robot for use in warfare. In the diegesis of 7aam Arivu, the discussion of the history of oppression between the characters triggers the transformation of the protagonist from passive citizen to nationalist superego, a ‘brown messiah’, resolved to fight against enemies of the Tamils, and by default, foreign threats to India.


The didactic nature of 7aam Arivu is confirmed in its denouement. Replacing the documentary in the introduction, it ends with a television talk show, where the Tamil action hero, makes a clarion call for Tamils, and Indians to retrieve their heritage, to find the wisdom that would make India great again, and to be a superpower. Preceding the talk show, snapshots of the Tamil action hero are shown, researching to find cures for various untreatable, rapidly metastasizing 21st century diseases around the world, and receiving international recognition for his work. 7aam Arivu also proposes that the biomedical technology engineered by the ‘brown messiah,’ based on the scholarship of the ancients, should be exported by India to help the rest of the world providing scientific leadership just as it apparently did in late antiquity.


Billa II

Billa II


While the images assembled in the movies thus far address the sense of impending global catastrophe in their diegesis, conspicuously foregrounding the role of the ‘brown messiah’ as savior, some leave open the possibility without being brazen about it. Looking at the casting of the gangster film Billa II: The Beginning (Dir. Chakri Toleti, 2012), the nationalist drive is latent. By transposing gangster film clichés on the grid of international relations, a hermeneutic reading of Billa II reveals a hawkish foreign policy manifesto. In order to become a great power, India must act opportunistically to make the best of the new world disorder to acquire wealth, aggrandize territory, intimidate neighbors, threaten hostile states, and create a Pax Indica solely for India’s self-interest. Billa II also derides the older paradigms of internationalism based on universal brotherhood, and non-violent pacifism, associated with Gandhi and Nehru, as naïve, and anachronistic. 


Read against the grain, the gangster film Billa II is an ultranationalist allegory. Inspired by Scarface (Dir. Oliver Stone, 1983), Billa II chronicles the criminal ascent of David Billa, a refugee of the Sri Lankan civil war, who becomes an international criminal dealing with drug smuggling, money laundering, and the illegal arms trade. Lacking the distinctive accent of the indigenous Tamil, David Billa appears to be a Tamil of Indian origin in Sri Lanka, the child of Indian immigrants in the country. Forced out by civil strife, he returns to India, grows from a local thug to the lieutenant of a kingpin in India, and eventually rises to become the biggest gangster in the subcontinent, wherein he finally establishes himself in transnational crime networks.


Functioning as a prequel to Billa (Dir. Vishnuvardhan, 2007) and the latest remake of the highly successful gangster series inaugurated by Bollywood’s Don (Dir. Chandra Barot, 1978), Bila II was intended to be darker, grittier, and more graphic in its portrayal of India’s underworld than any prior remakes. However, strip away the razzmatazz, and the beeline for Billa II racial politics may very well be. Paunchy, scruffy, grungy Tamil hero is pursued by Malayalee beauty, outsmarts the Telugu capitalist, easily kills multiple East Asian thugs, nails a Brazilian model, annihilates competition from European and African crime lords, and reserves the best action to take on the North Indian gangster, who betrays him, and defeats the head of the Russian mafia to become an international kingpin. The intricate constellation of multiethnic stars, with local and foreign identities diegetically and extra-textually, makes possible a further realist reading of the narrative, and our location of the ‘brown messiah’ in this mix.


It appears that the ethical paradigms in Billa II are rearranged for good—fair is foul and foul is fair in our dystopian present reality. The film aligns its gangster protagonist on the other side of the moral perimeter. David Billa bears some of the characteristics of screen villains from five decades ago; defying the moral-cultural codes established for Tamil action heroes. Yet, in comparison to the rest of the characters in an underworld described in one song in the soundtrack as akin to perdition, David Billa’s courageous drive postures him as a superior warrior, and therefore worthy of our cheers. His unflinching protection of those who subordinate themselves to his authority is another redeeming quality of an otherwise blood-soaked messiah. When he annihilates his enemies in an orgy of violence without hesitation, the audience is privy to the massacre because the scum of the earth are wiped out.


The symbolism is indicative. Victory, in multiple shootouts, outwrestling bigger athletic foes, prompt in vengeance, and ascendancy in the power structures of the narrative, is an unapologetic show of muscular nationalism through warfare. Fetishizing violence in Billa II is an extended metonymy for military assertion, the only means by which the Indian nation-state can achieve paramount position in the cutthroat world of international relations. Acting as a foil, the only morally sound individual in Billa II is David Billa’s elder sister who asks him: “Why do you carry a gun, when you should be carrying a Bible?” However, her voice is drowned out by the sound of gunfights and explosions throughout the film. Moreover, she is ill and paralyzed, and meets a quick end early into the story.


The suggestion is uncomplicated: in a vicious social darwinistic world, there is no room for the saints or the pacifists. Reiterating the philosophy of most of the aforementioned films, and especially Vishwaroopam, Billa II advocates that only the ‘brown messiah’ with his almost superhuman strength, irreverence for legal procedure, dedication to defend those who seek his guardianship, and unequivocal willingness to take on a terrifying form to annihilate global ‘evils’ can stop the cataclysms that confront humanity. 


However, none of the visions in the recent Tamil action-masala films are accurate, nor do they reflect the thinking of India’s policy makers. India’s foreign policy has been marked by cautious self-interest. With the same number of Foreign Service staff as tiny Singapore, Pax Indica is at best aspirational. As The Economist bemoans in the language of the action-masala genre: “India is still punching well below its weight in foreign affairs.” In its most recent report about India abroad two years ago, the analysis is that the foreign policy apparatus that guides India abroad is cautious and cumbersome, i.e., in real life there are no Major Wizams, Captain Jagdishs, or supercop Duraisingams, to project Indian power beyond its borders [“India Abroad: No frills”, The Economist, 29th September 2012]. One official is quoted by the newspaper as saying “We run a no-frills policy… We’re not trying to cut a grand figure abroad, it’s a realist approach.”


The gap between fantasy and reality appears to be vast and insurmountable at present. Moreover, when domestic politics remains shambolic—secessionist movements, economic slowdown, a third of the population in poverty, widespread crime and corruption—superpower ambitions remain laughable. India would certainly benefit from a more assertive and imaginative foreign policy, but only after it resolves its internal mess, and reorganizes its severely underequipped foreign department. In this sense, the Tamil action-masala genre has been far more creative than the Indian Foreign Service.


Forthcoming films like Ai (Dir. S.Shankar), Booloham (Dir. N.Kalyanakrishnan), and Vishwaroopam II (Dir. Kamalhaasan), seem set to continue the globalizing verve of the recent action-masala genre. Critically, for a film industry and genre often accused of being parochial, these recent developments show willingness on the part of some Tamil filmmakers to experiment with making Kollywood globally relevant [“Foreign film professionals find space in Tamil cinema”, M Suganth, The Times of India, 27th May 2013] As argued earlier, there were very material considerations for regenerating the genre, and the attempts have been profitable. Given the spread and the growth of the Tamil Diaspora around the world, especially in US, Europe, East Asia and even Africa, it only makes sense to appeal to a global audience with internationally relevant themes. Especially when Bollywood’s recent preoccupation is to mock South Indians and in particular Tamils [“Kollywood furious as Shahrukh’s Chennai Express makes a mockery of Tamils”, Kollytalk, 14th June 2013], the response by Kollywood, to focus on bigger ambitions, is laudable.

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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