The Myth of the Global Brown Messiah in Kollywood Cinema

by Kumuthan Maderya

21 Jul 2014

Above: From the poster for Vishwaroopam (2013)

Tamil Cinema’s Action-Masala Genre Goes Global

Since the advent of the talkies, when the visual medium of film acquired an aural element that transformed its techno-teleological appeal and created the institution of cinema in India, the Tamil movie hero has been mired in parochialism. An insular worldview that saw him spend the last 70 years battling a variety of local tyrannies on-screen: feudal landlords, industrialists, fake godmen, gangsters, smugglers, malfeasant cops and bureaucrats, militant feminists, and of course, corrupt politicians [“Rage against the State: Historicizing the ‘Angry Young Man’ in Tamil Cinema”, Kumuthan Maderya, Jump Cut 52 (Summer 2010)].

Since the end of the noughties however, a new kind of action hero exploded on screen via big budget Tamil blockbusters. Seemingly tired of languishing in the shadow of the Bollywood hero who has acquired a global presence, the Tamil hero has started to project himself as an international gendarme battling transnational hazards to peace. His aggressive assertion of Indian power in recent action flicks is represented as a force for global stability, a cinematic synecdoche for Pax Indica. While it’s a grandiose vision consonant with the ambitions of the Tamil film industry to look beyond traditional markets to sell its films, it’s incongruous with actual Indian foreign policy.

Like Hindi-language cinema, now globally known as Bollywood, which began in the colonial Bombay Presidency, Tamil-language cinema had its roots in Madras, the capital of Madras Province, British India. Once Hindi became the lingua franca of postcolonial India, Bollywood became the de facto national film industry and gained greater international presence. Yet, Tamil cinema, now based in Chennai, the capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu, still produces more films than Bollywood, and has also travelled wherever the South Indian diaspora has gone. Southeast Asia, and to a lesser extent, the Middle East have been big overseas markets for Tamil cinema since the ‘60s. The Chennai-based film industry is amongst the biggest worldwide, largely because there are more native speakers of Tamil in India alone than there are of many languages worldwide, and Kollywood, Tamil cinema’s trading name, has successfully staved off competition from Hollywood unlike many national cinemas [Dennis Hanlon, “Detachable transnational film style and the global-local dialectic in Mani Ratnam’s Indian adaptations of Amores perros”, Transnational Cinemas 4, 1 (January 2014)].

Nonetheless, aiming to capitalize on intensifying globalization, Kollywood is on the lookout for bigger markets, and larger audiences comparable to what Bollywood has achieved. Over the last three decades, cosmopolitan filmgoers in North America, Western Europe, and Japan have started to embrace Kollywood. To compete effectively with Bollywood, Kollywood must manufacture cultural products to appeal to different target groups and segmented audiences: local filmgoers in Tamil Nadu, a pan-Indian audience through post-production dubbing or multilingual versions (the same movie made imon three different languages sometimes with different casts), overseas Indian communities, and increasingly, foreign audiences across the world. No longer content with being mere import-substitutes to Hollywood and Bollywood, an export-oriented industrial outlook has prompted Kollywood to weave stories with a transcendental appeal, in a bid to surpass Bollywood.

Yet, the severest challenge to Kollywood’s dominant aesthetic form did not come from without. For decades, the action-masala genre (described so since Tamil movies like most of India’s cinemas do not abide by the genre taxonomy of other film cultures) amalgamated song-and-dance numbers, comedy interludes, alongside staples like stunt sequences, fight scenes, extended shootouts, and car chases. Organized around a popular action star with a fanatic fan following as lead, profits were almost guaranteed from this formula.

Because Tamil films began as an ethnic rebellion to North Indian political domination, a site for the assertion of ethno-linguistic nationalism against Hindi, and the celebration of local folk culture [“How a Tamil star is born” Jason Overdorf, Global Post, 3 July 2012], it was unlikely that Hollywood or Bollywood could seriously erode its niche market in Tamil Nadu. The threat came from an unlikely source: what has been referred to as the Tamil “new wave” cinema [“The New Southern Sensation”, Pradeep Sebastian, The Caravan, 1 February 2010]. Circa 2006, an aesthetic revolution began with a series of gritty neo-realist thrillers, ethnographic dramas, and indie black comedies [“After the Cinema of Disgust”, K.Hariharan, OPEN Magazine, 10 August 2013]. The reasons for the emergence of the “new wave” will not be explored here, but all three categories of films gained widespread critical acclaim, financial success, or both.

Seduced by the refreshing “new wave”, the globalized Tamil filmgoer, who was also exposed to transnational film culture, began to expect more from his action films. Soon, a genre purification process began that made the mongrel action-masala films seem insultingly inferior.

Most importantly, the innovations associated with the Tamil “new wave” challenged the hackneyed formulas of hero-centric star-dominated potboilers. The majority audiences rejected movies without a compelling narrative, focused solely on glorifying the cult of the star, which satisfied only their fans. Studios and producers who banked solely on the charismatic presence of the major action stars to sell their films soon found themselves facing a loss. The offbeat low-budget films ended up as winners at the box office. A paradigm shift had taken place in Kollywood. Film critics and intellectuals declared that the larger than life Tamil action hero, who could never perish on screen, was now artistically dead.

In order to resurrect the action-masala genre, and to justify the return of the Tamil action hero, exotic locales, new missions, and new villains tethered to weighty new stories, were found. The regenerative enterprise seems to be to invoke the jingoism of Tamil, and national audiences against real and imagined threats to India from outside, to facilitate the suspension of disbelief critical to the success of the action-masala genre and its heroic excesses.

At the same time, Kollywood had to produce narratives based on global themes resonant with the political consciousness of non-Indian audiences. Whether this particular brand of revived Tamil action-masala genre is merely a coincidental commonality or is indicative of a growing trend is immaterial. Examining these movies as texts offers insight into the collective fears, national aspirations, and Weltanschauung of India’s Tamils vis-à-vis the rest of the global society.

In these fictional narratives, the mission of the Tamil action hero, the coalescing signifier of the films’ various components, is to annihilate antagonists from parts of the world beyond the control and influence of the West. He forestalls the acquisition of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) by unnamed foreign terrorists in Thaandavam (2012), disrupts illegal genetic engineering by Eastern European scientists in Maattrraan (2012), and polices the Indian Ocean from African pirates and the transnational drug trade in Singam II (2013). His personal struggles are also magnified into an assertion of muscular Indian nationalism in fights and shootouts with Russian arms dealers in Billa II (2012), and a hostage crisis with Sudanese paramilitia in Maryan (2013).

Closer to reality, a Chinese PLA assassin attempts to paralyze India by spreading a contagious virus but is foiled in 7aam Arivu (2011), and he wages a covert war of attrition with Pakistan-sponsored anti-Indian anarchists in Thuppakki (2012). And in the most compelling narrative of all, an Indian secret agent infiltrates Al-Qaeda posing as a jihadi to support NATO operations in Afghanistan in Vishwaroopam (2013). Emanating from the genre’s reorganization, hitherto unseen or uncommon plot devices and conventions have found greater cinematic commitment in Kollywood. There appears to be a genuine interest in faithfully recreating popular genres in the West, like the spy flick, the terrorism thriller, and films about nuclear weapons, to appeal to an international audience.

While on the other hand, the characterization of the weakened West, and the allegorization of confrontations between the Tamil action hero and foreign antagonists [“Foreign baddies muscle into Tamil cinema”, Janani Sampath, The New Indian Express, 1 September 2013] emerge as gimmicks to satisfy pan-Indian audiences. Since in reality India’s foreign policy appears to have limited imagination, the impulse is to elevate the aspiration to the mythic, seeking a vicarious Pax Indica through the action-masala genre.

The novelty is not in the search for foreign locales or a multinational cast, it is in the thematic preoccupation of the genre. Since 1969, Tamil films have on occasion been shot in offshore locations, and Tamil action heroes have sometimes battled foreign-coded henchmen of the principal villain who was invariably South Asian [Selvaraj Velayutham, “The diaspora and the global circulation of Tamil cinema”, Tamil Cinema: The Cultural Politics of India’s Other Film Industry, ed. Selvaraj Velayutham (London: Routledge, 2008)]. However, 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. These films would have us believe that an imminent cataclysm threatens to engulf not just India but also all of humanity, unless the Tamil action hero, the ‘brown messiah’, does something about it. 

The top-grossing Tamil film of 2013, the multilingual Vishwaroopam (‘Universal Form’, Dir. Kamalhaasan) released as Vishwaroop in Hindi, crucially illustrates the transformation of the Tamil action-masala genre. The mission of the secret agent Major Wizam Ahmed Kashmiri, belonging to India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) intelligence agency, is to apprehend two of Al-Qaeda’s chief terrorists. In the released instalment, the backstory of Wizam as a double agent who helps Al-Qaeda train jihadis while covertly aiding the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan search and rescue captured US troops circa 2002, segues into a plot to stop the explosion of dirty bombs in present-day New York city.

In the second half of the Vishwaroopam, Wizam, and his team of RAW agents, and a senior MI6 commander, help the FBI root out sleeper cells in New York city, foiling Al-Qaeda’s latest strike. At the end of Vishwaroopam, Wizam swears not to rest till the more dangerous of the two Al-Qaeda leaders, who have escaped, is dead, setting up to continue the pursuit in a forthcoming sequel. By the end of Vishwaroopam, the multilayered poignancy of its Sanskrit-based title is lucid.

Vishwaroopam intimates to the confluence of Hindu mythology, and atomic theory made famous by the “father of the atomic bomb”, American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer’s adaptation of a quote from the Bhagavad Gita, to describe the effects of an atomic explosion, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” was in effect describing the polycephalic multiarmed avatar of the supreme Hindu deity, Krishna, thereby converging the terrifying image of a wrathful god with the deadliest weapon in human history. The naming of the film more directly refers to the ubiquitous universal threat that radical Islamist terrorism has manifested beyond just the Middle East and South Asia. Finally, the theme song, a paean to the star persona of its lead actor, and the character of Major Wizam, alludes that Vishwaroopam refers to the heroic qualities of the global ‘brown messiah’ who will take on a terrifying form to save humanity.

Because it epitomized spectatorial beliefs and sympathies by indexing actual events, film critic Lenny Rubenstein posits that the spy film was intensely political. Vishwaroopam is no exception, announcing its ambitions with a modified disclaimer at the start of the film that it was a work of fiction not intending to hurt any individual or community. This implies intentionality in bearing more than just coincidental references to actual individuals and developments. More in response to Islamist groups in India pushing for a ban on the film than an apologia on the political message of the film, director-actor Kamalhaasan pulls no punches in this historical fiction. Vishwaroopam directly addresses both ordinary Afghans and Americans as unfortunate victims of NATO intervention in Afghanistan, empathizes with misguided Islamist volunteers for Al-Qaeda’s cause, and spews vitriol at what the film considers to be the warmongers responsible for the conflict: corporate greed in the USA and power-hungry radical Islamist demagogues.

Vishwaroopam reserves its harshest criticism for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency as the mercenary interloper, chiefly responsible for the continued political unrest in Afghanistan. The ISI and its double game of being publically allied with NATO but covertly helping Al-Qaeda is exposed in one scene as “the greedy scum that eats in the gutter one day, and in the kitchen the other day.” Facilitated by award-winning cinematography, costume-design, and casting that constructs verisimilitude to war-torn Afghanistan, it draws attention to the troubled country while like most spy films also revealing the national loyalties and fears generated by public and official opinion in India, about the impact that the civil war would have on the rest of South Asia [Lenny Rubenstein, “The Politics of Spy Films”, Cinéaste 9, 3 (Spring 1979)].

Vishwaroopam’s characterization of the Tamil action hero as saviour of both Afghans and Americans, and punisher of threats to global security also reveals the hawkish tendencies some members of the India’s intelligentsia. Kamalhaasan’s grand vision appears to be for India to play a more active role not just in South Asia as an American ally displacing Pakistan, but to be a great power that can project its political and military influence across the world. Hence, a discernibly strident pro-American tone underpins the narrative of Vishwaroopam.

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