187573-tamil-horror-films-madness-modernity-and-misogyny

Tamil Horror Films: Madness, Modernity and of Course, Misogyny

While Hollywood horror thrives on the anxieties over the persistence of evil, emanating from a malevolent source, Tamil horror films deal with the prevalence of social injustice.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

For a culture that continues to believe that the metaphysical and corporeal can coexist, deifying both ends of the Manichean spectrum, seeing all creatures as deified by death, and death itself just another state of being, the genre of horror in India’s Tamil cinema, has a miserable output. An unadulterated treatment of the genre, as is understood in Hollywood, has an even more depressing history. Commercial requirements in an industry where genre purity is always in question have consigned the horror film to share screen space with the musical, the romance, the comedy, and the melodrama. The worst of these appear like an extended three-hour version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (Dir. John Landis, 1983), which was a hit in India. In Tamil cinema, it appears that even the spooks must wait their turn on the reel after the mush, the weeps, the laughs, and the fight.

Chandramukhi (Dir. P. Vasu, 2005), one of the highest grossing Tamil horror movies of all time, commences with the superstar actor who plays Dr.Saravanan, the hero of the film, being introduced in a fight scene, where he disposes of an army of thugs with flying kicks and punches that send them hurtling through the air, and then has an emotional reunion with Senthil, his foster brother.

Senthil is about to start his married life by moving to an abandoned palace with a dark feudal past, and unfortunately for him, his enigmatic wife, Ganga, is attracted to the painting of a dead court danseuse in the mansion. Ganga is fascinated by her tragic backstory; a fixation facilitated by the discovery of old clothes and jewelry. Audiences who watched the film, some many times over, had to wait for the protagonist-action hero to leave the palatial mise-en-scène for things to go bump in the night. However, once Dr.Saravanan returns, things are set right, the karmic order is established, and the malevolent ghost is busted. In the spirit of Indian versions of the Chuck Norris Jokes, one might say: even disembodied souls fear Rajinikanth.

The Tamil horror film genre can be identified by the structuring of the narrative on two out of the seven key emotions in Sanskrit dramaturgy known as the navarasa aesthetic: bhayanaka (terror) and bibhatsa (disgust). Yet, not all the films that utilized these moods have left a lasting impact on Tamil popular culture. Few productions have either attained cult status, were critically acclaimed, or became successes. Most others are either dubbed versions of horror films from other languages, or unpopular B-grade productions.

Evaluating those that standout, Tamil horror films emerge as narratives that use representations of the paranormal to provoke an irrational terror and visceral disgust, while enthralling the audience with a vaudevillian spectacle. Also known as the pey padam in Tamil (pey: ghost, padam: film), these films privilege an exploration of the consequences of what happens when normal people confront the otherworldly paranormal and occult forces.

Foreign audiences will find that in Tamil cinema, vampires, werewolves, and zombies are conspicuously absent, with the exception of the limited run of Nalaya Manithan (‘Future Human’, Dir. Thakkali C Seenivasan, 1989) and Adhisaya Manithan (‘Shocking Human’, Dir. Thakkali C Seenivasan, 1990) that attempted to create a bloodthirsty subhuman monster inspired by undead monsters in western popular culture. The erotic horror film Neeya? (‘You?’ Dir. Durai, 1979) about a vengeful female serpent belonging to a mythical tribe of cobras that can take on a human form, similar to the shape shifting femme fatales in Cat People (Dir. Paul Schraeder, 1982) and Ladyhawke (Dir. Richard Donner, 1985), was another anomaly. Sub-genres like science fiction horror, and psychological horror films remain alien to the visual and narrative culture of South India.

Described by local critics as throwing into sharp relief the worst aspects of the industry: dodgy special effects, amateurish make-up (without the ghastly contact lenses and smoky eye shadow, how else would audiences tell apart the human and the uncanny?) and predictable plots, the pey padam has been derided for being decades away from reaching the towering heights of frightening movies available in markets elsewhere. As a result, intellectual engagement with the genre as a whole has also been limited.

Some scholars have just started writing on the horror productions of Bollywood’s B-film circuits, and the first steps have been taken to analyze Tamil horror films too, but there is a paucity of synchronic analysis of the form and substance of the genre as a whole. The pey padam can be approached as an artifact to be excavated for cultural signs: the anxieties, fears, and taboos of the Tamils, as well as the superstitions, rituals, and totems they evoke to contain the supernatural.

While Hollywood horror thrives on the anxieties over the persistence of evil, emanating from a malevolent source, Tamil horror films deal with the prevalence of social injustice and the limits of the modern legal system, with ghosts as vengeful spirits of slayed innocents. Critically, the pey padam is also deeply atavistic, urging a return to traditional Hindu values and practices, suggesting that the intrusion of modernity must be held at abeyance, and offer cultural resistance to the political project of rationalism in the Tamil country.

However, the genre’s discourses on gender are more ambivalent. While the female body, becomes a site of contestation between tradition and modernity, it also becomes a palimpsest where the hegemony of heteropatriarchy is challenged by intersexuality, but the ambiguity is never fully resolved. While the readings suggested introduce possible frames for understanding the pey padam, it is by no means the only one. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the ‘looking under the bed’ attempted here would inspire deeper analysis of an oft-ignored genre; if nothing else, it should provide a filmography of the Tamil horror genre for fans of world horror cinema looking for new scares.

One Person Becomes Another: A Possession State

Before the climactic confrontation scenes in Chandramukhi, Dr.Saravanan, apparently one the world’s leading minds, makes a confusing pseudo-scientific spiel leading to an unfortunate instance of unintended humor. Besides Rajinikanth’s thickly accented English and mispronunciation, the writers of the film confused spirit possession with Dissociative Identity Disorder, conflating both to create pop psychology. Ostensibly fusing modern science and demonology for the sake of intellectualism, Dr. Saravanan explains the reason why Senthil’s wife, Ganga, has gone murderously berserk. She believes herself to be the titular Chandramukhi, who is still fantasizing about being reunited with her dead lover, and schemes about killing their aristocratic executioner. Yet, it’s important in revealing the beliefs of those who invested in the production: wrote the script, designed the plot, and imagined each character; as well as consumers of the film who made the film a blockbuster, spawning clones in nearly every major film industry in India.

While the cinema is a sine quibus non of Indian modernity, arriving with other colonial apparatuses, its earliest functions were in defense of traditionalism. As the modern colonial state of the British Raj took shape with a penal code, the Indian civil service, the Indian police service, and the British Indian Army was established, key communication infrastructure like a modern railway network, laying of power lines for electricity, wires for telegraphs, and the cinema theater were opened, representing the techno-political apparatuses of modernization. Countering perceptions of causing the intrusion of western visual culture into India, in its inception, the cinema was deployed to create screen adaptations of Hindu mythology, folk tales, and feudal legends, a genre known as the mythological or the devotional. These genres were used to purvey subtly anti-colonial nationalist ideas and a sense of a united India having existed before the arrival of the British through shared narratives.

Though the modern medium of cinema was used in the service of tradition, the ultra-conservatives initially decried it as a perversion. However, changing societal norms, political pressures, and exogenous visual influences have over time eroded cinema’s association with conservatism just as its popularity grew to make it one of the most prolific mediums in the country and a world famous film culture. As the medium’s roles and functions evolved, the pey padam became a vestige of orthodoxy, a stronghold promoting a return to Hinduism as the solution to evils – social, political, and metaphysical – with an anti-modernist passion.

After dominating the early output of Tamil cinema, the mythological was threatened by a political movement that aimed to break the control and influence of Hinduism and Hindu superstitions over Tamil society. While it had limited successes, its influences on Tamil cinema were significant. In 1925, politician and social activist, E.V. Ramasamy (known even today as E.V.R.) launched the Self-Respect Movement in South India. The Self-Respect Movement challenged upper caste dominance, especially the priestly Brahmin caste at the apex of the caste hierarchy, sought to eradicate untouchability and the caste system altogether, and aimed to create a completely egalitarian society where there would be no class, gender, or religious differences either. In order to do that, Ramasamy preached an intellectual liberation from religion, especially Hinduism, which sanctioned the caste system as a social institution in the first place. The Self-Respected Movement rejected superstition, and promoted rationalism as an alternative secular worldview. He would later form the Dravida Kazhagam (Dravidian Front), tying these ideals to Tamil Nationalism and secessionism from North Indian domination in independent India.

Seeing the need to gain power through the ballot box in democratic India, key luminaries from the Dravida Kazhagam would form the splinter Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK, or Dravidian Progressive Front) moderating some of Ramasamy’s radical anti-Hinduism to appeal to a larger section of the population. Nevertheless, key principles associated with the Self-Respect movement were retained. Because the DMK saw cinema as the most powerful art form due to its accessibility, DMK luminaries entered the film industry to promote themes like “widow-remarriage, untouchability, the self-respect marriage (introduced by E.V.R. to eliminate the use of the Brahmin priest in the wedding ceremony) zamindari [feudal landlord] abolition, prohibition, and religious hypocrisy” in films that became known as the DMK Film [See: Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr., “Politics and the film in Tamil Nadu: the stars and the DMK”, Tamil Cinema ed., Selvaraj Velayutham (New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 59-77; Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen (Eds.), Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema (London: British Film Institute; New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 91].

While electoral compromises forced the DMK Party to tone down its iconoclasm, it influenced the Tamil film industry’s output. While the mythological genre dominated the ’30s, “the number drops rapidly during the 1940s, and is said to almost disappear by the 1950s”, coinciding with the rise of the DMK Film [See: Rachel Dwyer, Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 51; Stephen Putnam Hughes, “Tamil Mythological Cinema and the Politics of Secular Modernism”, Aesthetic Formations, ed., Birgit Meyer (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian, 2010), pp. 93-116]. While there were some religiously inspired films in the ’60s and ’70s, they were a minority, never again reaching the dominance achieved at its peak in the ’30s. Unsurprisingly, the supernatural would return, transmogrified into a more sinister form, as a conservative reaction to attempts at evacuating Hinduism from popular cinema.

Out of this political context, the pey padam emerged in the late ’70s as an alternative conduit for the promotion of Hinduism, where the gods must be propitiated, and their help sought for deliverance from matters beyond human control. Arguably amongst the first Tamil horror films: Aayiram Jenmangal (‘Thousand Incarnations’, Dir. Durai, 1978), which introduced the template of a ghost trying to reunite with her former lover by possessing his wife’s body, and the possessed woman’s brother trying to save his sister, could be considered a trend-setter of sorts. In Aayiram Jenmangal, the desperate loveless soul is destroyed only after it is trapped in a Hindu temple, and decimated by the collective power of the deities – a common resolution to the Tamil horror film, affirming the power of the transcendental.

The Inter-Religious Cross-Over

Even Dr. Saravanan in Chandramukhi seeks the help of a Hindu priest in order to finally exorcise the vengeful spirit that appears to haunt the mansion. Operating under the same template, the recent Aranmanai (‘Palace’, Dir. Sundar C., 2014), an unofficial remake of Aayiram Jenmangal, sees the hero trying to save his sister from being permanently possessed by the ghost of her husband’s former lover. After initial skepticism about the titular home being haunted and the existence of the paranormal, he follows the recommendations of a godman, and dunks his sister in a river where idols of Hindu deities are being immersed. The power of the Hindu gods, which charges the river with spiritual energy, flows downstream just in time for the ghost to be driven out, the hero’s sister to be saved, and the family avoids rupture.

An axiomatic trope of the pey padam is the conversion of the skeptic who sees the superstitious as mad or cannot understand that there can be such a thing as spirit possession. Eventually, of course, even the most western educated and modern of characters concedes to the superior power of faith and divinity, acknowledging that there are forces in the universe that cannot be fully explained by modern science. The film Shock (Dir. Thiagarajan, 2004) set in post-liberalization India, with a white collar professional protagonist Vasanth, and his wife Malini forming the upwardly mobile middle class Hindu couple, move into a flat where a woman had been murdered before they moved in.

Malini becomes depressed after a series of paranormal disturbances shocks her out of her mundane existence as a housewife and she eventually becomes mentally disturbed. Vasanth first seeks out a psychiatrist who finds nothing wrong with Malini, here Shock is more conscious than Chandramukhi, as Vasanth is convinced by his maid to get spiritual help for what is not a psychological ailment. While, the immediate response of the yuppie Vasanth is to find a scientific solution for his wife’s malaise, it is the subaltern who persuades Vasanth of the need for a more spiritual remedy, and he gets a ghost buster who cures Malini. The exorcist not only forces the ghost to leave Malini, she also gets it to reveal the identity of its murderer.

While the legal apparatus of the modern state with cops and lawyers are shown as too inept to find the perpetrator, the female shaman summons the ghost itself to spill the beans, proving its superior function in upholding justice. A recurring motif in the Tamil horror film: justice and truth, two key cultural values in Tamil society, are seen as better upheld by the supernatural than the modern legal system that can be manipulated by the shrewd, the rich, and the powerful.

Two iconic horror films that exemplify the theme of exposing the limits of modernity with evil vengeful spirits were the aforementioned Neeya? and Pillai Nila (‘Moon Child’, Dir. Manobala, 1985). In the Neeya?, a group of thrill-seeking wealthy businessmen shoot and kill a King Cobra, when in his serpent form, interrupting a sexual union with his Queen, because they refused to believe that a snake could take a human form. Almost every member of what appears to be a kind of male sorority group meets their end at the hands of the Cobra’s wrathful bride. Only the anthropologist hero, earlier dismissed by his rich friends as being mad for believing in the tribal subculture of snake-humans, who had also warned his friends about upsetting the supernatural order, evades the Queen Cobra’s death traps, and finally kills her himself.

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Pillai Nila (1985)

In Pillai Nila, it gets creepier: the hero’s disappointed dead ex-girlfriend possesses his young daughter, who was born at the same time she committed suicide. How the hero liberates his daughter from the evil spirit of his former lover’s ghost and saves his wife from impending death forms the film’s narrative arch.

The relationship between madness, science, and religion in Tamil horror films is complicated in the Yavarum Nalam (‘Everyone is Fine,’ Dir. Vikram Kumar, 2009) where the Hindu gods do not intervene directly. Nevertheless, belief in the transcendental itself is rewarded. Unlike the usual clichés of spirit possession, in Yavarum Nalam, the paranormal literally use modern technology as channels to communicate from the other side.

Manohar, a white collar professional like Vasanth in Shock, and his middle class Hindu family move into a swanky new apartment, albeit on the 13th floor, with an ominous house number 13B, like the family in Pathimoonam Number Veedu (‘House Number 13’, Dir. Baby, 1990) that predates Yavarum Nalam in the ‘moving to a house with a jinxed number’ gimmick. They are greeted by trivial incidents such as putrefied milk and getting trapped in the lift, which are regarded as inauspicious by some in his family but shrugged off by the self-declared rationalist Manohar. Soon the women in the family get hooked on a new TV soap opera called Yavarum Nalam, about a family similar to theirs who have also just moved into a new house just like they have.

As the soap unfolds, Manohar notices that the incidents that happen in the serial are an uncanny mirroring of what is happening to his family, even though the rest of his family remains oblivious to the similarities. Manohar also notices that his camera phone takes distorted pictures of him while he is in the apartment, but not while he is outside. Once things go horribly wrong in the soap opera and characters start getting killed, fearing the same thing could happen to his family, and on the verge of madness, Manohar investigates the past of the apartment building.

It turns out that the high rise apartments were built on land where a bungalow once was, and the occupants in the bungalow – who were characters in the TV drama presumably only Manohar’s family can see – were butchered in an orgy of violence in 1977, and the blame for their deaths had mistakenly fallen on a mentally disabled member of the family. However, Manohar finds the real murderer who is a socially prominent member of the elite and brings him to justice, proves the mentally challenged survivor of the murdered family to be innocent, and manages to prevent his own family from being wiped out.

The intellectually disabled member of the murdered family in Yaavarum Naalam, the anthropologist being mocked as mad for believing in a race of snake people in Neeya? Vasanth in Shock who thinks his possessed wife is mentally ill, and the motley crew of characters with different opinions on the relevance of tradition in modern society in Chandramukhi, cumulatively show that the pey padam rejects the definition of madness imposed by the Enlightenment tradition. As philosopher Michel Foucault has argued in Madness and Civilization (1964), after the Age of Reason, anyone who did not conform to the limits of rationality were considered miscreants. The criminal and the destitute, like the mad, were those who failed to integrate into the morality and intellectual order of the ruling elites. Madness was ‘the other’ of modernity, the subject of ‘unreason’ to be quarantined from corrupting the rest of the population, which had unquestioningly accepted elite values.

Instead, in the pey padam, those who see unreason as madness and subscribe to the hegemony of modernity are censured or worst still, meet fatalities. Hindu values are upheld as the superior moral order, punishing those who had escaped censure by the modern legal system, and redeeming characters that accept the transcendental. If anything, those who live on the fringes of modernity or outside of it are valorized as custodians of superior knowledge: take the eccentric and outlandish but powerful Hindu godmen of the pey padam (the fake ones are used for comic effect as they flee for their lives at the first sight of the ghost). They accurately predict astronomic phenomenon using astrology, ultimately achieving what the ‘normal’ modern characters cannot. The critique of modernity continues even via the bloodthirsty subhuman in Nalaya Manithan and Adhisaya Manithan, both movies with storylines of experiments that had gone horribly wrong, and thus, unleashing a monstrosity capable of wiping humanity out.

Though films like Jenma Natchathiram (‘Omen’, Dir. Thakkali C Seenivasan, 1991) and Muni 2: Kanchana (Dir. Raghava Lawrence, 2011) see Christian and Sufi Muslim priests trying to stop the ghosts respectively, the resolution is not as definitive as when a Hindu priest does the exorcising. A Tamil remake of Omen (Dir. Richard Donner, 1976), Jenma Natchathiram entreats the Christian faith to kill the Anti-Christ, but like in the Hollywood original, the march of evil cannot be stopped. In Muni 2: Kanchana, Sufi mysticism is ritually deployed but it’s insufficient, and the paranormal escapes the containment imposed. A Hindu Nationalist reading of both films are certainly possible, given the dating of both films in India’s political history.

In contrast, in Yaar? (‘Who?’ Dir. Sakti-Kannan, 1985) made before Hindutva consciousness and Hindu radicalism became a national political force, rejecting Islam and Christianity as foreign religions, a more multicultural solution is found. The Anti-Christ in Yaar? is defeated by the collective prayers of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. A radiant light flows from a Catholic church and the statue of Mother Mary, just as it emanates from the Mosques, and flows into the statue of the Hindu Mother Goddess, who then enters the body of the heroine (a religious sanctioned possession that is a common tradition in the region) who slays the Anti-Christ with the trident weapon of the Goddess, reapplying a common narrative in Hindu texts when the gods and goddesses intervene to kill the maleficent forces. Hinduism is the only of the three majority religions in India that does not have an Anti-Christ-ushered apocalyptic ending to the cosmos, and so Yaar? creates for good entertainment and nation-building, an inter-textual, inter-religious cross-over.

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Transsexual Scorned

While the hauntings take place in palatial houses and mansions, the pre-colonial home of feudal authorities, who were also custodians of the religious orders who had primacy in the hierarchy of the Hindu caste system, it was merely a centripetal force to draw us to the real site of contestation: the female body. The women in the Tamil horror film become an alternative arena where the confrontation between atavism and modernity play out as the pey padam predominantly favors the spirit possession of women as the main narrative thrust. Moreover, it was not just the easy possession of women that figures prominently, it’s also the sheer number of vengeful female ghosts that populate the social universe of the Tamil horror film seeking to resolve unrequited inter-class or inter-caste romances, as well as murder the men who betrayed their trust, which makes this interpretation possible. The scorned woman of the pey padam portends her impending appearance, through gushing blood that seems to stream endlessly, and long hair flowing with a life of its own, revealing influences from the onryo trope in Japanese horror cinema.

Usually appearing as a white apparition in a white sari with extra layers of pancake makeup to create the pale face effect in earlier horror films, recent advancements in technology have created more grotesque versions, with rotting eyes and putrefying flesh — what philosopher Julia Kristeva refers to as the horror of abjection where the corporeal starts to decay threatening the identity of the individual, breaking down meaning, and the notion of identity itself falls apart. Some films attempt more sophisticated representations: like the fear they provoke in Yavarum Nalam using a television soap opera to communicate without resorting to the grotesque. In Eeram (‘Moisture’, Dir. Arivazhagan Venkatachalam, 2009), the ghost is never fully materialized, but appears to haunt the water supply of the city, which she uses to kill those who colluded to drown her and cover up the crime. She occasionally condenses as a watery apparition on the mirror, and makes footsteps appear on puddles of water, to reveal her presence to her ex-boyfriend police officer investigating the case.

Here the Tamil horror film remains surprisingly honest to academic research about possession and the occult in South India. While it remains to be seen whether filmmakers did their homework or merely built on folk ghost stories and urban legends, anthropologists like Isabelle Nabokov, writing in the late ’80s and early ’90s, have argued that in Tamil culture it is believed that “women are more susceptible to being ‘caught’ by demons.” A whole corpus of work exists by anthropologists like Lionel Caplan, S.Bhaktavatsala Bharathi, and Kalpana Ram who have researched the claim that in South India, women are presumed to be more likely to attract the attentions of ghosts while menstruating, shortly after marriage, and interrogate perceived emotional deficiency and fearfulness amongst women for their frequent possession because these were said to strip the self of defenses against evil forces [See: Isabelle Nabokov, “Expel the Lover, Recover the Wife: Symbolic Analysis of a South Indian Exorcism”, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Vol. 3, No. 2 (1997), pp. 297-316 ].

It’s also undeniable that such cultural presuppositions appear misogynistic and reinforce male domination, suggesting that women are associated with the world of the supernatural, creating a dependency mentality, and requiring the protection of male godmen, and priests. The possessed woman and the scorned female ghost, like the final girl-trope in Hollywood slasher flicks, has become a patriarchal convention of Tamil horror cinema. Case in point: the faithful Hindu housewife turns from meek to hyperviolent in Vaa Arugil Vaa (‘Come Near’, Dir. Kalaivanan Kannadasan, 1991) when the goddess empowers her to destroy a restless force inhabiting a doll that is trying to murder her husband. The ‘good wife’ who previously cowered in fear now walks on burning hot coal and strikes the Chuckyesque doll with the trident of the Mother Goddess, and the spirit gets a final resting place at the feet of the goddess after the doll is fried by the energy from the trident.

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Muni 2: Kanchana ( 2011)

Because in cinema novelty well executed means money, one of the most successful Tamil ghost films in recent years, Muni 2: Kanchana, defies all established gender conventions and throws the earlier readings into disarray. The second in the Muni (one translation of the word is: ancient sage, the other is: an ancient ghost) franchise that began in 2007, with a Muni 3 forthcoming, Muni 2: Kanchana reintroduces the premise of the first film about a nyctophobic and phasmophobic man’s encounter with ghosts. Otherwise bearing all the hypermasculine, minstrel, and virile characteristics of a typical Tamil action hero in both films — to allow for fight scenes, song-and-dance, and romantic interludes with a glam doll heroine – the only tragic flaw of the protagonist (played in both films by the same actor/director) is his crippling fear of the night and ghosts; a fear that reduces him to infantile dependency on his mother. Both films sharply contrast his behavior in the day and at night, to underscore the extent of his sole weakness, how it is exploited by revenging spirits, and the completion of the heroic journey when he confronts his fears.

However, where in Muni the hero Ganesh is possessed by the ghost of an eponymously named lumpenproletariat who was betrayed and murdered with his daughter by a politician, in Muni 2: Kanchana the hero Raghava also has his body taken over by the titular ghost from the subaltern classes: a transsexual (locally known as an aravani), likewise killed together with her family by an unscrupulous landgrabbing politician. Where in Muni, the middle class Ganesh slowly becomes a slum gruff, in Muni 2: Kanchana, the upperclass Raghava gradually becomes effeminate, and starts to dress like a traditional Tamil woman: wearing vermilion powder on his forehead, enjoying the application of turmeric on his skin, loving the sound of bangles on his wrists, and starts wearing a variation of the Indian sari.

Very much in the genre of horror comedy, the gender bending sequences when Raghava starts to become like Kanchana, allow the release of tension through the laughs it provokes based on the response of Raghava’s family members to his transexualization, before the gratuitous violence and gore flows on screen as the wrathful ghost uses Raghava’s body to kill all who colluded to kill her foster family. Kanchana reserves the severest punishment to disembowel the greedy parliamentarian, once again reminiscent of a scene from a Hindu text in which the deity Vishnu appears as a lion-headed beast, an avatar popularly worshipped around India as a protector god, to destroy a demon.

Muni 2: Kanchana confuses the accepted belief in Tamil culture that women are more susceptible to possession than men by rearranging assigned gender identities amongst other categorical disruptions. While the male has been possessed in other horror films, as a result of a black magic spell in Uruvam (‘Form’, Dir. G.M.Kumar, 1991), the Anti-Christ in Yaar? and in Muni itself, in Muni 2: Kanchana the possession of a male by a transsexual ghost is a unique engendering because it is the means by which all binaries are broken: powerful/powerless, elite/subaltern, male/female, and of course, comedy/horror, even invoking an ancient cosmic tale of a god/animal creature. The taxonomy that modernity had sought to impose to create determinate manageable identities now bleed into each other, and punish those who use the categories to dominate and oppress.

Part of the film’s success must lie in its interrogation of subhumanism: the subculture of transsexuals in India, who are believed to have supernatural powers, the notion of parahumanism in Hinduism, and whether the ‘sub’ is a derogatory prefix committing conceptual violence on those who do not easily fit into categories. Another correlated cause for the film’s success is the shocking cameo by actor-politician R.Sarathkumar, performing Kanchana in the ghost’s backstory. Having made his name as a macho action star, routinely portraying James Bond-esque characters, the role appears to be a refreshing experiment. Of course, he is introduced with theme music and wearing a sari beats up thugs in his first scene. As a former bodybuilder, he makes for an exceptionally muscular transsexual who does not modulate his voice as transsexuals are believed to do, but that appears to be within the ethos of the film.

How Many Horror Films Have We Watched?

Recently, as independent filmmakers took Tamil cinema to its postmodern apotheosis and began experimenting with genres in the most unexpected ways, they recast the pey padam in ways hitherto unseen. The comedy horror genre that Chandramukhi and Muni 2: Kanchana claim to be are actually an artificial enjoinment of genres with the laughs in the first half of the films, and the horrors arriving around mid-way before a neat finish and happy ending. If anything, the pey padam attempts to throw as many genres into the mix held together by a ghost story with elements of terror and disgust to justify the industrial categorization that would draw spectators. Especially those who want to put themselves through the challenge of surviving a ghost story screening in the dark, and thereby find the satisfaction in having themselves thoroughly scared.

It was not till Pizza (Dir. Karthik Subbaraj, 2012), helped by the postmodern dark comedy ethos of turning a serious situation into an absurd, did the comedy horror genre truly emerge in Tamil cinema. In Pizza’s non-linear narrative structure, the supernatural occurrences in a supposedly haunted mansion are narrated from a first person point-of-view. The point-of-view is proven unreliable, and the twist is revealed that it was all a fabrication. It’s a hoax, made possible because the protagonist’s girlfriend is a horror film buff and an aspiring supernatural novel writer who has a deep appreciation of all the genre’s tropes and leitmotifs. Horror film DVDs and books about the paranormal are always in the mise-en-scène of Pizza, suggesting that what we know about the supernatural is really an elaborate media charade to frighten everyone into believing in that which does not exist.

The recent Yaamirukka Bayamey (‘Fear,’ Dir. Deekay, 2014), likewise uses a haunted house to create a farce with so many plot twists, random occurrences, and cut away sequences that it’s an incomprehensible narrative. The horrors are not scary but intentionally funny, and the movie ultimately ends abruptly and absurdly. Though there is an elaborate build up that a demon lurks in the haunted house, when it finally arrives, we have become de-sensitized to its impending arrival, and it is no longer thrilling. If anything, we are left laughing at the characters who are bullied by the apparition at the end.

Both Pizza and Yaamirukka Bayamey take us through the whole gamut of horror film clichés, the transnational influences as well as the local ones. They build on tropes, representations, stories, and visual strategies throughout the history of Tamil horror cinema. From the vengeful spirit to female possessions to a Hindu godman to the ubiquitous haunted house, we expect these things and scoff at them. They dismantle the tropes that make the horror film scary and thus become nothing more than mumbo jumbo. Our notion of what is paranormal is founded on our lingering memories of the supernatural films that we have watched. Thus, the paranormal is but a popular cultural memory, it is fictionally constituted, rather than based on actual evidence or eye-witness proof of paranormal activity.

So, if you are the easily frightened type or a fanboy/fangirl of supernatural fictions, the defiant new postmodern Tamil cinema debunks superstition and spirituality, and reassures you that there are really no ghosts to fear. The feeling that something is always watching you is a hallucinatory figment of your imagination, conditioned by years of watching pey padams. You should know that when you turn around to find the source of the eeriness you feel and there will be no one; unless you just recently moved into a sprawling home acquired at a throwaway price…

Splash image from Chandramukhi (2005)

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