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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.

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