Performing Bestiality: Beauties and Beasts in Tamil Cinema
Middle of the road Kollywood’s strange obsession with bestiality through the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ demands attention.
Every now and then boorish heroes and buxom belles perform bestiality in Kollywood. Films about dysfunctional relationships set in deep backwoods or urban underbellies are a rite of passage in India’s Tamil cinema. If a director wants to announce his arrival or break new ground in faux realism, he centripetalizes the narrative around a picaresque anti-villain -- a savage without even an iota of nobility.
Into the woods or urban squalor walks a young beauty that attracts the anti-villain’s rapacious attention. Anti-villain sexually assaults maiden. Initially repulsed by the violation, she commits to his reformation and grows to be emotionally bonded to him even if it means being trapped in an abusive relationship. Sometimes they live happily ever after but mostly they don't. Middle of the road Tamil cinema’s strange obsession with bestiality through the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ demands attention.
The most famous fable about bestiality originated in Europe. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 17th century ur-text, La Belle et la Bête was later abridged as an 18th century fairytale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Through Disney’s mythmaking machinery, the animated Beauty and the Beast (1991) has since captured global imagination. In between, there was even the cult fantasy television drama of the same name that ran from 1987 to 1990 re-contextualizing the fairytale in urban America before Disney picked up a winner. The recent release of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (2017) provides an opportunity to discuss protean tropes that thrive in variegated cultural spaces.
Testament to the expanse of global cultural flows of neoliberal capitalism, Beauty and the Beast has been visually quoted as far away as in South Asia. In the recent big-budget Kollywood extravaganza I (2015), director S.Shankar, with a long list of special-effects-loaded vaudevillian spectaculars to his repertoire, gives us an entire fantasy song-and-dance sequence appropriating Beauty and the Beast. Complete with lead actor Vikram wearing painstakingly applied makeup to look like a man-beast and actress Amy Jackson in brown face as his captive. The bizarre music video looks garishly kitsch while the pastiche comes across an occidentalist parody intended to exploit the exoticism of having a white English actress play an Indian Belle.
The evocation of Beauty and the Beast in I to externalize the struggle of a grotesquely transmogrified captor in love with his beautiful hostage intimates towards the darker themes embedded in a seemingly harmless fairytale. Coinciding with the latest adaptation of Leprince de Beaumont’s story, a flurry of op-ed pieces surfaced examining ‘Stockholm syndrome’ -- a phenomenon in which victims can develop sympathy, gratitude, or love for a kidnapper or hostage-taker. Lead actress and feminist Emma Watson even came out to categorically deny that Beauty and the Beast elicits sympathy for Stockholm syndrome. Many other feminists disagreed.
Aside from the remote homage to Beauty and the Beast in I (Shankar, 2015), other Tamil films may not explicitly reference the fairytale as such, but shockingly destigmatize ‘Stockholm syndrome’. These films make an apologia for a barbarous machismo, reward aggressive male desire, and fetishize phallic power. Virtuous women and wives are valorized for being able to tolerate and civilize barbarous men despite the perennial abuse from the ogres they find themselves tethered to. On the pretext of screening raw realism, Tamil cinema forges connections between bestiality and ‘Stockholm syndrome’ through perverse patriarchal fantasies. The perceptibly misogynistic undertones in these middlebrow films make any defense of ‘Stockholm syndrome’, unwitting or otherwise in Tamil cinema, baleful. Here’s a filmographic survey of a particularly morbid category of movies.
Kollywood’s dalliance with the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ began by exploring the relationship between rapists and their victims. Critically acclaimed for the performance of its lead actress, the drama Sirai (‘Prison’, Dir. R.C.Sakthi, 1984) is probably an early ‘beauty and the beast’-type story in Tamil cinema. Set in rural South India, a rape victim is rejected by her priest-caste husband. Reduced to destitution, she resolves to go live with her rapist, a depraved landlord, to force him to face the consequences of his actions. Gradually, as she causes her rapist to abandon his decadent ways, she also begins to develop an emotional attachment to him. He dies, leaving behind his property to her in a bid to redeem himself. Her husband invites her back but she snubs him, saying she would prefer to be known as the landlord’s widow than return to being his wife.
Pudhiya Paadhai, 1989
Likewise, the rape victim who is a scioness in the critically acclaimed Pudhiya Paadhai (‘New Directions,’ Dir. Parthiban, 1989) gradually manipulates her slumlord rapist into marrying her. Her rapist, the film’s protagonist, is an archetypal boor -- a gambling, philandering, hard drinking hoodlum for a local politician on whose orders he had raped the female protagonist. Her commitment to his transformation, after she finds out about how he turned to a life of crime as a starving child, comes at the cost of immense emotional strain. She falls in love with him over the course of her Pygmalion project. Eventually, the slumlord turns over a new leaf to start a family with his victim. However, his criminal past catches up with him and the movie ends tragically. For its bold themes, the social drama also won a host of accolades from the Indian film fraternity including a remake in Hindi starring Bollywood A-Listers.
Needless to say, both films advance an atavistic moral solution to the problem of rape. The narrative focus is misplaced on the redemption of the rapist as though a union between rapist and rape victim is sufficiently just punishment for the crime. Perfunctory treatment of the victim’s ordeal is problematic because it trivializes the horrors of sexual violence. The trauma of the rape victim regresses into ‘Stockholm syndrome’ where the rape victim starts to find fulfillment in her emotional attachment to the rapist only because the alternative would be social ostracism. The patriarchal social system facilitates ‘Stockholm syndrome’ coercing these local belles into desiring for conjugality with the monsters who raped them.
Coincidentally, the same year the animated Beauty and the Beast appeared world over; two Tamil films refracting similar narratives were also released. The more commercially successful of the two, En Rasavin Manasile (‘My Dear’s Heart’, Dir. Kasthuri Raja, 1991) is an obnoxious melodrama, which, according to the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, “solicits our sympathy and understanding for callously brutish men”. Here the protagonist is an uncouth but munificent landlord, who is respected by the village. His much younger niece is forced into marriage with him, despite being terrified by his boorishness. He commits marital rape to consummate the marriage despite his wife’s protests that she is unready. When she becomes pregnant, their matriarchal grandmother convinces her to embrace her identity as a mother and she starts to recognize his more positive merits. The once prudish wife even starts fantasizing about sexually satisfying her husband.
In En Rasavin Manasile, rape is a tool to discipline passive femininity to overcome its anxieties and assume conservative gender roles that service the hetero-patriarchal system. Females exist solely to satisfy male sexual desire in this backward social universe and violence is used to enforce phallic authority. More insidiously, the nature of sexual violence is layered in this film; there is not only marital rape committed by the landlord on his wife but it also appears to be a kind of incestuous statutory rape because she seems underaged when the May-December marriage is arranged. As with the other films in this category, the female has no choice but to comply with the dictates of patriarchy but this is conveyed as a change of heart.
The other film about ‘Stockholm syndrome’, released the same year as the animated Beauty and the Beast, takes a complex view of the psychological condition by looking at the conditions in which it grows. In the critically acclaimed experimental film Gunaa (Dir. Santhana Bharathi, 1991), the eponymously named protagonist is a youth who suffers from mental illness, moving in and out of mental institutions. More specifically he is prone to “maladaptive daydreaming” -- harboring hallucinatory fantasies of being the Hindu god Shiva, in search of his divine consort, the goddess Abirami. Guna believes his union with Abirami will liberate him from this worldly incarnation. Where in Beauty and the Beast, a prince becomes a monster by a magical spell, Guna sees himself as cursed to be born as an ugly oaf doomed to spend his life in a brothel run by his mother, a Madame, and awaits release from the physical realm to being the divine Shiva in his heavenly abode with Abirami.
Guna is convinced by a conman that a beautiful scioness, Roshni, whom he meets in a temple, while abetting a robbery, is the goddess Abirami. Guna kidnaps Roshni. After trying and failing to escape, Roshni eventually realizes that her kidnapper has pure intentions untainted by material desires. Herself an orphan without close family ties, she begins to look beyond Guna’s lunacy to see his innocence. Roshni even begins to reciprocate Guna’s affections especially once she realizes that her guardians are trying to kill her for her wealth. Again, the narrative ends tragically for the star-crossed lovers.