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.
No Disney-like Ending for These Women
Guna encapsulates ‘Stockholm syndrome’ by exploring the bond between kidnapper and victim. The latter’s emotional vulnerability is worsened by a dependency on the kidnapper’s benignity facilitating a growing appreciation of any reprieve from her captive state. Roshni also sees every act of kindness by Guna as a show of benevolence. Convinced that her hideous kidnapper has a pure heart, she no longer sees him as a threat that she needs to escape from, but her salvation. Hiding in cavernous hills and on the run from assassins and from the police search party, Roshni starts to indulge in Guna’s fantasies. Otherwise given to unruly violent outbursts, Guna also becomes less rancorous in the presence of Roshni, his savage impulses curbed by the beauty.
However, the film normalizes the bride kidnapping by only attending to the fulfillment of Guna’s fantasies through the conversion of Roshni to embrace her imposed identity as the desired object Abirami. She otherwise has no autonomy. By amassing our sympathies for Guna, the delirious lover awaiting release into a phantasmagoric world of his own creation, we ignore Roshni’s plight, thereby becoming complicit to Guna’s possibly psychosexual delusions. The phallic nature of Guna’s obsession is symbolized by the appearance of a Shiva lingam, a phallic object of devotion in Hinduism, during an alcohol-induced dream. Roshni’s willingness to submit to his deranged phallic authority to become Abirami is very much an outcome of the onset of ‘Stockholm syndrome’ in the relationship.
The new wave of Tamil cinema launched a decade ago resurrected the trope of bestiality through beauties in abusive relationships with monsters. The forerunner of this was the critically acclaimed Paruthiveeran (Dir. Ameer, 2007) a picaresque rural drama about the eponymously named protagonist and his lover who woos him despite his loutish brusqueness. She finds his pugnacity attractive but wants to bring his wildness under her control. After much pursuit he finally capitulates to her canderous advances. However, the star-crossed lovers who belong to feuding clans meet a gory end. Although praised for its aesthetic merits and performances by the lead actors, Paruthiveeran set off a slippery slope — a trend towards edgy blood-soaked dramas about unhealthy heterosexual relationships, the nadir of which must the controversial Mirugam (‘Animal’, Dir. Samy, 2007).
The anti-villain who is the eponymous beast in Mirugam is a depraved hedonist not unlike the sociopath protagonists in Paruthiveeran and Pudhiya Paadhai. We are invited to make bovine comparisons between the humped bull he makes a living from by renting out for stud services in the village and his own womanizing ways. He commits marital rape on his wife, whom he married because she was the first maiden in the village to turn down his sexual overtures. Yet, she tries to get him to change his ways when she finds out about his tragic backstory. She even allows herself to enjoy coitus with him. Yet, the beast will not yield. Throughout the film she is battered and bruised for her efforts to reform him.
As retribution for a life of recklessness Mirugam (Saamy, 2007) that is set in the mid- to late ’80s, allows its protagonist to contract HIV, through drug abuse and unprotected homosexual sex while in prison. While the animated Beauty and the Beast was an allegory for AIDS, Mirugam makes obvious allusions to when AIDS became a global epidemic around the time the film is set by showing the bafflement faced by the doctors when they find out the protagonist has HIV. While the beast’s body deteriorates, his devoted wife still continues to care for him and shields him from the stigma of a parochial village that has nevertheless come to hear about the disease only through intermediaries to the outside world like newspapers and health workers. A villager at the end of the film finally kills the protagonist to permanently quarantine the disease from the rest of the locality.
Mirugam is overindulgent as a treatise about cruel masculinity by fetishizing sexual abuse. Billed as a “neo-noir drama” by Wikipedia, the film is better described as a sadistic exploitation film that also wants to be a moral protreptic. The film initially plays out as a male sexual fantasy because the hypersexualized protagonist has escapades with multiple women held to be desirable within the film. The camera also permits scopophilic pleasures by facilitating the lecherous male gaze objectifying various female bodies in the narrative. This hypereroticization sits uneasily with the cautionary tale being conveyed. Regardless of its aesthetic merits or lack thereof, Mirugam epitomizes the bestial excesses of Tamil cinema both in the characterization of the protagonist and his wife’s sadomasochistic willingness to love and make love to an animal like him.
The search for cultural precedents to these narratives is likely to prove futile. The more recent big budget adventure Raavanan (Dir. Mani Ratnam, 2010) might provide some clues to Kollywood’s fascination with the ‘Stockholm syndrome’. Raavanan is based on the ancient Hindu epic, Ramayana or Ramayanam as it is known in South India, about a cosmic battle between the heroic god-king Raman, and his antagonist, the demon-king Ravanan. The film subverts the moral paradigms of the metanarrative. In Raavanan, the brigand Veera (played by actor Vikram) kidnaps Raagini (played by Aishwarya Rai), the wife of the police commissioner Dev Prakash (played by Prithiviraj), in retaliation for police brutality on his tribal community and the sexual abuse of his sister while in custody. Here, the story is told from the perspective of the kidnapper and it is the social bandit whom we root for, not the husband on a rescue mission as the upholder of the law to save his wife.
In Raavanan, after struggling with Veera to free herself, Raagini starts to sympathize with him upon hearing about why he turned to social banditry and the motivation for kidnapping her. Her sensitivity to his mission soon starts to turn into attraction followed by mutual affection between the two. She no longer demonizes him but starts to embrace his tenderness to develop feelings for the fiery smuggler despite being married to Dev. Veera too starts to show his vulnerable side to her and begins to be tamed by her warmth. However, the law catches up with Veera by the end of the film.
Intended to be a bilingual project, auteur Mani Ratnam also directed a Hindi version Raavan, with actor Abishek Bachchan as the protagonist Beera with minor changes to the casting, which was released simultaneously with Raavanan. However, unlike the successful Raavanan in the south, the Bollywood Raavan failed to captivate audiences up north. This should come as no surprise; historically, it was in the south that a counterhegemonic narrative of the Ramayanam emerged as a legacy of the Self-Respect Movement.
In 1925, politician and social activist, E.V. Ramasamy (better known even as E.V.R.) launched the Self-Respect Movement in South India. The Self-Respect Movement challenged upper caste dominance, especially that of the priestly Brahmin caste at the apex of the caste hierarchy, sought to eradicate untouchability and the caste system altogether. EVR aimed to create a completely egalitarian society where there would be no class, gender, or religious differences. In order to do that, EVR preached an intellectual liberation from religion, especially Hinduism, which sanctioned the caste system as a social institution in the first place.
The Self-Respect Movement rejected religious superstition and advocated rationalism as an alternative secular worldview. EVR was a vocal critic of Hinduism launching scathing iconoclastic attacks on Hindu deities, Hindu religious texts, as well as Hindu institutions to undermine Hindu hegemony in India. He would later form the Dravida Kazhagam (Dravidian Front), tying these ideals to Tamil Nationalism and secessionism from northern Indian domination in independent India.
Members of the Self-Respect Movement and Dravida Kazhagam turned to literary and performing arts to propagate their ideas in the ’40s. Inspired by EVR, the poet Kuzhandai wrote Ravana Kaviyam (‘Ravana’s Epic’, Mani Ratnam, 2010) glorifying Ravana against the grain of the Ramayanam ur-text. The actor M.R. Radha wrote Keemayanam, a role reversal parody of Ramayana in which Raavana is the hero and Rama the villain. Both these works were banned by the Indian National Congress party dominated postcolonial government in India until the ’70s, when Congress lost power in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. EVR would have hailed Ravanan as countercultural art for glorifying Veera as a social bandit hero and casting aspersions on the nobility of the Ram-like police commissioner Dev.
While sympathy for the ‘demon’ in Ravanan Kaviyam stems from a long subversive literary tradition that began in 20th century South India, it is harder to justify the affinity towards the anti-villain in the other ‘beauty and the beast’-type narratives. Screening realism can sometimes become a convenient pretext for exploitative films where wife battery, rape, and bride kidnapping become normalized through trivialized representations. The metaphor of ‘beauty and the beast’ may, on the one hand, refer to the softening of a wild male by a fair maiden, but also as in the case of the Tamil films surveyed, it connotes women tethered to nasty brutish men.
More often than not in these films, there is no Disney ending for the women who willfully remain in toxic relationships to complete their Pygmalion project. Nevertheless, the category of films discussed here offers an insight into the transcendental nature of certain tropes with cross-cultural affinities. Hence, when a particular tendency in the ‘beauty and the beast’-type stories keep exposing a dangerous presupposition towards ‘Stockholm syndrome’, it becomes harder to say it is just an innocent fairy tale.