In a cold act of vengeance, a man in an autorickshaw grabs his target who’s walking on the road, pins him to a corner of the vehicle and slits his throat. Then, he carries the bloodied bag that contains the decapitated head and throws it to the ground where his friend was murdered. The scene is from the Tamil gangster drama Subramaniapuram (2008) that was made on a budget of Rs 65 lakh and earned over Rs 30 crore. The film may have originated in the sociopolitical landscape of Madurai, a city in Tamil Nadu, but the popularity of such depictions inspired filmmakers across the country to make similar “gritty” movies. Anurag Kashyap’s critically acclaimed Hindi gangster drama, Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), for instance, was inspired by Subramaniapuram. The film was dubbed in Telugu as Ananthapuram 1980 (2008) and remade in Kannada as Prem Adda (2012).
Chopped body parts, blood pouring in streams, daggers passing through organs, guns shooting endless bullets, voyeuristic rape scenes – all this is now considered routine in Tamil mainstream cinema. But when and how did our films become so excessively violent? The answers are many.
According to film historian Theodore Baskaran, violence has always been looked upon as a form of entertainment in cinema. In fact, Baskaran said that in the Sixties, it wasn’t unusual for Tamil films to advertise that a movie had “six songs, two fights, and one rape scene”.
However, back in the day, the violence we saw in films looked choreographed and stylized – the blood and gore didn’t look as realistic as it does now. “We were not shocked by such scenes then. But when you look at films now and how they use violence, it is aimed at shocking the viewer. Take the Tamil drama film Pandavar Bhoomi (2001). There’s a scene where two people are beheaded, and the heads go flying across a bridge and fall into a river. You also see the bodies with the bloody stumps twitching on the ground,” said Baskaran.
The Age of the Angrier Young Man
When India opened up its economy in the early Nineties, a lot of things changed, including cinema. People started watching foreign films on cable TV and VCDs, and this had a dramatic influence on their taste in entertainment. “This was a period when the veterans of past decades were being replaced by young and upcoming directors who were clearly influenced by their exposure to cinema from the West. They were inspired by directors like Tarantino who are known for violence in their films,” said Baskaran. Filmmakers became eager to experiment with content and form, and the Angry Young Man of the Seventies and Eighties became angrier still.
In an email interview, Dr Karthikeyan Damodaran and Dr Hugo Gorringe, academicians who wrote a widely read paper on films like Subramaniapuram – which they classified under the ‘Madurai Formula Films’ or 3Ms (Murder, Mayhem, Madurai) – said that the nature of violence in Tamil films began to change in the early Nineties. Until then, the Angry Young Man in Tamil cinema –mainly played by Rajinikanth – was derivative of the Hindi film world represented by Amitabh Bachchan. In these films, the violence was characterised as righteous acts of vengeance or anger directed at the government for failing to give the people a decent life. “This was the period after the Emergency, and there was a general anguish against the state in various forms,” they pointed out.
In the early Nineties in Tamil cinema, Dr Damodaran and Dr Gorringe observed a change in how violence was depicted and justified on screen. “This shift or transition was largely caste-based and spatial in its nature, with depictions of violence as intrinsic to certain castes and geographic locations. Most importantly, its representation was marked not merely by violence per se but laced with valour,” they said. The emergence of this sub-genre of action films in Tamil cinema coincided with the rise of the powerful Thevar community, a dominant caste group, as a strong political force in the state.
Among the earliest and most influential films to mark this shift is Bharathan’s Thevar Magan (1992), starring Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Haasan as the father-son of a Thevar family. It won five National Awards, and though its politics is intrinsic to Tamil Nadu, it was remade in Hindi as Virasat (1997) and in Kannada as Thandege Thakka Maga (2006). Thevar Magan is still talked about for its shocking climax sequence where the hero (Kamal Haasan) beheads the villain (Nasser) with a sickle – the weapon of choice in this sub-genre – and the latter’s head goes flying in the air.
National Award winning makeup artist Pattanam Rasheed said that back in the day, it wasn’t so easy for filmmakers to make such scenes look realistic. “For filming scenes like a beheading, filmmakers would use techniques like creating a dummy head made of rubber and mounting it on a stunt actor with a plantain stalk or bottle gourd. The camera would capture the sword slicing the vegetable but it would look like a man was being slaughtered,” he said. Since Thevar Magan’s time, a lot has changed in the world of cinema. Thanks to giant strides in VFX technology and prosthetic makeup techniques, it is much easier to shoot such a violent scene now. The material now used in prosthetic makeup – silicon instead of rubber – also makes such scenes look natural, added Rasheed.
Violence Gets the Hollywood Glow-up
In earlier decades, violence in Tamil cinema was mainly conveyed through action sequences that involved sword fights, kicks and punches, stunt actors crashing through glass, exciting chases with vehicles, and shootouts where the effect was created through the sound of guns firing and actors falling in response. However, the kind of graphic violence that made its way to Tamil cinema from the Nineties onward has only increased in the new millennium – be it a Mysskin thriller like Psycho (2020) with its beheadings, a Bala action drama like Naan Kadavul (2009) which has several explicitly violent scenes, or “stylish” Western-influenced blockbusters like Vikram (2022) that glorify a gun culture that isn't quite characteristic of the state.
Stunt Silva, an action director who has worked across film industries in India, said that violence in Tamil films isn’t a new phenomenon per se. “Directors have always found a way to include graphic violence in their films if they want to. I’ve watched movies like Captain Prabhakaran (1991) in the Nineties where they show a body being split (in a wide shot). But it is easier to make all this look convincing now,” said Silva. The action director harbours a curiously Gandhian distaste towards violence. “My personal preference is to not show violence to an extent that it is stomach churning. It’s enough to suggest violence rather than depict it. I found it so difficult to sit through a web series like Paatal Lok (2020) that has such extreme violence,” he noted.
Silva was the action director for Venkat Prabhu’s time loop Tamil thriller Maanaadu (2021) in which the protagonist (Silambarasan) keeps reliving the same day and needs to complete a mission if he’s to get out of the loop. A long action sequence plays a pivotal role in the plot. In the sequence, the hero has to fight various goons who are out to kill him before he can find out an important detail about the mission. Each time he is “killed” – by different weapons – he has to strategise and start the fight afresh. Silva, who also acted in the film as a goon, uses very little blood in the sequence though the hero has to “die” repeatedly. “Much of the violence is conveyed through sound effects of the weapons landing – thuds and crashes – and the expressions of the actors. When the weapons land, we don’t show the blood flowing. It is enough to suggest what has happened,” he said.
Creating a violent sequence demands creativity, and a lot of people are involved in it, including the director, art director, action director, cinematographer, makeup artist and the VFX team. Moreover, the producer also has a say on how much violence can be shown in the film since it will affect its certification. Silva pointed out that the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is quite strict about what can be shown and what cannot be shown. “If you are going to show a stabbing, and then blood flowing out of the wound, they’re likely to blur it if you want a ‘U’ certificate. This doesn’t look good on screen. Instead, what we do is to show the knife going in but focus on the victim’s face, the reaction of those watching and so on. This creates the desired effect,” he said.
Violence as the Great Equaliser
Another relatively new phenomenon is the anti-caste film that serves as a kind of rebuttal to the Madurai Formula Films that played a role in increasing the level of bloodthirstiness in Tamil cinema. Post 2010, directors like Pa Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj, and Vetri Maaran have been making films that show Dalit protagonists retaliating to the violence that they experience. In recent years, such films and their success have also influenced other industries to explore such themes, with Srikanth Odela’s Telugu action film Dasara (2023) being the latest. The film’s climax has the protagonist indulging in a bloodbath as an act of revenge.
In an interview where he was asked about the glorification of violence in Asuran (2019), Vetri Maaran spoke about how it is important to focus on the extreme social inequality and injustice that led to such an outpouring and not read it only as a glorification of violence. His latest film, Viduthalai Part 1, is about a people’s army that leads an armed struggle against the police and government. There are many violent scenes in the film, including ones of graphic custodial violence.
But, it also needs to be acknowledged that the appetite for violence in the audience that has grown over the years in leaps and bounds, may have made only one kind of response seem cinematically acceptable. In Selvaraj’s Karnan (2021), for instance, the climax is a 20-minute stretch where the police brutalise the people of a village and the avenging hero kills a policeman by slitting his neck with a sword.
Dr. Damodaran and Dr. Gorringe said that such a climax may have been necessitated by the criticism that Selvaraj drew for his debut film Pariyerum Perumal (2018) where the protagonist chooses a path of “dialogical mediation” over violence though he is subjected to extreme humiliation. “Selvaraj had to face a lot of criticisms that questioned Dalits being showcased as meek and docile subjects. So, he had to respond with a Karnan where the hero believes in a violent, retaliatory mechanism,” they said. TJ Gnanavel's Jai Bhim (2021) is a rare film in this sub-genre where justice is delivered through the legal system and not violent vengeance though the film features disturbing scenes of custodial violence.
Not surprisingly, these anti-caste films have triggered a resurgence in films that glorify caste pride, particularly centred around “guarding” the honour of dominant caste women. M Muthaiah’s Devarattam (2019) and Mohan G’s Draupathi (2020) and Rudra Thandavam (2021) are examples of this renewed interest. These films effectively validate the violence of dominant caste men, and the sickle from the Madurai Formula Films is back in its full glory.
With the mushrooming of OTT platforms, the rise of the hypermasculine hero through pan-Indian films from other industries like RRR (2022) and the KGF films (2018, 2022), and the audience’s exposure to international content, violence in Tamil films is only set to rise. Theodore Baskaran, however, said that filmmakers should ask themselves why they want to include violence in a film. “Are they trying to communicate something important through it that they can’t otherwise? Are they just imitating Western films and foolishly showing Kalashnikovs? Is it because they have no ideas and are just using violence to fill in the blanks?” he asked. Pertinent questions for the Tamil film industry to mull over – or should we say, shots fired.