Vijay’s Varisu and Ajith’s Thunivu, the two big Tamil releases that clashed for Pongal, belong to very different genres — the first is a family drama and the second is a bank heist — but they have something in common: A villain that’s basically a straw man in a corporate setting. Prakash Raj in Varisu plays a business tycoon whose greatest strategy appears to be rolling his eyeballs at high speed. John Kokken in Thunivu plays a banker who is tied up for most part of the film and has an intellect that’s inversely proportional to the size of his muscles. At no point does the audience have even the slightest doubt that these villains won’t pose a challenge to the hero.
Historically, Tamil cinema has produced some seriously memorable villains – think of Veerappa’s trademark laugh to Nambiar’s distinct scowl and Raghuvaran’s frenzied dialogue delivery. It was possible for KS Ravikumar’s mass entertainer Padayappa (1999) to have a female antagonist in a near equal role as that of Superstar Rajinikanth. Ramya Krishna’s Neelambari lusts after him and then turns against him when he rejects her. Though the role has misogynistic shades to it, Neelambari is a powerful villain who isn’t ‘tamed’ even in her final scene.
Director CS Amudhan, who made two spoof films on the trends in Tamil cinema – Tamizh Padam (2010) and Tamizh Padam 2 (2018) — pointed out Thandavan (Mottai Rajendran) from Bala’s action drama film Naan Kadavul (2009), and Siddharth Abhimanyu (Arvind Swamy) from Mohan Raja’s thriller Thani Oruvan (2015) as examples of films where the villain was well-developed. “The first comes deep from the underworld, a dystopian society. The second is a suave, urban guy – we can’t even say that he’s realistic but he’s a well-written character. We understand why they are the way they are,” he said.
Yet in recent years, the villain seems to have become a joke, especially in films with big stars. There are very few films like Venkat Prabhu’s time loop thriller Maanaadu (2021) or Mohan Raja’s action thriller Thani Oruvan (2015) where the villain gets so much space that he almost upstages the hero. Sudhir Srinivasan, film critic and executive editor (entertainment) of The New Indian Express, said the villain without motivation is among the Tamil cinema villain stereotypes that he’s tired of seeing. Others on his list are the villain who screams in fury but gets no real memorable dialogues; the villain who drinks and ogles; the villain who explains his plan (often to the hero) instead of just executing it; and the worst of all – the weak villain who seems like a threat, but is easily ‘offed’.
However, in some ways, the changed villain of contemporary films, who is no longer like what Srinivasan described as “murderous and remorseless villains from our past”, may be a good thing. “In a comedy like Don (2022), we realise that our understanding of the villain (SJ Suryah) is misplaced. In Vikram (2022), there are multiple enemies for the protagonist (Kamal Haasan), but can any of them truly qualify as a ‘villain’? In romance films like Hey Sinamika (2022), Love Today (2022) and Thiruchitrambalam (2022), is there even a ‘villain’?” he asked. Still others – like Sarkar (2018) and Thunivu (2023) to a certain extent – identify an entire ecosystem as the bad entity, and this, Srinivasan said, allows for an exploration of evil beyond a binary understanding of morality.
“It is conflict that makes human life interesting. The conflict can be in the form of a person, someone’s opinion or way of thinking, or an inner obstacle,” said novelist Tamil Prabha who co-wrote the critically acclaimed sports drama Sarpatta Parambarai (2021) with maverick director Pa Ranjith. Sarpatta has several characters who stand in the way of boxer Kabilan’s (Arya) victory, but the film steers away from the cliches associated with the overdone genre.
“There are many facets to one person, and it’s important to understand this when we’re looking at the character of a villain. This person isn’t villainous all the time – he’s capable of buying a biscuit packet for his child and enjoying the moment. How we portray his life is important,” said Prabha. Thaniga (Vettai Muthukumar), for instance, is one of the antagonists in Sarpatta. But he’s also affectionate towards his nephew Raman (Santhosh Prathap) and is shown having ordinary human moments like eating at a hotel with his family. His motive for doing wrong stems from his fear that his family will lose their legacy in boxing if Kabilan wins.
However, few contemporary films have managed much depth despite these explorations. Amudhan noted that even the iconic Ford Coppola gangster film The Godfather (1972) does not really have a villain on whom all the blame falls easily. “We have created this hero-villain template to cater to the very powerful need of the stars to come out as the No.1 person in the film. But this has ended up diluting the role of the villain in the film. In the last 10 years, the memorable villains we have had in Tamil cinema can be counted on fingers. They’re all the same,” said Amudhan.
According to Tamil Prabha, a story becomes more intriguing when the protagonist has to deal with not just external factors like the villain but also his/her inner demons. “Typically, there are three acts in a screenplay and it is this structure that keeps the film interesting for the audience. In Sarpatta, Kabilan defeats Vembuli (John Kokken), his biggest rival, soon after the interval. But the film doesn’t end there – Kabilan loses himself and goes wayward. He becomes his own obstacle, his own villain,” he said.
But when helming a big star’s film, directors seem to be extremely cautious about constructing the challenges in the hero’s path. Forget about inner demons, they’re worried that fans will be offended if the film shows the hero to be losing even for one moment or scene. Worse, there are star vehicles like Siva’s action thriller Vivegam (2017) in which the villain sing’s the hero’s praises.
Today, the hero’s journey in most Tamil films is a cakewalk. “Take the trope of the ‘corporate villain’ in Tamil cinema today. You know how exactly it will play out even before you watch the film. The same character gets recycled over and over again,” said Amudhan. These characters are so badly written that we hardly know anything about them beyond their affinity for suits.
But it’s not all bad news for Tamil cinema. Prabha acknowledged that the industry has made some progress when it comes to the depiction of people from marginalised backgrounds as villains. Pa Ranjith’s action film Kabali (2016) famously questioned the stereotyping of the villain that was common in Tamil cinema of earlier decades – from his name to his social location and how he’s expected to behave – with the powerful “Kabali da” dialogue.
“Anti-social elements in Tamil cinema were always shown to be people from marginalised backgrounds. The main villain would be someone living in a mansion with deer antlers on the wall, and these people would be his subservient sidekicks. Such depictions are on their way out,” said Prabha.
So, what can Tamil directors do to resurrect the villain while steering clear of problematic tropes? One, they must collaborate with writers who understand the importance of characterisation and can create a good script; two, they must not let star power dazzle them so much that everything else in the film is pushed to the background; and three, they must cast actors with real presence in such roles.
“There is no heroism in a film where the hero crushes a rat or ant. Stars shouldn’t feel insecure about how the villain is projected. They should understand that a worthy adversary amplifies their heroism in a script,” concluded Prabha.