*The following article contains spoilers about Hero and Nenjam Marappathillai.
A jilted lover cooks up a plan to murder his ex-girlfriend, who's now married to a small-time rowdy. He tells viewers that he can slit her throat with a razor. He's a hairstylist, so he has a razor in his bag always.
He imagines being happy with her in the initial days of the relationship, and then burns his fingers in agony after she leaves him. He replays the beautiful and melancholic moments that he shared with her day after day. Now, though, he sports a thick beard, a symbol of his degeneration, for he hasn't felt alive in many years.
He drinks about half a bottle of liquor every night before going to sleep. He's a hopeless romantic; in Indian cinematic terms, he's a typical Devdas. But when he finally goes to her house to take revenge, he can't bring himself to murder her. It's not love that stops him. It's rather the genre of the movie that holds him back. Does that sound confusing?
In this Kannada black comedy Hero, the genre keeps turning on its head every minute. If you smile at the Hero's (portrayed by Rishab Shetty) antics in one scene, you'll marvel at the amount of blood spurting out in the next. The quirky and chaotic background music (by Ajaneesh Loknath) nudges you in the right direction. It tells you whether you should laugh out loud, or move to the edge of your seat and wait for the arrival of something darker and sinister.
The characters are all named after their qualities – there's a Hero, a Heroine (Ganavi Laxman), a Villain (Pramod Shetty), etc. The Heroine and the Villain are bound together by a marital union (yes, the small-time rowdy is the Villain). The Hero is summoned by the Villain for the sole purpose of getting his hair trimmed. But, as you already know, the Hero has other ideas.
Shouldn't men who intend to harm women be termed villains? Why is the guy with the razor referred to as the Hero then? It's because the Villain is a wife beater. He's a serial domestic abuser who doesn't respect her boundaries. He's the kind of husband who pulls his wife's hair for not being able to drink coffee the way he likes it. He enjoys attacking her for trivial things, as it makes him look powerful.
After she has suffered enough, she hits him back with a pressure cooker and the Villain inevitably falls to his death. All it takes for the Heroine to put him down is just one item from the kitchen. It's not really a funny scene, if you think about it, but when you see the cooker-whistle getting stuck in his skull, you'll chuckle. Did the Villain deserve to meet with such a dastardly ending? Oh, yes. He was never kind to his wife. And this is when the Hero enters the picture!
In Selvaraghavan's horror thriller Nenjam Marappathillai, unlike Hero, the protagonist himself is the villain. Ramaswamy (SJ Suryah), or Ramsay as he likes to be called, tries to seduce Mariam (Regina Cassandra) with his cartoonish behaviour. To draw her attention, he screams his guts out as though the world around him is falling apart. But she doesn't even give him a second glance, as she knows that he's up to no good. She's only interested in the job that she's paid to do. She's there to look after his son — she's a nanny!
Mariam doesn't report to Ramaswamy directly even though she's a live-in caretaker. Her employer, so to speak, is Ramaswamy's wife, Swetha (Nandita Swetha).
As Ramaswamy's methods of seduction keep failing, he throws himself over Mariam one fateful night and blames the act on his drunken state of mind. She doesn't want to let go of her high-paying job, however, as she has made promises to the orphanage that she grew up in. She's a devout Christian who believes in giving back to society.
She grits her teeth and decides to stay put despite the beating pulse of work-place harassment. But Ramaswamy won't let her live peacefully. After packing off Swetha to her father's residence, he corners Mariam in a hut, and rapes her. His assistants in the house later continue to assault her, and then murder her. This is probably not the first time that they have committed such a crime.
Ramaswamy and his cohorts may have done this to many women over a number of years. They even get away from the clutches of a police investigation via a song where the accomplices recount their lies. There seems to be a pattern here. However, Mariam is the only person to come back from the dead to exact revenge on her rapists.
Beyond the form that the writer-director Selvaraghavan plays with, Nenjam Marappathillai remains a rape-revenge film. Its inspiration goes back to the American horror movie I Spit on Your Grave (1978 and its 2010 remake) where a woman (a survivor of sexual assault) tracks her rapists down and punishes them. Her punishments are, of course, well-thought-out and violent. She doesn't give her former tormentors any room to escape. And she makes sure that they go to Hell!
All those movies belong, more or less, to the same genre, but the differences are in their treatments. While Bharath Raj, the director of Hero, uses comedy and action to narrate his story, Selvaraghavan opts for the theme of God versus Demon to present a tale of the victory of good over evil.
And, strangely, both South Indian movies have their own sets of oddities. The Villain in Hero has a pet crocodile – this gives us a visual representation of his wild attitude. The Demon (Ramaswamy) in Nenjam Marappathillai hangs upside down to answer his wife's phone call.