Violence and Tamil Cinema are not an unlikely pair. We can call it the "thug" genre, though many a times, the thug is not a person – it could be an idea, or an institution (like caste, class). In that case, what the film usually starts off with, is showing the effects of such violence on the lifestyle and livelihood, before it nosedives into brickbats and fist fights. The "thug" genre is both about the necessity and the futility of violence.
I had always considered this genre to be niche. This was until I was at a showing of Vada Chennai (streaming on Hotstar) in Ahmedabad and saw a kitty party of old Gujrati aunties waddle up the steps to find their seats. Perhaps, this genre is more universal than I had thought.
The streaming-era gives us the luxury of going back to these films, and seeing the value they have added and created over time. In this curated list, each film has a different reason for employing violence. Two of the movies are based on real events, and two of them have explicit caste references as the underpin, there is the subtle, the outrageous, and undergirding all of this violence, is love.
Just take a look at these characters
In the midst of this centrifugal fiasco is a man caught in the crossfires of a gang war, the traditional hero. The debut film of Thiagarajan Kumararaja, who would go on to make the deliciously wicked and philosophically dense Super Deluxe (streaming on Netflix), is one deserving of its cult status. There is Vivaldi in a chase sequence, and even an odd interjection of a mechanical video game that takes over the screen, the characters jumping through obstacles, and making it to the next level, well, almost. This is one of those films where violence is not the end, but the means. The end is something deeper, less obvious. You look at the violence, and look at its aftermath, and the bookending of the film with a philosophical catechism, and wonder if the opposite of violence is, perhaps, philosophy.
How does one become violent? What are the systems and situations that aid this becoming? How does the illegal yet highly prevalent institution of caste encourage and incite violence?
Pariyerum Perumal, written and directed by Mari Selvaraj, is one of those rare films were the violence is embedded in the love story, as opposed to the love story being embedded in the violence. As a storyline, it feels rather generic. A cross-caste love story causes caste anxiety; machetes are unleashed.
But this film is not interested in foregrounding that arc. The main character, played by Kathir from the lower caste, is seen as a non-violent, confrontational, but respectful man, deeply intelligent, in a law college with a threadbare understanding of English. The first institutional violence shown is education- the imposition of English. The woman he loves, played by Anandhi, is upper-caste, but also caste-blind to a fault of her own. It is this caste blindness she has, inviting him to her house as if it were the most normal thing to do, that unleashes the dam of violence- both physical and psychological.
In the end, all need not be well. Unlike Article 15, as an audience, you do not even need to feel that all is okay, or will be okay. Afterall, it isn't a Brahmin cop, but a lower caste man in love that is steering the story. To make it seem like all is well is a disservice to the wars being waged. (Think of the ridiculous Bhima Koregaon hearings and arrests)
But more sinisterly, this film brings up a greater point. Human beings are not born, but made violent, and the process of un-making, is often impossible.
Violence often is not apparent, and overt. It can be simmering under the narrative, the tension building, waiting to erupt. As a result, the documentary filmmaker, Amshan Kumar's second feature film, makes for a very discomforting viewing experience.
A dead body needs to be buried. Rajeev Anand is back to the village to bury his father. The funeral procession needs to pass through a common path. They are an untouchable caste, and the local high caste men and police argue that they should use the off-beaten unpaved path with thorns, to prevent contamination and bloodshed. Legalese and bureaucracy, revolt and despair ensues. Like Once Upon A Time In … Hollywood, you know what is coming, and the story is building up to it. It comes, goes, and you lie as a viewer in its wake, devastated.
This is based on a true story.
This film, written and directed by Bharatbala, asks a central human question: What does it mean to be home?
Dhanush has been working in Sudan for two years. Right after narrating to us that the city and its people have begun to feel familiar, we see him on the phone, talking to his lover, a stunningly confident Parvathy, reminiscing about something that is more than just familiar.
The salted air, the flight of sparrows, with you nestled in my arms.
In another moment, Dhanush, now captured by a Sudanese mercenary, and kept hostage inside a dry well, looks up as thunder rumbles, and A R Rahman's Naetru Aval Irundhal begins to play. In a dream like moment, he is seen emerging from the sea, while Parvathy at the other end of the world, is coming to embrace him in the waters. You can feel the yearning. The shore is very much a part of it, but is not interested in playing the virtuous. The waves bring back Dhansh's close friend, who succumbs to violence at sea, but also brings back Dhanush away from the violence beyond the sea. Nature has this odd capacity to exist beyond our binaries of nallavana-kettavana, the good or the bad. It both eludes and inflicts violence, without reason.
This film, too, is based on a true story.