Between Reviews: Sex and violence, for the whole family

Posted on April 26, 2008


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APR 27, 2008 – AS TWO RECENT RELEASES OFFER AMPLE PROOF, there are some things in Tamil cinema that will never change – the fact, for instance, that the hero isn’t a hero until he flexes his muscles. Santhosh Subramaniam and Yaaradi Nee Mohini are both what are known as “family” films, and that genre (if it can be called that) has come a long way from what families used to watch in the black-and-white era – the melodramas of P Bhimsingh, say. I can’t recall a single one of those films where Sivaji Ganesan – who moped and monologued his way through a goodish number of them – raised a hand. He’d raise his voice, yes, that lion’s roar that defined declamatory acting for an entire generation – but if he raised a hand, it was, at best, to direct a slap at a scheming co-star’s cheek (or, perhaps, a series of why-God-why blows at his own forehead), and never to have a go at a henchman’s solar plexus. But then Sivaji Ganesan, and others like him, were merely the protagonists of those films, while today, the likes of Jayam Ravi (in Santhosh Subramaniam) and Dhanush (in Yaaradi Nee Mohini) are heroes. And where there is a hero, there is, by definition, a villain, and where there is a villain, there is an angry confrontation, and where is angry confrontation, there is a fight sequence.

These fight sequences have become so mandatory, it doesn’t seem to matter if they’ve been integrated organically – or at least in a convincing manner – into the screenplay. There’s an air of “we’ve got to have some action in the film; let’s get it done with and move on” about them. In Santhosh Subramaniam, Jayam Ravi gets his date with the stunt coordinator when his girlfriend Hasini (Genelia) is harassed at her college by a bunch of rowdy students. Had our hero simply charged at them and reduced them to a heap of bruised bodies, this bit wouldn’t have grated so, but what makes things worse is the subsequent revelation that these supposed bad elements are Hasini’s friends, who didn’t mean anything by their teasing. (This is clearly some kind of college that exists only in the fantasies of horny adolescent males, where it’s entirely appropriate to comment lewdly on the delectable proportions of women-friends’ physical assets.) And in Yaaradi Nee Mohini, Dhanush gets to beat up a number of goons who turn up expressly so that Dhanush can beat them up. These men play no part in the film before this fight sequence, or after.

Ask the director why he couldn’t have dropped hints of a running conflict through the film – so that when this fight erupts we at least know that it’s been a long time coming – and he’ll probably shrug: “Well, if you can suspend your disbelief enough to accept that a single punch from the hero can result in the villain’s triple-somersaulting through the air, why should the flash point of this fight be any more convincing?” Fair enough, I guess – and by extension, I suppose you could justify the soft-core elements in these family films too, like the item number performed in Yaaradi Nee Mohini by Rahasya, who, towards the song’s end, spends some thirty seconds, all by herself, convulsing in little choreographed spasms. It’s as if the rest of the dancer-extras have packed up and left for the day, but Rahasya – alone, and in the barest of essentials – is in some sort of booty-shaking trance, so completely committed to her cause and to the moment that minor impediments like the director yelling “Cut!” are of little consequence.

The point of these observations isn’t to bemoan the state of our family films today. (Both Yaaradi Nee Mohini and Santhosh Subramaniam are fairly easy to sit through, the latter especially so.) But what’s interesting is that these fights and these sexy item numbers used to be staples of the masala movies, and they’ve gradually insinuated themselves into the family fare as well. And this is where I’d like to wonder why. Is it because Tamil audiences are incapable of accepting a film with a big-name hero and without these “commercial compromises?” Is it because humour and romance and charm and sentiment aren’t enough to carry these family films, without the additional requirement of reducing every single protagonist to a hero? Or is it because no major male star will commit to a lead role like that in Jab We Met, where Shahid Kapoor was every bit as young and in love as the characters played by Dhanush and Jayam Ravi, but was not required to participate in a gravity-defying, laws-of-physics-challenging action sequence, and (despite his excellent dancing skills) not asked to match steps with a navel-baring Rakhi Sawant?

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