Between Reviews: Men of the Masses

Posted on June 5, 2010


Hosted by


Unlike the metro-centric, multiplex-centric Hindi film, Tamil cinema isn’t apologetic about showcasing he-men heroes in vehicles that are unabashed celebrations of their heroism.

JUN 6, 2010 – NOW THAT KITES HAS COME TATTERED AND UNSTRUNG in a storm of near-universal derision, its bitter lessons are all that remain. Number one: if you want your film to be the equivalent of a consecration, a temple with the golden-boy hero as its resplendent deity, do not eye subject material that cries out for an antihero. When a desperate loner-grifter is buffed up into a fab-ab flaunting presence, not a flinty mercenary but a cuddly rake with miles of close-ups highlighting his vacuous prettiness, the only thing the audience can do is laugh. For Kites to have worked, Hrithik Roshan needed to have been bad before meandering inadvertently into the good path, and in the hands of a performer with lesser star-wattage, this might have shaped into a pulpy-romantic Johnny Gaddaar. It might have been – as subject and setting warranted – unapologetically amoral. Instead, it keeps attempting to locate veins of morality in order to redeem the hero, in order not to repel his adoring audience. So why not make, for them, a straightforward star-showcase?

After all, that’s what Tamil masala movies do, even the ones featuring major stars. The hero is always a hero, and if this makes for a unidimensional monolith at the story’s centre, at least there’s never any confusion in the film’s (or the audience’s) mind. There’s never any dithering about defining this character in anything but the whitest of whites. Take two recent releases, Vijay’s Sura (Shark) and Suriya’s Singam (Lion). They’re both named after fearsome predators, and if Vijay leaps out the ocean in his introduction scene, Suriya lopes across land in pursuit of peccant prey. Not for them this namby-pamby, peek-a-boo designer-underwear business, and neither are they going to flail about in a sea of existential dilemmas. These films may be no classics, but they are about heroes in the most classical sense. They are about men, the way the gender used to be defined in the days before the first bra was introduced to a lit matchstick.

Sura is a depressing failure as entertainment, but, at least, it sets out to do what its hero wants it to do – and that’s to define him, in the public gaze, as a candidate worthy of electing into office. The political undertones are so overt, they’re no longer subtext but the main text. Through the course of the unremarkable story, Vijay prepares a meal for his ailing mother, instructs an inebriate on the ills of drinking, prays in a church (but prostrates before Jesus in the manner befitting a Hindu god, and thereon admits that even Allah is his protector), comes to the aid of the visually impaired, holds forth about fishermen in Rameswaram captured by Sri Lanka, and, finally, reveals that he does not think of himself as a leader but his people treat him like one, his image tattooed on their hearts. Thus, every single constituency is touched: women, the handicapped, victims of drunks, Hindus and Christians and Muslims, and most importantly, the impoverished and the disenfranchised. The hero’s ambition is to build, for his hut-dweller commune, houses of concrete. He swears by the sand on the beach – that’s his land, his birthright. The particulars of his life are unimportant. He’s the face of the general.

In Singam, a vastly superior no-brainer entertainer, Suriya moves in the opposite direction, from the general to the particular – his aims aren’t so much public as personal. He is a cop and he dreams of retiring from the force and settling into his family business. If he tears apart a villain who besmirches womanhood, stripping off a girl’s dupatta, it’s because it’s his girlfriend who’s at the receiving end. (Of course, after this act of gallantry, she repays him by jiggling about in a bikini top, rendering utterly meaningless her apparent shame upon being deprived of that dupatta. Then again, this display is solely for the hero, on screen, and all of Tamil Nadu off of it.) And yet, as a policeman, Suriya also functions as a stand-in for a much-mocked segment of society. In his khaki, he’s a ferocious punisher of evil, a macho male defined by a macho moustache, his voice a perennial roar, his limbs dedicated to pounding villains to pulp. While Vijay, in Sura, has a song as his first set piece, Suriya is introduced through an action segment. The singing and dancing can wait.

Suriya has to show, first, what being a cop is all about, especially to city-bred cynics like Nasser, the heroine’s father, who doesn’t want anything to do with the police. And that is the film’s subtext, the manner in which it plays to the masses far away from the cities, who deify their cops. It isn’t just that Suriya is extolling policemen in general. He’s putting together a paean specifically to the small-town cop. He’s from Nallur, in Tuticorin, and he hates the city. He’s ready to turn down a promising promotion simply because it requires him to transfer to Chennai, which he denigrates as a saakkadai, a reeking sewer represented by the Cooum, as opposed to the redolent waters of his beloved Thamirabharani. But when he does wind up in the stinking city, he cleans it up like no cop around him can – because the city cops are corrupt. The character of Suriya unequivocally plays up the victory of small-town (or village) values over the decadence of the big city, and by the end, even Nasser, hitherto so contemptuous of policemen, falls in line. When his daughter (a Chennai-ite who speaks to Suriya in English, about having a “crush” and being “responsible” and so forth) is shot, you expect this distraught father to plead with the hero to leave her alone because she’s suffered enough. Instead, he proffers a shoulder of solid support.

Unlike the metro-centric Kaakha Kaakha, where Suriya’s cop was an urban creature plagued by bereavement and betrayal, the small-town policeman of Singam is always on top, always two steps ahead. That’s the fun of the film, its unashamed courting of the mass audience, its unapologetic celebration of the hero as one of them. It’s no accident that a crucial action sequence unfolds in a theatre screening Unnaippol Oruvan (the Kamal Hassan starrer whose title translates to “someone like you,” or, in other words, a man of the masses). Both Vijay (in Sura) and Suriya (in Singam) are held aloft by the masses, the commoners, honest labourers far removed from mall-hopping urbanites. (Only the heroines are emblematic of the latter. Their pursual of, and subsequent subjugation by, the small-town hero is, of course, a time-honoured Tamil cinema tradition.) And both films situate their heroes in the vicinity of divinity. If Suriya merely makes it his mission to track down thieves who’ve escaped with jewels from the local temple, Vijay, after being taken for dead, is shown to have been rescued by the local deity. He’s a human resurrected by God. You cannot get more heroic than that.

Copyright ©2010 The New Sunday Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.