On the tenth anniversary of ‘Pudhupettai,’ a look at other antihero films and what made this one special.
The anti-hero has always been a prominent presence in Tamil cinema, but he usually came with a “but only because.” Sivaji Ganesan, in Andha Naal, took to selling Indian secrets to Japan, but only because his big idea was spurned by the Indian government. Kamal Haasan, in Sigappu Rojakkal, went about killing women, but only because of the women from his childhood, who behaved in ways that turned him against them. Rajinikanth, in Baasha, became a don, but only because a rival don murdered his best friend. There was always an extenuating circumstance, something about the environment, or something other people did, something that made us empathise with – at least understand, if not root for – the protagonist who behaved like an antagonist.
The first film that broke this mould was probably Pudhiya Paadhai (1989), which began with the protagonist, played by Parthiban (who also directed), chancing upon a slum going up in flames, and using the fire to light his beedi. In terms of plot, the film closely resembles Sirai, made five years earlier – both revolve around a rapist who is reformed by his victim. But the rapist of Sirai was clearly a villain, a rowdy who fell in lust and raped the woman in a drunken fit. The Parthiban character in Pudhiya Paadhai is a rowdy too, but he’s presented as the leading man, the “hero.” And it was shocking to watch a film in which the protagonist rapes a woman simply because someone paid him Rs. 500 to do so. (However horrible it sounds, at least the man in Sirai knew the woman, desired her – she wasn’t a “job for hire.”) But Pudhiya Paadhai still came with a but only because. Parthiban was a borderline sociopath, but only because his mother, soon after giving birth, tossed him into a dustbin and took off. The extenuating circumstance is given to us fairly early.
The rest of Pudhiya Paadhai is fairly conventional, in the sense that Parthiban realises the error of his ways, becomes a changed man, and so forth, and that was the tone of the rowdy movie until Mani Ratnam made Aayidha Ezhuthu, in 2004. There was no reformation here. The sociopath, played by Madhavan, stayed a sociopath. He beat his wife. He killed his brother. The but only because (a rotten childhood, no parents, a brother who abandoned him) wasn’t dwelt on. It wasn’t offered as an excuse. He didn’t ask for our sympathy. But two things redeemed him in our eyes. One, he was played by Madhavan, a very “likeable” actor – so we could never really hate him. And two, like in all the earlier films about rowdies, justice prevailed. He paid for his sins. His wife left him. In his last scene, we see a prison orderly telling him to get ready for court, where he may be sentenced to hang.
The next major leap in the “rowdy movie” was Pudhupettai, made in 2006, by Selvaraghavan. This film had many elements from earlier films about rowdies. The backdrop of politics. A vague but only because in the form of the mother having been murdered by the father. The girlfriend who is a sex worker. The birth-of-the-hero moment from masala movies. But what’s missing is a moral force, the sense that the universe is watching, that karma (or at least a cop) will get you. This alone is enough to make Pudhupettai a landmark film in the genre, but there’s more. The protagonist is Dhanush, who, at that point was still raw, not really “likeable” on screen – and the film takes pains to position him as lower-class, as a porukki. In one of the electrifying songs, he warns the educated middle-class (i.e. the Sathyam-theatre audience) “enga area ulla varaathey” – these are our neighbourhoods, stay away. Selvaraghavan furthered his reputation as the first serious filmmaker who made movies about the kind of people who are not traditionally considered the audience for “serious films.”
Among the many taboos broken by Pudhupettai is the utter disregard for the mother figure so sacred in Tamil cinema. Around the half-hour mark, Dhanush describes to his new gang mates his mother’s death at the hands of his father. We expect a sentimental scene. Instead, one man talks about a mother who poured boiling water on him when he asked her why she was sleeping with the tailor. Another speaks of his lorry-driver father who gave his mother AIDS. Much later, a politician who ordered a bomb attack on Dhanush’s house swears on his mother that he knew nothing about any of this. It’s not just the mother figure. The sex-worker girlfriend, played by Sneha, is no timid thing, like Saranya in Nayakan. She’s wily. She manipulates Dhanush into marrying her. Dhanush is no honourable Kamal Haasan either. Despite being with Sneha, he falls for Sonia Agarwal, marries her. And Sonia Agarwal is no mute victim. One of her acts of revenge is to slyly plant the idea in Dhanush’s head that the child Sneha is carrying may not be his.
There is not a single “good person” in this movie – everyone does what they have to do to live another day. Hence the film’s Darwinistic tagline: “Survival of the fittest.” The cops who arrest Dhanush when he is down fall at his feet when he rises again – they have to survive too. And never before had we seen a man so animalistic, governed only by his appetites. Hunger. Sex. Power. Survival. There’s a point where we think he’s changing. He softens when he hears he’s becoming a father. (After all, even animals have feelings for their young.) He abandons his child because he thinks that’s best. He wails. But after a few minutes, he’s back to his life, back to thinking about himself, back to surviving. And instead of being punished for his selfishness, he is rewarded. Text at the end of the film tells us that he was elected MLA three times, that he served two terms as finance minster, and now runs several educational institutions. Ten years on, we still haven’t seen another film so unapologetic about the truth that crime does pay.
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