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If you haven't heard of Tamil cinema, you aren't alone. At the international level, South India's film industry is all but unknown and often gets confused with Bollywood, Mumbai's Hindi film business. But, over the past five years, the "Other Bollywood," led by Tamil cinema, produced more than half of all Indian movies. Budgets for Tamil films now rival Bollywood's, and South India's film industry is emerging as a creative dynamo.


India: Tamil cinema gets reel

A new wave of hard-hitting, realistic films is shaking up the Tamil movie business.

(2011) dramatizes the conflict between an ageing mob boss and his ambitious young lieutenant, orchestrated by a sari-clad femme fatale.

But despite their varied stories, most of these films feature common themes related to India's modernization and the failed promise of an idealized Tamil state — the nationalist pledge made by the political parties responsible for creating the Tamil film industry over its first 40 years. 

Like the counterculture movies produced in 1960s Hollywood, the movies of the Tamil new wave pit young against old, depicting a society whose every tradition is breaking down.

In “Polladhavan” the young hero defies his parents to buy the motorcycle that leads him astray. In “Aadukalam” the old cockfighter tries to engineer the murder of his young protege after the youth's reputation begins to eclipse his mentor's. And in “Paruthiveeran” the heroine runs away from her parents to elope with an illiterate thug.

At the same time, the Tamil-speaking characters of these films are depicted as society's hopeless failures. Even in cheery “Autograph,” for instance, a nostalgic song from one of the flashbacks posits that the hero's girlfriend loves him so much she wants to learn Tamil. But as the plot moves forward in time and the hapless guy eventually gets a job his failings in English hold him back.

Similarly, in “Aadukalam” the Tamil-speaking hero's caste and class are no doubt unacceptable to the parents of the Anglo-Indian girl he pursues — but his unworthiness is dramatized through his stumbling English. And even in new wave films where the references are less specific, the message is clear that the characters most tied to their Tamil identity are the society's biggest losers.

“The running [theme] is the sense of betrayal, that they were promised a world where the Tamil land would always remain high, where being a Tamilian would be an entitlement to prosperity and success. And, it is exactly the opposite today,” said K. Hariharan, a professor at the L.V. Prasad Film & TV Academy in Chennai.

By making losers and gangsters their heroes, the new-wave filmmakers are inverting the Tamil nationalist dream, Hariharan argues. They do not respect their elders. They don't bother with studying or looking for a conventional job. But they aren't '60s style free spirits, either. This is a world without free love or a free lunch. Its heroes are defined by their inability to acquire any of the trappings of India's rise that surround them. And the solution is nearly always violence.

“I am calling this the cinema of disgust, an emotion that has rarely been touched in the Indian narrative process itself,” Hariharan said.

Regressive progress

In tapping that disgust, however, some critics fear that new-wave filmmakers are reproducing and amplifying some of Tamil cinema's most regressive messages. And while writers and directors insist — like American hip-hop artists — that they're merely reflecting what they see on the street, the audience reaction to the dramatization of the society's unfocused anger can be disturbing, according to Uma Vangan, another professor at the L.V. Prasad Film & Television Academy.

The Tamil film industry emerged as a propaganda vehicle for Tamil nationalists who challenged the dominance of Hindi-speaking North India and local upper castes. So many of the mainstream films of the 1950s-1980s addressed caste and class. But the attitude toward women and sex has always been problematic, Vangan explained.

The treatment goes beyond garden variety depictions of women as sex objects or the virgin-whore formulation common across many cultures. In the mainstream blockbusters featuring Rajnikanth — the biggest star of the past two decades — the hero routinely advises the largely male audience to keep their women in line. Crowds clap and whistle when Rajni insists that a woman's place is in the home, and boys no older than 4 can rattle off a famous monologue from “Padayappa” describing the ideal woman as submissive, Vangan said.

The mainstream movies of the past 30 years allowed their heroes to tap almost superhuman powers to bash up a horde of villains and take that idealized woman home to marry her. But the raw, angry, new-wave Tamil films — addressing a changed society where women are financially independent, and rising even further out of reach — refuse to allow that happy ending.

“Men are already feeling as if their role is no longer very clear, they don’t know what their role is anymore in a family, in a society,” said Vangan. “When the man on screen takes action, the men in the audience love it, because this is what they cannot do. They feel powerless in real life, so they’re acting out this catharsis of watching these men abuse these women, kill these women.”

You still see scruffy, uneducated heroes wooing fair-skinned, English-speaking heroines in new-wave Tamil films, but all too often the fate of the heroine is sealed from the beginning.

In “Paruthiveeran,” for instance, one of the most romantic of the new-wave movies, the childhood sweetheart sacrifices everything for the film's crass thug of a hero, finally running away from home to marry him. But before she can exercise her will, she is kidnapped and raped. And when the hero finds her already dying, she begs him to chop her into pieces so nobody will know what happened. When he's finished the grim deed, her family catches up to him, assumes that he was the kidnapper, and beats him to death.

As in many of the new wave films, the violence is justified by the story and the positioning of the characters, and coupled with fantastic camera work, brilliant art direction, and amazing performances, said Vangan. And that's the trouble.

“All the best things about cinema being used to enforce certain regressive and aggressive tendencies, that’s the disturbing thing for me,” Vangan said.

Akhila Krishnamurthy in Chennai provided reporting assistance for this series.