Why this Kolaveri?

Why is there so much cruelty in Tamil cinema, an American movie buff asked during a discussion at the Chennai International Film Festival recently.

He noted that Tamil films had become more violent over the last few years and filmmakers seemed to enjoy showing the cruelty of life, especially through its physical manifestation — extreme acts of brutal and graphic violence under the pretext of tragedy, revenge or retribution.

“I have heard of American schools discussing this new wave of Tamil cinema under the Cinema of Cruelty,” he said.

I tell him that we have an extremely violent history and our biggest epics are full of stories of love and revenge. Many wars had been fought for land, women and honour. Mythology has it that Ganesha has the face of an elephant because he was beheaded. Dronacharya asked Eklavya for his thumb as gurudakshina. And heroes slayed hundreds of ‘asuras’ (demons) all the time.

Myths aside, even history has it that we have seen suffering through the hands of different rulers, both external and internal, before and after independence.

As cinematographer and wildlife photographer Alphonse Roy observed: “We have seen non violence as an idea emerge in India only over the last hundred years. We are a culture that is over 5,000 years old. Animal sacrifice still happens in many parts of the country.”

But why isn’t Marathi, Malayalam or Bengali cinema as violent? Why is only Tamil cinema this violent, the American asked. He was asking specifically about the trend that started with Paruthiveeran and Subramaniapuram. Not really about Andre Bazin’s observations about cinema of cruelty, but the New Tamil cinema that could be studied for employment of extreme violence and physical cruelty.

French film critic and theorist Andre Bazin had observed the cinema of cruelty in the works of many great filmmakers — from Bunuel to Hitchcock to Kurosawa — and Francois Truffaut was instrumental in publishing a book called The Cinema of Cruelty which maybe a great read for those who want a little historical perspective on the early origins of cruelty in cinema.

Tamil cinema’s new wave was more a result of filmmakers going back to their roots in the villages and telling stories of their land, far away from the culture of studios or sets.

If you go outside the city and into the heartland, you would see huge idols of Gods guarding hamlets with all kinds of weapons. Because it is a deep rooted belief that protection comes through weapons.

Tamil filmmakers were probably among the most significant to look back into their bloody histories for inspiration, Bala’s Paradesi being the most recent example. So much that Anurag Kashyap dedicated his violent two part saga Gangs of Wasseypur to the Tamil triumvirate of Bala, Sasikumar and Ameer — for inspiring him to go back to his roots and tell stories from back home. Popular cinema was becoming more and more metropolitan and civilised. And urban in sensibility. The other cinema has always been reactionary to popular cinema.

But the answer to why we make violent cinema is probably deeper than the urban-rural sensibility divide. Maybe it is in our genes. Maybe we have a deep rooted blood thirst. A desire to see those responsible for suffering suffer. Revenge. Catharsis on screen.

Or, as the Tamil word goes: Kolaveri.

(Lights, Camera, Conservation will resume on January 11)