In the celluloid world, idioms of valour and honour are closely associated with traditional sports
Popular cinema, an integral part of the modern social and political life of Tamil Nadu, has often portrayed jallikattu as a symbol of masculinity, and social status. And there are instances of the portrayal running as a counter-narrative, wherein a subaltern hero tames an overlord's bull and turns it into a challenge to power and authority.
Prominent Dalit writer, Stalin Rajangam says that like the Balinese Cock Fight, bull-taming remains a metaphor for traditional masculinity. And, love and valour have long been the basic raw material used in Tamil cinema.
As far as Madurai is concerned, the place has a history of festivity and cultural symbols associated with it. This has seeped into the celluloid world and idioms of valour and honour closely associated with questions of masculinity found their forms in jallikattu, cockfight, and a sort of ‘weightlifting' that involves lifting a huge, spherical stone (ilavatta kal). In films based on rural life, the term jallikattu finds a mention either in lyrics, dialogues or the comedy track.
Images of matinee idol MGR taming a bull in Thaaikku Pin Thaaram and Rajnikanth as Kaalaiyan (the character's name itself refers to a bull) in Murattukalai (Raging Bull) and Kamal Haasan in Virumaandi are a few examples.
In Murattukaalai, Rajnikanth, in his own inimitable style, enters the arena jumping from a bullock cart to tame the bull, thus saving his village from the disgrace of not having a single male who could tame a ferocious bull. Kaalaiyan's fearless participation in jallikattu in front of the villainous landlord also marks the entry of the peasant hero challenging his overlordship.
In the Bharathiraja film, Mannvasanai, bull-fighting becomes the central element of the narrative, when the heroine's father declares in the village square that whoever tames the bull is eligible to marry his daughter. A clever ploy by the antagonist enables an outsider from a nearby village tame the bull and arguments develop over the ‘word of honour.' The girl's father commits suicide after killing the bull owing to the slur on his honour.
In Rajakumaran, actor Prabhu's 100th film, the protagonist, a landlord, who actually refrains from fighting bulls due to his status, is forced to take part when the village's honour is at stake. A man from another village makes fun of the villagers and mocks at their masculinity as none from the village is able to tame his bull. The hero saves the honour of not only his village but also his ancestry famed for its bravery and munificence.
In Cheran Pandian, the bull reared by the village head Periya Gounder enters the arena as an untamed bull; the images of the bull running in slow motion and the pride in Periya Gounder's face are juxtaposed on the screen, the bull mauls an innocent onlooker. It is then that the protagonist enters and tames the bull much to the chagrin of the village head. Periya Gounder is unable to digest the fact that his bull has been tamed, for it means that his pride has been pricked in public glare. In a fit of anger, he shoots down the bull.
In Virumaandi the bull while entering the ‘vaadi vaasal' is termed as the one reared by Kothala Thevar's family which had injured 50 men at Alanganallur. However Kamal Hassan who returns to his village from Singapore tames the bull, in a performance that means that despite going to a foreign land, his masculinity and traditional roots are intact.
However there are films in which the metaphor of masculinity collapses and makes way for lighter moments. In Enga Ooru Paatukkaran, the protagonist is a folk singer who also takes care of the cows in the village. During a jallikattu, the majestic, untamed bull of the landlord is tamed by the hero, not by physical prowess, but by rendering a soulful song, sending the audience into peals of laughter.