‘Chekka Chivantha Vaanam’ with its visceral violence is just following a long tradition of filmmakers choosing to show gore on screen to entertain audiences.

Chekka Chivantha Vaanam and the history of violence in Tamil cinema
Flix Kollywood Saturday, September 29, 2018 - 11:59

The fact that one of our best directors – Mani Ratnam – has returned to his ‘Nayakan days’ with his new film Chekka Chivantha Vaanam gives us an excuse to examine the thorny issue of how violence is represented in modern Tamil cinema. I mean if we did this with regard to Saamy Square, you probably would not read the rest of the story, right?

Violence, though not always graphic, is nearly omnipresent in CCV. How did we reach this point when it became okay to show audiences such high levels of savagery? In CCV, we are shown a paranoid world where brother turns against brother (in nearly biblical proportions) and gunshots mark every other scene. When a major character casually walks to a window, we need to worry about her life. Women, especially Jyothika’s Chithra, and the children are neither innocent nor safe.

The most violent scene in Nayakan (1987) was the murder of Inspector Kelkar (the late actor Pradeep Shakthi) with a hammer by Velu Naicker (Kamal Haasan). Now, times have changed, and so hammers and sickles are out and guns are in. Tellingly, the traditional combat-style stunt sequences are made short work of in CCV by Master Dhilip Subbarayan.

In this film, violence is intense and unexpected – and has disastrous consequences. The lives of the primary characters are changed forever by the slaughter that never seems to end. Murder and someone avenging this said murder can happen in just a few minutes of on-screen time.

When Mani Ratnam makes a gangster flick, it is clear that we have to sit up and take notice, irrespective of how it does at the box-office. The use of guns is not new to Tamil cinema, but the language of bloodshed has changed over the years; the fabric of brutality is not of the same texture anymore. And, this novelty has been in the making for quite a while now.

Before 2000, we were not so intimately acquainted with murder and mayhem on the big screen. But there were always the eminent exceptions. In Mudhal Mariyadhai, 1985, written by R Selvaraj and directed by Bharathiraja, Sevuli (actress Ranjani) bites off the toe of her murderer while being forcibly drowned. It took me years to digest the primitiveness of that act, which goes to show how artistically that central scene was conceived and executed.

When Shiva takes off the metal chain from a cycle, thereby altering the course of a well-choreographed stunt, my father, who had seen his fair share of violent Hollywood movies, was shocked. That highly successful 1990 movie Shiva, starring Nagarjuna, Amala and the late Raghuvaran, was director Ram Gopal Varma’s debut picture.

Through the 1990s, RK Selvamani, Shankar and a host of other directors set new benchmarks for bloodthirstiness in Tamil cinema. As every decade disowned the previous one, representation of violence also changed in marked ways.

But by 2000, a young crop of directors was trying to make new and bold statements in the way they used violence in their films. The technological advancements of the era stood them in good stead. The new brat pack, who was toying with digital cinema, wanted violence to be stark and real. The climactic sequence of 2004’s Kadhal was dreadful (in a good way) for even a wearied film buff like me. Similarly, director Bala was pushing the envelope in the portrayal of violence even in his early films like Sethu (1999) and Pithamagan (2003).

Soon, along with the appearance of beards on the faces of leads, sickles were everywhere in cinema. “Gangster films have a high commercial quotient. The action film genre has been a continuing success. This is why directors return to exploit the genre repeatedly,” says Devibharathi, author, screenplay writer and film critic.

Many see the present-day gangster as having evolved from the rowdies (frequently interpreted by the late Nambiar) who inhabited celluloid in its early days. They warn that showing gangsters as heroic characters will harm society. Will the unfortunate turn of events in CCV’s climatic sequence bring these critics some consolation?

Many have attributed the rapid urbanisation (CCV is set in Chennai and Dubai for the most part) caused by the opening up of the economy in the early 1990s as having directly attributed to more silver-screen violence. “The underworld is very much there in Chennai. The main players remain hidden. Politics, as it is practised today, cannot be done without thugs,” said Devibharathi.

Others question the very connection between society and cinema. “Once a film becomes a success, a new trend begins. Other directors keep writing material that goes with this trend. The connection between cinema and society that you expect goes absent,” said film historian Theodore Baskaran.

At Assembly Rooms in Ooty, the cheering from the first-day audience at the unusually housefull theatre was deafening for the violent scenes. When whistles blew as often as bullets flew, it became increasingly hard to maintain some semblance of composure.

“I believe that the real danger of an excess of violence in the movies is that it blunts your sensitivity when it happens off-screen. Children are the most affected as they are already familiar with the idea of pain. The Censor Board should play a more active role, the kind of role it is now playing in drawing lines for the portrayal of sex in cinema,” Baskaran said.

There is no denying that violence entertains; so less is achieved with more and more dollops of it. “Did you know the union of stuntmen is one of the most powerful in the field? This is because the stunts are as mandatory as the song-and-dance sequences. Every film has at least three stunts,” the film historian said.

Though the film had its moments, this is not the filmmaker’s return to form. Mani Ratnam’s last outright action film was Aayutha Ezhuthu, which I devoured. I watched Yuva (the Hindi version of the hit Tamil film, starring Ajay Devgan, Abhishek Bachchan and Vivek Oberoi) as recently as last month. The trip down memory lane was well worth the watch.

While I didn’t hate CCV, I was unable to summon the level of enthusiasm I had for the 2004 film. And despite Hari’s pitiful antics with Saamy Square in the other theatre, I will mark this one from Mani Ratnam as a critical flop.

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