Malayalam actor Mohanlal's "Pulimurugan" is a blockbuster. If you excuse its crass humour and plot-holes, and buy into its fantasy, there's plenty to like in the film.
What makes "Pulimurugan" an exciting watch is its creepy, nightmarish tigers who hunt people and maul them to death. The man-animal fights are choreographed superbly and it's no surprise that the audience goes nuts when Murugan, played by the brilliant Mohanlal, overpowers the beast and kills it.
Referred to as "narabhojis" or "man-eaters", there are three tigers that Murugan is shown to kill in the film. We understand that there are more. Given that the tiger is an endangered animal, it's surprising that the film engages very little with the conflict between humans and wildlife. Murugan and others in the film exploit the jungle for their own reasons but the link between human encroachment, deforestation, loss of natural habitat and the attacks by the tigers is never made, although there are a few token statements here and there about the laws of the jungle.
Indeed, it's difficult to look at a fierce beast that kills humans with a sympathetic eye. But are man-eaters so common? Not all tigers are man-eaters. In fact, wildlife experts say that most tigers who hunt humans are likely to be old or wounded. They attack out of hunger and desperation and since humans are easy targets who cannot move as fast as other animals like deer, they realize the advantage in hunting them.
Speaking to The News Minute on an earlier story about man-eaters, Vinay Luthra, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden of the Karnataka Forest Department, said that sometimes, attacks can also happen when the tiger is looking for new territory and runs into humans. When this happens, the tiger attacks out of fear and not with an intention to eat its prey.
However, for human beings, it makes little difference WHY the tiger killed a person. It's enough to strike fear in people's hearts and brand the animal a man-eater. Consider the case of Vijay, the white tiger, in the Delhi zoo who killed a 22 year old man who fell into his enclosure in 2014. Though Vijay killed the man, he did not eat him. Initial media reports, though, were quick to dub him as a "man-eater".
Unlike the lion which lives in a pack, the tiger is a loner. Each tiger needs its own territory, making it all the more difficult for the animal to survive, given its dwindling habitat.
For people who live near forests where the tiger stalks its prey, as in the Sunderbans, the animal stands for evil. It's a beast that has attacked their cattle, killed family members and scarred them forever. Bringing up conservation as a subject might strike them as unfair and insensitive, considering their plight. They're even bewildered as to why other humans take the side of the tiger in the debate.
Often, public and political pressure is so high that forest wardens might be forced to kill a tiger even if other measures that take more time can be adopted. When it is human lives that are at stake, it's hard to reason with people that it is actually human causes that have led to the tiger attack. And that if we go on in this vein, the tiger will soon become extinct.
The point is that this isn't a question of good vs evil. There are no "kind" tigers and it's impossible for humans and the big cat to live together in harmony. The tiger needs its territory and it's bound to kill humans as we encroach into its space. The backlash from humans is understandable, given that the victims often have little choice in the matter as it is a livelihood issue - but does this justify the vilification of the beast? Or the thunderous applause as it dies because it did what nature meant it to do?
"Mrugaya", made 27 years earlier, had Mammooty playing Varunni, an outcast hunter who saves the village from a man-eating leopard. Written by Lohithadas and directed by IV Sasi, the film explored the human-animal conflict with a little more nuance and realism. The story was about a single leopard terrorizing a village (among the big cats, the leopard is known to attack human settlements more than the tiger) and not a series of big cats turning into man-eaters.
In "Pulimurugan", the tigers become a crutch for the hero to display his machismo: the more he kills, the more of a man he becomes. It's true that the technical finesse with which this is done makes the film an entertaining watch. However, one cannot but look at the tiger tooth hanging around Murugan's neck and wonder why Vysakh, the director, could not have spent some time exploring the issue with some depth and intelligence when he's given ample space in the narrative for Namitha and her backless choli.
"Pulimurugan" is doing great at the box-office and it's likely to be remade in other languages. Which is why it's necessary to call it out. Belling the cat isn't a pleasant job but it needs to be done nevertheless.