Stalkers of Tamil cinema: If the character is one, then show him for what he is
The murder of Chennai techie Swathi by the accused Ramkumar has sparked multiple fiery debates across living rooms in the city on scorching Sundays. While some are still unaware of the harm that commonplace and glorified portrayals of stalking pose, another section can’t see the films that they once liked the same way.
Sometimes men who look like the stereotypical stalker – collars pulled up with a distinctive swagger – arouse fear in us. Demure women who give in to their stalkers and even marry them are blamed for encouraging such a trend. Women who wear leggings or miniskirts are seen as the ones who ask to be stalked, no doubt.
But most of us can’t see the films we once loved and cheered for in the same prism we previously did. Neither can the Madras High Court, which saw this more from a prism of morality than safety. No drinking, no drugs, no leching, to hell with actors who accept these scripts – if there is a script to begin with.
Here are some common defenses, which I am not on board with, that definitely seem unrealistic.
a) Filmmakers will plead that they have no social responsibility to cater to. If the audience wants preachers, why not find a guru?
b) Artistic sensibilities. Let’s not discount the reality of society. Society does smoke, does drink, does stalk.
c) If you don’t like it, change the channel. This has probably the highest likelihood to fail in terms of a defense.
d) Actors should choose scripts that don’t encourage stalking. This has a good motive, I’m sure. But Kollywood has run on potboiler scripts for the longest time. An independent film or five restores hope once in a while. But most of the moolah is raked in from a commercial formula. This is a great way to motivate, but this requires a sea change from all the stakeholders involved.
Here’s what we can consider. And this is not a bid to dole out advice on making a film.
When it comes to films, we all know that there are specific pivotal characters in them. What’s often forgotten in haste is doing justice to that character by fleshing it out. Take Udta Punjab. We get to see the way in which Inspector Sartaj’s brother Bali lives. He is motivated by peer pressure, is reclusive even at home and has a law-enforcing brother unaware of his condition. His de-addiction centre barely has any light pouring in and he persistently hacks at a table. He finally kills Preet in an act of anger.
How many filmmakers, especially in Kollywood, perceive characterization as important? In a simplistic film, we’d see Bali being motivated by peer pressure and turning into a villain overnight. The story will skip the middle, add an ominous background score and flash forward to the end where he kills himself. The character has close to zero depth. Why is he doing what he is doing? We never know.
Because of the perception that the formula will only work if there is a good guy and a bad guy. There is zero depth afforded to either character because the script has already made a hero and villain out of the two.
When we talk about representations of stalking in films, we begin with the first stumbling block - the film-makers don’t see what the character is doing as ‘stalking’. They see it as the normal way to get a girl. So unless the film-maker changes that internalized perception, he won’t get to the level of changing the characterization.
When Dhanush follows a girl around in a film, for instance, his director doesn’t see it as stalking at all. The film-maker sees it as a legitimate way to win the girl’s heart, so there’s no question of developing the stalker-shades in the character. As long as the people who make these films remain blind to the fact that they are romanticizing a crime, we will not see a change. If you don’t like it - change the channel, has probably the highest likelihood to fail in terms of a defense.
The argument here is not to censor stalking but to show it for what it is. Explore the character and his motivations a bit more.
Why does a character stalk? How strong is a character’s family structure? Has there been no father figure in his life? Does the way his brother talks about women contribute to a strong sense of hatred towards them? Has he seen many men in a bus violating a woman’s space by leching at her, and as a result believes that that is the only way to get her? Most importantly, why has he learnt that persistence is the only way to get what he wants? And that consent is something he is entitled to?
Filmmakers could do with some depth, not as a moral responsibility, but to treat their own art responsibly. For depicting how society is what it is, we should be asking why society is the way it is. As for actors, how about taking some responsibility and skipping some scripts?
Here’s how we are fed with the perception of a bad guy in a film. He’s the man with the stringy, sweat soaked hair, wielding a sickle, bloodthirsty for the next man approaching him. He’s the man who looks the part of a rapist and a murderer. When Ramkumar was hunted down and arrested, many raised questions like “He’s not a stalker, not a killer. Doesn’t look like one.”
Our idea of a stalker, a rapist or a killer is largely that of a one dimensional caricature. In real life, it could be anyone, a big honcho like Tejpal or Pachauri, a young man whose idea of consent is blurry, a husband who believes he is entitled to violate a woman by marriage, and a small town boy who doesn't receive the attention he wants and tries to obtain it as a matter of right. Those who insist that films that glorify stalking are reflecting reality should consider portraying all these realities too.
Here's Dhanush declaring proudly that he's the 'baap' of all stalkers.
Here's another blast from the past by director Selvraghavan from the movie '7G Rainbow Colony'