The rise of the violent hero in south cinema: What explains it?

In recent times, the promos of several south Indian films have chosen images, themes and taglines glorifying violence and bloodshed.
Actors Prabhas, Kamal Haasan and Yash
Actors Prabhas, Kamal Haasan and Yash
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The announcement of Prabhas’s new pan-Indian film with Hombale Films, the makers of KGF, came with the tagline ‘The most violent men... called one man... the most violent’. In recent times, the promos of several south Indian films have chosen images, themes and taglines glorifying violence and bloodshed.

For instance, the title teaser of Kamal Haasan’s upcoming Tamil film with Lokesh Kanagaraj, Vikram, has an elaborate sequence showing the actor preparing for a bloodbath over a meal. The poster of Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi’s Master, with the same director, has the two actors screaming at each other with streaks of blood on their faces. The tagline of Rajinikanth’s last film, Darbar, had the tagline ‘You decide whether you want to be good, bad or worse’. The controversial character introduction video of Jr NTR from SS Rajamouli’s RRR showed the actor taking on his enemies with streams of blood running from his body.

The promos reflect the genre of the film and increasingly, the choice of the top actors in the respective film industries – most of them in the age group of 40 to 70 years – is action. Unlike films of the previous decades where the hero mostly played the virtuous man, ‘bad boy’ heroes with negative shades are the order of the day.

Watch: Title teaser of Vikram

Entertainment journalist Subha Rao says, “Growing up, I recall a lot of ketchup blood and fight scenes with grand background music. So, somewhere in your head you knew it was not real, and it didn’t really affect you. Plus, the hero was the hero and rarely was the anti-hero celebrated. So, the script would be in such a way that every fight would’ve some sort of justification. I won’t say the same about fights now. The background score is more real, so when you hear the crunch of a bone, you know a bone is breaking. You sense a concussion long before it happens. The violence is now part of the hero’s character arc – say he’s the local rowdy or a henchman – and so the violence is written in. From being the means to an end, violence has turned more casual, and that’s slightly unnerving. And this violence need not even be physical.”

With budgets skyrocketing and fanbases for the big stars expanding beyond their home state, filmmakers cut no corners when it comes to including elaborate action sequences.

Hollywood influence

The appetite for violence in south Indian films is not only to showcase ageing male stars in flattering stories that magnify their masculinity. It’s also because much of it is now possible, thanks to how stunts are choreographed today.

Speaking to TNM, stunt master Supreme Sundar, whose family has been working in this field since the times of MGR, says, “I’ve been a stunt master for over 20 years now. In the beginning, there wasn’t much safety for the fighters. When people had to break glass in those times, they had to work with real glass. They’d end up getting stitches. When they had to fight with animals, they had no safety. In fact, that’s how a fighter called Pulikesi was killed, when fighting a tiger in the ‘60s. They didn’t even have money to give him a proper burial. Many stunt people have died like this. It was to change all this that the stunt union was formed, we’ve been in existence for over 50 years now.”

Supreme Sundar explains that as safety measures improved, the nature of action and fight sequences also changed. The industries here learnt from Hollywood on how to direct stunts while ensuring the safety of fighters. However, he adds that there is still much to be desired.

“I have to say that though we’re way more creative and hardworking than Hollywood, we still don’t have the safety measures that they have. If they have to jump from a 10-storey building, they’ll have a water bed, air bed. The rent for an air bed for one day in India is Rs 60,000. The person who jumps gets just Rs 10,000. So, the producer asks why we need an air bed. What we do is take cardboard boxes and use a bed for the padding. So our state is such that the person who’s risking his life gets paid less than the material needed to ensure his safety,” he says.

According to him, the audience’s exposure to cinema outside India is a major reason why filmmakers today want more action scenes in their films.

“People here didn’t have a lot of opportunity to watch Hollywood films earlier. When cowboy films became popular, we began adding stunts with horses here. When Bruce Lee films became well-known, we started showcasing karate moves. Stunt masters would also follow Jackie Chan’s action movies. When it comes to mass heroes, directors here include action scenes that’d appeal to their fans,” he says.

Sundar further adds that while Hollywood makes pure action films, in India stunt directors are required to sneak in action scenes into every kind of film. “That’s where our creativity comes in. Stunt directors from Hollywood don’t really understand how to include stunt sequences in a film along with the story and the sentiments. They only choreograph the fights,” he says.

Arivu, of the stunt brothers duo popularly known as Anbariv, says that directors today place a lot of importance on action scenes. The brothers have been in the field for the past 18 years, and are currently working on KGF 2.

“Nowadays, people prefer watching action films to love stories. In fact, directors these days are like action directors themselves. When they narrate the story, about 50-70% of the output [regarding action scenes] is there already. What’s challenging for us is to take it beyond that. Previously, if there’s a fight scene, the director will leave it to us. But now, they’re present all through, giving feedback, making spot edits and telling us exactly what they need,” he says.

Though the Hollywood influence is undeniable in the rise in popularity of action scenes in India, Arivu points out that the wide exposure of the audience to such films means that copycat sequences are easily spotted.

“All these films are available on so many platforms. So if you use any such references, people will catch it. We have to think of something original. Let’s say it’s a bar fight. Instead of just assuming it’ll be in a wine shop, we have to think more about the location. What if it’s a hotel, where is the kitchen, where is the bar, how do we choreograph it, what do we need from production design and so on. It’s become very creative now,” he says.

Watch: Action sequence from Kaithi

According to him, directors have broken out of the template of 5 songs and 3 fight scenes.

“Such films that follow a set pattern have reduced. Directors have become conscious about the situation requiring songs or action scenes. Take Kaithi, there are no songs in that film, only action. In fact, even when directors ask for some action scenes for the sake of it – like in the opening scene – we sometimes tell them that it won’t suit the film. Since we’re involved in the film from the beginning and not only for the fight scenes, we’re able to tell the directors this. My brother and I get the script and read the whole thing,” he says.

Representing violence on screen

While violence has always been used to show the hero’s bravado and masculinity on screen, films these days often have graphic scenes – hands chopped by sickles, cheek muscles moving in slow motion as someone is punched, teeth flying in the air along with bloody spit and so on.

Subha finds the current obsession with violence ‘defying any logic’. “I understand action choreography – graceful moves atop elephants and swirling in the water before an action scene – working with the audience, but at a time when we are surrounded by so much violence, I’m not sure if it meets the requirement of catharsis too,” she says.

However, while a section of the audience may find it hard to stomach the increasing violence on screen, fans who throng theatres for star vehicles can’t get enough of it.

“Such criticism has existed for a long time,” says Supreme Sundar. “But if you take real life, it’s full of violence. The news is full of violence. CCTV footage that we get from real life is so violent. But in films, what we ultimately show is that violence is wrong and that the villain will be vanquished. We don’t show that violence is the right path. When we focus on the pain that characters experience in violent scenes, we’re also showing what will happen if someone is hit like that.”

Watch: Fight scene from Avane Srimannarayana

Arivu also believes that the violence shown in films is very less when compared to real life, and that the violence in films comes with the intention explained. “It’s true that earlier violence was not shown in such detail. But then we have a CBFC which will cut shots that are too graphic, we’re also conscious about what we show and how much we show. If we’re showing an arm being chopped with a sickle, we just show the person running forward with it, not focus on the weapon entering the body. Such graphic details are rare,” he says.

While the CBFC may blur such shots, it’s not always consistent when it comes to certification. Violent films invariably get the ‘U’ or ‘U/A’ certificate, if they are headlined by a big star. However, the violence needn’t always be meaningless. If done well, Subha points out, it can elevate a film.

KGF’s stunt choreography by Anbariv and Vikram Mor really impressed me. The action sequences were well-scripted and performed by Yash. I especially loved the fight deep inside the mines. It was almost poetic in its grace. I usually don’t look out for stunt sequences, but this was so good, it charmed me. In Kannada, I loved the quirky action choreography in Avane Srimannarayana (Vikram Mor again) too. It was goofy and fun, and you knew nothing drastically terrible was about to take place,” she says.

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