This week’s column for Metro Plus on how it is quite rare to spot atheistic characters in Tamil cinema
Even as a child, I was fascinated by how hero introduction scenes in many Tamil films usually showed them praying to a deity, eyes closed in deference. Actor and film historian Mohan V. Raman says such portrayal—similar to showing protagonists getting repulsed by smoking and drinking—quickly established them as ‘good’ men. With the rare exception of a film like Anbe Sivam, a devout believer is usually a man of great innocence, a fountainhead of goodwill. The recent Tharai Thappattai begins by showing its villain as a worshipper, his seeming benevolence enhanced by the sacred ash on his forehead. Shortly, you learn he’s wearing a disguise—that of a good man. Soon as the truth of his identity gets revealed, the holy ash is dispensed with, and the man shown to be drinking, and smoking marijuana. A bad man, you see.
No sacred ash on the forehead. Bad, bad man.
But filmmakers are understandably playing safe. These are, after all, dark times when even imagined insults result in laborious lawsuits and likely bans. Have we already forgotten the curious case of Vishwaroopam which ran into trouble, following protests—that resulted in damaged theatre screens—by those who hadn’t an inkling of what the film was about? Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine that a film like Parasakthi that brazenly took on status quo—and its practices, like praying to Lord Varuna for rains, for example—was made 64 years ago. To provide you with context, this was barely five years after we secured independence. The film met with trouble of course, as detailed fascinatingly in M.S.S. Pandian’s article for the Economic and Political Weekly, Parasakthi: Life and Times of a DMK Film. But much of the trouble came in the form of lawsuits. Stones weren’t pelted, theatre screens weren’t damaged, and bombs weren’t thrown (as in the case of Mani Ratnam’s Bombay). There was at least a discussion, not a ‘law and order’ problem, a phrase oft-used to justify bans.
Mohan believes that the advent of caste-based political parties brought in violence into protests, and dissuaded filmmakers from handling topics deemed to be of a sensitive nature. Perhaps that’s why blatantly atheistic characters aren’t written? He poses a return question: “If the story doesn’t need it, why bother writing one?” In order for the characters to be more rounded, of course. Surely, it isn’t crucial for a romance film to show the couple praying in a temple? Surely, it wasn’t absolutely necessary to sneak in a visual of Lord Ganesha’s framed photo before Rajinikanth’s introduction scene in Baasha?
Surely, a good man?
It is but rarely that a protagonist proclaims his atheism, like Aadhi of OK Kanmani. However, the film being the light romance it is, it is perhaps easy to dismiss it as the frivolous, misguided belief of a young man, eager to impress a girl. But baby steps, nevertheless.
The other issue concerns the ease of depiction, or the lack of it. Just as it is easy to identify certain communities, thanks to the idiosyncrasy of their dialects and dressing, it is easy to show a believer. You show a man’s hands folded in devotion. Or as Suresh Krishna does in Annamalai’s ‘Vandhenda Paalkaran’ song, you show the hero proudly smear his forehead with a handful of sacred ash. How do you show an atheist without being too emphatic though? And you don’t want to be too emphatic, considering that it has only been three years since the repudiation of the law that required playwrights to secure official approval of their scripts from the police commissioner’s office. This law was, of course, brought in as a response to M. R. Radha’s atheistic interpretation of Ramayana in his play. It’s such excessive reactions that made even our most popular atheist, Kamal Haasan, adopt a weak atheistic stance at the end of Dasavatharam, when he says, “Kadavul illanu sollala, irundha nalla irukkum. (I’m not asserting the non-existence of god. I’m just saying it’d be great if god existed.)” He even later admitted in an interview that it was a compromise. You see why though. After all, he does belong to an industry in which numerologists decide the spellings of titles; priests decide launch dates; and the said launch of a film is called its puja.
An edited version of this column can be found here: The Hindu. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share it.