Don-u don-u don-u

On the discomfiting trend of rowdy romanticisation

With Junga coming out last Friday — and news that Maari 2 is being readied for release later this year — it’s a good time to take cognisance of the all-consuming love our cinema seems to have for dons. You walk out of these films almost convinced that being a don is a noble lofty aspiration. With adored actors like Dhanush and Vijay Sethupathi playing this character more than once, dons are less feared and hated than they are loved and empathised with. Surely, it’s time to point out the depravity of storytelling that romanticises a crook. In films like Maari and Junga, the don hero is a far cry from, say, the one in Kaala. Ranjith’s film makes no secret of its point that when the law doesn’t benefit its people, protectors like Kaala who champion lawlesssness are useful. The romanticisation of his character is only to this end.

Compare this with Junga. What’s the big purpose of its lawless protagonist? It’s supposed to be funny that this criminal offers a free kidnapping when paid for his murder services. It’s supposed to be funny that this miserly don pushes a man to his death, so he can save bullets. Director Gokul recognises though that even when played by a fan-favourite like Vijay Sethupathi, Junga’s hero can’t escape criticism for murdering for money. Hence, the convenient excuse that the person he’s paid to assassinate is a rapist. As you’ve gleaned from social media, when it’s a rapist, everything goes. Junga does what Junga does, so he can save money to wrest back his ancestral property that he believes has been snatched from his family. Not quite the noble stuff of Kaala and Naayagan, is it?

You have to wonder when we went from being repulsed by these outlaws to rooting for them. When indeed did our filmmakers begin to conceive a don as a cool leader, his violent tendencies, like in Maari, supposedly an amusing extension of his proclivity for mischief. Amitabh Bachchan playing a don to such adulation in 1978 was surely a watershed moment. Rajinikanth, of course, did its remake two years later, a film that was instrumental in creating his star status. These stories at least did the courtesy of making a good man its hero, and the don — even if stylishly presented — its villain. What, however, of Farhan Akhtar’s Don that, in the pretext of coming up with a twist, destroyed the moral point of the story? The climax of Don makes it a tragedy, but given how it ends with a mass moment — that famous punchline — from Shah Rukh Khan, you’d walk out clapping. I suppose we have to be thankful that at least Ajith Kumar’s Billa avoided this twist(ed) end, even if it was as guilty as its predecessors about idolising its don.

A major newspaper, in a recent story about a group of gangsters getting busted, reported a police official bemoaning the ‘cool’ portrayal of rowdies in films. When film after film paints hooligans to be big, burly softies, it goes some way in justifying their actions, and worse, romanticising them. If Mysskin’s rape comment at Peranbu’s audio release attracted as much outrage — and rightly so — so should the trivialisation of crimes like rape and kidnapping in films like JungaNaanum Rowdy Dhaan makes light of a young man wanting to be a rowdy, as though there were something inherently cool about being one. Maari has one scene that makes light of extortion. When a beloved actor like Dhanush plays such an aggressor, criminal tendencies, on some level, begin to wear the disguise of heroic traits. In a film like Pudhupettai, you could argue that Kokki Kumar isn’t really a hero. In Maari — and I suspect in its upcoming sequel —  there’s no doubt about the protagonist’s hero status.

Typically, these dons are normalised through some definitive ‘cute’ trait. In Maari, it’s mischief — or as you’re supposed to interpret it, innocence. There’s also, of course, his love for pigeons. In Junga, it’s the character’s stinginess — or as you’re supposed to interpret it, his dedication to righting the wrong done to his ancestors. A don gathering scene in Junga is so conceived that you almost forget that the room is full of mass murderers. Sure, making jokes about villains is one way to fight them — as shown by many fictional characters including Fred and George in Harry Potter. But what when your hero too is one of the bad guys? Would the jokes of Fred and George be as funny if either were a death eater?

In Junga, the don becomes smitten by the very woman he intends to kidnap. And she falls for him too. Eventually, she realises his original plan but doesn’t care. She doesn’t care that he’s a thieving, kidnapping, murdering felon, who shunned a respectable job to make quick money. Normal women would be put off. But the heroine of this film doesn’t care. The real reason she doesn’t, of course, is because he’s the hero of the film. If our don hadn’t been the hero, the story would have ended with him being rejected by the girl, being abandoned by his family, losing all his money, and getting deported to India, where his dream property, his theatre, would likely have been reduced to rubble. Now, that’s the sort of resolution befitting a contract killer.

This column was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.

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