Rajinikanth as the dreaded gangster Manick Baashha in the blockbuster Baashha (1995). The flashback sequence in the film that explains Baashha’s mission of revenge is set in the 1980s and appropriates themes from the ‘AYM’ genre.
Heinous and violent crimes…
... brutal rape scenes …
... anti-heroes driven by sheer rage…
... and bloodthirsty resolutions, which culminate in the gory death of the villain — these are just some of the conventions associated with the ‘AYM’ genre.
The Tamil film industry is located in the city of Chennai, (formerly known as Madras) in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Screen legend Amitabh Bachchan epitomized the ‘Angry Young Man’ in Hindi cinema.
Superstar Rajinikanth personified the ‘Angry Young Man’ in Tamil cinema.
The iconic image of film star turned politician MGR.
The thespian Sivaji Ganesan in a rare photograph with the man he is often compared to, Hollywood actor and Oscar winner, Marlon Brando.
Besides the permanent cinema theatre, the temporary theatres of the ‘touring talkies’ ensured that the fantasy worlds created by the medium reached even the poorest parts of the country.
This essay examines the conventions and ideology behind the “Angry Young Man” genre in Tamil cinema. Despite the genre’s popular run in the 1980s, these films about volatile anti-heroes remain an unexplored dimension in Tamil film history. The genre’s popularity and the idioms that it introduced into Indian cinematic discourse lead to the question of how such narratives address the anxieties of their times. This is especially so given that scripts at that time dealt with failed bureaucracies, corrupt politicians, crooked cops and a feeble justice system in fictional films that intended to “expose” social conditions. Critically using feature films as a kind of historical text, I hope to show how this genre enunciates a vitriolic critique of the Indian state. At the same time, the films also display the same populist proclivities that crippled the state in the first place, perpetuating a cycle where the cinematic and the real reinforce each other. This amalgamation of fantasy and political reality is an idiosyncratic legacy of this era of popular Tamil cinema.
Introduction: popular film as history
In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin elaborates a cogent interface between politics and cultural products. Benjamin suggests that through mass production, art is detached from its basis in ritual to become based on political praxis. [open endnotes in new window] Just as significant is his argument that films are able to create a heightened consciousness of the world in ways that other art forms are unable to effect. Popular Tamil cinema, from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, has notoriously exploited this visual-aural dimension of film for propaganda and political mobilization. The stimulus to write this essay comes from viewing specific Tamil films from the 1980s. That decade saw the popularization of a pulp trope that developed into a mainstream genre—“Angry Young Man” (henceforth, “AYM’) films. Through using picturesque and at times grotesque representations—especially of excessive violence—these films painted a chaotic image of their times. Promoted as rebellion against the establishment, the “AYM” cycle opened up a new representational space, which from our perspective offers unique access into understanding the popular consciousness of that time.
To view Indian history through the lenses of Tamil cinema is to do so through a plurality of narratives. With an annual production of around 800-1000 films, India is at present the world’s largest producer of films. What is often unnoticed is that “Bollywood,” as Hindi cinema is known globally, is but one of the many language cinemas in India.
Of these, the Tamil film industry is Hindi cinema’s biggest competitor for the title of the “most well-known and widely appreciated beyond the country’s borders”—a label often applied to Bollywood which has led some to call Tamil films “the Significant Other.” On one level, this critical discussion analyzes how Indian cinema outside the Bollywood hegemony mediates between national and regional concerns to address a heterogeneous audience. On another level, criticism has deconstructed Hindi cinema’s “AYM” genre, epitomized by screen legend Amitabh Bachchan, to the extent that the academic study of this trope leaves little here to explore. However, critics have not yet considered how the “AYM” trope in India’s other cinemas can provide a new perspective for Indian historiography. I hope to advance an understanding of how the significant other angry young hero, personified by superstar Rajinikanth in Tamil cinema, addresses the collective concerns of the period in which it was made.
Existing paradigms for examining Tamil cinema were shaped by early English-language criticism that gave greater credence to the study of film stars’ political activism. Such studies in political sociology tended to focus on interactions between social structures, charismatic personalities, and political parties. Political scientist Robert L. Hardgrave Jr., writing in the 1970s, highlighted how the luminaries of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Dravidian Progressive Federation or DMK), a key political party in Tamil Nadu, used Tamil film as vehicle for propagating Tamil nationalism and critiquing the caste system as the cause of social inequality. Drawing heavily from anthropology, these studies reveal how the star persona of the two biggest film stars who dominated Tamil cinema between the 1950s and the 1970s attained a cult following that allowed them to enter politics. These two were M. G. Ramachandran — famously recognized by his initials MGR — and V. C. Ganesan — more popularly known as Sivaji Ganesan or Sivaji after his outstanding role as the 17th century Marathi warrior Shivaji Bhosle in a stage play early in his career. More significantly, empirical evidence has proven that the success the DMK and Indian National Congress respectively had in utilizing MGR and Sivaji was evident in their fans’ voting patterns, which coincided with the party their idols represented. In this way, the earliest academic work on Tamil cinema concretized a link between electoral politics and film culture.
Another facet of the complex relation between Tamil film and politics, which has been the subject of recent academic work, is fan club participation. Owing to the popularity of joining rasigar manrams or fan clubs for movie stars, such studies are important in understanding this subculture as a social phenomenon. Anthropologists like Sara Dickey and Martyn Rogers have analyzed how fans consume and make meaning out of films as well as how these fan clubs are politicized through association with the parties that film stars are aligned with. By identifying fan clubs as a form of subcultural political mobilization, Dickey and Rogers reaffirm a connection between democratic participation and fandom.
Compared to the sophistication of research from political sociology and anthropology, discussions of Tamil film history remain inchoate. Film history could either refer to the development of the medium over time or the usage of documentary and fictional films as historical source material. For S. Theodore Baskaran, the insufficiency of film studies scholarship is explained by two factors, a general apathy towards using visual material in Indian historiography and, more important, indifference towards cinema by the educated in India. Despite these limitations, there have been a few pioneering works on Tamil film history. Stephen Hughes has written on the exhibition practices, government regulation, and technology behind the early Tamil film industry from the first silent films of the 1910s to the arrival of sound in the 1930s. Baskaran himself studied the newsreels, documentaries, and films produced until the 1940s that were used as nationalist propaganda in the anti-colonial struggle against the British. Judging from these limited but valuable studies, it is clear that there is a need for a more comprehensive research into the history of Tamil films.
Given the academic apprehension towards film history, M. S. S. Pandian’s The Image Trap: M. G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics is a foundational attempt at using Tamil feature films as historical source material. In this book, Pandian studies the construction of the immensely popular cinematic image of MGR. The argument is that MGR’s on-screen persona conjoined with working class cultural idioms to constitute an ego ideal that MGR consciously constructed as he rose to power as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu (1977-1987), the highest office in the federal state. To reach this conclusion, Pandian dissected MGR’s films to analyze the ideological functions of the mise-en-scène, characterization, and dialogue that appealed to the subaltern classes. Through combining film studies strategies with historical analysis, Pandian established a new dimension for historiography.
Despite the “AYM” genre’s popularity in Tamil cinema during the 1980s, it has received scant academic attention. Though some writers indicate that such a cycle existed, they have not been able to suitably categorize or historicize it. For example, though Dickey uses Tamil films from the mid-1980s in her fieldwork, those films she chooses are clearly depoliticized. Favoring the family melodrama, she does not explain why she avoids the genre of what she calls a new type of political film, which specializes in stories of revenge against corrupt politicians. David B. Pratt builds his own compelling account of Tamil Nadu politics around the film, Idhu Engal Neethi (“Our Justice,” Dir. S. A. Chandrasekar, 1988) that bears all the elements of films in the genre, but which Pratt vaguely categorizes as a “political film.” Pratt’s study also ignores the production of similar films since the late 1970s.
Recent research by scholar Sathiavathi Chinniah has corrected this paucity of attention to the genre. In her essay on the changing representations of the Tamil movie heroine, Chinniah provides a brief but vital reference to the “AYM” genre of Tamil cinema. She writes:
However, Chinniah’s gendered analysis falls short in accounting for the role of the state as a contested site within the narrative, which I will explain later.
The methodology employed in this essay is based upon a premise articulated by Marc Ferro:
Films from the past, offer a new frontier of historical study beyond the ambit of print literature. As Ferro suggests,
Via popular film texts, the scholar gains an audio-visual access to the ideological polemics and political concerns underpinning society. When a study combines this cinematic analysis with details culled about the film’s production background and political function, a more comprehensive picture emerges. Thus, popular film texts have the potential to shape our historical understanding of a particular period in different ways from written documents from the same timeframe.
A retrospective study of cinema in Tamil Nadu has much value because there is a tradition of a vibrant film culture there. Prior to the widespread diffusion in the 1990s of satellite televisions, cinema was the mass medium in Tamil Nadu with the greatest audience; even radio was “limited as a disseminating medium” since most people only listen to film songs. In 1986, there were 2,153 cinema halls—of which 320 temporary cinemas were “touring talkies” located in rural and semi-urban areas for the poorest people. This made Tamil Nadu the state with the second largest number of cinema halls in India. Moreover, the extensive venues for exhibition matched the growing output of the Tamil film industry. According to the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, the number of sound features produced annually in Tamil rose from 105 films in 1978 to 194 films in 1990. Based on her fieldwork on the consumption of Tamil films between 1985 and 1987, Dickey adds that 85 percent of the adults she spoke to went to the movies at least three to four times a month. Such an extensive proliferation and consumption of films in the 1980s affirm the value of studying Tamil cinema historically as a kind of cultural production with great social potency.
There is an inter-connectedness between the different language cinemas in India. Thus the radical and subversive themes from Tamil cinema’s “AYM” genre permeated into Hindi cinema and other regional film industries. Since the end of the silent-film era in the 1930s and arrival of the talkies, successful Hindi films have been dubbed or remade into other Indian language versions such as Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam and vice-versa.  Remakes tend to be more popular because using a cast of local stars and making changes to fit differing cultural contexts ensure familiarity for the local audience while retaining the original screenplay. This practice persists today in Indian cinema. As it would be evident below, films in the Tamil “AYM” genre have not only been remade into Hindi and Telugu, but also certain films in the genre were remade from films originally produced in Hindi, Telugu and Malayalam. The synergy achieved through creative fusion and adaptation of plots from other film industries in India ensured the sustainability of the genre for an entire decade. More important, the conspicuous propagandistic potential of the “AYM” genre is not limited to Tamil Nadu in its mode of address.
I have found that the films in Tamil cinema’s “AYM” genre enunciate a sustained indictment of the Indian state by valorizing unconstitutional, vigilante approaches to justice. By privileging verisimilitude over allegory, these films blatantly visualize state failure in a kind of social commentary. Yet ideologically these films appropriate the same brand of rabid populism that crippled the state in the first place, perpetuating a cycle where the reel and the real reinforce each other.
There is a history of the failures of using populism in Indian political discourse. The origins of the crisis of the Indian state can be traced to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s leadership. Under Indira Gandhi, populist measures permeated the political system, and because they did not solve problems, they often undercut the government and subsequently accelerated state corruption. The corresponding political backdrop in Tamil Nadu was the corrupt but popular government under the aegis of Chief Minister MGR, a key practitioner of populist discourse. Because populism serves as a palliative rather than offer a remedy to the problems faced by the state, when the palliative wears off, the state unleashes its coercive power to suppress dissidents. In the 1980s, the visibility of the state’s shortcomings and its resort to violence led to a loss of legitimacy that found filmic expression in the conventions of the “AYM” genre. Furthermore, when these films are reexamined through oppositional readings, it becomes apparent that the genre’s cinematic codes appropriated the same populist discourse to the extent that even Rajinikanth, the angry hero himself, later became ascribed with extra-cinematic political potential. Such a circular and ambivalent relation to state functioning amalgamates fantasy and reality in a way that characterizes Tamil cinema.
A caveat: I am not offering here a sociological study of film but am attempting to use popular film texts as historical evidence. While it might buttress my analysis to include data on specific mass audience responses to these films, such data is not available. And so I cannot provide a definitive end to the study of the “AYM” genre in Tamil cinema but hope to offer a fresh perspective on a hitherto unexamined political/cultural phenomenon.