The Tamil Villain

Karthick RM thinks it’s time we paid more attention to the villain in Tamil cinema.

12 min read

“The evil, the unfortunate, the exceptional man too shall have his philosophy, his rights, his sunshine!”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

The assumption that monstrosity and humaneness are antagonistic entities is the plague of commonsensical discussions on the nature of evil. The conventional mind is most comfortable with simplistic binary depictions of good and evil. Popular cinema rarely attempts to represent evil in its complex sense, which is why the villain in cinema usually has no identity of his own. He exists, with his exaggerated faults, to glorify the virtues of the hero. The alternate reading is also equally valid—without the villain, the hero is just another boring commoner. The villain is an embodiment of sins, representing one fault ridiculously magnified, or a combination of many. Often, the villain in Tamil cinema is a mixture of lust, greed, wrath, pride. While the hero of popular cinema is inevitably a defender of equality, but at the same time, a first among equals, the villain rejects the ‘slave morality’ and asserts his individuality and superiority over the herd. With his contempt for moral authority, or rather, the authority of morality, the evildoer of Tamil cinema is a figure between the diabolical Miltonesque antichrist and the ritual pervert of Sade’s novels, but with the complexities of neither. He is often a simple caricature of evil.

The foes of the two key Indian epics—The Ramayana and The Mahabharata—have provided much inspiration for the characterization of the Tamil villain, but often reductively. It is telling that the title of the first movie in Tamil cinema was derived from its villain. R. Nataraja Mudaliar’s Keechaka Vadham (1916) is the story of the slaying of Keechaka, a minor character in the Mahabharata, who lusts after Draupadi and is eventually killed by Bhima. Raju Mudaliar, who plays the titular character, has the honor of being the first villain of Tamil cinema. Keechaka Vadham was the first among many movies to have villains based on Indian religion and mythology. Such movies enjoyed considerable popularity in the colonial period and in the immediate decades following independence, where the adharmic villain was seen to embody an unjust and unprincipled usurper.

Popular cinema also sought to address resentment against dominant classes in Tamil Nadu, but without any deep deliberations on the nature of the class and caste system. Kovai Ayyamuthu and TR Gopu’s Kanjan (1947) has SV Subbaiah as a wealthy landowner who lusts after his son’s lover. In the same year, ASA Swamy’s Rajakumari, incidentally the first movie to have MGR in the lead role, had Chinappa Thevar playing the role of a corrupt aristocrat. The portrayal of an immoral person with traditional authority or legal authority as a villain is a popular trope deployed in Tamil cinema. A scheming politician, a rapacious landlord, an unethical industrialist, a fraudulent priest, and a corrupt cop are figures that have been repeated over time. But to be noted here is that these individuals are portrayed as evil for perverting and abusing the power that their roles and statuses have bestowed on them; however, the perversion inherent to these roles and statuses is rarely seen.

Song book for Kanjan (1947) | Source: Reproduced from The Internet Archive

As reel villains, the very popular Nambiar and Asokan embodied corrupted power, desiring absolute power—as landlords, businessmen, gangsters. Their characterization was such that the audience may forget their vile scheming, but not their menacing laughter, smirks, and bulging eyes. These men provided inspiration for legions of filmic evil doers who would use their power and influence to challenge and threaten the nobility of the hero. The hero would triumph despite the machinations of those who abuse their power, assuring the viewer that the system is now set on its rightful path.

M.N. Nambiar as Rajaguru in Mandhiri Kumari (1950) | Illustration by NJ Milton

Adharmic villains

In a state where a radical atheist like Periyar is a key figure, it might seem paradoxical that in mainstream cinema, the religious are shown as morally upright while the irreligious are shown as villainous. Popular Tamil cinema has seen the figure of the honest religious Brahmin being harassed by unscrupulous non-Brahmin villains—Gentleman (1993) and Anniyan (2005) are two prominent examples. Tirupathi (2006) opens with a sequence where a religious procession is disrupted by a black-shirt wearing thug (black shirt is associated with Periyarist organizations), who is eventually thrashed by the hero.

On the other hand, movies inspired by atheist and communist ethos have not been radical enough in their portrayal of villainy. In films that lampoon corrupt godmen like Puratchikaaran (2000), the godman is shown to cynically exploit his position as a leader of faith to prey on the vulnerable. A similar characterization of landlords and industrialists could be seen in the supposedly pro-communist films of the 80s like Sivappu Malli (1981) and Kan Sivanthaal Man Sivakkum (1983). The bad landlord is a villain to be deposed; but the good landlord becomes the object of worship in Chinna Gounder (1992), Thevar Magan (1992) and Yejamaan (1993). In such films, good or evil is reduced to corrupt and powerful individuals and not the system as such.

Among the villains of yore, a peculiar character would be MR Radha. In a sense, his most popular movie, the Krishnan-Panju directed Ratha Kaneer (1954) could be seen as a pun on the earlier, highly successful MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar starrer Haridas (1944). In the latter, MKT plays the role of a casanova who neglects his wife and family, gets cheated of his riches by a courtesan, and turns to god and a sattvic life towards the end. The storyline of Radha’s character Mohanasundaram in Ratha Kaneer is quite similar, but instead of god, he contracts leprosy. Mohanasundaram, a debauchee and an atheist, becomes an outcast of the society owing to his disease (a metaphor for his radically different views?) and after his demise, has a statue installed in his honor. Radha, a staunch supporter of Periyar, used the medium of cinema to caricature irrational beliefs and superstitions. His roles often have a picaresque character. Rather than a vicious evildoer, we see more of the cynic who likes to lampoon predominant social morality. Known for his sarcasm and witty lines, his movies drew crowds for his presence as much as for the protagonists like MGR or Sivaji who starred with him.

Villains usually use the holes in democratic procedures to escape punishment. The hero, usually after an attempt to bring the villain to justice through legal means, eventually decides that dharma is better than democracy to dispense justice. A spate of vigilante movies in the 80s like Sattam Oru Iruttarai (1981), Naan Mahaan Alla (1984), Naan Sigappu Manithan (1985), Oru Kaithiyin Dairy (1985) and others show villains using flaws in the legal system to escape being convicted for their crimes. They are eventually hunted down by the hero, who has suffered some personal loss at their hands, and are done away with brutally. Whether the hero surrenders to the law or escapes after punishing the villain, the superiority of dharma is established. And it is little wonder that several of these vigilante movies make reference to texts like The Gita to justify the extra-judicial punishment of the evil ones. In Naan Sigappu Manithan for instance, Rajinikanth compares his work to that of Lord Krishna’s. In the cop movie Saamy (2003), the hero’s father refers to the Manu dharma, to encourage the hero to go beyond the law to uphold dharma. In its sequel, Saamy Square (2018), the cop hero is named Ramasaamy and the villain is named Raavana-pitchai. The director couldn’t think of a less subtle way to insult Periyar.

Cops and Criminals

The villains of cop movies are similar to those of the vigilante movies. Cop movies of yesteryears like En Kadamai (1964) and Thanga Pathakkam (1974) saw the cop hero, at great cost to himself, tackling the villains through means that have some veneer of legality. But later films like Kaakki Sattai (1985), Kadamai Kanniyam Kattupaadu (1987), Sathriyan (1990) and Walter Vetrivel (1993) involved villains who were too well-connected and powerful to be eliminated through legal means; thus, the cops would slightly overstep the law in order to defend it. Cop movies justify extra-judicial killing, or ‘encounters’, to punish the villain who would otherwise be unpunishable by normal legal procedures. Similar plots are used in several movies of Arjun, Vijayakanth and Sarath Kumar where the villains are ‘Pakistani terrorists’.

Of the cop movie villains from the 90s, one stands out: Nassar in Kuruthipunal (1995). The film is a remake of Govind Nihalani’s Drohkaal (1994), and a product which does much disservice to the original. Nassar plays the role of a terrorist leader, Badri. While the modus operandi of his group makes it clear that it is left-wing extremist, Badri himself tells the audience little of his ideology. Whereas in Drohkaal, Nihalani gives greater space to Bhadra (Ashish Vidyarthi) to narrate his side of the story. Kuruthipunal’s Badri is shown to be committed to violence for violence’s sake. Killing such men, brutally, is shown as the only option to the hero/state.

Gautham Menon’s police trilogy can be seen to strengthen this narrative. The villains of Kaakha Kaakha (2003), Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu (2006), and Yennai Arindhaal (2015) are men from the lower stratum of society with little or no links to state power. As menacing petty gangsters, killers and serial rapists, their viciousness is established. They use their wit and ferocity to elude the state, and the state uses greater wit and greater ferocity through its embodied agent, the hero, to execute them. All the cop heroes in Menon’s trilogy suffer personal losses at the hands of criminals, and that trauma is melodramatically exaggerated to condone the police force sidestepping that irritating business of human rights. That these movies were released at a time when encounter killings were rampant in the state is significant. The popularity of Menon’s cop films in ‘A centers’ shows the increasing desire among the urban middle and upper classes for a security state. Quite aptly, Menon states his Manichean vision through his lead character in Yennai Arindhal, that there is a clear line that divides good from evil. The police-state is good and on the other side are the undesirable elements of society from its underclass.

Femme Fatales

Women as villains require a special mention. One of the earliest female villains would be the character of Urvasi, played by Anjali Devi, in Marmayogi (1951). Urvasi is a courtesan who usurps the throne with the help of her lover, and rules tyrannically. Dethroned by the king’s children in the end, she loses her power and her life. A similar villain appears in Manohara (1954) as Sivaji Ganesan’s step-mother, an enchanting temptress corrupting the hero’s father, as opposed to the submissive moral mother figure. The female villain can be a loose woman who uses her wiles to corrupt or destroy. Alternatively, she can also be an independent and inflexible woman who seeks to dominate. To give three prominent examples, all from Rajinikanth movies, we have the domineering mother-in-law figure played by Srividya in Mappillai (1989), the arrogant industrialist wife Vijayashanthi in Mannan (1992), the jilted lover Ramya Krishnan in Padayappa (1999). These women end up being disciplined by the hero, and where impossible, are done away with.

But things are changing, albeit very slowly. In Aaranya Kaandam (2010), an initially innocuous woman character who is abused by her gangster husband gains the sympathy of his acolyte and ends up having an affair with him. Her true colors are revealed in the end when she is responsible for both their deaths and escapes with a stash of money, without any remorse. Another such film would be Sarabham (2014), whose plot is greatly inspired by the Japanese film Game (2003). In this film, the female villain does not conform to any of the rules of Kollywood’s ideal of a ‘chaste woman’, kills her own sister and father, does drugs and alcohol, but nevertheless wins over the protagonist in the end and lives happily ever after. Aaranya Kaandam and Sarabham are the rare Tamil films that do not have moral judgments on what an ideal Tamil woman should be; they are pretty much in the grey zone when it comes to questions of good and evil in its characters.

The Rise of the Anti-Hero

Generally, attempts at showing the grey zone of morality in Tamil cinema have involved characterization of the protagonist who starts off as an antihero and eventually turns good, often owing to an intervention of a female. Just as Raskolnikov had his Sonya, the stock character of the whore with a heart of gold, to convert him to the moral path in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, so too does the protagonist of Thappu Thalangal (1978). This controversial film of K. Balachander had Rajinikanth playing a hired thug, who is reformed after Saritha, in the role of a commercial sex worker, enters his life. The cruel twist in the plot is that the reform is never fulfilled to perfection and society pushes them back to where they came from.

Later movies were more forgiving towards anti-heroes who wanted to reform. Films like Dharmathin Thalaivan (1988), Pudhiya Paadhai (1989), Dheena (2001) had petty crooks and gangsters converting to the good side under the influence of a woman, inevitably an upper class one. Besides catering to a subaltern masculinist fantasy of sexually conquering the upper-class woman, it also seeks to contain the subaltern male in the process of celebrating his virility. In Pudhiya Paadhai, an affluent woman is raped by the protagonist, a thug-for-hire from the slums. She then marries him, makes him see the error of his ways, rechristens (or Hinduizes?) him rather aptly as Seetharaman. Following this, he becomes a wage-labourer, integrated into decent mainstream society. The antihero of these films is set off on a path to heroism facing several obstacles, but ultimately resolving them within the established moral and social order.

The movies that have ventured most into the grey zone of morality have been the ones where the lines between hero, antihero and villain are blurred[1]. Such cinema, rare in Kollywood, does not dwell on moral binaries, but presents the ambiguity of morality to the audience. Pudhupettai (2006) has Dhanush playing a character who would have been the villain hunted by the hero-cop in a Gautham Menon film. Kokki Kumar, a youth from a Chennai slum, begins his career in crime as a drug peddler and eventually becomes a feared local gangster who ruthlessly eliminates rivals and traitors. Further, Kokki Kumar kills his own father, forcibly marries his friend’s sister and rapes her. The usual Tamil story would have seen him change for the better owing to the goodness of his wife and repent for his crimes. Else, he would be punished by divine or state intervention. But that doesn’t happen here. He kills more adversaries remorselessly and is rewarded with a promising political career in the climax.

In the heist film Mankatha (2011), Ajith Kumar plays Vinayak Mahadev, a corrupt cop. He swindles the father of his naïve girlfriend, betraying her trust and ditching her without regrets. He then eliminates those who helped him in the heist and fakes his own death to escape with the stolen cash to a foreign country. It is later revealed that the straightforward cop Prithviraj who was supposed to have killed Vinayak is in cahoots with him—ironically, this role is played by Arjun who has fought such corrupt characters in several of his uber-patriotic films in the past! The film ends with an incorruptible police officer being executed by Vinayak. Other recent films like Pizza (2012) and Kuttrame Thandanai (2016) have also shown protagonists as cheats and cons who more or less get away with their crimes. Also remarkable is the Tarantinoesque Jigarthanda (2014), a film about making a film with a gangster. The brutal villain is neither killed nor reformed, but is transformed by cinema, the director’s homage to the redemptive power of art.

The Vijay Sethupathi starrer Soodhu Kavvum (2013) is about a gang that kidnaps people to extort money, with a comic touch. All hell breaks loose when they kidnap the son of a politician who has a reputation of being inflexible and incorruptible. The son, however, shares none of the ideals of his father and becomes party to his own kidnapping. A straightforward but vicious trigger-happy policeman—that is, a character much idealized by Tamil cop movies—is let loose on the trail of the kidnappers. But in the course of attempting to finish them off via encounter, he shoots himself accidentally. The kidnappers go scot-free, the honest politician father is sacked from his party, and his wily son inherits a plum post. The perfectly honest politician who is uncompromising against those who are considered ‘anti-national’ and the straightforward cop who cares little for considerations of human rights have been the ideals of mainstream Tamil cinema for decades now. That recent movies like Soodhu Kavvum are subjecting them to parody offers one some faith in democracy in these troubled times.

This is not to suggest the demise of the hero. The Star System of Tamil cinema ensures the steady production of the hero-centric films of Rajini, Ajith and Vijay. However, these can no longer be taken for granted. The changing times, especially the crisis in political narratives, also finds reflections in films which defy conventional narratives of good and evil. The story of the hero is no longer stable or secure. As the glitter of heroism fades, the antihero draws attention to the shadows, to the secession of darkness from light. After being repressed for a century, the villain deserves his own film.

Further Reading

[1] For a discussion of dystopian themes in recent Tamil cinema, see Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai. Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema. New Delhi, Sage, 2015, pp. 272-288.

[2] Remembering a pioneer: The first silent South Indian feature film, “Keechaka Vadham”, was produced by R. Nataraja Mudaliar, who is sadly forgotten today. Written by Randor Guy, published in The Hindu on May 9, 2002. Accessed on October 26, 2020.

About the author

Karthick Ram Manoharan is Marie Curie Research Fellow at the University of Wolverhampton where he is working on the political thought of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy. He is the author of Frantz Fanon and co-editor of Rethinking Social Justice. Cinema is as necessary to him as food and water. Sometimes, he thinks that Kurosawa is a god.

About the artist

Nassar John Milton Raj started his career as a graphic designer, and is now a senior art director. He has always enjoyed art and illustration and he believes every day teaches him something new. He has experience in many domains, but the rush of holding a pencil in his hand is always special. As a self-taught illustrator, he appreciates feedback from everyone who comes across his work. Find his work on Behance.

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