Nisha Susan is a writer and a founder of the feminist magazine The Ladies Finger. Previously, she co-managed Yahoo Originals, an award-winning long-form reporting and immersive storytelling destination on Yahoo News. She has been Features Editor at Tehelka magazine. She has also published short fiction with Penguin, Zubaan and n+1 magazine. More at nishasusan.com.
Spitting on Heroes: The Curious Case of Dhanush and Selvaraghavan
In movie after movie, Selvaraghavan asks: If you are a loser, can you be the hero of a movie? Nisha Susan, self-confessed manic obsessive admirer of Tamil filmmaker Selvaraghavan’s films and his portrayal of heroes and heroines, pulls off the mask of the “Chennai love story” and uncovers dark truths that possibly puzzle her further.
A few years ago, I met a young couple in Jaipur. We liked each other instantly. They were photographers who lived in Chennai. They had met as assistants to a senior photographer, hated each other, then fallen in love. Their independent work had a startling beauty and was just beginning to travel abroad. I had discovered each of their work separately. When we met for the first time at the Jaipur Literature Festival I realised they were a couple. And there they told me the story of how they’d met. Taking the future of our friendship into my hands, I asked them whether they’d liked Mayakam Enna? – a romantic movie by the unsettling Selvaraghavan; they looked so disgusted I had to laugh.
Otherwise sensible people are sometimes likely to say to me, “Oh I really like south Indian films, Rajnikanth especially.” And it is in the trajectory of a similarly foreign and exotic object—scrawny, dark, and frequently lungi-wearing—that they place Dhanush, young superstar and the hero of Mayakam Enna? My photographer friends were neither politely ignorant nor inclined to fetishise Dhanush or the character he played. And if you liked him, what do we make of you, I could imagine them thinking. What did it say about me that I like Mayakam Enna?? I wasn’t so sure myself. Only that I wanted everyone to watch it.
Mayakam Enna? (roughly Why This Delirium?), a 2011 Tamizh film, tells the story of Karthik, a young Chennai photographer and his artistic ambitions. Karthik suffers at the hands of his mentor and in the hands of his muse. He meets his future wife and they hate each other on sight. The character of Karthik is unsettling enough, and then there are all the embarrassing moments of parochialism/continuity errors/wish-fulfillment that strike a naïve note.
For instance, a major plot point is the hero’s return to genius with a photograph of an elephant in the wild—an African elephant. When did he go to Africa, smirking people in the audience asked themselves. And there’s more. The world of international photography is imagined in puzzlingly democratic terms, because when Karthik wins an international award, the ceremony is televised! His nemesis is interviewed on foreign channels by suitably obsequious white ladies, causing the audience to giggle at how ridiculous that is. Even the very unusual friend who loved the movie and watched it several times gigglingly called it the Tamizh Black Swan for its obsession with tortured, mentally unstable genius.
But what causes the utmost disgust is perhaps the violence of the movie: Karthik is so much closer to an old-style villain of Tamizh cinema, not a hero; how could anyone like him? I wonder about this as I try (again) to proselytise for Mayakam Enna? alongside this and other protagonists created by the filmmaker Selvaraghavan.
Let me tell you about two scenes in Mayakam Enna?.
The plot: Yamini (Richa Gangopadhyay) and Karthik fall in love and have to deal with the problems of being a couple in a tight-knit group of young people. Plus, Yamini (who works in an ad agency) is dating Karthik’s best friend. But halfway through the movie, they’re together and finally, Karthik also seems to be on his way to the artistic success he obsesses about.
The first scene is of their honeymoon (told through one song)—romantic in a hearty, unafraid of bodily fluids, and frankly, unprecedented way. We see the couple lying beside each other. Karthik farts in his sleep and Yamini wakes up outraged. This scene reminded me of an early episode of Sex and the City in which Carrie, in bed with Mr Big, toots audibly and is crowned with humiliation. She ducks under the sheet and Big tells her with glee to come out because it’s likely to be worse in there. This SATC sequence was a liberating pop culture moment, set up as a liberating pop culture moment.
But that’s not how the scene plays out in Mayakam Enna? Yamini chases a howling Karthik around the room, in a near-parody of the closed room, drapery-filled, pretty, pretty song sequences of Mani Ratnam’s iconic urban love stories. And even until Yamini pins Karthik down on the bed, it could be a scene from Ratnam’s Alaipazhuthey or Ayitha Ezhuthu. That is until Yamini spits a long dribble of saliva on an unresisting Karthik. It’s hard to think of anything quite comparable in any other film I’ve ever watched.
It isn’t quite a grotesque, visceral moment that you might encounter in a Korean movie like when the newly liberated Oh Dae-su eats live seafood in Oldboy. (One critic called that moment the first time he identified with a small, live octopus.) But with this spitting scene in Mayakam Enna?, what you feel is the stirrings of some odd memory, a memory set aside with the times you made out with a cousin perhaps, or when in primary school you went to the bathroom with a friend and watched her pee. You may well have trailed spit on a lover, but did you anticipate seeing it in a darkened movie theatre inside the sturdy genre of the Chennai romance? The scene reminded me of other things that other heroines do to other heroes in other Dhanush movies. No, let me correct myself – in other Selvaraghavan movies.
The rise of the skinny, cocky, oppressed, sexual Dhanush persona can be spoken about separately from Selvaraghavan’s obsessions only if you discovered Dhanush through that viral musical comet Why This Kolaveri? Otherwise you’d know that the filmmaker older brother’s trajectory is closely tied to that of the younger brother who became a superstar.
To get to the second scene that I want to describe from Mayakam Enna? I have to tell you what happens at the end of this song. At the tail end of the song sequence I described earlier, Karthik discovers that he has been betrayed. His mentor stole his work to win an award. He jumps off the balcony of the room that he and his brand-new wife had been frolicking in. There’s a finality to that sequence that made me feel almost as if the movie was over. The movie we return to after the interval evokes such a dark and faux-Gothic world that it feels like another movie altogether.
We now jump ahead a year or two. Karthik and Yamini are plunged in a dystopic version of their romance. Karthik is depressed, violent, and drunk. He has alienated all their family and incestuous circle of friends. Far from pursuing art, he even attacks innocent people who come looking for a journeyman photographer. Occasionally the old hungers flicker, but in a monstrous way. One night he wakes Yamini by shining a torch in her face, a Looking-Glass version of their first meeting on the beach at night. He asks her to pose for him, then mumbles to her to take off her clothes for the camera. When she does, he mutates again, and we hear the sounds of her screaming as he beats her. He leaves and Yamini is left stunned and scarred. It seems like Karthik cannot get any worse, any further from a hero, any further from even that fabulous Filmfare award-winning category of the ‘negative character’ or ‘anti-hero,’ but he does. This is not a Shahrukh Khan avenging the suffering of his parents by chucking Shilpa Shetty off a balcony. This is a completely unlikeable and seemingly unsalvageable man, even though Yamini persists.
It gets worse. Karthik sees his mentor turned nemesis being interviewed on a foreign television channel about his breakout work and he smashes up the TV. When Yamini runs into the living room to stop him, he kicks her aside and returns to kicking the TV. When he turns around, she is lying in a pool of blood. Karthik watches her having a miscarriage. When their friends arrive and take Yamini to the hospital, we assume it is because he called them but we never see it, we only see his passivity.
Days pass in the bloody living room where Karthik continues to sleep and awake in a near-catatonic state. Yamini returns a few nights later. He wakes to see her scrubbing her own blood off the floor. She scrubs fiercely, determined not to cry. When he makes eye contact for the first time, she glares and continues. Karthik slowly comes out of his catatonic state and whimpers in pain that he hadn’t known that she was pregnant. He folds his hands together, bows and cries, begging her to forgive him. He theatrically slaps himself and calls out to her. She weeps, unable to bear his return to consciousness. She screams wordlessly, sticks a finger to her lips, gestures that she wants to strangle him, never ever hear a word from him. She cannot forgive him. For several minutes, all we see is her crying. It is an odd frame shot over Karthik’s shoulder, as close to seeing it from Karthik’s point of view as we can without merging with him. Then she gets up and leaves, still unable to speak.
After this scene Karthik picks up the pieces of his life and tries to glue it together. He goes back to work and eventually does very well and gets the success (including a televised ceremony I mentioned earlier and an equally embarrassing ponytail) he dreamt of. Karthik and Yamini even presumably have sex because Yamini gets pregnant again.
The film has been critiqued plenty for its love-of-a-good-Indian-woman-fixes-everything narrative. As it should be. But a few things redeem this good-woman-fallen-man narrative. For instance, the scene with the unusual framing over Karthik’s shoulder that I described above which doesn’t gloss over violence as it does when used as a plot device, as done over and over again in ‘gritty’ Indian cinema and golden age American television. It shows you what Yamini feels, the hole the violence created in what was once a loving relationship. It has consequences. And most importantly, it takes time. As the camera takes time to let Yamini grieve and rage after the miscarriage, the film takes time to tell the story of the marriage after the miscarriage.
After the miscarriage, Karthik works to win Yamini’s forgiveness. She doesn’t speak a word to him for years. The movie ends with her agreeing to answer his phone call from abroad soon after he has won the ‘Oscar’ of photography. Her tentative hello is the last thing we hear. It is why I evangelise in favour of this movie, at the risk of losing friends.
Obsessed as I am with Selvaraghavan’s heroes and heroines, not just Karthik and Yamini, I sometimes mix them up. The heroes are frequently dweeby and unlikeable, and the heroines are always stoutly present to save them from themselves. And I am magically attracted to both of them, and their messy, messy insides.
Here is a scene from his first film, 2003’s Kadhal Konden (I Fell in Love). The heroine tracks down her nerdy, grimy classmate who’s been missing for a few days from college. He’s gifted, but never acquired any social skills in his poverty-stricken, orphaned childhood. He smells, they hate him, his classmates and his professors.
Divya (played by Sonia Agarwal) arrives at an address—a shack—that should startle her but only galvanises her into action. In one of the shots that follows, the hero Vinod (Dhanush) exits the room protesting that he doesn’t want to come back to college. The static camera waits in the empty room as the heroine follows him. She returns into the room and our vision—a strapping and grimly determined young woman who is hauling the protesting male protagonist out on her back, fireman style. I have never seen anything like it in the carefully calibrated physical relationships in mainstream Indian cinema where (in its simplest manifestation) male movie stars look taller than their heroines who were cast in the first place exactly for their young, modern bodies, which, unfortunately for the pre-globalisation bodies of heroes, are also tall.
As I watched more Selvaraghavan movies, I realised that the image of Divya carrying Vinod on her back is the best metaphor for the relationship between man and woman in several early Selvaraghavan movies. In Mayakam Enna?, Yamini protects and defends Karthik even when he is torturing her. Even when he is waking her up at night with a torch in her face. Even when he is beating her. Even when he shames her in public. When another man who loved her asks her to leave the madman, she viciously tells him to find a woman of his own because her husband may be crazy, but he is a genius.
In Mayakam Enna? (2011), the word ‘genius’ is thrown around quite a bit, it’s Karthik’s nickname. It is also the reason why Divya takes an interest in Vinod in Kadhal Konden, his genius with Math.
And it is the possibility of genius that is a turning point between the hero and the heroine in 7G Rainbow Colony, (2004), another Selvaraghavan movie. It is one of the early airings of this particular Selvaraghan hero prototype, only it’s not played by his brother Dhanush. In a lower-middle class neighbourhood (the eponymous Rainbow Colony) a north Indian family moves in. Kathir (Ravi Krishna) is hugely attracted to the new neighbour Anita (Sonia Agarwal, also the filmmaker’s first girlfriend and wife), but he knows that she may want nothing to do with therula kadakkara saani (shit lying on the road, to translate his self-description). She is bright, beautiful and ambitious. Even the mere fact that she doesn’t quite see him as sub-human gives him a brief jolt of self-esteem, he tells her. But Anita really ‘sees’ him when she discovers his ability to strip and re-assemble any motorcycle in sight. In this early avatar of the Selvaraghavan hero who has untold potential, the heroine’s job as guidance counsellor has never been plainer. Anita takes Kathir to the motorcycle dealer and makes a reluctant Kathir demonstrate his skills and makes sure he gets a job.
What do the heroines get from the Selvaraghavan heroes? It really isn’t clear unless it’s fulfilling their potential as angels of mercy with a side-helping of Valkyrie. In this movie, even when Anita dies, she comes back as a fleeting spirit only to inspire Kathir to aspire for upward mobility.
It’s hard to not resent Selvaraghavan’s continuous casting of extremely fair, conventionally good-looking heroines as part of the wish-fulfilment of a notoriously gender-biased and skin colour-obsessed industry. The only reason I don’t (a lot) is because unlike slews of movies where it’s oh so accidental and incidental (as it is often in mainstream Indian cinema and Hollywood), the disparity and out-of-my-league-ness of the heroine is squarely part of the story.
Selvaraghavan’s films rarely cut the hero a break. In movie after movie, Selvaraghavan asks: If you are a loser, can you be the hero of a movie? If you are a loser, do you deserve love? And can love save you from loserdom?
In Kaadal Kondein, Divya’s fireman-lifting Vinod out of the shack reaches full circle at the end of the movie. Divya is not in love with Vinod. She has a perfectly nice boyfriend Aadhi though she’s quite fond of Vinod, sympathetic about his horrific childhood, and of course, wants him to fulfil his potential. When it comes to the point when she is hanging over a cliff (as you do) holding Vinod and Aadhi precariously by each hand, she finds it hard to decide. Obviously she should let go off the violent loser who is also her friend and save her strength for her boyfriend. In the end, it is Vinod who saves her the trouble of carrying his weight any longer and smilingly lets go.
Since I had been obsessed with Selvaraghavan and how he destabilised the genre of the Chennai romance for years, I went to Chennai to interview him. I had read on the movie gossip sites that he had just broken up with wife Sonia and that he was in a relationship with Andrea Jeremiah, the heroine of his latest movie, Aayirathil Oruvan. I waited in the lobby and was then sent into his office, just as tall and pretty Andrea stalked out looking irritable. I walked in and there was the man in his darkened office, glum and shrunken on a chair.
I spoke to Selvaraghavan for a few hours. We spoke about films. We spoke about the ups and downs of his film producer father’s career, which dragged the two brothers and their two sisters all over the city depending on his changing fortunes. His father pushed him to make his first movie not out of artistic ambition but as a threat—an extremely young Selva would have to take the last round of funds his father raised and make a hit out of it. Else, the whole family would be on the streets, he was told. We spoke of how when he was three, cancer ate away one of his eyes and for years he had to live with everyone’s antipathy towards the boy with an empty socket. He then got a glass eye. He told me about losing his virginity. And all the while that we spoke, I wasn’t sure whether he was aware that I was there in the darkened room with him. I left and he remained small, neat, and gloomy.
I didn’t write that profile. I couldn’t quite figure out what I had figured out.
It was after I watched his 2013 fantasy Irandam Ulagam that the pond became less murky. Irandam is a movie that spans several dimensions and has its share of hokey CGI and purple skies that will remind you of the limbo dream worlds of the dead girl in The Lovely Bones. But Selvaraghavan gets to fully play out his obsession—I realised dimly in the movie theatre—with gender. It begins in a contemporary world where a Chennai doctor Ramya (Anushka Shetty) is fascinated by a good-looking and kind young man, Madhu (Arya). Again, Madhu’s straight-forward good looks is not incidental or accidental to the plot. Beauty never is incidental in life, as the director knows.
Here let me quote from Deepika Sarma’s essay on GoT-style south Indian fantasy films (though Irandam Ulagam preceded the trend by two years).
Ramya is working up the nerve to ask the hero Madhu out. She’s surrounded by her friends sizing the hero up from afar in unsparing detail, and the conversation goes like this. Madhu is in the background arguing with hospital patients getting feminist brownie points saying things like: How can you say Susan Rice cannot become Obama’s security advisor?
Friend 1: He seems to be very good with patients. Maybe he’s a good person?
Friend 2: Hmm. On the ‘first night’, what if he stubs a cigarette on her chest? You can’t trust these fellows. He’s fair-skinned. Would have been better if he was dark.
Friend 1: Uhh (straining to look) his butt looks alright.
Friend 2: (Grunts in agreement.) For his height we are okay, but is she? It’ll get adjusted, kind of.
Friend 1: They’re both heavy. Only two or three things will match. Others…very difficult. Better take an X ray anyway.
Friend 2: Hairstyle…not nice. Forehead’s okay. He’s a Soda Buddi; must be strong in that area. Small nose, mouth correct size. You can kiss a lot. Just need to check if it is smelly. Neck’s all right. Shoulders are big; he can take it if she hugs him. Stomach is small; not a drunkard. Hips are small. Thighs, a big drawback. Scrawny legs. On the whole, worth a try.
“On the whole, worth a try.” It’s no ringing endorsement, but it’s an affirmation of the hero’s vulnerability to being scrutinized, and of the possibility here for women to be doing the gazing, as interested parties looking to initiate romance.
Madhu and Ramya are both inclined to be nurturing – in this dimension. Ramya visits Madhu at his home and watches him exchange banter with his wheelchair-bound father, while washing his butt. All progresses in a dreamy fashion until Ramya dies in an accident.
In a parallel dimension, Madhu and Ramya, now Maravan and Varna are bristly and quarrelsome, living in a militaristic society (with some light irony, this world is imagined as one which is built around its belief in a goddess called Amma à la Jayalalitha). Varna wants to become a warrior, but women are not allowed to. Maravan is not very bright and not expected to behave well with women, but he falls in love and has to face a number of social sanctions to protect a prickly and independent Varna.
Now stay with me as I tell you that the goddess opens an intergalactic portal and a grieving Madhu appears in this GoT world. And the kindly yet studly lookalike creates havoc between Maravan and Varna. The new love triangle allows Selvaraghavan to give full reign to his desire to play with who-are-you-when-you-are-with-this-one-and-who-are-you-when-you-are-with-that-one. And for the first time he explores it with a great lightness of touch.
Even when the war-like Varna tells Madhu that he is her maadu, her tame cow. Even with the multiple deaths and losses, the filmmaker and the audience are surveying love from a distance, as reflected in the scale of the landscapes—not the filmmaker’s usual pores-and-all intimacy. Even when Madhu dies in this world, he soon reappears. This time in a quasi Arctic landscape in yet another world where a snappy Ramya/Varna pops out of a tent to ask him what he wants.
Who will Madhu be in this world? Hero or Villain. We don’t know. But it will be someone strongly inflected by who the Arctic Girl is. Watching this movie gave me the ridiculous feeling that perhaps Selva was happy for the first time. In the gossipy, pointlessly biographical way, I wondered whether it was because he had married again.
And what would that do to his interest in man, woman, the odiousness of man to woman, notions of heroism? I wait to find out.