Tamil cinema is mostly built around a hyper masculine, superhero male character. He might be a policeman, politician, local rowdy, feudal lord, smuggler, college student or even a middle-class working individual. But irrespective of that, the character has to possess certain masculine traits.
Almost all male actors make their attempt to fit into this superhero mould. Because it is believed to be the most marketable and saleable image across the state and therefore makes perfect economical sense. The downside of this is that the hyper masculine male characters are often too violent, misogynist and position themselves aggressively against the female characters in the movie. This, unfortunately, does have a toxic effect on the young impressionable male crowd who make up for the chunk of the theatre-going population.
There has been lately increased criticism against these masculine-centric movies from various quarters. Actors like Rajinikanth, Vijay, Dhanush, Surya, Karthi and Siva Karthikeyan, among others have been criticised for the hyper-masculine nature of their movies. But it also seems amusing how some actors and their movies are often exempted from such criticism.
Last week, actor Madhavan’s VikramVedha released. He plays an encounter specialist in the movie. This made me curious and I tried revisiting and understanding his movies.
The Brahmin-Savarna masculine man
Between 2001 and 2004, Madhavan positioned himself as the aggressive, masculine Brahmin-Savarna man. In Minnale (2001), Madhavan plays a vegetarian Brahmin who stalks the woman he likes and fraudulently impersonates the man she is engaged to. In addition, the character stereotypes mechanical engineering students as those oozing with machismo. In Run (2002), he hails from Srirangam (the town has a large chunk of Vaishnavite Brahmin population) and plays the angry hero who easily resorts to violence. In LesaLesa (2003), he plays Deva Narayanan, an angry professor who indulges in violence against ‘goon-like’ students, in order to protect the educational institution where his father, grandfather and several “mahaans” have studied. In Aethirree (2004), he is Subramani who pretends to be a don called ‘Bottle’ Mani and helps a Mylapore (primarily a Brahmin locality in Chennai) family get rid of their bachelor tenants.
Experiments with non-Savarna masculinity
However, the period between 2004 and 2006 saw a deliberate repositioning by Madhavan. He made attempts to play someone belonging to the intermediate/lower castes.This was coupled with a surge in the hyper-masculinity of his characters. In AyudhaEzhuthu (2004), he is a wife beating, remorseless henchman who works under a political bigwig. His violent action even extends to his other family members and friends. In the Seeman-directed movie Thambi (2006), Madhavan not only plays the rebellious angry man but also lectures on the importance of using violence to counter violence.
However, this image makeover didn’t go well for him. Madhavan himself mentioned in several interviews about how his wife did not like the role he played in AyudhaEzhuthu and that he wouldn’t pick such roles anymore. His attempt in Thambi was a disaster because Madhavan couldn’t exactly pull a rural-based role. Plus, he really took ‘overacting’ to an unbearable level in this one.
In his earlier movies, he was able to combine hyper-masculinity with a certain sophistication and perform well. But when it came to earthy rural roles, he simply failed.
Return of the Brahmin Superman
After this brief experimental period, Madhavan came back to doing what comes naturally to him. He returned as the self-righteous, angry and violent Brahmin in Evano Oruvan (2007) who sets out to correct every small and big evil thing in society. One could easily draw a parallel between his character and Parashurama, one of Vishnu’s avatars. And in Vettai (2012), he is the timid Thirumurthy, who eventually finds his masculinity and rises to the occasion to (physically) fight his enemies.
After a break from the Tamil movie scene for a while, he made a comeback in 2016 as the aggressive boxing coach in IrudhiSuttru (2016). Madhavan’s character is introduced as someone who asks the woman he is making out with to get out in the middle of the act. Later, in the pretext of identifying talent and coaching a young girl from the fishing community, he pushes her around (literally and otherwise) and dictates her life decisions. In VikramVedha (2016), Madhavan plays an encounter specialist Vikram, for whom killing gangsters is the morally right thing to do.
Invisibilising Savarna Hyper-masculinity.
When we look at Madhavan’s acting career as a whole, it is quite obvious that he has positioned himself as the hyper-masculine Brahmin-Savarna man except for the brief period between 2004 and 2006. While most other actors who play characters belonging to intermediate castes with hyper-masculine overtones are heavily criticised, it is surprising why Madhavan isn’t. Because no amount of online search could take me to any serious criticism of the violent masculine nature of Madhavan’s works. Even those who write often on movies through a gender equity lens seemed to have generously exempted Madhavan from any criticism. This makes one acutely curious.
To state an example, Madhavan’s Minnale and Siva Karthikeyan’s Remo (2016) are very identical movies. Both are about the hero stalking an already engaged woman, impersonating another person and emotionally forcing the woman to accept the marriage proposal. While Remo was heavily critiqued for its problematic content, Minnale still remains a cult romantic movie.
Why is Madhavan’s problematic choice of roles or his movies not critiqued? Is it because he is a handsome actor? Or could it be because he brings with him a certain urban sophistication? Or is it because of the upper middle class and upper caste location of the actor and the roles he plays? Why is the hyper-masculinity and machismo of these Brahmin-Savarna characters invisibilised? Why is he still called a ‘chocolate boy’ when his movies are certainly of an aggressive kind? Do the Savarna audience problematise hyper-masculinity only when the male character on screen represents a non-Savarna caste? Is the hyper-masculinty of Savarna men an adorable thing? I think these are questions that those interested in Tamil cinema should ponder and reflect about. The answers might not be too difficult to find.
The article has been updated to reflect that R Madhavan played the role of Thirumurthy in Vettai.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @rajamanirajesh.