Hypermasculine heroes, dripping with rage, aggression and moral ambiguity, are striking box office gold. Neelima Menon writes.
THE large open ground in front of the church is teeming with families in their Sunday best, eager to partake in the food and festivities. It’s a pleasant scene, until a few miscreants spoil the day. The hero’s father is hurt in the fracas, which is the cue for the former to unleash the first of many (fist) fights. A jab, an uppercut, some pulsating background music — and the RDX game has begun.
If RDX had to be condensed into one punchline (pun intended), it would be: “If you mess with me, you’d better be ready for the consequences”. That punchline recurs in a vicious loop throughout the movie. So there is a history of violence and vengeance that triggers still more violence and vengeance. Three young men — certainly not of calm disposition, and who would rather let their fists do the talking — find themselves in a mess. Their circumstances stem partly from confusion and partly from their own doing. Be that as it may, the damage is done and retaliation has to follow.
That may sound like a premise of your typical masala potboiler, but what makes RDX work is its appeal to an aspirational generation of youngsters who are enthralled by the sight of testosterone-fuelled men fighting to flex their egos and aggression. It is about young men who are more sensitive to threats to their fragile masculinity. Even if the story is done to death (men fighting to save their families from adversaries) what works is perhaps the packaging and the timely action set pieces. RDX’s narrative often falters when it comes to emotional heft and dialogues but it gets the adrenaline-charged stunts on point.
Narratives driven by male egos have always had takers in cinema from South India, especially when done right. But of late, there seem to be more takers for the Lokesh Kanagaraj universe. In Vikram, there are at least four beheadings, and plenty of blood, gore and carnage. Most of this slaughter business is divided equally between the “heroes” and the “villains”. That was already evident in Lokesh’s Kaithi but in Vikram, his men have a gargantuan appetite for mindless violence. Every bloody massacre is juxtaposed with celebratory background scores, leading the sizable male audience into a frenzy.
It would be fair to say that the archetypal hero imagery has taken a severe beating off late. Leave aside shades of grey, we’re now operating within the spectrum of black. Take Jailer, which had Rajinikanth playing Muthuvel Pandian, a retired jail superintendent out to wreak havoc on his son’s abductors. So you have a Basha-esque narrative that has a domesticated Pandian playing with his grandson and quietly submitting to his wife’s bullying till his son’s abduction forces him out of his peaceful exile. Once Pandian gets down to business, he spreads his network far and wide, linking himself with people involved in nefarious activities. There is Mathew (Mohanlal) who smuggles guns and Narasimha (Shivarajkumar), a reformed criminal who nurtures sharpshooters at home.
Ironically, the narrative lionises Pandian as this righteous cop who always took the route of veracity. But in a flashback, meant to create a larger-than-life aura around Pandian, he clearly comes across as cold-blooded and ruthless, hacking off a jailbird’s ears. For this, Pandian is propped up as a hero and saviour, and his wife keeps harping on his honesty.
Considering it has already crossed the 500-crore-mark at the global box office, the moral Jailer propagates is deeply disturbing. It not only blurs the lines separating good and evil but also ends up extolling Pandian’s abject criminal deeds. When was the last time one saw Rajinikanth decapitate a man and then stare at the severed head? When did Rajinikanth last trivialise gory violence to this extent? His movies always had heroes saving villages, heroines and those in need. But Pandian discredits that image. What’s more, the audience seems to be loving it. Both Pandian and his adversary Varman share the same crime record, in theory; just that the former is played by Rajinikanth.
Abhilash Joshiy’s King of Kotha certainly borrows notes from Vikram and Jailer, in terms of the protagonist Raju’s murderous rampages. For Dulquer Salmaan who played a serial killer in last year’s Chup (dir. R Balki), Raju is still uncharted territory. DQ’s Kotha graph is sketched in two stages: there is the younger, brash, and aimless Raju, who believes in letting his fists do the talking. When he is betrayed by his lover and best friend, Raju goes into exile, only to return as an extreme, irredeemable version called Raju Madrasi. The older Raju is mostly stoic but can plunge a knife calmly into a person’s heart — while holding their gaze.
But this Raju is King Of Kotha’s hero — one who is as morally dodgy as the supposed antagonist of the story, Kannan Bhai. Raju’s reasons for entering the world of crime required better writing, rather than just being an offspring of a small-time thug. In sharp contrast, Kannan is more focused and it is his obsession with his lover that’s pushing him against the wall. So in the end, except for the shallow thrills one gets in watching Dulquer’s swag on screen, Raju hardly moves us.
Though Prithviraj Sukumaran’s Lucifer has no ostensible show of blood and gore, the film’s hero (played by Mohanlal) is seemingly the kingpin of a global smuggling ring. The narrative creates a duality to soften this blow by giving him another identity as well: a philanthropic politician who ultimately saves the day. Though the film doesn’t shy away from feting Stephen, at least he is acknowledged to be morally ambiguous and is self-aware enough to accept he isn’t seeking messiah status. After all, as the character says: “The fight is between the bigger evil and lesser evil.”
In last year’s Kaduva, Kaduvakkunnel Kuriyachan (Prithviraj) sets the ball rolling for the ongoing feud between him and a cop by passing an insensitive remark about the latter’s disabled son and humiliating his mother in church. But the film ends up celebrating Kuriyachan’s approach when the cop is revealed to be a crude, insensitive, cocky villain who doesn’t deserve any better.
Beyond these instances, there have been a lot of narratives centred on male hyper-aggression over the past few years — albeit in different packaging. What differentiated them was their rootedness and smart writing. There was Thallumala that had a group of boys from Malabar indulging in mindless brawls, but was irrationally and entertainingly staged. Or the bunch from Angamaly (Angamaly Diaries) who ate, drank, and fought to retain their territories and egos; two men (Ayyappanum Koshiyum) from different socio-economic milieus who — after the initial class-caste battle — engage in the tiresome clash of egos; or Mahesh (Maheshinte Prathikaram), a small-town guy who challenges a stranger who’d humiliated him, to fight.
At this moment though, stories brimming with fragile masculinity and inflated male egos, anger, aggression and violence are the flavour of the season. This explains the success of Jailer, Vikram and RDX. That such films are all about the big screen experience is only half the truth.