The following piece was written by Chandan Gowda, one of our guest bloggers, in the newsletter of the Suchitra Film Society, which is the oldest film society in Bangalore. In the essay, Chandan discusses the extreme violence in Kannada movies since 1995. Chandan describes the movies as an illustration of the changing political morality of our times. This is indeed a serious issue, given the challenge of criminalisation of politics that is crippling both politics and governance in the country. Further, the description of the city and the resultant “last recourse” violence not only seek to portray the state, law and order and politicians in a particular manner, but also in some form glorify violence against all other methods of solving a problem. While it is easy to dismiss the violence and portrayal of the state as crass, vulgar and irrelevant, it is important to understand the belief systems that movies can engender and sustain. In fact, an important topic of discussion in Bangalore is the discernible increase in intolerance in day to day public interactions. Instances of people reacting violently to incidents like minor accidents, identification of objectionable public behaviour (e.g., speaking on the mobile phones in a theatre or a movie hall) are on the rise.
I set out Chandan’s essay below:
Referring to her role in Avva (2008) in a television interview, Shruti, the Kannada actress, said: “Her sharp tongue itself is the machhu, longu (hatchet, long sickle) in the film.” Her analogy affirms the wide popularity of what can be termed the Machhu Longu (ML) films in Kannada, all of which are set in the underworld. Om, the 1995 blockbuster, spawned a steady stream of ML films over the next decade, many of which became big hits. This short essay has been written with the following films in view: Om (1995), AK-47 (1999), Majestic (2001), Daasa (2003), Kariya (2003), Kalasipalya (2004), Jogi (2005), and Deadly Soma (2005). All of them have met with commercial success. They deserve closer study as texts illustrative of the changing political morality in our times. Sidestepping questions of their directors’ intention, their artistic merit, and their social consequences, this brief essay attempts to identify a few of the specificities marking these films.
The city unfailingly appears a dark, unattractive and dangerous place in these films. All the films are set in Bengaluru except AK-47, which unfolds in Mumbai. In AK-47, Om Puri, a police sub-inspector, remarks: “This is Mumbai. Only the gun speaks here, not the tongue.” Majestic introduces Bengaluru as a place where “people make money in the name of God.” Graphic scenes of poverty recur in the ML films: children eat leftovers found in dustbins (Majestic), a mother prostitutes herself to afford medicine for her epileptic daughter (Majestic), the hero’s mother removes used plaintain leaves in a marriage choultry (Daasa). Scenes of the city’s underbelly also contribute to the dark atmosphere: slums, beggars, pimps, prostitutes, mutton shops, poultry farms, cow-sheds, tea, kabab and omelette carts, and autorickshaw-depots.
Stark and unromantic, these depictions of poverty and the city’s underbelly enhance the diversity of city images seen in cinema.
The degenerate urban situation is being exploited by politicians, police officers, businessmen and the goons. In short, the state and law have collapsed. Democracy is in shambles and the state has little or no legitimacy left in it. In Kalasipalya, for instance, an MLA gloats that his power will let him win elections anywhere in the state, “. . . Dharwad or Davangere, Kamakshipalya or Kalasipalya.” And, the opening scene in Daasa shows the Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka agreeing to give ten crores to the Indian Prime Minister in return for the Chief Ministership.
Morality survives, if at all, among the helpless, ordinary people struggling to make a living. The ML films commonly begin in the shadow of a near-total triumph of a corrupt system. Extraneous circumstances invariably pull the hero into taking up violence and turn him into an anti-hero. The anti-heroes exhibit virtues of honesty and fair-play amidst their violent efforts to carve domains of autonomous authority within an evil system. The violence of the anti-heroes, however, is ultimately not condoned in any of the films. Punishment awaits them in the form of death or life-imprisonment. Violent means of achieving the ends of social justice continue to be morally illegitimate in these films.
The strongest criticism of the ML films has concerned their gratuitous violence. The fight sequences have been taken to a new level of description here; they are bloody, gory and detailed in a way previously not seen in Kannada films. In Daasa, the hero pours acid on his opponent’s face and watches it with fascination while everyone around him start laughing. In Kariya, after the hero strikes a person dead in a cemetery, two of his friends start dancing saying they cannot help it. Such voyeuristic treats in violence are routine in the ML films. While a discussion of the ethics of representing violence is definitely in order here, we have to also recognize that loyal fans of the ML films isolate and compare violent fight sequences from different films in this genre. In other words, the styles of representing violence rather than their literalness are often at stake behind the fans’ appreciation.
An obvious feature of the ML films is the attempt to project a cool attitude. This attitude of cool, propped up by words like “metre,” “sketch,” “macha,” and “scope,” is about gandasattva (manliness). Explicitly invoked with reference to the necessity of courage and an easy resort to violence, the cool attitude in ML films also involves being rough with women. The anti-heroes of the ML films mark a clear departure from the long cherished image of the soft-natured Kannadiga that found its most powerful expression in the figure of Rajkumar.
Another dimension of the cool attitude is the strong embrace of an intolerant Kannada identity. In Daasa, the hero chops the arm of a Rajasthani seth, who is trying to buy an orphanage, and kills him: “If someone from a god-forsaken place like you can act big, how must I, who was born here and grew up drinking Kaveri water, act? If I let you alone, all of Karnataka will be insulted.” In Deadly Soma, the evil partner who cheats Soma’s father is a Telegu speaking Reddy. Marwaris and Hindi-speaking Muslims also figure as bad characters in some of these films. This casual endorsement of violent retribution contributes to, and is a reflection of, the growing linguistic anxieties in the state.
The ML films are on the wane and do not draw the crowds like before; their narrative structure seems to have grown tired. But the genre held sway for fifteen years. A moral dismissal of these films as crass and vulgar, this essay, I hope, makes clear, is to abdicate the serious task of examining them as texts of the evolving political-moral world around us.