Thinking about Tamil cinema: Feminism, Messianism, and Marx

I recently watched the Tamil/Telugu movie Bahubali 2, and maybe it’s just that I was reading a book on Jewish ethics before I watched the film, but I now have a new theory: Tamil cinema is deeply messianic. To be messianic is to do with the coming of the messiah, a religious savior, who signals the end of human time. In this post, I want to think through why I think Tamil cinema can plausibly be thought of as messianic, how its messianism is distinct from typical Abrahamic versions, and the social implication of all of this.

I. In typical Abrahamic accounts, the messiah comes forth when certain conditions are met, to restore order to the world. For Judaism, it will be a king from the bloodline of David who will birth the messianic age, a time where “there will be no hunger or war, no jealousy or rivalry. For the good will be plentiful, and all delicacies available as dust.The entire occupation of the world will be only to know God… the people Israel will be of great wisdom; they will perceive the esoteric truths and comprehend their Creator’s wisdom as is the capacity of man.” For Christianity, at least going by the Book of Revelation, the evil of the Antichrist and all sorts of other villainous entities will be defeated and earth will be replaced by a new Heaven.

I suggest that the vast majority of Tamil films can in fact be placed within a framework analogous to this. You always have a male protagonist (the “hero”) who is portrayed as deeply respectful of his family and community. You need to be careful though, no one likes a goody two shoes. So the hero can be shown as breaking some social norms, but only in defense of other social norms. So in Bahubali, the titular characters does break some norms (eg: breaking and carrying a sacred Shiva Lingam, opposing his mother/queen in court) but only in response to other moral norms like respect for his mother, or to uphold a vow. So the moral integrity of the protagonist is never in serious question for the audience. In addition, the film hero is always portrayed as being all-powerful, typically in fighting prowess. There might be others who come close to the hero in their skill, but this is merely to maintain dramatic tension. Ultimately the hero will have to triumph. By exercising these two qualities, it seems to me that the Tamil film hero is a paradigmatic messiah, delivering the poor, victimized masses from the trampling foot of the wicked, and eventually establishing a utopian community. And at the end of the movie, the hero triumphs and time comes to a standstill in a “happy ever after”.

II. What sort of utopia is established? One aspect of tamil cinema that has always annoyed and bored me is that there’s a fixed set of tropes that are constantly deployed in every movie. The hero has to be male in a very particular mould. You’re allowed to have wives who are also good at fighting, but it needs to be unambiguously shown that the man is superior to the woman in skills. The hero will also need to be devoted to his parents, especially his mother. By making the hero relatable and good, we’re meant to identify with him. He becomes a symbol of our values, attacks on him become trials on us, and his victory is then a triumph of our way of life. Our traditions and identities can now reassert themselves now that they have vanquished the challengers. And so you have moderation victorious against greed, piety victorious against narcissism. Sometimes the villain is coded gay or transgender, and in the process other anxieties can be dealt with too by their defeat.

If we were inclined to feminist analysis, here is where we point out that certain narrow gender norms are constantly being reproduced by this process. By constantly replaying the same narrative, this particular story about the patriarchal male is made to seem natural and inevitable. Different stories (for example where the woman is the unambiguously better fighter) will expose that this narrative isn’t necessary, that people can act and think outside what they usually know. People who make choices considered unconventional can be supported instead of belittled and torn down, if only the common imagination can be expanded.

While I’m not unsympathetic to such an analysis, it doesn’t quite capture all of what’s going on. What is seen as an attempt to make certain power dynamics appear natural, can alternatively be seen as attempts to save civilization from chaos.

To see this, consider this Jewish digression: although most Jewish commandments are meant to apply only to the Jewish people (since they’re the ones who have entered into a covenant with God), the set of seven Noahide laws are meant to apply to all human beings. According to some sources, this is because these are those rules that make man human. These are what render man morally intelligible. It shapes flesh’s multiple potentialities into order and civilization. To embody these rules is to be human. Coming back to Tamil cinema, I submit that the patriarchal gender order plays a similar role for most people. To be human is to belong to a family, and embody specific relational roles. It is to be a son or a daughter, a brother or a sisten, and then a parent, and then an elder. These are roles saturated by cultural norms and expectations, and by occupying these positions you are intelligible to others and to yourself. This intelligibility isn’t something you know in your mind once and for all, though. It contains social scripts that constantly need to be performed. Deviation from it puts the system at risk of decoherence. And if you can’t know yourself, what can you do?

With this in mind, it becomes completely unsurprising that the same norms are parroted in film- a populace with coherent norms gets to experience their way of life threatened in the figure of the film’s hero, and then reestablished at the end. And all of this happens in the safe space of cinema. This is the same sort of logic that gets people to watch horror movies- you get to enjoy yourself vicariously overcoming threats to your self both physical and to your emotional core, all from safety.

Utopia then, for the average tamil cinema go-er, is a time when their lives and that of others makes sense and flourish without being threatened by outside forces. This isn’t to say the feminist analysis is wrong. These are both competing descriptions of the situation, each emphasising certain features. The very presence of the feminist critique suggests that at least some people aren’t happy with the common ideal, for end times and in the present.

On a tangent, the constant presence of a small set of tropes should worry us about the sort of people who will get produced by the system. Unless people read broadly and consume different sorts of culture, they will have neither concepts nor the ability to apply them to the myriad situations they will eventually confront. People will then grow up with an inability to think about themselves and others in any serious way outside of a few platitudes. This is a very serious problem, and inimical to the formation of adults capable of serious thought.

III. Although Marx was an avowed atheist, he wouldn’t have been too sympathetic to the New Atheism movement. To just obsessively debate the question of whether God exists is simply an abstract exercise of little importance by itself. Instead, we will need to study the role religion plays in people’s lives and ask what needs is it fulfilling, or rather claiming to fulfill? That is how we should understand religion.

In a similar vein, we should look at the single theme constantly being repeated in Tamil film and ask, why is messianism so appealing to these people? I suggest that the constant need to see all-powerful heroes who restore morality and saves the victimised masses is an indication of a deep alienation of people. The majority of people lack financial resources and an almost-comprehensively corrupt government alienates them from political power.

But if this was purely a matter of lacking power, why not just adopt a pure power fantasy? Why not have cultural forms where they have super powers which they can use however they want? Why are the films so heavily moralised? A part of the story is surely simply a lack of imaginative capability. As pointed out above, this is how people see what it means to be human. Power for them is simply being able to embody this narrow ideal. But another relevant aspect is the problem of evil.

The classical problem of evil arises from Christian theology, but a generalised version of it can be thought about outside the Christian context. The problem arises because most moral systems practised by people implicitly assumes that if people do what’s moral, ie., live as humans are supposed to, then they will have good or at least not terrible lives. However, they then see that people who are good actually do experience profound tragedy. People are now in a bind: to admit that bad things can happen to good people is to throw the entire system into disarray. Why be good if bad things can happen to you anyway? But to give up goodness is not just to plunge their identities into chaos, it is to be forced to come to terms with just how bleak and powerless their lives actually are.

People can neither deny the suffering of good people, but neither can they accept it. In the midst of this bind, comes messianic film. The all-powerful hero is one of the people, one of those suffering. But unlike them, he has power. He will vanquish all those who distress them and finally allow them to live their lives are they should. Messianism in tamil cinema is then the ultimate power fantasy for a powerless people. Marxist critique would want to do away with these delusions so that people can finally see the truth, and seize power. Marx’s writing on religion seems pertinent here:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun.

A lot depends on how likely you think revolution is, and how successful it would be in alleviating people’s problems. If in fact nothing can be done to address their problems, then it might be kinder to let people enjoy their illusions. But if there’s a chance for real change…well.

And this isn’t an analysis of film alone. The idea of culture is invoked time and again by different communities, but we can see at least two distinct ways it can be used. The first is to mobilize a narrative about the past to justify actions in the present. Although fascists do this, we can also imagine more benignly modern Greeks drawing on ancient Greece as motivation to be courageous. But a second use of culture is to use a narrative about the past to obscure the fact that the present is awful. This use can be thought of as a sort of “living in the past”. Just how much is Tamil culture invoked as a matter of pride, and how much it is invoked so that we don’t have to face up to how awful most of our lives actually are, is as far as I’m concerned, an open question.

Ultimately, the point I want to make here is narrow enough: everything needs to be thought about. Even movies and culture that seems superficial might have much to tell us, if only we know how to listen.


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