There is a concept in South Indian cinema, specifically Tamil cinema, known as "class vs. mass." The idea being that some films are made for urban, presumably more upwardly mobile cinema-goers in great population centers like Chennai and Madurai, and are made for "class" audiences who see films predominantly in large multiplex auditoriums.
Other films are made for more rural, and theoretically less sophisticated, film fans in the countryside who will typically have one single screen cinema in their town; these are the "mass" audiences. The divide is fairly great, but the films that land on either side aren't always depicting the audience at which they are aimed.
For example, two years ago in 2011, there was a lot of chatter about the "mass vs. class" showdown at Diwali between AR Murugadoss' 7aam Arivu, starring Suriya, and Velayudham, starring Vijay. The former was made by a filmmaker who has frequently attempted high concept films, and occasionally accomplished his goals. Murugadoss' Ghajini (also starring Suriya in it's Tamil incarnation) was a massive hit that led to the film not only being remade in Hindi -- in that version, it broke box office records -- but the Bollywood remake was also helmed by Murugadoss. 7aam Arivu, about a circus performer who discovers that he shares a bloodline with Bodhidharma, the inventor of martial arts, and becomes involved in a web of international intrigue and terrorism, was a "class" film depicting modern, urban living with hints of Tamil history and patriotism thrown in.
Velayudham, on the other hand, was very much a "mass" film. Vijay, also known as Ilayathalapathy VIjay (Ilayathalapathy means "Young General"), is the ideal mass hero. He has average looks, average build, and average talent, but he fights for what is right and in every one of his films he is morally incorruptible and upstanding. These heroes are the pulse of mainstream Tamil cinema. While Suriya has his fair share of "mass" films under his belt, he straddles the line between the two worlds, while Vijay is forever locked into the mass hero stereotype.
Like most of the world's mainstream cinema, India in general and south India in particular are in the business of wish fulfillment. In America, this concept usually boils down to impossibly good looking people solving complex problems. In India, however, the stakes are higher and the thresholds lower. Suriya's Singam 2 is a troubling reminder of just how different Tamil and south Indian culture is from other places in the world. That is not a condemnation of the industry or the people, just an observation based upon this film and the lengths to which it is willing to go to gain the moral high ground and entertain its audience. This is a decidedly "mass" film, one that addresses and revels in rural Tamil Nadu's culture and problems.
The original Singam was the story of police officer Duraisingam (Suriya), an officer in Chennai who takes on a local crime boss with nearly superhuman strength and intelligence. The film strings together a number of thrilling action sequences and a charismatic performance from Suriya in order to make it one of the most entertaining Tamil films of 2010. The sequel follows Duraisingam in a secret mission to shut down gun smugglers in the rural coastal town of Tuticorin. While undercover as a school military coordinator, he unearths a bigger plot involving international drug lords and the typical police collusion with criminals found in most south Indian films revolving around police matters. Singam must step in and shut down the drug trade before his hometown comes under the thumb of the drug dealers and vicious gangs.
So far, so good. There is nothing unusual about any of that. Tamil and Telugu films often tackle this subject. With great swaths of the population involved, either as victims or aggressors, in police and political corruption, the subject is an easy target for filmmakers. It is the approach to the material that is still, even with dozens of these films behind me, shocking and occasionally off-putting. The filmmakers, and by extension the appreciative audiences, seem to condone reckless violence, vigilante justice, and in this case abhorrent racism in the service of justice. Perhaps it is just a result of my having lived in politically correct America for my entire life, but I think that many audiences outside of the Tamil culture would probably be shocked at what they see here.
The lead villain, an African drug lord named Danny, has spent the last 12 years of his life on the sea in international waters keeping authorities at bay. For some unknown reason, he decides that the best reason to disembark from his yacht for the first time in over a decade is to attend a party held by a shipping mogul in Tuticorin. As one might expect, it doesn't go so well and Danny is arrested, but not without drawing the ire of the impossibly patriotic Duraisingam by insulting Indian police and their virility.
The rage that seethes in Duraisingam against this foreigner brings on some of the most shocking racism I've seen in a film in a while. Danny is referred to as both an "African monkey" and an "African animal" by Singam (the hero of the film and the person with whom we are supposed to side), without missing a beat. Singam isn't an anti-hero, he's a hero's hero. He's the man, everyone in town looks up to him, it is his moral compass that the city abides.
This is a troubling ideal. I'll let slide the fact that in the film the only path to order, in Singam's eyes, is martial law. I'll let slide the fact that he routinely executes criminals in the streets as a method of intimidation. I'm even tempted to let slide the condoning of corporal punishment of school aged children as Singam informs a parent that if the teacher doesn't beat their child into submission now, it'll be the police beating the child later. It is the radical stripping of humanity from the villain not for his deeds, but for his ethnicity that stuck out. Everything else is understandable from the viewpoint of a frustrated population who is sick of rampant corruption and crime, but this is completely without context.
If only the racism stopped with Danny, but it does not. * Indian movie stars are often made up in layers upon layers of makeup to lighten their complexions; however, not all actors are so "lucky." If you see a dark skinned man in a south Indian film, he is one of two things, either (a) a thug or "goonda," or (b) a servant. The case in Singam 2
that stuck out most was that of a servant in the family of Duraisingam's fiancee, Kavya. Though any number of goons would've qualified. Santhanam, a Tamil actor frequently cast as comic relief in films, belittles one dark skinned man after another to the approving laughter of my cinema audience, not to mention the "slant-eyes" he makes when pretending to be Chinese when avoiding a team of goons on his tail.
This goes completely unnoticed in native Indian film reporting and criticism; I'm not entirely sure why.
I don't think that writer/director Hari or Suriya are the venomously racist people that the characters on screen portray. Perhaps the only way that Hari could think of to convey Singam's rage at Danny was to have him reduce the villain to a subhuman entity with words. I really don't know. The fact of the matter is that it makes me uncomfortable when this is the hero, the role model, the ideal to which cinema audiences are looking.
The film itself is no great shakes, with brain-jarringly erratic cinematography, often in the hands of Go-Pro cameras attached to all manner of vibrate-y moving objects, embarrassingly terrible English line readings, and numbingly unexciting dance numbers, Singam 2
is not a good film. However, even if it's not good, does it have to be so fucking mean?
* UPDATE 7/10: Sentence removed for outdated information
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