In a year in which the Hindi film industry went for the jugular to deliver the hits, the sideshow provided by beheadings was most apt.
Bollywood in 2023 exerted body and soul to engage audiences returning to the cinemas after the coronavirus pandemic of previous years. Copious violence was among the gimmicks aimed at shocking audiences out of their perceived stupor. There was heavy-duty action (Pathaan, Jawan), Muslim-baiting (The Kerala Story), Pakistan-bashing (Gadar 2) and a literal-minded ode to masculinity (Animal). And there were beheadings – lovingly administered, vividly filmed beheadings.
The normalisation of a primitive form of punishment fit right into maximalist plots that tested the sitting power of the gluteus maximus. Usually found in historical dramas or horror films, beheadings were carried out by characters whom we were supposed to root for. Hindi films had them, as did their southern cousins.
“I will cut off his head” or “Cut off his head and bring it to me” were not empty threats in Salaar: Part 1 – The Ceasefire, 2023’s last big release. In Prashant Neel’s hackathon (dubbed into Hindi from Telugu), the jugular vein was a frequent target of assault. In one scene, Deva (Prabhas) ensures that a head rolls off the neck muscles, landing at the feet like a football.
Heroes resorted to brute force to spell out their intentions, in case audiences were missing the point. It wasn’t enough to claim an eye for an eye by reaching for a gun.
Among 2023’s greatest money-spinners is Anil Sharma’s Gadar 2, which rehashed themes from his first Gadar (2001). In the sequel, Sunny Deol’s Tara Singh is a one-man army who lays waste Pakistan’s military yet again.
At one point, Tara swings a sledgehammer at a Pakistani soldier, separating head from torso in a single blow. It’s the least we’ve come to expect from Tara, whose roar is fearsome enough to send his enemies reeling.
There’s no context to Tara’s action: beheading is simply a part of his repertoire. At least Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat (2018) is set in the thirteenth century, in which usurpers are expected to behave badly.
In Padmaavat, the future Delhi Sultanate ruler Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) emerges out of a battle with an enemy soldier’s head pinned on a spike. Later in the film, Khilji stabs his uncle as part of a power grab. Khilji takes the trouble of cutting off his relative’s head and displaying his grisly victory trophy to courtiers.
These scenes underline Khilji’s already apparent depravity. In Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Vikram (2022), when the drug dealer Rolex (Suriya) beheads an employee, he demonstrates his savagery, apart from frightening his followers into submission.
The beheadings made for effect without a complementary cause. Craniamania made total sense in a year that mimicked the Queen of Hearts from Lewis Carrol’s fantasy novel Alice in Wonderland: “The Queen was in a furious passion, and went stamping about, and shouting ‘Off with his head!’ or ‘Off with her head!’ about once in a minute.”
If there was an off-with-your-head attitude towards democratic debate beyond the movies, popular cinema too adopted a take-it-or-leave-it position. Where musicals leavened the misery of the Great Depression in America in the 1930s, the regular doses of savagery in Indian films perhaps allowed viewers to let off steam at a time when political dissent is brutally crushed.
Beheadings might be macabre, but they are visually arresting too. We were transported to the state beautifully described by British scholar Frances Larson in Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found: “The dead human face is a siren: dangerous but irresistible.”
In Srikanth Odela’s Telugu-language Dasara, which was dubbed into Hindi, a tanked-up Dharani (Naani) is hitching a ride with his friend Suri. No sooner has Suri assured his friend, don’t worry, you will be alright, I am here for you, we hear a swooshing sound. As Suri emerges out of the mist, he resembles the Headless Horseman.
Dharani’s revenge is incomplete until he kills the villain in the exact same manner. The disclaimer “Birds, cats, hens, cows, buffaloes, honey bees or any other animals were not harmed during the film shoot” clearly didn’t apply to the humans of Dasara.
“Decapitation is the ultimate tyranny; but it is also an act of creation, because, for all its cruelty, it produces an extraordinarily potent artefact that compels our attention whether we like it or not,” Larson writes in Severed. One such gruesome artefact has the face of filmmaker and occasional actor Anurag Kashyap in Aasmaan Bhardwaj’s Kuttey.
Maoist fighter Lakshmi (Konkona Sensharma) spectacularly avenges her rape in police custody. Rather than shooting Kashyap’s politician dead, Lakshmi reaches for a sword. For a few seconds, Kashyap’s head sits on the ground, like a forgotten prop from a Madame Tussauds display.
“Slitting the throat of a human victim who is alive requires nerves of steel,” Lancaster University academic Amalendu Misra observes in On Beheading. “It can be a very unsettling experience. Even the hardest of the hard criminals with hearts of stone would find it challenging.” Yet, for the makers of unflinchingly macho sagas, decapitation came all too easily.
In Nelson Dilipkumar’s Tamil-language Jailer, beheading is necessary, cool even. It’s the first clear sign that the ageing hero, played by Rajinikanth, retains his virility.
Rajinikanth’s Muthuvel is A Man with a Past, who is passing himself off as a gardener, grocery shopper and indulgent grandfather. When the villain threatens to behead Muthuvel’s grandson, the previously benign senior citizen responds by slicing off the head of the villain’s henchman.
In December, Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Animal, starring Ranbir Kapoor as a tortured alpha male yearning for his daddy’s approval by reaching for very large weapons, stormed the box office. The big surprise was that the ensuing pile of corpses retained their skulls.
But a great deal of other matter leaked out of Animal anyway, such as misogyny and valourisation of unreconstructed manhood. Blockbusters are, by definition, all heart and some brain. In 2023, there were blank spaces where there once were heads, and gaping voids in place of restraint or thoughtfulness.