Scene 1, platform no 2, Numgambakkam railway station

It is 6.30 am on an unusually cool day in June in Chennai. Along with other commuters, a young man, Ramkumar, is waiting presumably for the train. Swathi, a 24-year-old Infosys software engineer, walks on to the platform. After a brief exchange of heated words, the man whips out a sickle and brutally slashes at her face and neck. She dies.

Scene 2, Tidel Park Signal, Thiruvanmiyur

Eight days later. It’s 4am on a Saturday morning. Traffic is slow at the usually busy junction. Fifty four-year-old Muniswamy, a carpenter and daily wage load carrier, is among four men who are shifting some boxes. A speeding Audi jumps the signal and ploughs into the men. Muniswamy is flung in the air about five feet and falls to the ground. Twenty-six-year-old Aishwarya Wilton, an engineer at DLF, is at the wheel. allegedly under the influence of alcohol.

Within a span of a week, two news stories have rocked Chennai and raised fears about public safety. The city’s usually tolerant middle class has risen up in protest and demanded swift police action in the former case, while the media is pursuing the latter.

Speculations abound on the motives and changing lifestyles and attitudes. The prevalence of violence and aggression is being attributed to caste barriers, the changing mores brought in by the information technology boom, the education system, the breakdown in morality, lack of family interventions, and of course, the biggest villain, Tamil cinema.

Tamil cinema’s depiction of love and rejection is being blamed in the Swathi murder. The Aishwarya case is being touted as the outcome of so-called unwomanly behaviour. This is eerily similar to the reaction of Western journalists to the 2012 Delhi gangrape. A leading American radio station and a British television channel asked me if Bollywood was responsible for propagating rape culture. The worst instance of this ridiculous reaction were the heated exchanges between fans of actors Vijay and Ajith with memes on whose films/roles were more responsible for the dastardly Swathi murder.

The depictions of wooing in films are being blamed for the misogyny and cruelty displayed by young men faced with relationships and rejection. However, this vociferous condemnation is simply too facile.

Does Tamil cinema have misogynistic dialogue? Do men treat women disrespectfully in Tamil films? Are they aggressive and violent in dealing with romance and rejection? Do they influence young men and women in our society in their approach to wooing? Is this singularly responsible for the rise in violent crimes against women in the state?

The answer is a resounding yes to the first three questions, but the last two enter into dangerous territory.

The guardians of the moral galaxy

In my study of Tamil cinema and its gender dimensions, the one fact that clearly emerges is that very few directors and leading men have been able to make a film without paying token obeisance to the Tamil ideal of a woman and pandering to the predominantly male audience and its frustrations. Tamil cinema, as other world and language cinema, is guilty of regressive gender representations and misogynistic ideas expressed through dialogue, situations, lyrics, visualisations of the female form and male-centric views of the world, and presenting an ideal of a fast-vanishing mirage of a demure, submissive young woman. Unrequited love has been a popular trope in Tamil cinema to justify suicide, rape, murder and psychopathic tendencies and crimes.

Tamil cinema heroes have been traditionally depicted as the guardians of Tamil culture, while the heroine is usually held up as a violator who needs to be taught Tamil values. MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Vijay, Ajith, Vikram, Vishal, Suriya, Madhavan, STR, Jeyam Ravi, Jeeva, Dhanush, Karthi, Udayanidhi, Sivakartikeyan – basically nearly every leading man – have indulged in sexual harassment in the name of love in the movies. They have teased, abused, beaten, stalked, harassed, threatened, assaulted, raped and killed women on screen with impunity. Love, rage, helplessness, frustration, obsession, reaction to her anger or rejection and betrayal or infidelity have all been shown as the provocation for such criminal behaviour.

Sivaji and MGR restricted themselves to cat-calling and reprimands in Pattikaada Pattanama or Vivasayi respectively, in which they tease their urban and trouser-wearing heroines (played by J Jayalalithaa and KR Vijaya) and convert them to acceptable traditional Tamil women. Rajinikanth exemplified the ultimate taming of the shrew in Mannan, in which he puts his arrogant rich wife Vijayashanthi in her place – the kitchen and the bedroom. In Veera, his bigamous character is justified by his mother. Kamal Haasan made it stylish to kill a certain kind of promiscuous and liberated woman in Sigappu Rojakkal, and he stalked Khusbu in Sinagara Velan with lewd lyrics.

Vikram kidnaps and threatens the object of his obsessive affection at knife point to reciprocate his love in Sethu. Vijay abuses every heroine in his films on their clothes, behaviour and unwomanly attitudes (too many to name here). Ajith rapes a woman in Varalaaru since that is the only way to prove his manhood which she has questioned. Suriya as a cop intimidates his prospective wife in several films (Singham, Kakka Kakka) since that is the way of the true lover. STR kills any woman who holds a drink or dresses provocatively in Manmadhan. Madhavan indulges in serial domestic abuse in Ayudha Ezhuthu (surprise surprise, it’s a Mani Ratnam film!).

In more recent films, we have watched as women bear the brunt of the anger and frustration of men. The woman is targetted for revenge against her man in Paruthiveeran. She is the epitome of betrayal in Subramaniapuram, and the object of lust and loss when she breaks free in Iraivi. The last title was touted as a feminist film in its publicity campaign, and clearly has no clue about the Bechdel test.

Paruthiveeran, Subramaniapuram and Iraivi are part of a trend of realistic portrayals of the rural, semi-rural, suburban young male who is tentative, unsure and suffering from an inferiority complex. He is shown as being drawn to a vivacious young woman, and he takes extreme measures to force her to acknowledge him and his love for her. His self-flagellation and self-deprecation revels in and glorifies regressive and outdated views of women, gender roles and love, and ends in graphic violent and often morbid endings.

The overarching attitude is captured by Rajinikanth’s dialogue in Padayappa as he outlines the qualities of an ideal woman: “A woman should not be angry, hasty, arrogant, loud, aggressive, or argumentative. She should be patient, submissive, calm, disciplined, and god fearing. A woman should behave like a woman. History has proven that a man who desires too much and a woman who is quick to anger will never prosper.”

In a twisted way, this is true for both Ramkumar and Swathi. Ramkumar is alleged to have said, “She insulted my looks, so I killed her”, which could have been a line from any of these films that say things like “Pottachi sagavaa samevendam, azhinjiduve” (Stay away from women, else, you will be destroyed).

A culture in intense transition

Tamil cinema is guilty, yes, but it cannot be held responsible for the several manifestations of a culture in transition that grappling with multiple changes over the past decade. Such films have a high identification factor among young male audiences, but it also true that young men and women in Tamil Nadu and India are coping with shifting attitudes, global flow of news, information and images, enhanced earning capacities and changing gender roles and perceptions.

Young and confident women who demand equality, go after what they want with clarity, take charge of their love lives and express their life choices vehemently are seen as a threat to the very foundation of masculinity – control. Women have begun to chafe, object to and often throw off the yoke of control of their feelings, choices and lives by generations of men. The reaction of the men is to lash out.

Tamil cinema is reacting to such changes from a male point of view, which reflects the society within which it is made and consumed by a largely young male demographic. The cinema perhaps reinforces certain regressive attitudes and behaviours, but it did not create such behaviours.

India would have been paradise on earth with the lessons learned from thousands of films if they were truly powerful. Why don’t all young men become fighters, cops, and good Samaritans as propagated by their screen idols? The misogynistic dialogue and songs appear for just a few minutes. The rest of the film is dedicated to the idealistic male role played by their favourite heroes.

There are other factors responsible: a society that constantly segregates its boys and girls and turns a blind eye to consistent violence against women in all forms; a media that revels in sensationalising crimes against women with repeated images and moralistic panel discussions that end up in victim blaming; family members and friends who condone misogynistic words; a culture that encourages different rules and values for men and women. In such an enabling environment, the increasingly threatened young male who is confused about his role is a disturbed tribe.

The disturbing discourse that is emerging is clearly in the defensive mode of avoidance. We need to address the issues of gender imbalance and inequity in a systematic manner with gender sensitivity classes at school. The one thing that stands out in my gender sensitivity sessions with youngsters is that they are confused and need guidance. If anything, Ramkumar, Swathi and Aishwarya Wilton are signs of an entire generation crying out for help.

Uma Vangal is Visiting Professor of Film at Kenyon College, Ohio, and Honorary Senior Fellow at Prajnya Trust (Peace, Gender and Security).