Hindi filmmaker Anurag Kashyap will make his acting debut in Tamil cinema by playing one of its favourite characters: the serial killer. “I love killing, I just love killing,” the Hindi filmmaker declares with relish in the trailer of R Ajay Gnanamuthu’s upcoming Imaikkaa Nodigal. Nayanthara plays the police officer on the psychopath’s trail.

Imaikkaa Nodigal (2018).

Imaikkaa Nodigal continues a tradition that has existed since the late 1960s – of bloodthirsty men (and they are always men) on the prowl for innocent victims (nearly always women). The year 2017 alone witnessed a string of such films, including CV Kumar’s Maayavan, Arun Vaidyanathan’s Nibunan and AR Murugadoss’s Spyder. Nibunan will be remade in Telugu as Kurukshetram and released later this year. Previous examples in the genre include Sigappu Rojakkal (1979) and Moodu Pani (1980) starring Prathap K Pothen.

Some elements have remained constant over the decades. Psychopaths are filled with and therefore driven by the need to slaughter because of deep-seated misogyny. Some recent murderers may not have tended to discriminate between genders, but by and large, the hatred of women has provided the trigger for murder right from Sigappu Rojakkal through December Pookkal (1986), Oomai Vizhigal (1986), Kalaignan (1993), Vettaiyadu Vilayadu (2006) all the way up to Nadunisi Naaygal (2011). Such films have rarely considered the woman’s point of view, instead reducing her to an innocent bystander or an apologist for the killer’s actions.

In P Bharathiraja’s Sigappu Rojakkal¸ Dileep (Kamal Haasan) develops a hatred for women as a child. The adult Dileep makes a routine out of luring women into one-night stands and slaying them by the end of the night. The cycle is brought to a halt when his wife Sarada (Sridevi) accidentally enters a room containing his secrets and flees for her life. Dileep chases her but, in a case of divine intervention, is injured after he falls on a cross in a graveyard.

The director ensures that Dileep isn’t entirely to blame. In the climax, members of the public blame the phenomenon of the serial killer on that vague thing called “society”. Sarada too visits Dileep in jail and vows to wait for his recovery as his dutiful wife.

Sigappu Rojakkal (1979).

The loss of a loved female relative is another constant element in Tamil serial killer films. In MR Bhoopathy’s December Pookkal, Chandru (Mohan), after losing his wife in an accident, goes on a bizarre killing spree, murdering all the women who refused to donate blood to his wife during her hospitalisation. His new girlfriend Poornima (Revathy) confronts him about his state of mind, but instead of getting him help, she tells him that she feels privileged to be killed by him. The police arrive just in time to shoot Chandru from the back. He is hailed as a tragic hero.

In Arun Vaidyanathan’s Nibunan, Christopher (Krishna), an orphan, is driven to murder after his only relatives, his uncle and aunt, commit suicide.

In Balu Mahendra’s Moodu Pani, the loss of the mother proves to be the turning point. Chandru (Prathap K Pothen) is gripped by an uncontrollable hatred for prostitutes, a consequence of having watched his mother being beaten by his father every day after he spent the night with a prostitute. Chandru’s mother dies, but her disturbed son (possibly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho) refuses to cremate her and keeps her skeleton in his house.

Women are again the victims of psycho killer Samar (Veera) in Gautham Menon’s Nadunisi Naaygal bizarrely because Samar was sexually abused by his father as a child. A woman rescues Samar as a young boy, but that doesn’t stop him from raping and murdering her or from embarking on a misogynistic killing spree.

Nadunisi Naaygal (2011).

The film that possibly inaugurated the serial killer genre in Tamil is AC Tirulokchander’s 1967 thriller Athey Kangal. Several members of a family are murdered over a period of months in this drama starring Ravichandran, Kanchana and SA Asokan. After her parents, uncle and aunt are murdered, it seems to be the turn of Susi (Kanchana). The killer is discovered by Susi’s lover, Bhaskar (Ravichandran), whose mother died in a fire caused by Susi’s family members to hush up the affair between Susi’s father and the woman. Suspense over the killer’s identity is maintained throughout the narrative, and it is Bhaskar’s eyes that give him away.

In recent years, the narrative focus began broadening from the perpetrator to the law enforcement official in hot pursuit. Of course, the man in-charge wasn’t always an official figure of the law. In GB Vijay’s Kalaignan (1993), Kamal Haasan’s pop singer is accused of being the man responsible for slaughtering women, but he eventually turns into the saviour by the end.

While the police appeared much too late and the women remained powerless in earlier films, later productions centered on the chase itself. In such films, the killer’s identity was not always hidden from audiences. In Gautham Menon’s Vettaiyadu Vilayadu (2006), Haasan is again on the trail of a psychopath. Haasan’s police officer Raghavan tracks the killer in the movie’s first half itself. The rest of the film is structured as a cat-and-mouse game as Raghavan races to capture his man.

Kalaignan (1993).

Changes in technology have also altered the landscape of the serial killer genre. Both the murderer and investigating officer are far more technologically savvy than before, making ample use of cellphones, hacking and surveillance equipment.

In AR Murugadoss’s Spyder (2017), police officer Shiva (Mahesh Babu) uses a snooping apparatus to listen in on random conversations to prevent crimes before they can happen (a low-tech version of Minority Report). That is how Shiva chances upon serial killer Bhairavudu (SJ Suryah) who, on his part, employs chemical weapons to slaughter people.

Bhairavudu’s chosen method of massacre – the misuse of science – has a precedent in such films as CV Kumar’s Maayavan, about a killing spree born out of a misdirected experiment, and Velu Prabhakaran’s Naalai Manithan (1989). In Naalai Manithan, a doctor (Jaishankar) invents a potion that can bring a dead man to life. The potion has a crucial side-effect: it turns the resurrected humans into mass murderers.

In Maayavan, a neuro-scientist creates a hard drive full of his memories that he then injects into other people in the form of a gel, so that he can continue living after his death. Of course, this experiment goes horribly wrong. The neuro-scientist, in order to live, ends up killing many others.

Naalai Manithan (1989).

Imaikkaa Nodigal promises to revisit another recurring element in recent serial killer films: a dialogue exchange between the murderer and the investigating officer. The conversation device allows mass murderers to put forth their point of view as well as taunt the police force. In Nibunan, Christopher gets a kick out of his chats with the police officer (Arjun) investigating the zodiac-sign-themed murders Christopher has committed. While being supremely articulate about his state of mind and the reasons for his psychological damage, Christopher has an unapologetic declaration to make about his love for killing: “I just love it, this blood and murder.”

In Spyder (2017) too, Bhairavudu wants nothing more than to speak his heart to out to Shiva about his growing bloodlust.

Both heroes and psychos have nearly always been men. This gender imbalance has ensured that women remain objectified, powerless and forever in victim mode. Can Imaikkaa Nodigal’s female law enforcer, played by Nayanthara, bring about a twist to the story?

Spyder (2017).