A Study in Evil

Aadukalam (2011 Tamil film, directed by Vetrimaaran).

Cinema inherited its concept of “the villain” principally from the Victorian melodramatic tradition and that concept very quickly took root and flourished in the new medium.  This was especially so in the US, where the puritan spirit had tended to inculcate strong notions of a world divided between absolute good and absolute bad.  European cinema shied away from villains, ironically given the very real-life prototypes the Continent produced in the same period, preferring to envisage the human psyche in shades of grey rather than in starkly contrasting black and white. Consequently where studies in evil are concerned, it is unquestionably the US cinema that takes the palm.

The art of cinematic villainy reached its peak in the US in the period of the so-called film noir in the 1950s and, if I had to choose the two most chilling portraits of evil in cinema history, they would be Robert Mitchum’s disturbing portrayal of a preacher-cum-serial killer in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1950), and Burt Lancaster’s extraordinary performance as an all-powerful newspaper gossip-columnist in Alexander MacKendrick’s The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Here it is the second that most interests me because it is a study in the nature of power within a narrow, specialist field with at its centre the relationship between an older man and his young protégé that strongly resembles the relationship between father and son.

It is almost precisely this that Vetrimaaran also gives us in his 2011 film Aadukalam.  The microcosm in this case is the small world of the Madurai cock-fighters where the ageing Pettaikaran holds sway over a group of youngsters amongst whom the fatherless Karuppu (played by Dhanush) is the favourite “son”. The two milieux are surprisingly similar. The gossip-column in the US film and the cock-fighting in this film are both vicious blood-sports even if the cruelty of the gossip-column is psychological (with physically violent implications) while the cock-fight is the reverse – physical (with psychologically violent implications).

In Indian films villains abound but, unlike their US counterparts, can very rarely be taken too seriously. Here there is a kind of audience entrapment that occurs, whereby we are presented at the beginning of the film with two rival masters of the cock-fight, the more overtly powerful and (moderately) corrupt police inspector Rathnaswamy and the sympathetically “simple” Pettai.  The scenario appears to be an entirely conventional one with Rathnaswamy the typical powerful villain.

The turnabout whereby, in the course of the film, it is in fact Pettai who is revealed to be both the more power-hungry and the more villainous of the two – Rathnaswamy becomes almost pitiable in his complete humiliation – has therefore an effect of shock, all the more powerful as the other characters, especially Karuppu, are so reluctant to believe evil of their elder “brother”. Relentlessly the emergent villain, consumed by jealousy of the youngster he has befriended and fathered, overhauls his rival (in villainy as in cock-fighting), as he goes to more and more shocking lengths to preserve his power. Almost to the end he retains a degree of the audience’s sympathy – even we are slow to accept the evidence of his total corruption – but even his last act – which I have seen described, quite wrongly in my view, as expressive of guilt – is a continuation of his appalling vengeance to its last futile extreme.

So rather than the conventional, unsurprising villain we might have expected at the beginning, we are treated by the end to a genuinely shocking study in evil entirely worthy to stand beside the examples from classic US films already cited. The performance by Sri-Lankan Tamil writer and poet V. I. S. Jayapalan as Pettaikaran, even if the voice is dubbed, is a truly remarkable one. Acting in his first film at nearly seventy, he invests his performance with an intense physicality that is extremely rare. The image of him in the midst of his world of casual but pervasive cruelty with his blood-coloured scarf and his blood-stained white juba is unforgettable.

Cock-fights are nothing new to cinema.  They were a common subject in the very earliest “tourist” films. Thomas Edison filmed cock-fights for his peephole-viewer the Kinetograph in the early 1890s and the Lumière brothers filmed scenes of a fight in Mexico for the first Cinématographe a few years later. A Pathé film of the 1920s, billed as “educational” and available for home-projection, shows how fighting cocks were bred and trained (this time in Cuba). The outlawing of the sport did not really diminish its interest for the cinema-goer. A memorable modern example is in John Schlesinger’s lavish 1967 film version of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. In Aadukalam the use of computer graphics inevitably gives the fight-scenes a certain air of artifice – the scenes in the 1967 Schlesinger film are much more realistic – but here that stylisation is entirely appropriate and extremely effective.

The cock-fighting both as spectacle and as metaphor is entirely central to the film, providing both its visual power and its originality as a script. The cinematography, as in other Vetrimaaran films, is admirable with plenty of depth and context. Not for a moment does one forget that one is in Tamil Nadu, in Madurai (even if some scenes were shot elsewhere) and often in the less salubrious quarters. There is an authenticity to the film that viewers can feel almost physically in eyes, ears and nostrils, which is perhaps the surest sign there can be of a really good film.

The music by G. V. Prakash Kumar, who had already worked with the director on Polladhavan (2007), with the aid of Malaysian Tamil rapper Yogi B., is impressive.  Occasionally it a shade over-loud and intrusive to my personal taste, but the elements of harshness and dissonance are entirely suitable to the subject-matter.  The music never degenerates into a sequence of irritating sound-effects but rather builds into a genuinely and strongly atmospheric soundtrack accompaniment to the action.

It is by no means a perfect film.  There are longueurs (the early romance scenes) and improbabilities (the girl’s attempted suicide) and aspects that become tiresome (the constant swearing by virtually all the characters) but they are more than compensated by the film’s strengths and by some ideas that are highly original (the balletic fight between the two young men, who have been set against each other, which itself visually resembles a cock-fight) and highly effective (the unconventional and rather noble ending). Even the boy-girl romance, although occasionally tedious, is treated unconventionally – no love at first or even at second sight – and gains added interest from the secondary theme concerning the marginalized Anglo-Indian community that it introduces.

Of the two Vetrimaaran films reviewed here, Aadukalam is almost incomparably the better film and is one, I believe, whose reputation will increase over time both because of the originality and interest of its setting and story and because of the subtlety of its perspective on the corrupting nature of power.

– David Bond