When I first came to Madras in 1984 after my early life in Calcutta, what shocked me was the obsessive influence cinema had on men. Autorickshaw drivers, cycle-rickshaw pedlars, bus conductors, barbers, college students and just about everybody else fancied themselves as matinee idols. Some of men on the streets behaved like M G Ramachandran – who went on to found the All-Indian Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam after a long stint with Dravidian ideology and grassroots politics. Later, it was stars like Rajinikanth who caught the imagination of the youth, and even today if one were to interrogate some of the motorcyclists who drive with devilish speed – callous about pedestrian safety – the riders would agree that they ape their favourite screen heroes, who do the most impossible. And get away!
What now appears equally worrying is that the Tamil Nadu youth – particularly Chennai – are now aping movie stars by stalking girls in the desperate hope that they could change their minds, and when they do not, the guys are so consumed by disappointment that killing becomes an option. A former jailer once told me that one of the boys guilty of stabbing his girlfriend had said that she had no right to live, let alone marry someone else! Months later, he committed suicide in prison.
Much like what happens in Tamil cinema, some young men feel that they are well within their rights to expect reciprocal love from a girl. When this does not happen, the boys, like their screen idols, begin to stalk the girls, and when all efforts to win them fail, a knife or a bottle of acid or a can of kerosene becomes a weapon of death and destruction.
Tragically, Chennai is fast turning into a lover's grave. On Friday afternoon on a crowded Chennai street, a 20-year-old girl, Ashwini Mohan, stepped out of her college with her friends only to be accosted by Alagesan Ganesan, who was in love with her. He stabbed her dead. Alagesan was overpowered by her classmates and passersby – who after beating him up, handed him over to the police. Alagesan had been following Ashwini for some time. She and her family had even lodged a compliant with the police, who had warned him, but let him go. A clear case of the police failing to prevent a crime as heinous as murder.
Incredible as it may sound, such tragic incidents have been on the rise in Chennai. On June 24, 2016, 24-year-old Swathi, an Information Technology professional, was murdered by P Ramkumar, on a busy railway platform. He described himself as a jilted lover, and had been following Swathi for several months, before spilling her blood. On July 31, 2016, in Villupuram, near Chennai, Senthil Kumar, livid over Naveena's refusal to embrace his love, set himself on fire and hugged her. Both died. On November 13, 2017, 21-year-old Induja and her mother were burnt by Akash in Chennai, because he could not take a no for an answer. I can go on with any number of such horrific cases where young women, barely into their twenties, have lost their lives, because they exercised their right to make choice.
Ramkumar had reportedly told the police that he had been deeply influenced by his favourite screen heroes stalking the girls they loved and ultimately getting them. Despite public criticism of and outrage over such display of blatant male behaviour in films, Tamil cinema has been freely letting its heroes stalk its heroines. Why even the latest Karthi movie, Theeran Oru Adhigaram, had this, though mercifully the scene was brief.
Incidentally, Karthi’s work came just about the same time when Induja was burnt. In Tamil Nadu – where cinema and politics have been almost like conjoined Siamese twins – films have been a huge influence on the youth. And when the man on the screen can stalk his love, hoping against hope that she would come around and fall into his arms, why cannot a fan follow that! There are any number of Tamil actors who have stalked women on the screen. Some have succeeded. Some have not.
Dhanush’s Kundan did not in the Tamil version of Ambhikapathy (originally shot in Hindi and titled Raanjhaana), where he essays the son of a Brahmin priest in Varanasi, falling in love with a Muslim girl, Zoya (Shruti Haasan). In spite of her repeated refusals – based on the fact that the two belong to different religions and are also divided by wide economic disparity -- Kundan (Dhanush) persists, following her and even embarrassing her. The end is disastrous in a movie that to me seemed to have placed its firm stamp of approval on a highly irresponsible and demeaning male attitude, which equates a woman’s no with bruised male ego!
I can give other examples. In Paayum Puli, Vishal is a cop who stalks and threatens a woman (Kajal Aggarwal), forcing her to love him. And audiences were made to believe that this was cutely romantic! In Nanbenda, Udhayanidhi Stalin plays a lover, who stalks. In Sethu, Vikram kidnaps a girl when she refuses him, and threatens to smash her head with a rock. In Ambikapathy, Kundan mucks up Zoya’s marriage with Jasjeet Singh Shergill (Abhay Deol).
But cinema alone is not guilty of perpetuating this crime. I would also blame societal rigidity. Even in times as modern as these, Chennai continues to discourage boys and girls from mingling with each other. An educated manager in a well-known restaurant in the city has been worrying herself sick about letting her daughter enter a co-educational junior college. “She has never been in mixed company, and I do not think that she can handle an atmosphere like that”, she keeps repeating.
Obviously the girl may not be able to. So too a boy who may not have been given the freedom to grow up naturally in the company of girls, and the only ones he gets to meet are his cousins. A doctor friend, a practitioner of sexual medicine, tells me that it is very common in Tamil Nadu for cousins to have sexual affairs.
So, while the community frowns up mixing of sexes (oblivious of sex between cousin), cinema breaks this social barrier with the filmi hero indulging in the most scandalous and salacious behaviour to woo his girl. And when she spurns his “love”, it leads to something unimaginably disastrous. If Kundan can spoil Zoya’s true love for Shergill, if a policeman can frighten a girl into submission and if a man can go to the extent of kidnapping a girl and forcing her to “love” him, young men like Akash and Ram Kumar will only tend to get encouraged by such cinematic daredevilry.
And in a country like India and in times like these, when the young have no role models to speak of (with parents too busy making money), movie stars assume a larger-than-life stature. And these celluloid heroes can do no wrong. Yes, even when they are pushing a poor girl into a frenzied state of fear, if only to force an “I love you” from her!
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, and may be e-mailed at email@example.com)