The Socio-Political Depths of the 1995 Tamil Blockbuster “Muthu”

I remember my dad taking me on a Friday evening, when I was in my second grade, to Naga theatre (in Bangalore) to watch the movie Muthu, a movie that for 22 years has been my all-time-favourite. This was the first time my dad took me to a theatre. With him being a Pastor, it was a ‘sin’ to go a theatre or even watch movies, and even more sinful when the entire family does it together. But my dad hardly cared what others had to say. A few relatives, like in every other conservative South Indian Christian family, did question, in the garb of humour, the “Christianness,” of going to a theatre. Perhaps their uninformed reasoning and questions only made my dad take me to the theatre to watch more movies in the years that followed (Indian, Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, and Padayappa).

Ever since I first watched “Muthu” in 1995, I’ve gone on to watch the entire movie over fifty times. No I’m not faking the numbers! The songs, the music, the costumes (which one of my cousins was deeply influenced by), the characters, the dialogues, the story line and just everything about the movie is absolutely brilliant. Though it portrays the master-slave relationship in a positive manner (which is never a reality); though patriarchy is valorized; though there are enough scenes to suggest how caste operates; though there are instances where muscularity, aggression and violence are legitimized; though there are moments of unexplainable stupidity (the chariot jumping across the mountain); and though charity is romanticized, the movie does not cease to be a masterpiece. I do not mean to suggest that all of these need to overlooked or undermined, but while these ills are easily noticeable, and must be questioned, what makes the movie one-of-a-kind lies elsewhere.

The scene where Muthu (Rajinikanth) is kissed by another man while some men are angered on being asked to (going against the heteronormative notions of ‘intimacy’); the scene where a simple four-lined handwritten letter brings out the suppressed romantic expressions in several individuals; the (not-so-passionate) lip-lock while being half submerged in water; the depiction of sensuality when Ranganayaki (Meena) touches Muthu’s feet while cleaning the stairs; the fusion of multiple languages and cultures (Tamil, Malayalam, and Telugu); the moment where the Zamindar (Rajinikanth) says that even God will not forgive the sins committed against the poor (the privileging of the poor); the part where a lunatic-looking Sage (Rajinikanth) is more humane than the rich and the educated; the part where the Sage denounces and mocks the idea of looking for God outside of us when we have God dwelling within us; the romantically appealing nature of a dark-skinned male (a fair-skinned woman being attracted to Vadivelu); the benign portrayal of an animal’s sensitivity to human suffering (the Elephant crying when Muthu was being sent out of the house); the depiction of Horses intervening physical assault while humans stand and watch without much protest; the subversion of family values when the mother, Sivakami (Jayabharathi) prioritizes Muthu over her own biological son, Raja (Sarath Babu); the subversion of masculine heroism when Muthu, known for his immense physical strength, is seen crying; the depiction of the rich ‘subtly’ exploiting the poor; the powerful betraying the loyalty and honesty of the powerless; the reversal of the social hierarchical order (though only momentary); and the portrayal of spirituality and mysticism just shows how exemplary the movie is.

Movies are not made for mere entertainment. They are political. They are ethical. We need to be sharp, watch carefully, dig deep and go beyond what merely meets the eye to make sense of what we watch. And that is why Muthu is a masterpiece. It is one of a kind and will always remain so.

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