February 9, 2013:
Finally, when Kamal’s magnum opus, Vishwaroopam, managed to see the light of day in Tamil Nadu, his fans thronged the theatres to watch this much-awaited and controversy-stricken film. While there will likely be a continuing debate on the movie’s representation of a particular religious community, it would not be surprising if those same critics ignore the movie’s problematic portrayal of another minority, i.e. of those of us who are marginalized because of our sexual orientations and gender identities. Vishwaroopam, apart from being totally one-sided in its pro-American troops story line, offers a misguided and damaging portrayal of queerness through its denigration of male effeminacy and putative homosexuality.
As has been the case with many movies in the past, Vettayadu Vilayadu, Dostana and Goa, to name a few, it is very likely that any critique of Vishwaroopam and its brand of homophobia or effeminophobia will only be summarily rubbished by mainstream audiences. On second thoughts, it may also be quite an injustice to group Goa and Dostana with the likes of Vishwaroopam, because the problem with these two movies has more to do with the heteronormative portrayal of real or faux same-sex relationships and less about how gender-normative the subjects are.
Vishwaroopam is much more dangerous just for the reason that it invokes the notion of deviation from “normal” to capture the wife’s discomfort with the effeminacy of Kamal Hassan’s character. A few scenes later, when the wife realizes that he is macho enough and not as unmanly as she suspected him to be, she falls desperately in love with him. And this falling in love just happens in a scene in which he walks down the stairs exhibiting his machismo. While, this scene alone is heterosexist enough and portrays a nauseatingly shallow understanding of falling in love, the problem with the movie is much deeper than this. It goes back to the introductory scene which questions the normalcy and validity of any sexual identity other than heterosexuality or stereotypical masculine demeanor. This reflects the movie’s strong prejudice against queerness.
It may be easy to trivialize or dismiss the issue as too petty be taken seriously by mainstream audiences. We can be totally certain that such a trivialization is what we would be hearing in future, if at all this criticism gathers any momentum. But only queer people and our allies would be aware of the potential of such a portrayal to cause a deep psychological scar in the minds of sexual and gender minorities. For years now, the queer community has been bearing a heavy burden of classifications such as “normal” and “abnormal”, which have been used as instruments to foment hatred and prejudice against the community.
At this juncture, where we have only taken a few baby steps towards changing society’s larger mindset towards sexual and gender minorities, movies like Vishwaroopam are an unfortunate hindrance towards our fight for equality and social justice; and for re-examining normative constructs of gender that are at the heart of much violence towards queer communities and women in general. For the sake of a few laughs here and there, it has become a recent norm in Indian movies to take a dig at queer community. A movie like Vishwaroopam takes us even farther back in its retrogressive portrayal of queer masculinity as deviance. Such portrayal by a mass hero will only reinforce the already prevalent hatred and prejudices against much maligned sexual and gender minorities.
It is very clear that Kamal Hassan, in his efforts to showcase his acting prowess, has gone ahead and essayed this role of an effeminate man, as has the case been in his earlier movies like Dasavatharam and Avvai Shanmugi. He has sketched this initial part of the story to set a platform for such a character. And so the queer community ends up being exploited for him to exhibit his skills as an actor and director. This alone contradicts Kamal’s claims of his intellectual capabilities in storytelling.
It’s time that we stopped expecting anything more than ordinary from his movies, as this is proof enough that his stories can sink well below the standards of the average masala movie in its attempt to woo crowds. Movies like Vishwaroopam are made often to teach us a lesson or two. A lesson that Tamil movies will continue to be hopeless as they are now!
Orinam’s note: An earlier version of this essay appeared on the author’s blog, and has been reproduced with consent.