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Vishwaroopam: a queer critique

Image Source: Kollytalk.com

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 VilayaduDostana 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.

Recommended Reading:

  • Review of Kamal Hassan’s (homophobic) film Vettayadu Vilayadu by Aniruddhan Vasudevan:  Game’s Up
  • An alternative take on Kamal’s movies and queer issues by Vishnu Ramakrishnan: Queering Kamal Hassan


21 Comments. Add your own »

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  1. I would like to disagree.

    For someone like Kamal to portray at effeminate character who is in love with a female (he is not gay) would surely get more people to accept men who display female traits. Kamal in the movie is not gay, not pretending to be one and there are plenty of effeminate men who are straight.

    Anybody would be surprised if a effeminate man suddenly turns macho and all along, the wife’s complaint was such that her husband was not macho enough for HER. The definition of macho would naturally vary from people to people. The wife wanted a manly husband. Period. Nothing wrong with that. To expect everyone to be welcoming and accepting of effeminate straight man is glaringly naive.

    Kamal’s portrayal of the said character was nicely done it was not over the top and i would like to remind again that, the character was straight. Not all gay men are effeminate and not all straight men are macho, that was the underlying point of that character For a mass hero to act that way, surely would encourage more people to accept such people exist and eventually come to accept them.

    1. Hey Mri! I disagree 🙂 I was talking to my cousin about Deepan’s review and she asked me: “There is nothing wrong with the story. What woman would like an effeminate men?” That is exactly the problem. That is the message the movie sends: If you are effeminate, you don’t deserve to be loved. As Deepan correctly pointed out that is a very shallow understanding of falling in love.

      1. Shri, the problem with your logic is that the movie does NOT portray her as anything close to an ideal character. She is a lying, cheating, disrespecting (of herself, her husband and her marriage) and *shallow* character.

        If someone wants to finds themselves simpatico with that character, then hopefully they will also go through that education, where she learns an effeminate man in “female” job could contain a brave, and even violent, man.

        I think Deepan’s mistake here is to separate the Kathak-teacher Vish from the RAW officer Wisam, and somehow delegitimize that entire life as an act. In fact, as the title clearly indicates, like the Vishwaroopam, the man contains multitudes. He even stays with the wife he married, which initially looks like a part of the operation to penetrate her company (no pun intended).

        Let me turn the question around. Is there ANY evidence, that Wasim is NOT really an excellent Kathak dancer who enjoys taking a break to swish around with his girl friends? If not, why did YOU think so? 😛

      2. Thats not true, See it’s like this, what boy/man would want to date a ugly girl? It works bothways. It doesn’t reflect badly on anyone, just how superficial we are. simple as that. In the old movies, do you remember, Nagesh constantly making fun of Sachu> In movie likes Bommalattam with Jayashankar and Jayalalaitha? Cause Sachu is not goodlooking, Nagesh keeps saying that she wont get anyone better?

        I mentioned in my post, love is personal, every individual has a standard, for looks, for behaviour for everything. Plus in a society that doesn’t even permit love, superficial love is still better than no love. I will tell you honestly, I put looks as one of my top priorities in a person i want to date. Call me shallow but thats how it works.
        Maybe as men, you view Kamal’s character differently, but i for one so nothing wrong with it, or with the wife’s reaction to his character. His co-workers, his students din’t seem to mind his effeminate nature as much as the wife.Plus as she mentions, their’s was a marriage of convenience.

      3. There is another glaring aspect highlighted in the movie. For a moment, lets forget about the gender identity portrayal and just look as to how it would be if men and women had “opposite” “roles” in the society. The first few scenes are exactly that “pin thoongi mun ezhudhal” “manavaatiye manavaalanin ……”, the main male character cooks for the female character, the woman hates to be questioned. These are typical problems amongst even heterosexual couples but it happens in just the opposite way to what was portrayed in the movie. I would presume that many of the present day men and women would find that odd even if the character wasn’t effeminate.

  2. And another thing. What is your problem with avai shanmugi?

    A man,playing a female. Was brilliant. It also goes out to show that, parenting, taking care of the child is a man’sjob as much as a women’s.The movie was, simply put an inspiring tale , although ripped off from Mrs.Doubtfire

  3. Yes I also felt uncomfortable during the scene heroine falls in love. It portrays that man expresses femininity (gay, bi or straight)is not liked by woman, that is the point for debate.

  4. My first thought when i realized that Vishwaroopam had an effeminate hero “turning”(!) macho was how homosexuals were portrayed as psychopathic killers in the movie “Vetaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu”. That doesn’t show gay people in the right light. And “Goa”- oh the harrowing episodes of having to watch the scenes involving the gay characters with my parents around. I mean,why wouldn’t people think gay people are abnormal,or deviant or even repulsive and abhorrent? Lesbians are nearly non-existent.

  5. I loved the movie! And though Kamal did a great job as a Kathak dancer! And for the plot of the movie, it was that was the only way he could follow another man without raising suspicion. Somehow, thats all I noticed!
    Nice too read alternate thoughts on the character portrayed.

  6. @Mri!

    Mri. Why do you reject effeminate man? It is a preference but where does the preference come from?

    For instance, almost all Planet Romeo profile have a disclaimer that says “NO OLDIES, BALDIES, BLACKIES, FEMMES, DARKIES, CDs etc etc” There are many many disgustingly new terms conjured up to state their preference. Can we justify that as a mere preference and not explore the racism, sexism behind these preferences? If he is a straight effeminate man then I think it is all the more worrisome that the woman does not like him as that would imply that effeminate men are not worth being loved at all! To have preferences is absolutely alright but we need to reflect on where the thin line between preferences and bias is.

    1. then i will ask this..

      In how many tamil movies, have we seen, one average looking hero, passing comments about another average looking girl? Implying that girls who don’t look good, don’t deserve a Bf?

      And irrespective of how the hero looks, he always gets a good looking, sexy girl friend! Imagine the nuisance value of such movies( read roadside romeos) Why should women love someone who is effeminate? It is an individual preference. There might be women out their who don’t mind.

      Why are you not willing to look at it as an issue that affects both the sexes? After humans are very superficial. And THAT’s ok.

  7. First of all, I would like to confess that i haven’t seen the movie yet. But reading your review and comments (especially the one made by KMRamki – was close to the point i was hoping) i have to bring my points forward. I apologize beforehand for i have to take the offensive stance on your article.

    1. Being trans, I have found that people (even within the so-called queer community) have no knowledge that gender expression (or identity ) and sexuality can be two different issues. There is nothing wrong with an effeminate male being involved with a girl and I am happy that this was portrayed in the movie. At least it brings home an important fact. Gender variance doesn’t neccessarily imply alternate sexuality. (I know the above statement is semantically incorrect but I state it this way for the ease of heteronormative people who are browsing the site). Now to bring home my issue, as a pan-trans individual i get lot of annoying looks even within the trans and G and L community when I am seen dating a girl. One of the best comments I received was : ‘YOU TOOK ALL THE HORMONES TO BECOME A LESBIAN?’

    2. As for the wife falling for his machismo, I believe that is dependent on the girl. It cannot be used as a general statement that all women fall for macho men. Depending on her menstrual phase, there are time when girls would want a guy who can sweep her off the dance floor and other times where she would only wish for him to stay home and cook her a nice dinner. (Does cooking dinner for your girl make you effeminate? In traditional Tamil culture, I would say yes.)

    3. Who would fall for an effeminate man? look at all the Justin Bieber fan girls, or Bill Kaulitz (okay, the former one), Peter Lundin or Andrey Pejic fan girls. There you have your answer: girls swooning over totally androgynous men. For that matter, the number of men drooling over Gwen ever since she played Brienne de Tarth. (I am rooting for her too but that is a different issue).

    4. On a totally different note, an individual can exhibit various social gender expressions at various points of their life or depending on their situation. To be candid, i don’t know why the whole of the queer community misses this point. I used to hang around the local biker club and train martial arts with them. Now everytime I say this to some one from the local queer group, I get weird reactions, and some amazing responses like, ”You are trans and you hang out at the local biker bar?”. and even some statements that totally tried to invalidate my gender identity by saying, ”if you still hang around biker groups and practice fighting then you are not a real woman.” Here is the take home message: Don’t try to analyse gender expressions.

    6. Finally, something i learned from the leather community as a rigger: a man can be a secure alpha male socially and most often turn out to be extremely sub in conjugal situations. Or the classic chasers, extremely masculine guys (totally heteronormative in appearance) who have have asked me if I would top them. Now I am not taking a moral high ground on guys who want to be dominated by a girl with something extra, but this raises the whole issue of what is macho and what is effeminate.? Does macho only belong in the category of social expression/behavior or does the concept extend to sexual practices too?

    Just something to think about.

    And all for all those effeminate straight men out there (i know you guys are there too), there is a french saying “There is a boot for every foot.”

  8. @ MRI, the problem with Avvai Shanmugi – Everytime he has to prove that he is a man, Kamal in an obscene way shows the absence of breasts as a proof. I find it crude and problematic.

    @ KMRAMKI //Shri, the problem with your logic is that the movie does NOT portray her as anything close to an ideal character. She is a lying, cheating, disrespecting (of herself, her husband and her marriage) and *shallow* character.//

    This is another important problem, among the many with Viswaroopam. His male chauvinistic and judgemental aspect on the woman’s extra marital relationship with another man. While it has been quite established that this is a sexless marriage of convenience, why should she be portrayed as a lying and cheating woman if she chooses to have an affair outside the marriage? And the movie takes a tone that romanticizes her falling in love within this shallow and problematic framework of understanding about masculinity and femininity. Added to that, there is a scene in which she shudders at the mention of word sex, which explicitly outlines the regressive mindset towards woman’s sexuality. So, yes there are many layers of problems with the movie, apart from the obvious one being totally one sided in its pro American attitude and labelling only one section of the people as terrorists.

    1. If he tried showing his penis it would be even bigger problem. 😛
      Think about the constraints from a movie and censor board point of view. If he kept removing his pants to show that he is a man, it would not have even cleared the Censor Board.
      I loved that movie. It is true that the only thing that visibly differentiates the sexes is the breasts or the absence of it. nothing wrong with that. Also, i think, lack of penis jokes also shows Man’s underlying insecurities.

  9. Fact:
    Do straight men fall in love with effeminate men? No
    Do effeminate gay men fall in love with other effeminate gay men? There are few exceptions that proves the rule, mostly No.
    Do gay women fall in love with effeminate men? No
    Do straight women fall in love with effeminate men? No, except they would love to have them as friends and talk about purses, shoes and other shiny stuff..

    The fact is no straight woman would want an effeminate man for a partner except in the case of this movie where the guy is a dancer and when it is a marriage of convenience. Plus it is her god damn right to chose any man she wants, she has the right to judge any man she wants and she has the right to sleep with as many man as she wants.

    Everyone is entitled to express their thoughts i.e. freedom of expression. If there is a movie about two homosexual misogynistic men, if there is a book and a movie about a psychotic trans-woman who murders heavy girls and skins them, if there is a movie about two abused neglected housewives who start a sexual relationship and fall in love out of choice and if there are tons and tons of movies on ‘psycho-lesbos’, just deal with it. The movies and books are not meant to tarnish the community but it is meant for entertainment ALONE. If anyone is acting upon such trivial matters they are no different than the minority Muslim groups who caused cultural terrorism.

    There are so many movies on discrimination and abuse of LGBT caused by straight individuals. Why hasn’t anyone reacted? Why no one complained that the movies have hurt our sentiments? Why the movies portray straight people as dull, boring and barbaric? Because they are intelligent enough to know it is a movie stating certain facts and is solely meant for entertainment.

  10. @ Brenda, I think both of us come from the same understanding.

    // There is nothing wrong with an effeminate male being involved with a girl and I am happy that this was portrayed in the movie. At least it brings home an important fact. Gender variance doesn’t neccessarily imply alternate sexuality.// The movie does not portray any of what you said here. It only reinforces the usual stereotypes about an effeminate man. It links his effeminate nature to his sexual orientation to in many indirect ways. There is a scene in which the wife suggests that he most probably wouldn’t be having an affair with a woman indicating his sexual orientation. And there is another scene in which Kamal coyly blinks his eyes knowing the name of his kidnapper indicating his interest in him. And the wife even wonders how he could be normal as he is effeminate. She falls for him only when he reveals his real macho identity.

    The point here is also about how we view gender non conformities as not normal. The movie only succeeds in reinforcing those ideas.

    I suggest you watch the movie for better understanding!

  11. @ Ajay

    I am glad you are defending the ‘Freedom of Expression’ of the film makers. While doing so you we must understand that to criticize any work also fall within the domain of Freedom of Expression. We cannot equate such criticism with the protests by some muslim groups because, we are not seeking a ban. Also, to say that movies are for ‘mere entertainment’ and should not be taken seriously is going down a slippery slope.

    1. Gowthaman: You stole my words. I was about to post this reply to Ajay

      @Ajay: I am confused. No one is asking for a ban. Nothing that extreme. Deepan has just articulated what he sees as a problem with the movie. You might disagree with his interpretation, but that doesn’t mean he has to “just deal with it”. I am glad he voiced his opinion.

  12. It just occurred to me that Sivaji Ganeshan played an effeminate character in 1969 hit Deiva Magan. In that movie, the effeminate guy (one of the twins) was actually quite a womanizer and had tons of girlfriends before he fell in love with the heroine (played by J Jayalalitha). Check out the song ‘Kadhal malar kootam ondru’ on YouTube.

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