A New Universalism: Terrorism and Film Language in Mani Ratnam's Kannathil Muthamittal

By Jaikumar, Priya | Post Script, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

A New Universalism: Terrorism and Film Language in Mani Ratnam's Kannathil Muthamittal


Jaikumar, Priya, Post Script


Writing about contemporary representations of terrorism in cinema reopens questions of primary concern to film theorists. Asking how a film defines a terrorist requires an interrogation of the visual, aural and narrative conditions through which subjects enter the realm of discourse. Exploring the relationship between a film's depiction of political violence and the traumas of people forced to adopt, resist or live with brutality reiterates suspicions that the referent or real escapes complete representation. The obscene opportunism in writing about terrorism today, at a time when it is receiving an ideologically defined global profile to entrench reactionary and racist anxieties, echoes concerns about the ethical responsibilities of intellectuals. These questions nearly blighted my ability to write this essay, before I came to the conclusion that they were in fact the motivation behind my writing. Consequently my analysis of Mani Ratnam's depiction of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka in Kannathil Muthamittal (A Peck on the Cheek, 2002, henceforth KM) is offered as a reflection on the affiliations and limits of a particular cinematic language that makes sense of terrorism.

At a mundane level, such an analysis demystifies the film's representative process. It also discloses the aesthetic vocabularies, cultural functions and opportunities for national and global circulation potentially available to a Tamil film today. Recent hype about the globalization--or what Ashish Rajadhyaksha has called the "Bollywoodization"--of Hindi cinema rarely extends to regional films. Mani Ratnam's Tamil films, however, constitute an exception. Ratnam's internationally competitive production values and thematic validations of a culture of neo-liberalism qualify him to exploit opportunities beyond a regional market. With other Tamil directors venturing into bi-lingual productions (as with Kamalahasan's Mumbai Express, Hindi/ Tamil, 2005), Ratnam's films may portend an alternative to Tamil films that assume a purely local audience and regional returns. But it is too premature to suggest a trend at a time when Tamil cinema remains a primarily local industry compared to its Hindi language counterpart (Rajadhyaksha; Pillai). My interest in this essay lies in interrogating Ratnam's films for their repeated coupling of terrorism with reconstitutions of regional identity as distinctly cosmopolitan and trans-regional.

When cinema--a medium deeply implicated in the commercial competition over regional, national and international audiences--casts its gaze on terrorism, a simultaneously local and global crisis on the political agenda of multiple nations, it activates a fundamental social and spatial conflict. It permits a Tamil film to connect with national (popular) and international (primarily film festival) audiences through tropes of terrorism made globally familiar by an increasingly prevalent, normative, urban middle class perspective. But the film's politics and aesthetics are also constituted in relation to its local culture, state structure and class formations. The film succumbs, on the one hand, to a material drag to its immediate environment, and on the other to an impetus to iconize that context into something broadly generalizable. I argue that as a post-colony's economic liberalization allows filmmakers from seemingly peripheral film industries to aspire to universal status--producing their families as every family, their cities as every city, their values as normative values--the problematic relationship of the particular to the universal is exacerbated, and the mechanics of universalization exposed by the processes of incomplete nationalization and uneven globalization. The conditions through which films from regional industries arrive at national and global centers of film circulation divulge the political stakes of their new universalism. (1)

I.

MANI RATNAM'S FILMS

Kannathil Mutthamittal tells the story of Amudha, an irrepressible adoptive daughter of an urban Tamil family in present-day Chennai (formerly Madras). …

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