Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Perfect Villain

The perfect villain is Mayilvahanam, lawful rowdy extraordinaire, in Hari's 2010 film Singam, portrayed by Prakash Raj

The other day I went with my friends to watch the Hobbits, where the dragon Smaug was a total disappointment. Blowing hot air around in an archaeological excavation site seems to be the best that it can present. On the other hand, I never cease to wonder at the villain of the hit Kollywood epic Singam, a story of the testosterone contest between this fella and the likewise insanely charismatic policeman Duraisingam. Let me now give a (suitably brief) overview of why he totally trashes Smaug (although to be fair, Smaug is quite a straw-man).

ONE - Primary role in the film. As an unusual approach, the movie places primary focus on Mayilvahanam rather than the policeman, whose name I have temporarily just forgotten. The movie opens with his fake heart attack and ploy to ensnare an opponent gangster, whereas Duraisingam is only introduced afterwards. The movie seems at some places less of Duraisingam's exploits than it is about the fall of Mayilvahanam.

TWO - Capability. Mayilvahanam is portrayed as an extremely competent gangster. The aforementioned mind game overture that marked his entry is just one side of his canniness. In addition, he holds real sway over the politics of Chennai and Tamil Nadu, having dipped his fingers in almost all construction projects in Chennai even being close personal friends with the Tamil Nadu home minister.

THREE - Deviousness. The narrator describes Mayilvahanam as a "lawful rowdy", as he never openly breaks any law. His main source of income is from blackmail, by threatening to blow the whistle on people cheating on taxes. The carefulness with which he conducts his activities is well-illustrated. After an operation in which he threatens to kidnap the son of a businessman, a subordinate was severely berated of having shown his pistol in public. Dirty work such as murder and kidnapping are relegated to subcontractors. Legal counsel is sought from a lawyer (!) in his inner cabal, who ensures that the boss himself stays out of trouble.

FOUR - Popular support. The contest between Mayilvahanam and Duraisingam is also partly a contest for followers. At the beginning of the film, Mayilvahanam enjoyed enormous influence in the state of Tamil Nadu and even beyond (e.g. Harbour Shanmugam's gang in Tuticorin and the gang in Andhra Pradesh who facilitated his attempt to escape the country). In a way, the turning point of the contest and the coup de grâce to Mayilvahanam's reign in Chennai came about mainly through the police officer's systematic rehabilitation of his followers.

FIVE - Humanness. Mayilvahanam's is not that of a out-of-control other, indifferent to human emotions. The grief that came from Duraisingam's execution of his brother is especially poignant when it was coupled with his flailing emotional pleading to the police officer, saying "He's a family man!" The fall of Mayilvahanam is hence a thoroughly personal defeat, much more than it is a simple curbing of a natural force as the slaying of a dragon or putting off a forest fire. The presence of his redeeming qualities also justified Duraisingam's prevailing intention to rehabilitate rather than to eliminate his opponents, and to make his fall even more of a tragedy.

It should not be judged that Smaug was written by someone with half a brain; Tolkien had written his novel for children, who are generally not supposed to have learned about "economic crimes" and other such complicated nonsense, and Peter Jackson probably have much more enthusiasm for big fireballs than making characters seem convincing, which also makes some kind of sense. In the contest between Mayilvahanam and Smaug, however, it is the former who wins by a landslide by being an interesting and engaging villain.