How Kamal Haasan's Virumandi depicted jallikattu on screen: The ancient sport as a metaphor

Gautam Chintamani

Jan,10 2017 17:00:25 IST

In the early 2000s, when Kamal Haasan was going through a confusing phase in his career, he came up with a film that not only reinvigorated the artist within but also immortalised jallikattu, an ancient sport that is almost 5,000 years old. Written, produced and directed by Haasan, the film Virumandi (2004) is a treatise on the death penalty, but the manner in which Hassan’s character, the eponymous hero is crafted — using the spirit and essence of jallikattu — elevates the narrative to some other level.

The jallikattu scene from 'Virumandi'

The jallikattu scene from 'Virumandi'

In the film, Virumandi (Kamal Haasan) is introduced as the prodigal son who returns to save the honour of the entire village on the third day of the yearly Pongal celebration. It is intriguing how jallikattu is only there on the screen for a few minutes but it brilliantly establishes the narrative, the characters, the entire subtext of the film as well as the cultural significance of the practices and traditions that the film was placed around. (Watch the scene here.)

What made Virumandi an instant classic and reaffirmed Haasan’s mastery over the craft of filmmaking and storytelling was the style in which he used popular tropes to convey the message. The film begins with a documentary filmmaker Angela Kaathamuthu (Rohini) interviewing criminals on death row in order to get their views on the death penalty. She comes across two dreaded criminals — Virumandi and Kothala Thevar (Pasupathy) — and hears their versions of the bloody feud that leaves 24 innocent people dead. While the former is serving a death sentence, the latter is in for life and the two sides of the same event reveal how Virumandi was framed for raping Annalachmi, the woman he loved and killing her uncle, Nallama Naicker (Napoleon), who saves Virumandi from the wrath of Kothala Thevar. During the filming of the documentary Angela accidentally videotapes the deputy jailer conspiring with the convicts to kill the kind-hearted jailer Jayanth (Nassar). Later when a jailbreak ensues, it is Virumandi who saves Angela and takes on the deputy jailer even though he could have escaped. Across the narrative of the film, Virumandi is shown to be unlike the usual film hero and to say that Haasan is perfect as the ill tempered but rarely intimidating and often stupid and downright crude character would be an understatement. In her review of the film when it came out, Malathi Rangarajan called the character “true to life” and added the film is a “graphic depiction” of the mindset of the rustic South’s incongruous blend of modern gadgets and traditional practices.

In a film that was one of the first to truly celebrate jallikattu on screen, Haasan used the traditional sport both visually and metaphysically to encompass the narrative. The event, jallikattu, is about controlling prized bulls that are bred specifically by villages and many of these bulls are like the head of all cattle. It is an event where the youth are encouraged to participate and the blend of danger, as well as thrill, is secondary. Once the event is over, the ones which were tamed are used for domestic work but the bulls that couldn’t be restrained are used to breed. It is the nature of the uncontrolled, untamed bull that is expected to be passed on to the next generation. Thematically, there is not much difference between Virumandi and a bull — both are unabashed, cannot be controlled and are also as obstinate. Both are feared and revered equally by those around them. The wild nature of the both can be dormant for a while and might undergo a transformation when in contact with others but it cannot be suppressed. In many ways when Virumandi is sought to be controlled by Thevar (who treats him as a nephew but in reality wants to keep him inebriated and bogged down by petty troubles of life as he eyes Virumandi’s fertile land), the fashion in which he charges too, is similar.

While some degree of presentism might be unknowingly attached to the argument, it would not be totally wrong to say that much like Haasan’s character, the art of jallikattu too, has been incorrectly judged. Perhaps this factor could have been playing on Haasan, the writer, when he chose to tell the story of the death penalty the way he chose to tell it. There is enough empirical evidence to support the reverence that has been attached to jallikattu. This includes seals of the Indus Valley civilization where the sport is celebrated and also detailed references to ‘Eru Thazhuvutal’ or hugging the bull in Sangam literature (2nd BCE-2nd CE). Even English colonial administrators such as Edgar Thurston in his book Castes & Tribes of Southern India, Vol 5. called it “a game worthy of a bold and free people” and regretted that certain collectors (district magistrates) should have discouraged it under the idea that it was somewhat dangerous. In a detailed piece on how Banning Jallikattu Will Decimate India’s Indigenous Cattle Breeds, Himakiran Anugula argues that besides the cultural significance, jallikattu is also a factor that has kept native cattle breeds alive. India once had over 130 native cattle breeds but now that number has come down to 37. Banning jallikattu, where only native breeds are used, threatens their existence and one called Alambadi has been officially declared extinct.

From a cinematic point of view, Virumandi’s jallikattu scenes are nothing short of sheer brilliance. It is the first ever to film jallikattu with real charging bulls and participants. The entire sequence has live sound and was shot with special high-speed cameras. Besides the choicest rugged bulls, Haasan and Abhirami, too, participated in the real action and Haasan, who also produced the film, ensured the authenticity of the proceedings. He even got special drummers from Vadipatti and crackers to get the local flavour right.

Jallikattu is often spoken of in the same breath as bullfighting. The fascination with bullfighting being something artistic is a result of reading too much Ernest Hemingway, who in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises turned Pamplona's annual fiesta of San Fermin from a local event into an internationally recognised one that attracts around a million visitors each year. Later with Death in the Afternoon the non-fiction book that Hemingway published in 1932, the author shared his passion for bullfighting and even after 88 years it is still peddled as a justification for anyone who questions the cruelty involved. Comparing two traditions — one where the bull is revered as a deity and is tamed by approaching from the side and grabbing the hump to another where approximately 250,000 bulls are killed in bullfights — is ill informed.

There is nothing surprising in the way Kamal Haasan has argued in favor of allowing jallikattu that was made unlawful by the Supreme Court in 2014. In the past too Haasan has made statements in favour of restarting the tradition and has rightly said that that jallikattu should not be confused with bullfighting in Spain. By definition, jallikattu can be described as ‘bull-baiting’ while bullfighting ends with the death of either the matador or the bull. Ironically, Hemingway’s quote on what is artistic about the whole thing — “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honour” — is cited at the drop of a hat while the clarity of his words in his 1923 piece in The Toronto Star Weekly are forgotten. In the piece titled Bullfighting is Not a Sport – It is a Tragedy Hemingway wrote bullfighting was never supposed to be a sport: “It is a tragedy. A very great tragedy. The tragedy is the death of the bull. It is played in three definite acts.”

Updated Date: Jan 10, 2017 17:00 PM