The late great SP Balasubramaniam’s last recorded vocal graces Superstar Rajinikanth upcoming film release Annatthee. The song is which is titled Annatthee Annatthee after the the film, seems to usher in a rousing return to the rustic rural styling that the Superstar brand is founded on.
Pa. Ranjith is the director I admire the most in mainstream Tamil Cinema. His ability to infuse this commercial medium with the messaging of an ascendant Dalit consciousness, as he did in Kabali and Kaala, while maintaining box-office success, is astounding. Ranjith is a fearless activist and provocateur. Ranjith hails from a cheri (ghetto) in Karalapakkam, Tamil Nadu and, according to wikipedia, he is from the Paraiyar community.
Pariah has become a slur and a derisive word in English and in Malay and Indians get upset and enraged when they hear this word. Why? Well, this name comes from the cast order that is Indian and Hindu. Attitudes towards it reflect the worst racial prejudice that is innate to Indian culture. The Pariyar are a community that is categorized as outside of the Brahmanical social order. While I deplore the use of the name of this community as a slur in English and Malay, I suggest that it is more important that Indians stop flinching when they hear this word, as that reaction comes from their own racist impulse.
Another film from 2019 (other than Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) that makes reference to Bruce Lee is the Tamil-language action film titled Petta directed by Karthik Subbaraj and starring the septuagenarian (well, he will be in December) SUPERSTAR of Indian cinema, Rajinikanth. In one flashback scene Rajinikanth, is seen sporting an old-school Indian moustache, wearing a traditional veshti and striding along a row tables with seated guests enjoying a banana-leaf meal. It is a wedding scene and the people are feasting in some kind of community hall on the rear wall of which is painted, rather incongruously, a mural of Bruce Lee!
It is interesting to note that Rajinikanth movies are just as referential as Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre, albeit with less pretension. If Tarantino’s referential play indexes the worlds of Hollywood and Spaghetti Westerns, Rajinikanth films refer even more reflexively to the realm of Rajinikanth movies (over 160 released to date), generating SUPERSTAR tropes that transcend specific films. Further, Indian cinema is, as a whole, filled with instances of pastiche, parody, piracy and praise – ranging from reverential remakes across the many indigenous language cinemas, to shameless ripoffs of Hollywood.
One reviewer of Petta explains just such a scene from the film, “In one moment Rajini actually takes out a nunchuck and starts doing fancy moves with it. I imagine a 10-year-old Karthik Subbaraj [who is so much younger than his leading man] watching Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and thinking, ‘imagine how cool it would be if my Thalaivar did that?!’ and then writing it down on a piece of paper with a crayon. It’s kinda ridiculous, but that about sums up the fun, bizarre and complete Rajini mania world that is Petta.” This tribute to the Martial Arts master and first crossover Asian superstar in the global movie industry reflects the place he holds in the esteem and imagination of the populations of many Asian nations.
It is in the light of this place of honour that I suggest that Tarantino’s degrading portrayal is an egregious maligning not only of a man but also that of an icon which is esteemed by a wide global community. Bruce Lee is much more to us than just a great martial arts master and the first Asian cross-over movie superstar and … you know, although I loved Pulp Fiction, somehow, I could never get into the martial arts oriented Kill Bill set … now I understand why … Once Upon a Time in Hollywood seems to have revealed much more about Tarantino than it has about Bruce Lee.
The monument to the Discoveries was initially a temporary edifice built for the Portuguese World exhibition of 1940. It was reified as a permanent monument to Portuguese marine adventure and power by the far-right imperialist Second Republicgovernment that ruled Portugal from 1933 to 1974. It was completed in 1960. I will erect my Kabali banner in the vicinity of the monument and in my performance, make reference to a rather different representation of mastery over the world by way a song from MGR’s Ulagam Suthum Valiban (World Perambulating Young Man), a blockbuster of Tamil cinema from 1973. On a personal note this intervention brings together fragments of knowledge and memory from my childhood in Malaysia – history lessons, local tourism, globetrotting relatives … indeed, I was taught about the great European voyages of discovery and conquest. The film song I use, Ulagam Ulagam, and its visual elements are also resonant for me – Subang International airport in Kuala Lumpur, Tiger Balm Gardens in Singapore and Expo 70 in JApan … one of my uncles went and brought us some souvenirs. The idea of globalization was just taking shape in the time of the film’s release tourism and it seems to me MGR was looking back up the marine telescope of Discovery via his images of global tourism.