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“It is different, it is truly different…”: An Adornian View of Tamil Cinema’s Logic of Difference

The one short sentence which runs a ceaseless course in the talks and speeches of majority of actors, directors, producers and technicians of the Tamil film industry is, “It is different.” The close counterparts of this sentence are “it is truly different” and “it is new.” Whenever a film enters the production phase or scheduled for release, the people who are associated with the film do not miss an opportunity to tell the audience that the film is different. The actors and directors, in particular, take pains to explain the odds they faced to get different stories and different treatments. Every Tamil film is seen as different by those involved in the making of it even though there has been a disturbing continuity of sameness of formula-driven stories, plot structures, star system, song and dance elements, comedy track etc., for the past several decades.

On the countless number of film-based programmes on Tamil television channels and the pages of Tamil periodicals, it is not uncommon to come across the repetition of the message, “it is different.” Here are some examples. In an interview to rediff.com, John Mahendran, a Tamil film director said that “it (his next film) will be different from the kind of films he (Vikram) has been doing.” And when the actors and directors are not doing the talk of being different, the allied industries such as television, press, on line media and FM channels pitch in with their own endorsements of “it is different” message. For instance, the Indiaglitz web site has this to say about the Tamil film, Paruthiveeran. “Paruthi Veeran, truly different.”

One of the leading stars of the Tamil film industry, Vijay, was quoted as follows in Sifymovies after the release of his film, Azhagiya Tamil Magan (ATM). “Right from the beginning, I had told everyone that ATM is a totally different kind of film for me. I agree that there was definitely a mixed response to it in the first three days of its release, but now after watching the film two or three times, they have started appreciating the subject, now there is definitely a positive talk. Like I told you earlier ATM is a different film, and as an actor I have to do something different from the ordinary.” To the question, why did you deviate from your usual formula?, Vijay said: “Who said that? There are songs, fights, dance, romance, sentiments, comedy, the formula mix is there. You know that all my films are made within the commercial format necessary to make it work with the mass audiences. Perhaps I may have deviated a bit as this time there is no hero versus a clichd villain or a athiradi fight in the climax. It was a deliberate attempt by the director Bharathan with my consent to give the film a different ending.” It does not take any theoretical wisdom to see through the falsity of the meaning of being different in such words. It is clear, from the words of Vijay, that ATM was in every sense of the term a Vijay film and it was not really different from his other films despite “a bit deviation.” It has songs, fights, comedy, sentiment and all the other ingredients that goes into the making of every other Vijay film and every other non-Vijay film. Its claim to difference can not find comfort in the specious reason that its climax was different. This is as specious as the difference borne of the names of any two films. The words of Vijay and others in Tamil film industry appears to strengthen the Adornian view that when a culture industry talks of delivering a different kind of fare to the audience, it is essentially the same old stuff. If the uninitiated get the mistaken notion that advertising professionals have made deep inroads into Tamil film industry, there is some message to be drawn from that as well (Adorno talks of the influence of the logic of the advertising industry in the working of the culture industries such as cinema). It must also be mentioned that actors such as Vijay, Vikram and directors like John Mahendran do not count as individuals here, they exist because of the whole which subsumes them as the culture industry and its strategy of selling sameness as a different unique selling proposition.

One of the famous works of Adorno is entitled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” It was published as a chapter in Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno’s Dialectics of Enlightenment (1944). This essay paints the culture industry of Adorno’s times as actively engaged in the deception of the mass audience through the deployment of several strategies. It is easy to come to terms with what I sought to capture above with the help of Adorno’s logic. Here goes Adorno in his typical fashion against the culture industry. “It calls for Mickey Rooney in preference to the tragic Garbo, for Donald Duck instead of Betty Boop. The industry submits to the vote which it has itself inspired. What is a loss for the firm which cannot fully exploit a contract with a declining star is a legitimate expense for the system as a whole. By craftily sanctioning the demand for rubbish it inaugurates total harmony. The connoisseur and the expert are despised for their pretentious claim to know better than the others, even though culture is democratic and distributes its privileges to all. In view of the ideological truce, the conformism of the buyers and the effrontery of the producers who supply them prevail. The result is a constant reproduction of the same thing.

A constant sameness governs the relationship to the past as well. What is new about the phase of mass culture compared with the late liberal stage is the exclusion of the new. The machine rotates on the same spot. While determining consumption it excludes the untried as a risk. The movie-makers distrust any manuscript which is not reassuringly backed by a bestseller. Yet for this very reason there is never-ending talk of ideas, novelty, and surprise, of what is taken for granted but has never existed. Tempo and dynamics serve this trend. Nothing remains as of old; everything has to run incessantly, to keep moving. For only the universal triumph of the rhythm of mechanical production and reproduction promises that nothing changes, and nothing unsuitable will appear. Any additions to the well-proven culture inventory are too much of a speculation. The ossified forms – such as the sketch, short story, problem film, or hit song – are the standardised average of late liberal taste, dictated with threats from above. The people at the top in the culture agencies, who work in harmony as only one manager can with another, whether he comes from the rag trade or from college, have long since reorganised and rationalised the objective spirit. One might think that an omnipresent authority had sifted the material and drawn up an official catalogue of cultural commodities to provide a smooth supply of available mass-produced lines. The ideas are written in the cultural firmament where they had already been numbered by Plato – and were indeed numbers, incapable of increase and immutable.”

In the same writing, Adorno said: “The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises.” If Adorno is around, he must be either laughing heartily or bemoaning to learn that what he said with regard to Hollywood of the 1940s still finds good ammo in the goings on of a culture industry (Tamil cinema) in a setting far removed spatially and temporally. If we take Adorno seriously in our reflections on what the likes of Vijay and other Tamil film personalities are vouching for as “different,” we would readily agree that sameness is only sought to be repackaged differently with every passing Tamil film in a manner that smacks of numbing staleness and a time-tested logic of culture industry’s mass deception.


1 Kishore Budha { 03.26.08 at 8:58 pm }

Ravi: “It is different, truly different”. Is it a statement of fact or an assertion? As you rightly pointed out empirically it is a specious fact. That is, despite the seeming differences, the films repeat many narrative conventions, codes, and structures. Yes, there may be stylistic variations. For example, Ghajini (Dir Murugadoss, 2005) has many differences in terms of cinematic craft (cinematography — computerised tracking for multi pass shots, visual effects — compositing among others). But is there much of a difference in the film in terms of narrative conventions and structures? No, because the idea of memory, love, transgression, loss and revenge as the central plot is not new.

So what do the filmmakers mean when they say it is different? What is the signification? Difference here does not mean “break”. Instead, by insisting on difference such positions call into memory every known convention and then furthers it by providing a symbolic deviation. Thus, such calls are a reinforcement of standardization, a necessity of mass consumption. As Adorno put it “Popular music must simultaneously meet two demands. One is for stimuli that provoke the listener’s attention … by deviating in some way from the established ‘natural’ [music]… The other is for material to fall within the category of what the musically untrained listener would call ‘natural’ music … that it maintain the supremacy of the natural against such deviations.”

Thus, Rahman’s music is not different, it only deviates from established conventions of melodic and rhythmic structures by introducing a melodic or rhythmic hook that might be borrowed from another culture. This allows for fetishism. I have commented on this before: Adorno was right to point that the term industry should not be taken literally. It refers to the standardization of the thing itself — such as Rehman’s music, familiar to every movie-goer — and to the rationalization of distribution techniques, but not strictly to the production process. Thus, the industrial aspect of film music is not that music is churned out in factories (a hit song is still akin to handicraft, it is individualistic).

As Adorno and Horkheimer have put it, it is through a widespread process of fetishisation. The consumer is paying, not for the product but for the packaging. Thus, it is different is the packaging!

2 ravi { 03.27.08 at 4:21 am }

You are right Kishore, what is different is packaging.But that is not the intended message when the filmmakers repeat what scores of other filmmakers have said in the past about the difference. It is not my assertion.

3 Kishore Budha { 03.27.08 at 8:41 am }

Dear Ravi. No I did not mean it was your assertion. My argument is that the statement is waiting to be unpacked. I meant to argue that “it is different” is an assertion by the culture industry (which includes mass media, advertising) that on one hand fetishises deviations (fans, journalists are encourage to navel gaze at and valorise insignificant craft or narrative issues) while all the time normalising conventions.

4 ravi { 03.27.08 at 12:55 pm }

Thanks kishore for enhancing the scope of the discussion.

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