Cover: I of the Tiger
Cinema without heroism would contest its own existence, but in the years and after the emergency led by Indira Gandhi, our formative understanding of heroism has undergone the surgery of circumstance.
Taming tigers, lions, and jungle cats was a curious trope that popped up in ER movies and while it might seem hilarious and bullish in retrospect, maybe that was the way not too elegant to counter masculinity.
In a scene from Mr Natwarlal (1977), Amitabh Bachchan is attacked by a murderous tiger who terrorizes a village. Natwar, as Bachchan is called in the film, uses a fire torch to avoid being torn apart. At one point in the sequence, Rekha rugby tackles the tiger to the ground. In the same sequence, Natwar manages to lift the tiger to one side, all by himself. “Main toh khud marte marte bacha“, he said to himself in the calm of secrecy a few moments after the confrontation. He’s just a survivor, a distillation of his brain, his ability to think in times of conflict, rather than his brawn. For the villagers, however, he is a messiah whose penchant for violence is declared by a former villager, related to the reincarnation of a “fakir”. A fakir who brings the ‘message of life’. So to speak, it takes the conviction to take one life to protect the longevity of another. There are skin tigers and then there are heart tigers. It was an India in search of the latter.
As India grew after independence, it yearned to find in its men moral anchors to tell stories of aspiration and seriousness. Cinema without heroism would contest its own existence, but in the years and after the emergency led by Indira Gandhi, our formative understanding of heroism has undergone the surgery of circumstance. It was the time of modulated machismo in the streets, of men incarcerated and deprived of their right to speak and act as they pleased. Stifled, repressed and barricaded, masculinity sought new villains to fight, demons to tame. This is where the curious years of and after the emergency come into play. Years when the country’s superstars, Dharmendra and Bachchan, have been found more than once, tigers and jungle cats fist-fighting. As deliciously comedic as it sounds now, perhaps it was a subtle – if excessive by design – way of embodying manhood on screen, which was denied to men on the street.
In Adalat (1976) Bachchan plays Dharamchand, an innocent villager who saves a few townspeople during an occasional hunt. In a truly bizarre and haunting scene, Dharam overpowers a tiger twice its size and holds it hostage like a gangster with a garden knife to its throat. It’s an amazing image that evokes the bravery of the strain that could push your pelvic region with hormonal angst to leave your body for experiences far beyond your physical capabilities. But consider it in the context of a devaluing urgency and it becomes an assertive reaction to the political oppression of the time. With sterilization campaigns on the ground, the cinema has gone all out in its attempts to strike the extinguished flame of Indian manhood, a bloodlust for the throbbing veins of the only animal that struts about without danger to its reputation – the flawless tiger.
The mythology around the tiger guarantees it a sacred place in our culture. The animal represents the overt idea of fierce and blameless masculinity. Not to mention that his ability to brutally murder is seen as an extreme expression of commitment – to his territory, his family, etc. The fact that he can literally maim and devour anything in his path. It’s the kind of legend on which some generational ideas of masculinity are built. In fact, the idea of the traditional Indian hero – handsome, unflinching in his politics, and lazily vengeful (not until the latter half of the film) is something we’ve seen time and time again on the big screen. Even to love this kind of man, our women would have to adapt to the strength and toxicity that comes with it. Men therefore asked to be tamed more than they asked for care or empathy. That’s why we bred howlers before we developed the ability to cry as humans. You don’t see the tiger crying, do you? Defeat him and that poetic point of replacing his throne can be made.
India’s human-animal conflict echoes the country’s strained relationship with the environment. I grew up with stories of men killing leopards with bare arms and the subsequent politicization of this mythical heroism. The tiger is that explicitly exotic animal that represents both the brute strength and the fearsome elegance to murder without flinching. In the years following the emergency, it was to this regency of vaguely empowering energy that our heroes turned. In Dharam Veer (1977), Pran looks into the eyes of a tiger, in Khoon Pasina (1977), Bachchan again wrestles a feline into submission. Fast forward Hindi cinema to the new millennium and into Vidya Balan Cherni the tiger has become the victim of societal and political degradation. There are no more kings in the jungle, just men who want to burn it to ashes so that a couch will rise where the prophetic throne once stood. The same tiger now lives on the small mercies of man – privileged, precious but caged to death.
Manik Sharma writes about art and culture, film, books and everything in between.
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