96 and over-romanticisation of love in Tamil Cinema

Image from the official poster release and obtained through fair use policy for review purpose

Idhayam and 96

I don’t know when I watched Idhayam for the first time because I was nine years old when the movie made it to the theatres. But I did watch it again and again and again during my adolescent and post-adolescent age (I had a recording of the film on a video cassette). Idhayam was the epitome of selfless love of the 90s. The movie was so different from other films because the hero was naive, introverted, a rural-bred young man starting his medical college studies as an exemplary student. He hasn’t been to the city nor does he know the ways around relationships. Although he has been raised in a household of women, he is withdrawn and nervous while talking to a woman.

Screenshot from the Idhayam on YouTube — based on Fair use for review purposes

He sees this modern young woman and falls in love with her in the first sight (which was the case with most Tamil movies in the 90s). The entire film is about how he tries to express his love for her, and the movie has a poetic ending too. Nobody expected the movie to do well in the 90s. Kathir was a new director, and Murali had a mediocre career with more failures than hits, but he was an actor who experimented. Murali acted in interesting movies like Paalam and Iravu Sooriyan (Vikram’s character in Thandavam is pretty similar, and Kaabil has a strikingly same storyline) but never tasted success with his experimentations. The movie did have Ilaiyaraaja’s soulful music, and the background score will break you into pieces if you listen to it even now.

The critics panned the movie, but the movie became a super hit with a silver jubilee run (25 weeks) and rejuvenated the career of Murali. Kathir went on to make similar dreamy films, but none worked after that. But Idhayam became the cult movie for people falling in love. It glorified the image of the forlorn introverted lover who can’t express his thoughts to the woman he loves. It romanticised the idea of “love proposal” and glorified the act of professing your love to a woman. It also reinforced the idea of the man taking the first step instead of the woman. In fact, the film is so misogynistic that the hero expects the woman to reply at once while he takes 5 years to profess his love to the woman. The hero goes on a poetic rampage (90s version of the love failure song) on a stage, and the rampage gets normalised when an external “expert” (in this case a movie director known for his love stories) validates it. It romanticised the idea of ‘waiting’ for your love because the entire climax is based on that.

Idhayam became a cult hit and inspired many such movies. Teenagers (including me) and college students thought that the most crucial part in love is the “proposal” part. It spawned a culture of amateur poets, red roses, greeting cards and secret notes during college. Again, I am not saying Idhayam is the only reason, but that was the movie that triggered such movies (Poove Unakkaga, Kalamellam Kadhal Vazhga etc.,). The movie created an “Idhayam” Murali image, and the other movies nurtured the image while in real life many men adopted the image and carried it forward. A man who is forthwith with his intentions wasn’t appreciated, and women were conditioned to romanticise the idea of proposals and eternal love stories. In fact, Meyaadha Maan (2017) is a homage and at the same time a critique of Idhayam Murali. But I don’t know how many of them understood the critique part.

Wait! I know as a reader you might question why am I writing about Idhayam on a post about 96. 96 is the Idhayam of the current generation. An introverted hero who never openly professes his love to the woman he adores, constructs his world around this idea of love and waits for the love of his life until she reappears in his life.

Ramachandran (of 96) named so to bring the image of Lord Ram and his ‘one love of life’ principle, on the surface is established as a seemingly average person, an artist who loves nature and takes extreme care of his friends and their family. But if you break down the character of Ram and go beyond the surface, you can unearth the flaws in his character.

Although Ram seems to be happy and content in his world, he actually plays an eternal victimhood because of unrequited love. His unkempt hair and beard (the usual trope used in Tamil movies for sad male lovers) seem to indicate that. His clothes look to project the same sadness until Janaki changes them. He is so stuck in the past that he is still unable to request his favourite song from Janaki. He uses his photography and his travel as an alternative to his romantic love and alleviates his sexual frustration. In fact, he creates a wall around himself in order to alienate people and stay anti-social so as to fall in love with someone. For instance, there is a romantic angle purported between his student Prabha (played by Varsha) and him, but he is aggressive towards her to avoid her possible romantic advances. The aggression towards other women apart from the one he loves could be because of the latent sexual frustration.

Theory of Love

John Alan Lee, a Canadian Psychologist, created a theory of love that describes six styles of love.

The six styles include Eros (passionate love), Ludus (game-playing love), Storge (friendship love), Pragma (logical, “shopping list” love), Mania (possessive, dependent love), and Agape (all-giving, selfless love).

A relationship usually is a combination of these styles, but one style stays as dominant during a period. Relationships can move from one style to another based on the interplay between the people (Hendrick and Hendrick, 1986). In Ram’s and Raja (from Idhayam) cases, they fall under the Agape style of love.

Lee postulated the idea of Agape from Christian myths (Lin and Huddleston-Casas, 2005) but the same can be said about the stories in Hindu mythology. There are many such self-sacrificing love stories in Tamil religious literature, and they are consistently referred in movies to reinforce the idea of self-sacrificing love. Lin and Huddleston-Casas (2005) also found that men more tend to practice agapic love than women. Although women were considered to be caretakers, men were willing to sacrifice more because of the traditional gender roles in society. It’s the same with Ram as he consistently projects the traditional masculinity in his acts.

People who are in agapic love style show low self-esteem and they are highly emotional (Mallandain and Davies, 1994). Ram clearly exuberates these characteristics and not so surprisingly these are considered to be essential traits for a male lover in Tamil cinema. Also, Tamil cinema purports the idea of the male hero is not supposed to be a “hero” if he gives up in the pursuit of love. Case in point, the concept of mutual friendship after a rejection from the female side in a movie like “Ai Nee Romba Azhaga Irukke” (Hey, you are so beautiful) was not well received because he didn’t adhere to the rules of the typical Tamil male hero.

As a reader, you might question whether movies influence in shaping the thoughts of teenagers and young adults. There have been researches around the world and invariable of the culture, movies do affect the idea of ideal romance. For example, Galloway et al., (2015) conducted a study with young undergraduates in the US, and found that they constructed a wonderful world of romance based on the romantic comedies and they had personal aspirations to bring the imaginary world to reality. The same was observed in adolescent girls in Belgium (Driesmans et al., 2016) and many other cultures, but it depends on the mass media that they consume. For instance, the influence of anime in Japan and the Korean TV series in many different cultures.

Illouz (1997) in the book Consuming the Utopia explains how movies and other mainstream media structure the relationship routines through their representations of romance. In fact, she found that all the stories during her interviews mostly resembled popular movies and media representations. People seem to have constructed their reality based on fictional films.

Tamil cinema and over-romanticisation of love

With respect to Tamil cinema, researchers have found that although the popular cinema is an escapist form of entertainment, the audience are not duped by the movies but they found aesthetically sophisticated ways to include those narratives in their lives and find solutions for real problems (Dissanayake and Sahai, 1992; Dickey, 1993; Movies, 2000).

Love in Tamil cinema started with mythological love stories, historical fiction and stories based on Shakespeare plays. Naveena Sadaram (1935) had shades of Twelfth Night. Tamil literature is/was rife with pining lovers, and the concept moved on to movies too. In the 1960s, it was CV Sridhar who popularised the idea of self-sacrificing lovers with his Kalyana Parisu (1959) and Nenjil Oru Aalayam (1962). Although he made his mark with interesting comedies like Kadhalikka Neramillai (1964), it was his love stories that made him popular. He never changed the character of pining lover until his last movie.

The Tamil cinema in the 80s saw the emergence of the new age directors, but the romanticisation of love didn’t stop. Oru Thalai Ragam (1980) was a landmark movie in this sense, and it became a runaway cult hit with the college students. The lead characters never talk or express their love in the entire film. Although the youth of these days might make fun of the movie, they actually glorify similar “pining lovers” in movies like 7G Rainbow Colony, Vinnaithandi Varuvaya and 96.

A scene from VTV — official poster used on fair use policy for reviews

For example, take a sample of mainstream media’s list of best romantic movies in Tamil cinema, you might find the list filled with Mouna Ragam, Moondram Pirai, Vinnaithandi Varuvaya, Sethu, Minnale and many more that purport an over-romanticised version of love. These movies normalised wrong notions of love, but they are still considered to be the best romances of Tamil cinema. For example, there can’t be a film worse for a woman than Mouna Ragam. Both the male characters in the movie are selfish when it comes to love and care a damn about the wishes of the woman. In fact, more realistic Nenjathey Killathe didn’t become a cult hit, but Mouna Ragam did. Minnale normalised cheating and called it romance. Sethu is the heights of self-sacrifice as the hero resorts to the mental institution (even though he is cured) after he finds that his lover has committed suicide. (Note: As a movie reviewer, I listed some of these movies as one of the 50 best movies to watch in Tamil cinema because these movies literally changed the course of Tamil cinema)

Having said that, some movies tried, but they were never considered as cult romantic movies because they didn’t have the usual self-sacrificing lovers. If Nenjathai Killathe and Johnny can be examples from the 80s, Kadhal Kottai and Gokulathil Seethai could be some instances of sensible love stories in Tamil cinema. Post-millennium, directors experimented with beautiful love stories, like Dumm Dumm Dumm (2001), Nala Damayanthi (2003), Kanda Naal Mudhal (2005) and Maalai Pozhuthin Mayakathiley (2012) are some of the realistic portrayals of love that stems naturally. Except for Maalai Pozhuthin, the other movies were super hits, but they are never talked in the same breath as the cult hits like Minnale or Vinnaithandi Varuvaya. The number of shares on social media, articles on such movies and romanticisation of such films on social media posts clearly shows the cult status of such movies. In fact, the romance portion in an action movie like Yennai Arindhaal (surprisingly made by Gautham Menon) was better portrayed than many other love stories in Tamil cinema.

96 not only glorifies the self-sacrificing love but also celebrates those movies of the 90s through its nostalgia trope. Ram’s character is an epitome of all the self-sacrificing male lover characters in the past. He displays typical agape lover personality type like low self-esteem, victimhood, lives through nostalgic memories and even has some possessions of his lover. When he meets Janaki, he doesn’t want to move on with his life. Although she tries to bring closure to his story, he, in turn, leaves Janaki guilty, and probably rest of her life is ruined while he goes back to his self-destructing behaviour (now with an extra yellow Kurti and blue dupatta in his prized possessions).

Love has been consistently over-romanticised in Tamil cinema, and this romanticisation has influenced (actually over influenced) the mainstream thought process of love and sex.

The young people create a mythical idea of idealistic romance and love based on these over-romanticised love stories. The desires based on such movies create their world, or they create their film mediated world. The desires give meaning to them, shape them and becomes an ideology (Jesudoss, 2009). These ideologies develop their morality, and the consistent moral policing on social media is an extension of these ideologies.

One love forever, self-sacrifice, ideas of virgin brides, men should take the lead, aversion to premarital sex, the abuse of women who are open about their sexuality, playing the waiting game, stalking, false representation to woo someone and over-possessive love are some of the acts normalised by such movies. For instance, in 96, Prem Kumar (director) wouldn’t have even thought about the physical intimacy between Ram and Janaki. If Ram and Janaki had made love in the movie, it would have brought some sense of closure to their love story. But it would have gone against the popular construct of love in the minds of the audience.

The non-consummated romance is what makes the movie poetic, adheres to the ideology of the ordinary Tamil man/woman and in turn, helps to prolong the over-romanticisation of such relationships. In fact, there is a higher chance that Janaki would have been called ‘immoral’ because she wouldn’t fit in the traditional definition of the Tamil woman.

96 spurred a nostalgic wave on social media, and you would have seen many “lovers” reminiscing about their past. The reception for the movie showed that the youth and the old haven’t moved on from their ideologies of love. 96 might spawn many such films that will help the next generation to dwell on over-romanticised love stories. Nenjil Oru Aalayam influenced my dad, Oru Thalai Ragam influenced my uncle, Idhayam influenced me, Minnale influenced my cousin, Vinnai Thandi Varuvaya influenced my older nephew, and 96 would have influenced my younger nephew. Thanks to Tamil cinema, they would never know the art of love.

List of references

  1. Dickey, S. (1993) Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India (Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology). Cambridge University Press,
  2. Dissanayake, W. & Sahai, M. (1992) Representation of the city in cinema: ‘The Calcutta trilogy’. Asian Journal of Communication, 2, 157–171.
  3. Driesmans, K., Vandenbosch, L. & Eggermont, S. (2016) True love lasts forever: the influence of a popular teenage movie on Belgian girls’ romantic beliefs. Journal of Children and Media, 10, 304–320.
  4. Galloway, L., Engstrom, E. & Emmers-Sommer, T.M. (2015) Does Movie Viewing Cultivate Young People’s Unrealistic Expectations About Love and Marriage. Marriage & Family Review, 51, 687–712.
  5. Hendrick, C. & Hendrick, S. (1986) A theory and method of love. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 392–402.
  6. Illouz, E. (1997) Consuming the romantic utopia: Love and the cultural contradictions of capitalism. Univ of California Press.
  7. Jesudoss, P. (2009) Tamil Cinema. Communication Research Trends, 28, 4–27.
  8. Lin, L.-W. & Huddleston-Casas, C.A. (2005) Agape Love in Couple Relationships. Marriage & Family Review, 37, 29–48.
  9. Mallandain, I. & Davies, M.F. (1994) The colours of love: Personality correlates of love styles. Personality and individual differences, 17, 557–560.
  10. Movies, M. (2000) Modernity: An Ethnography of Men’s Filmgoing in India. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press,