The first teaser for director Arun Matheswaran’s debut movie Rocky included a scene where a father wails hopelessly as he watches his son being dismembered mercilessly. The scene felt totally barbaric, and even surreal for this is the first time in Tamil cinema that a filmmaker has dared to show such extreme acts of violence for such an extended period.
The camera lingered on Rocky’s back for long as a physically strong man is cut open. Arun doesn’t rush through the scene for the comfort of the audience and it is unnerving. There is stillness amid a lot of action; a lot of calm in the face of senseless violence.
Once Rocky cuts open the body, the camera zooms in on the hacksaw blade, the murder weapon, dripping with blood and tiny pieces of flesh. Then, Rocky proceeds to desecrate the lifeless body by pulling out what we later find out is his victim’s intestine and putting it around his victim’s shoulders as garland.
The scene depicting extreme violence is shot in black and white. Like the victim’s father, played by Bharathiraja, we see the incident from a distance and the camera spares us a close-up shot of all the gore. The scene is staged in a way that provokes an experience that is hard to make sense of. The violence depicted in the scene is explicit and yet obscure from the audience’s view. It is direct and implied at once. The line that separates the scene from being a straight-up gore fest and a well shot, and well-performed piece is very thin.
Arun Matheswaran calls for a serious application of our critical thinking to distinguish the violence in his film from the overly-stylised acts of violence portrayed in the grab of heroism in other movies. In a way, this film dissuades us from the illusion of violence that was fed to us by earlier movies. Violence is not fashionable. It is a lot of work, takes a huge toll on our mental well-being, is ugly, dirty and has unbearable consequences.
Taking this particular scene at its face value and dismissing it as a bad influence would be improper. The mental exhaustion that is caused by just watching it is such that it could actively discourage one from involving in any kind or form of violence.
Now, to release the whole scene as the film’s teaser is a ballsy move as it establishes clearly that this film is not for the faint-hearted. It was a clear enough message that this film is going to shine a light on some dark corners of our human civilization, which we pretend doesn’t exist as we surround ourselves in pleasures.
The way Rocky kills his victim is not unheard of. “I will pull your gut out and wear it as garland,” is a sort of common threat we have heard people use, sometimes playfully and at times seriously. We also have a depiction of such violence in our mythology. We have grown up hearing how Lord Vishnu took on the avatar of man-lion, Narasimha, and disembowelled the demon king Hiranyakashipu.
But, none before Arun Matheswaran had dared to graphically depict this particular act of violence in detail and with some patience. And the film’s setup innately compromises the demarcation between good and evil. It pits a demon versus a demon and we have to root for the lesser evil, who longs for a second chance in life.
A hero slaughtering hordes of people by claiming a moral high ground and promoting violence as a quick fix to all our social problems is deeply problematic and morally questionable. On the other hand, when the violence is depicted in the context of war, it takes a different shape. The setup is devoid of any sort of moral ambiguity and it places us at a vantage point from where we can see the meaninglessness of violence.
Rocky’s parents fled their home country, Sri Lanka, to escape the war. But, the war was not done with them and follows them to Tamil Nadu, where they seek asylum. Rocky’s father pursues a life of crime to survive and when he dies, Rocky fills his shoes. For some people, escaping from the cycle of violence seems impossible.
Manimaran is an emotionally well-sorted man. He never engages in violence for the sake of it but as a deterrent. His son is his antithesis — a coward, he uses it to hide his insecurity and fear. And when he kills Rocky’s mother for no good reason, he disembowels him. Manimaran, who saw his only son being butchered, waits patiently for 17 years to exact his revenge.
He wants his revenge to be as staggering as Rocky’s. He doesn’t want to kill Rocky but he wants to kill everything that Rocky wants to live for, including his pregnant sister and niece.
Vasanth Ravi’s eyes are haunting as they look empty and betray no emotion. Rocky feels that he has no other choice but to kill every last one of them who deprived him of a reason to live. Bharathiraja excels in a handful of acting flourishes. Manimaran’s lust for revenge is no different from Rocky’s. He’s consumed by vengeance and understands the pointlessness of his pursuit, but cannot give it up. To give it up will be akin to giving up the one reason he has to be alive. Manimaran and Rocky are caught up in the vicious tit-for-tat trap. It won’t end until both of them conquer their inner demons by tapping into their reservoirs of tolerance and forgiveness.
Cinematographer Shreeyas Krishna’s frames are sharp. The composition of each shot is visually inventive as different hues of lights depict various moods in a visual style that Wong Kar-wai would approve of. In particular, the corridor fight scene set inside of an unfinished building is path-breaking. The action scene is inspired by Park Chan-wook’s 2003 movie Old Boy. But, Arun and his stunt team led by Dinesh Subbarayan invent a new variation of the iconic movie moment. And who would have thought watching an action scene play out in a long shot as opposed to typical close-ups would be such an impactful and visually arresting experience?