Science and Scientists: Portrayals in Tamil Cinema

Cinema is one of the most radical scientific inventions of late nineteenth century though it does lie outside formal academic institutions of science. The little known Lumiere Brothers in Paris could steal a march on the self-styled inventor and an American emblem of enterprise, Thomas Alva Edison, to take credit for actualizing moving images on screen that came to acquire the name “cinema” in most parts of the world. In the course of the multi local race to the invention of moving images, it was not clear what would be the purposes of making moving images possible on screen. It was an advancement over photography in recording events. It could be a source of amusement. However, it was also promoted as an instrument of science to help study phenomena. Finally, its most celebrated purpose was to become another addition to the art of story-telling and creative vocation. One of the persons who bought the camera-projector machine from Lumiere Brothers, Georges Melies, was also a magician who used cinematography as an extension of the magical to narrate fantastic stories on screen. In such a function, it became the cornerstone of popular culture that would reach out to the masses all over the world. When film production came to India and Tamil Nadu, the urge was to see Gods walk on the screen. Even if it were the actors who did the walking in front of camera, the realization of movement on screen from the frozen images on the film strip had a touch of magic to it that it appeared aligned to the super natural. Hence, mythological films and devotional films in which Gods appeared formed essential part of early cinema in following the direction Milies took.  The first Tamil silent film was Keechaga Vatham narrating a story from Mahabharata.


However, in due course of time, cinema in Tamil Nadu had to confront social realities as well as its own self-realization as scientific invention by reflecting on science and technology. Science, particularly in the field of medicine was highly regarded as boon to humanity. However, Faustus syndrome, that scientists go for knowledge for the sake of knowledge, extinguishing the “soul” in the process, which could be dangerous for humanity, was also an idea that would often rear its head. While both science-philia and science-phobia could be seen in many films as an element of the main narration or that of comic sub plot, the basic line is while science is good, men, the scientists could often deploy science for destructive purposes out of greed or self-aggrandizement. In fact, this has rather been a persistent theme. We need to take a brief note of three important films in the history of Tamil cinema to see how this conundrum of science is played out. The first film is the offbeat experiment Andha Naal (1952) directed by S.Balachandar that was critically acclaimed, the second a box office extravaganza, Ulagam Sutrum Valiban (1972) featuring  M.G.Ramachandran and the third, another national block buster, Enthiran/Robot (2012) directed by  Shankar. In all these three, what should have been a scientific advancement in the interest of humanity turns out to be a force of destruction.


Andhaa Naal was one of the early films of Sivaji Ganesan who plays the role of radio engineer Rajan. Rajan, a man consumed by passion for science, was killed one day, early in the morning. The film develops into a whodunit plot with a detective forming a hypothesis on the basis of flashback accounts rendered by four suspects. The real culprit is, however, the unsuspected soft-spoken and genteel wife of Rajan. It is in her account of what happened that the unbridled passion for mastering nature through science comes to be seen as self-aggrandizement at the cost of others. Rajan and his wife Usha were in college together. Usha was involved in the freedom struggle. When students wanted to cancel classes due to a call for protest on behalf of freedom fighters, a debate was organized. Usha advocated the need for students to support the nationalist cause. Rajan dissuades her saying education, knowledge and advancement are far more important to humanity than such political strife as the independence struggle. Rajan hails from a humble background; his passion for studies is not lost on Usha, though she feels it necessary to be part of the struggle for independence. This difference does not come in the way of their attraction to each other that blossoms into love. Usha’s father tries to mobilize support for Rajan’s aspirations in scientific research. However, Rajan does not get the support in the scale in which he needs it. Being disgruntled about the apathy of his fellow nationals, Rajan, an expert in communication, establishes contact with the Japanese through the use of radio and begins to spy for them. He places his hopes on a Japanese conquest  of India as the Japanese had promised him full support for his research. As he was about to leave to join the Japanese forces after guiding them to bomb Chennai and several dams in South India, Usha finds out his design. In the scuffle to stop him from proceeding with his plans, the revolver held by her accidentally fires, killing Rajan.


Andha Naal is fascinating in the complex relationship it seeks to establish between the ethical priorities of national life and scientific advancement. While there should be no conflict between the two as both are invested in betterment of the life of the people, Gandhian priorities of ensuring life attuned with nature appear to come in the way of a greedy conquest of nature by science and technology. It is this philosophical difference between the paradigms of “attunement with” vis-à-vis “mastery of nature”, fleetingly mentioned in the arguments between Usha and Rajan, that leads Rajan to align with Japanese conquest by betraying the nation. Being a Gandhian, Usha does not kill him; it is Rajan who tries to wrench the revolver from Usha’s hands who inadvertently pulls the trigger to have himself shot. Such is the manipulative side of science and technology that leads to self-destruction as per the film.


A similar theme of science as both a boon and a curse returns with a sensational hit film of a mature M.G.Ramachandran in Ulagam Sutram Valiban (An Young Man who Travelled Around the World). The matinee idol played a double role in the film, as brothers. The elder brother Murugan is a scientist, and Raju, hero of the film, is his younger brother. In the opening sequence of the film, Murugan succeeds in a radical invention of harnessing the energy produced by lightening in some contraption that can be placed in a capsule. When released, it produces tremendous energy like a powerful bomb. When he shares the information with his fellow scientists, they turn greedy and villainous wanting to appropriate it as a weapon for purposes of war and destruction instead of employing it for constructive purposes. Murugan who had anticipated such greedy usurping had separated the formulae required to make this energy capsule/bomb into three parts, sequestering them in three different secret locations in the world, mainly East Asia, namely, Singapore, Thailand and Japan. The younger brother is assigned with the task of recovering them before the villains do. Given his heroic abilities, Raju not only manages to do this but also secures the release of Murugan held captive by the villains. The  film was a mass entertainer, shot on exquisite foreign locales including the world fair Expo 70 held in Osaka with the theme of “Progress and Harmony for Mankind”, adequately interspersed with romantic interludes and long fight sequences. However, the film did succeed in making the uneducated or rather illiterate masses reckon with the possibility of science as something that can place great potential in the hands of humanity which may be used creatively or destructively.


Released three decades later, Shankar’s Enthiran/ Robot that ran to packed houses all over India, returned to the same theme with a fantastic breakthrough in robotics, a robot with infinite capacity for memory-action synthesis created by the scientist Vaseegaran, played by super star Rajnikanth. The scientist spends all his youth to create the neural circuit required to create the superhuman robot. The purpose was to use the robot in the defense of the nation and save hundreds of human lives, as the robot can achieve what  a thousand soldiers can do. However, the villainous colleague of Vaseegaran points out that the robot could easily be manipulated as it simply obeys command rather than discriminate between them. Thus challenged, Vaseegaran works to create in Chitti, the robot that looks exactly like him, human feelings. Alas, this ability to feel results in the robot Chitti falling in love with Vaseegaran’s girl friend Sana. Having fallen in love, Chitti refuses to fight in the audition with defense authorities who laugh at Vaseegaran for the strange outcome his breakthrough had produced. In total frustration at the impossible transgression the robot attempts, Vaseegaran dismantles the robot throwing the scrap away. This however gets picked up by the rival scientist, who then empowers the robot with destructive abilities to be sold to foreign mercenaries. Now fully empowered with independent thought, ruthlessness and single-minded pursuit of union with Sana, the robot creates thousands of replicas of itself, creating a well-guarded autonomous zone of rule into which it kidnaps Sana. How Vaseegaran manages to break through into the miniature kingdom run by his look alike robots controlled by Chitti, rescues Sana in a spell binding show down with the robot army and finally dismantles Chitti is the rest of the story.


The juxtaposition created between feeling on the one hand, knowledge and power on the other in Robot is very reminiscent of the conflict between nationalism and science in Andhaa Naal. Strangely, robot adds a rider: it is that the feeling of narcissism can turn one into an all-conquering spirit. While the role of the villainous scientist is very similar to the self-serving corrupt souls in Ulagam Sutrum Valiban, what is new in Enthiran/Robot is that the root of the conflict is within a person whose narcissism can undo every human potential as much as it is the very turf of compassion and love. In such an outlook, scientific discoveries seem to place too dangerous a toy in the hands of all too vulnerable human beings.


Such popular tropes in Tamil cinema, however, does not hint or reproduce the dystopian futures that science fiction in the West is known for. For very many reasons, science is not yet linked to totalizing powers of governance in Tamil popular imagination, though a little bit of that has been tried out by a few writers in prose fiction, in what might be deemed as pale imitation of Western imagination. In that sense, in so far as Tamil cinema is concerned, science is still linked with human enterprise for betterment, though there are many a risk that hinder the process due to human vulnerabilities like greed and narcissism. In the recent years, a new crop of light-hearted small budget films are being made with familiar themes like time travel, meteorites and super consciousness. It is possible that more positive and educative narratives may come by in the days to come.


Rajan Kurai Krishnan is an Associate Professor at School of Culture and Creative Expressions, Ambedkar University, New Delhi.

This article is a part of the Confluence series on Perceiving and Reacting to Science. The other articles in the series can be found here.

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