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Body shaming shamed the 94th Oscars ceremony held in Los Angeles on March 27, 2022. It grabbed headlines the world over not because of the customary glamour and glitz but because a best actor winner was worked up to the point of ascending the stage and catching the presenter and comedian unawares with a strong slap. This had social media abuzz with instant videos and comments that were sharply divided in their take.
Tongues began wagging about why Chris Rock jovially referenced the buzz cut (caused by a disease known as alopecia) of Jada Pinkett Smith, wife of Will Smith, saying, “Jada, I love you. G.I. Jane 2. Can’t wait to see it.” And about why Will Smith who initially seemed pleased suddenly stood up, walked up to the stage and punched the stand-up comic. The night ended up being discussed for what’s billed as the ugliest moment in the history of the Oscars; not for the winner film ‘Coda; nor for the winners such as Jessica Chastain, Jane Campion and so on.
It was the slapping episode, not the film ‘King Richard’ he got his Oscars for, which catapulted Will Smith to global fame overnight.Subsequently he regretted the slap and resigned from the Academy.
In Tamil cinema, however, body shaming is casually and routinely used although it’s more of a recent phenomenon.
There can hardly be two opinions about the undesirability of physical violence, that too, at a publicly acclaimed event like Oscars. But no less undesirable and condemnable is body-shaming; joking about someone’s appearance. In fact, humor played at the expense of others is disgusting and in bad taste. In Tamil cinema, however, body shaming is casually and routinely used although it’s more of a recent phenomenon.
Tamil comedy, performed on the celluloid or at public events such as ‘pattrimandram’ (competitive discourse), unfortunately, involves dollops of body-shaming. In Tamil cinema there are lots of Chris Rocks who crack jokes at freakish-looking people. For instance, a Tamil teacher is always portrayed as a funnily unusual figure, a butt of jokes, in the celluloid narrative. Venniraadai Murthy, a well-known comedian, who plays Tamil professor in ‘Eeramana Rosavae’ (1991), is made to hold a burning cigarette unknowingly by some prankster students. His slapstick comedy and dialogue delivery with double entendre are quite far from capturing a dignified Tamil teacher.
A Tamil poet or a scholar is another Tamil cinema template for rib-tickling the audience. In Thiruvilaiyaadal (1965), Nagesh portrays the role of an impoverished Tamil poet called Dharumi that Lord Shiva helps, ghost-writing a poem. The thin Dharumi cuts a sorry figure in the court, moving about awkwardly and pleading for money.
MS Bhaskar, a Tamil professor in Santhosh Subramaniam (2008), is named as ‘Koothaperumal’ funnily and nicknamed as ‘sarukkumaram’ (sloping wood) by Santhanam and his cohorts. His shining baldness of head, as in the case of Jada Pinkett Smith, is targeted comically. To add insult to the injury, he is sent on an errand of wooing the heroine on behalf of the hero.
Tamil cinema has long extracted as much fun from the template of a policeman with outshaped bodies, who always bungles, fumbles and cuts a sorry figure; he’s called ‘sirippu police’ (police meant for eliciting laughter). The scene in ‘Marudhamalai’ (2007), in which Vadivelu, a cop with a queer moustache, tearfully releasing an accused so the latter can go see his mother and the scene of the policeman being treated on a par with a beggar are no doubt rife with heavy doses of humor. It is a textbook performance of the well-entrenched ‘sirippu police’ concept. But it’s quite baffling that watching the scenes, no real policeman batted an eyelid; nor was he cut to the quick.
Body-shaming came of age in the 1980s Tamil cinema with Goundamani. His colloquial epithets targeting the bodies of others became benchmarks that present-day comedians such as Santhanam, Soori, Yogi Babu follow. ‘Vaidehi Katthirunthaal’ (1984) was the hallmark of Goundamani’s body shaming. Goundamani described Senthil as ‘komuttithalaiya’ (ugly headed man), ‘sattithalaya’ (pot headed man). This style echoed in the comment passed by Santhanam in the 2021 film ‘Dikkilona’ (a word that will surely set a Tamil language buff rack his/her brains) about the crutch of a disabled scientist. The crutch was billed as a ‘side-stand’ by the comedian.
Dwarf-like figures (remember Dhavakkalai in K Bhagyaraj film ‘MunthaanaiMudichu”?), oddly lean figures (the lanky Manobala mockingly hailed as a lizard in a film) and short and plump figures with a mass of hair (Yogi Babu compared to a teddy bear sitting in a chair in a film) are typical in Tamil cinema.
Body-shaming came of age in the 1980s Tamil cinema with Goundamani. His colloquial epithets targeting the bodies of others became benchmarks that present-day comedians such as Santhanam, Soori, Yogi Babu follow.
There is no dearth of scenes body-shaming parents too. Vivek in a film compares his father played by a soot-colored actor to a raven; Goundamani addresses his father played by Senthil in a disrespectful style as ‘deithakappa’ and calls him names.
On the contrary, comedians of the earlier era such as Kali N Ratthinam (remember Sabapathy?), N S Krishnan, Thangavelu, A Karunanidhi, K Sarangapani and Nagesh made it a point to not indulge in vulgarizing or body-shaming humor. There is something Chaplinesque about their comedies. ‘Mannaran Company Manager’ is still remembered for Thangavelu’s neat, clean and decent comedy. NSK used subtle humor to hit home social messages, never making witty comments targeting fellow humans. The sequence where NSK lists in a song the varieties of laughter, comic, villainous, sheepish, sparing and so on takes the cake in sublime comedy.
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