Writers like Suketha Metha find Hindi films appealing because they do not claim to represent reality. By the same logic, Tamil films too can be equally fantastic and entertaining. However, there is a divide: one is always seen as better and in good taste and the other lacks finesse.
“Om Shanti Om “showed Shah Rukh Khan spoofing Rajinikanth. As he makes fun, the camera pans to show Tamil actors in bright-coloured pants, colourful shirts wearing cheap sunglasses and footwear in total mismatch. Shah Rukh Khan himself as a Tamil hero wears an “outlandish” outfit. Spoofs on television also depict Rajni and, by extension other Tamil heroes, in equally wacky costumes. Visually translated this shows a person with incompatible costumes in poor taste.
The spoofs are not subtle as a subtext. They are straight and staring. What is in the eye of the light-hearted comedies is the costume. It is about the clothing of a hero or the lack of it.
The fashion and Hindi film world often share their values and support each other. The prolific use of branded costumes and the presence of personal fashion designers are well known. The stars walk the ramps and those who walk the ramps easily slip into films. The fashion consciousness went so far that, this time, Shah Rukh and Saif Ali Khan — compering the 53rd Filmfare Award — instituted an extempore award for the badly dressed and awarded it to Vidya Balan. Vidya Balan, according to a website, “is a Tamilian from Kerala”.
This is not just about one being commodity fetish while the other is not. Neither is the difference a simple matter of aesthetic choice and codes. In whatever manner one may look at it, the semiotic function of costumes is no less important in the Tamil films. Tamil heroes do not stumble upon their costumes on Monday morning and settle for something bizarre for the rest of the week. Nor is their wardrobe a comic collection of leftovers. The careless figures are carefully cultivated.
Unlike Hindi films, costumes in Tamil films do not stop with being a style function. They speak many things at the same time. Remember the silky red and black outfits MGR often wore. The colour choice could be blasphemy in the fashion world. But in Tamil films, given the cultural milieu, they conveyed the political affinities of the hero. No Tamil actor can afford not to celebrate the dhoti somewhere, somehow in a movie. Ramarajan, the rustic hero who was well received in the rural belt, is known to wear bright costumes. Actor Vijay, who enjoys immense fan following, is also known for his eclectic costume choices.
These costumes may not be drawn from the incestuous fashion world but they graft symbols from other realms. In south Indian iconography, the human and super human resemble each other closely; but when super powers have to be made visible, bodies either acquire new objects or transform what they already have to reveal the powers — something like how comic book heroes such as Superman transforms from an ordinary person to a superhero. Michael Chabon, writing in the New Yorker, explains that such comic book heroes need costumes made from less real materials to pull off such transformation. The Tamil film does it differently.
Rajini’s kakhi pants and plaid shirt over round collared yellow knitwear may not be a blazing fashion statement. It puts together pieces of everyday costume in a unique way that appears common, attainable and easy to reproduce. When the bad guys attack or when the damsel is in distress all that Rajini has to do is roll the spilling shirt and knot it across his waist. It only takes a twirl of his sunglasses to express his nonchalance, to add to his ferocity and to show his readiness to take on the bad guys. The ordinary scarf becomes a potent object and at times even works as a weapon. In that moment, ordinary costume and everyday object acquires a supernatural meaning. Passage to heroism is about what one does to what one wears and need not necessarily own a fashion boutique
There are indeed clearly demarcated spaces like dream sequences or songs in foreign locales in Tamil films where the costumes are evidently less real or, in other words, more fashionable. Such occurrences are brief interludes in an otherwise interesting journey of the real and the fantastic. In this, the costume remains closer to the earth so that when it is up in the sky one can understand the leap that has been made possible in a simply southern way. The viewer is at ease and is able to relate to what is happening without having to lose his location as an ordinary citizen. The costume of a Tamil heroine is more complicated and a separate story.