Busted: A myth up in flames
This weekly column debunks the various myths propagated by Indian cinema—Tamil films in particular
Myth: A trail of petrol can be ignited with a cigarette
Propagated in: Annamalai, Jana, The Usual Suspects
Ask any Rajinikanth fan what his favourite thalaivar film is, and chances are Annamalai will rank somewhere near the top. There are a lot of moments from that film that worked both for the casual admirer as well as the ardent Rajini fan. One of the film’s most whistle-worthy scenes comes towards the end when fuel from the car driven by the villain spills on the road and Annamlai lights up the petrol trail with his cigarette, while uttering that famous retributive dialogue, “I am a bad man.” This isn’t, of course, the only film to have such a scene. A lot of other Tamil films have used this idea too.
So we promptly called up M Shahul Hameed, Joint Director, Fire and Rescue Services to enquire if this was realistic. He begins, “There are a couple of properties associated with petrol. One of them is called the flammability range. For petrol, it is pretty wide and it ranges from 23 to 90. So, it is more inflammable than say kerosene which has a far narrower range of 36 to 70. But that doesn’t mean that you can ignite it easily,” he says, adding that petrol as a liquid doesn’t burn easily at all. “It is the vapour form that burns. If you throw a cigarette butt into a petrol trail, it will simply get extinguished. Another property is called flash point which is basically the lowest temperature at which a material ignites and for petrol to be ignited, you would need a steady flame and not a cigarette butt. Forget a cigarette butt, even with a burning matchstick, you’d struggle to ignite a petrol trail.”
Well, that leaves another myth up in flames. But before you scoff at Tamil cinema for this, know that this misconception isn’t just limited to our films. Even The Usual Suspects, considered by many to be one of the best films in Hollywood, has this scene.