Drugs, Action and Sentiment -The holy Trinity of LCU
With the Leo fever gripping the country, and the Lokesh Kanagaraj hype train reaching an all-new high, the writer discusses another high that his film constantly uses to varying effects
One of the most successful films in Tamil last year was Vikram. A director who had just made three films in his career, not only got the opportunity to work with Kamal Haasan, but also made the film a massive blockbuster. This gargantuan success propelled the young Lokesh Kanagaraj into the big leagues not just in Tamil cinema, but Indian cinema itself. If we thought, he peaked early, his next film, Leo, which reunited him with Vijay, cemented his position as an A-Lister. If doubts still persist, his next with Rajinikanth should put an end to all of it. Of course, his tryst with his own Lokesh Cinematic Universe, had created newer avenues hitherto unexplored in Indian cinema.
Known for his penchant for action films, Lokesh openly admits his affinity towards the action films made in America and Hong Kong during the 1980s and 1990s. As a result the action scenes we see in his films mostly involve physical stunts with very less usage of special effects. They are complete in the sense that they all have a proper buildup to begin with followed by a convincing justification for the purpose of the violence they entail.
Another aspect of his films is the theme of the omniscient presence of drugs in the society. The presence of drugs in Lokesh’s films, irrespective of the real life credibility behind the argument that Tamil society is one that’s filled with drug circulation, helps Lokesh validate specific aspects in his filmmaking style. In fact, we see the bad guys in LCU be brutally inhuman just because they themselves are heavily addicted to drug usage and violently motivated at garnering profits from it to the point of exploiting youngsters who are inherently naive. And what is his choice of drug? Cocaine.
The usage of cocaine is most prevalent today in China and Hong Kong, only next to the US. According to the ‘Global Report on Cocaine 2023’ by UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) the involvement of India in the global cocaine market hasn’t much to do with its consumption for recreational purposes but rather as an intermediary point in its export from the west to countries of South East Asia and Australia. Even taking India into account, with its comparatively lesser consumption of cocaine than other countries, states like Punjab and Arunachal Pradesh are the ones that are most susceptible to cocaine usage. To quote verbatim from the report,
“The indications of cocaine use and trafficking in East and South-East Asia are limited and point mainly to moderate levels of use in specific urban pockets…”
In short, the cocaine trafficking and circulation might become a threat in India only in the distant future.
The drug that poses the greatest risk for India/Tamil Nadu is ganja (marijuana). When that’s the scenario, Lokesh Kanagaraj’s depiction in his films of the prevalence of heavy amounts of cocaine and the gangsteric backgrounds surrounding it, invariably makes us question the realistic credibility behind it. At most, such a judgement is a by-product of an ingrained paranoia that what if the distribution of cocaine would exceed the current limits, while the data clearly points out that the cocaine market in India at the moment is not the biggest drug problem looming on India’s horizon.
Then why does almost all of Lokesh’s films talk excessively about cocaine? What might be the reason his films work with the audiences?
Listening to most of Lokesh Kanagaraj’s interviews what he repeatedly says is that, as we had said already, he loves action and wants to make a film that adheres to the stylistic elements of the genre. His ways of achieving that is through belligerent stunts that demand quite an effort on the actors who partake in them. To make those stunts have the desired effect he’s constantly on the search in finding the right scenario where such an action scene appears most convincing.
Within the LCU, the heroes all seem to be pretty detached from their families. At the same time they have a feeble chance of getting in touch with their loved ones. Whether they’re successful at it or not that’s totally a different thing. This aspect while providing the emotional intensity for the action the heroes involve in, kind of sanctions their violence even without the social commentary on the usage and distribution of cocaine itself.
The villains, on the other hand, have a narcissistic side based exposition of their basal instincts let loose by the drug.
Fundamentally, there’s not much of a difference between the violent activities of the heroes and villains but only the impending difference of what that violence is motivated at. The action films that had worked worldwide contains certain thematic similarities. There has been quite an amount of research gone into action genre. Things that stand out in those researches, especially that done by a scholar named Barna William Donovan, is that: The action films work when the hero has an emotional/sentimental side to himself being the reason for his involvement in violence. The bigger the enemy the hero had to confront, the greater the appeal for the violence. That’s why, if the hero goes against a politician or a person well situated in the govt establishment, the action appears more convincing because they reiterate the impending desire for fictional and cathartic violence every normal working-class person has inside them.
Right from Maanagaram there’s always more than one lead character in his films; or at most there’s an ongoing friendship or respect the hero has on another person who share the same ideals as the hero. Like the bond between the character of Narain and Karthi in Kaithi the characters of Kamal Hasan and Fahadh in Vikram. Interestingly, the anti-establishment nature of the hero is always missing in his films. To compensate for that, the bad guys in those films tend to appear much crazier and worse, out of an impetus from drug usage (cocaine). And the way those guys are portrayed would make one believe that the government is never a match for those guys when it comes to oppression. Crystallising the villains as people who have nothing to do with the government, but at the same time being threats that are much greater than the establishment end up allowing Lokesh to choose the hero’s attributes be quite shielded from the quirks of the current populist politics.
As said earlier, cocaine, as of now, is not much of a problem for India as per the estimate of UNODC’s 2023 report. At the same time to showcase India/Tamil society as one that has a widespread consumption of cocaine to a degree that’s beyond imagination in a movie, should make the film work in a city that’s filled with cocaine in actual fact (definitely not Tamil Nadu. That too in Trichy? Well!). To state the obvious, that would be the United States (looking at the way Lokesh’s films are made, especially the action sequences). In short one could say that Lokesh’s films would be more suited to the American Society rather than India/Tamil Nadu. There is no surprise he had incorporated the multiverse concept that’s in vogue today.
Irrespective of the cross-cultural influence of American cinema in India, there’s still a reason why such a portrayal of a cocaine society appears meaningful for Lokesh Kanagaraj. When the villains are so bad it helps Lokesh to showcase his heroes to go beyond themselves and fight the bad guys. It sanctions for him the usage of excessive violence. Because that violence is directed against cocaine, the morality behind that violence is also justified. As cocaine today is something that falls well below the radar of the government, for reasons well explained before, the intrusion of policemen in the story would either be bare minimum, or cops who are stereotypically corrupt. His substitution of the anti-establishment narrative with one that’s anti-cocaine garners this level of attention precisely because of the cinematic indoctrination of Hollywood within Tamil society.
As long as these films are worthwhile in terms of entertainment it is fair tidings for both the viewers who want to have a good time as well as the crew who bask in revenue. But Lokesh’s villainous characters had already started creating a different kind of problem. Unfortunately all his villains, at some point or the other in the films, appear more charismatic and attractive for the youngsters than the heroes themselves. One needn’t have to make any effort in recognising the amount of attention Arjun Das, Vijay Sethupathi and Suriya received even though those films are against the characters they played. The viewers are getting introduced little by little to the attributes and behaviours after cocaine consumption; that when some time in the future when India or Tamil Nadu would have cocaine as their major problem, everyone would’ve been well-informed regarding all the where and whats of cocaine.
Other than this singular paranoia that Lokesh’s films appear to contain (next to films of Nelson) both the entertainment and violence his films (both inside and outside the LCU) revel in should be understood in a way that it is all fiction. While the real threat of cocaine is a future impediment, the charisma of a bad person that Lokesh’s films are filled with is something that viewers should consume with proper discretion, and not ignored like the bunch of disclaimers making its way in the opening of every film.