Jallikattu: A Tale of Bulls and Balls

Social Commentary

Jallikattu: A Tale of Bulls and Balls

Illustration: Akshita Monga

The 1980 film Murattu Kaalai, loosely translated as “rogue bull” is an essential part of Tamil cinematic history on several counts. It proved to be crucial to Rajinikanth’s career, and cemented his transition from a mere actor to a superstar; its stunts inspired many subsequent movies; and it continues to be referenced in contemporary Tamil cinema. One of the landmark sequences of the film is built around the sport of jallikattu.

The rich, villainous landlord organises the game, and for the prize, offers both land and his sister’s hand in marriage. When one of the players injures himself, Rajinikanth falls into the fray when the villagers tell him: “Don’t go near the bull – just one hit, and your intestines will fall out.” This well-intentioned advice, meant merely to reinforce the danger attached with the sport, has the opposite effect of convincing him to participate. In that moment, Rajinikanth is only competing for the top prize – not the land or the hand of the landlord’s sister – but the chance to prove his masculinity to himself.

Twenty four years later, a similar sequence plays out in an entirely different film starring another Tamil icon. In 2004’s Virumaandi, the village cheers on Kamal Hassan, the “manliest” of the lot as he tames the bull. Of course he is successful – when are Tamil heroes not? The sequence is followed up by a song intended to honour the noble bull that has lost the physical battle, but it is actually a song about the heroine who has lost the battle of her heart to this valiant display of manliness.

The two biggest stars of our state, two of their most beloved movies, and a contemporary debate.

The pro-jallikattu sentiments that we have witnessed since 2017 have been premised on preservation of a cultural tradition. We’ve heard that banning jallikattu is akin to attacking a marker of Tamil identity. We have even heard of how jallikattu is a way to protect indigenous cattle breeds and that a ban will leave no impetus for farmers to preserve them.

The underlying sentiment was not that of love for the bull or for your Tamil identity – it was personal glory and a big boost to your masculinity.

But what these arguments have shied away from articulating is the essential nature of jallikattu: That it is the veera velaiyattu, or the warrior sport of our state. Before the protest movement gained momentum, the game was not loved and revered because it helped in the preservation of native breeds. It was loved and revered for its excitement and aggression. It was anticipated for the adrenaline rush it accorded the participants. It was a chance to prove your courage and bravery by subjugating a bellicose bull.

The underlying sentiment was not that of love for the bull or for your Tamil identity – it was personal glory and a big boost to your masculinity. And the victory of the protestors might be a win for identity or indigenous breeds, but it is, first and foremost, a triumph for perpetuating patriarchal notions, a triumph of machismo. A machismo that almost completely rules out the participation of women – except by association, except as prize for taming the bull. In a contest to maintain man’s mastery over a beast, the bull and the woman are oddly conflated and objectified: Both are treated like conquests.

Two years ago, when the protests reached a crescendo, it wasn’t difficult to see how steeped in patriarchal notions even this movement was. “Takkaru Takkaru”, for instance, is a pro-jallikattu anthem by the popular artist, Hip Hop Thamizha. In the video, the artist attempts to highlight the need for preserving native cattle breeds, but it reeks of hypermasculinity. Two sets of men are pitted against each other and get into a violent skirmish. It’s all bulls, black SUVs, and brawls in a sausage fest. Women are conspicuously absent: In the villages and in the corporate board room where the opening meeting takes place. (This, from an artist whose earlier song, “Club Le Mabbu Le” questioned what was happening to the land of Tamil Nadu because its girls were wearing short clothes and dancing in bars.) This is the version of Tamil culture that we have seen being defended over the last few years, a culture that seems to be in denial of the existence of half its populace.


Tamil hypermasculinity is the status quo and it is not going anywhere.

Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

However, if you are a female supporter of the movement, you are lauded for it on every popular Facebook page and group, and labelled a “strong thamizachi” for rallying for the cause. The on-ground protests at Marina Beach have been lauded for how safe it was for women, even though that should be the norm, and not the exception. But if you dared voice an unpopular opinion, you face the worst kind of online harassment by having your personal choices and your character violently attacked. Last January, a poster announcing actor Trisha’s death due to HIV (hinting that she is sexually promiscuous) made the rounds. Her fault? She had endorsed PETA. Rabble-rousers also dug up personal photos of PETA India CEO Poorva Joshipora with a drink in her hand and shamed her for it. The same rules did not seem to apply to male celebrities, who were criticised, but never harassed; mocked, but not abused. No rape or death threats were issued against them.

The message is clear: Tamil hypermasculinity is the status quo and it is not going anywhere. Jallikattu will remain in our villages and our towns and our films. And along with that, we will continue to witness these other tropes of hideous patriarchy that we have come to accept: The romanticisation of stalking and other predatory behaviour passed off as a hero’s determination. We will continue to objectify our bulls and our women.

We have reached this place because we haven’t called out decades of hypermasculinity enough. With our voices being silenced yet again, we will continue to be here.

This is an updated version of an earlier published story.