An explainer on foreign policy using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 4, Balance of Power runs through Chekka Chivantha Vaanam.
One of the great things about being Tamil is that you can experience Mani Ratnam’s films without filters. I am sure, however, that his latest movie, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is haunting across languages.
The movie is about Senapathi (a mafia don) and his family, and which of his three sons will succeed him. Varadan, the eldest (played by Arvind Swami, who rocks a 6-pack) rules the roost at Chennai, the centre of operations. Thyagu (Arjun) makes shady business deals in Dubai while Ethi (played by a surprisingly bearable STR) runs guns and drugs in Serbia. When Senapathi (Prakash Raj) dies, the three brothers turn on each other.
Varadan assumes charge at the helm of the empire, refusing to send money to his brothers in his typical hot-headed fashion. In Serbia, Ethi loses his wife Chaya a day after his marriage when a sniper shoots her at the window of their bedroom. Convinced that her death is at Varadan’s behest, Ethi convinces Thyagu that he needs to go back home to take over as the rightful heir. His reasoning is that Varadan is too hot-headed to run the family business, while the two younger brothers could expand their empire to a global scale. When Thyagu finds out that his wife was arrested on trumped-up charges of drug smuggling, the partnership is cemented. The two brothers make their way to Chennai, where there is more bloodshed, pain and tears.
Varadan is a number of things: power-hungry, angry, naïve. In his quick temper, he was ignorant of the effects of power politics, particularly the balance of power. In international relations, balance of power is when “the power of one nation or alliance is literally balanced by the equal power of another.” As Varadan controlled all the power and resources, the two brothers join forces knowing that they will match or even surpass that of Varadan’s.
There are a number of ways to look at the balance of power. One is as an equilibrium point. This was an approach taken by realist thinkers like Hans Morgenthau who theorized that States form alliances to affect the balance of power. In Europe for example, Great Britain held the role of a balancer until the early 20th century. In Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, it is Inspector Rasool (played by the indomitable Vijay Sethupathi) who constantly tips the balance.
Consider how states acted in the middle of the last century to skew a balance of power in their favour. In World War I, The Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance evolved into the Allied and Central powers as countries increasingly joined an alliance that would increase their power against the other. Similarly, in World War II, The Allied Powers formed a military alliance simply to resist the advances of the Axis powers.
However, much of the literature in international relations looks at balance of power as a distribution. Look at how the Cold War was described as a bipolar world with countries gravitating towards the United States or the USSR. In Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, this plays out in the second half of the movie when Ethi and Thyagu manage to capture a favourable balance of power, and Varadan is forced to flee out of his realm.
There is still much criticism of balance of power because of the number of definitions it has. In 2016, Richard Schweller pointed out that there were at least seven different ideations of it:
Among its various meanings are (a) an even distribution of power; (b) the principle that power ought to be evenly distributed; (c) the existing distribution of power as a synonym for the prevailing political situation; that is, any possible distribution of power that exists at a particular time; (d) the principle of equal aggrandizement of the great powers at the expense of the weak; (e) the principle that our side ought to have a preponderance of power to prevent the danger of power becoming evenly distributed; in this view, a power “balance” is likened to a bank balance, that is, a surplus rather than equality; (f) a situation that exists when one state possesses the special role of holding the balance (called the balancer) and thereby maintains an even distribution of power between two rival sides; and (g) an inherent tendency of international politics to produce an even distribution of power.
Balance of power has many criticisms. One is that it is a concept is no longer applicable in the post Cold War scenario where no country can challenge American hegemony. Constructivists argue that intentions matter more than power distributions alone: that we need to worry more about the ‘balance of threat’ than the balance of power. But this is the crucial factor that all the three brothers in Chekka Chevantha Vanam overlooked. If they had perhaps, they would have not turned on each other and reduced their family to dust. But that’s a lesson for another Mani Ratnam film.