by SI blog reader Racer44
(Readers: SI’s comments follow this essay)
Having completed over 92 years since its inception (the first silent Tamil movie Keechaka Vadham was released in 1917), it is only obvious that we ask ourselves, where is Tamil Cinema headed? (ignoring, of course, naysayers like SI who say that it’s headed from deep shit to deeper shit).
The decades gone by have rung in many changes, the immense technological advances not the least among them.
As Tamil cinema progressed from the silent era to black and white talkies and later to Eastman Color and the present digital age, the kind of films made also diversified, from period dramas involving rajas and ranis which had their origins in religion and folklore to stories that are more grounded in the reality of today, drawing their inspiration from the life of the common man, whose trials and tribulations they served to document and whose mundane love-stories were blown up into larger-than-life romances on celluloid.
But for the sake of identifying Tamil Cinema’s current course, it should be sufficient if we restrict our gaze to the last 2-3 years of its existence.
Many would agree that these are the heydays of Tamil Cinema, what with Kollywood’s first forays into the adventure-fantasy genre with the much-feted Aayirathil Oruvan, its first full-length spoof in Tamil Padam and very soon, its first science fiction film in Enthiran.
While these are significant milestones in themselves, what is truly heartening is the emergence of a new breed of directors keen on experimenting with hitherto untouched themes and spinning innovative and absorbing narratives out of them.
Arivazhagan’s Eeram, Samuthirakani’s Nadodigal, and Pandiraj’s Pasanga: each of these films is special, in that they not only strike an off-the-beaten-path approach in their story and storytelling but have also struck gold at the box office. None of the aforementioned films had any big name on the credits, and two of them (Eeram and Pasanga) were directed by debutants.Yet each of these found an audience willing to embrace the envelope-pushing. The advent of the multiplex has contributed, in no small degree, to these films’ success.
In times when an ever-increasing number of movies vie for the same pie, it is the bloated “masala” movies which find themselves forced to adapt in terms of story and setting in order to stay relevant. Audiences worldwide have shown little patience at nonsensical movies like Villu and Kutty causing them to quickly bite the dust once word-of-mouth spreads.
As the average Tamil-movie-goer would say, Matter irukkanum.
It then becomes imperative that we attempt to define this seemingly amorphous “matter” and dissect the ingredients that make or mar a film’s fortunes in the present scenario. In the following paragraphs, we will delineate the strands representing current Tamil cinema, explore their leitmotifs and memes and determine how much influence they wield over the cinema-going audience.
On a macro-level, three broad classes of films can be discerned.
Firstly, the unabashedly “commercial” films that make no pretenses at trying to stitch together a realistic or even plausible story. That the “masala” genre still has eager takers despite colossal failures is testament to the craving an overwhelming majority of the Tamil audience has developed for mindless “entertainment” of the kind involving their demi-god hero coming up trumps against the most insurmountable odds.
The staples of this genre have remained largely unchanged over the years. The hero is, typically, a man of the streets, a do-gooder, and devoted to his family. His daily life involves beating up the neighborhood ruffians, wooing the rich girl with whom he is besotted (and who, in turn, is besotted with him!!!) and who just happens to be his arch-rival’s (take your pick) sister, daughter or fiancee and goofing around with his jobless side-kicks, who have no claim to screen-space other than being the butt of the hero’s puerile jokes, setting him up with the dewy-eyed heroine (any wonder then that the hero calls them maama or maamu) and joining him in his booze binges at the local TASMAC store (our hero, being the low-class all-mass hero that he is, does not venture into rich clubs or 5-star hotels for fear that he may be accused of mingling with the social elite, which is anathema to his ilk). After chronicling these extensive pursuits, there’s hardly anytime left for the actual story to take place (if indeed there was any in the first place), so the director shortchanges this aspect in favor of song-and-dance routines set against suitably exotic backdrops, and a couple of more fight scenes. Here too, there is a staid pattern which is religiously followed. The first song is always the hero introduction song aka the build-up song. Of the rest, there are usually 3-4 duets featuring the heroine in titillating costume, and occasionally, the item number. Having crammed so much into the usual 2-3 hours, the director still finds places to sneak in a punch dialogue or two, just to make sure that the audience is completely K.Oed.
Is this a winning formula, you ask? Well, the resounding success of Vettaikaran, Padikkathavan and Kanthaswamy ought to clear any lingering doubts on that count. But then, is this the only winning formula? Read on.
The second class of films comprises emotional dramas with one or more romantic angles woven into them. Many of them have a decidedly urban setting. This class is exemplified by films like Santhosh Subramaniam, Vaaranam Aayiram, Yaaradi Nee Mohini, Siva Manasula Sakthi, Kandaen Kadhalai, and recently, Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya. In terms of crowd-pulling ability, these schmaltzy melodramas are inferior only to industry titans like Rajini, Kamal, Vijay, Ajith etc.
The sappy, feel-good content offered by these films is devoured by family audiences and romantic/estranged couples wallowing in their maudlin misery, both of which form sizable constituencies.
Needless to add, love is the buzz-word here. Alas, the machination of fate, manifesting itself in the form of either parental opposition, falling out between the lovers, or the heroine suddenly getting bumped off ( this being especially the norm with Gautham Menon’s films 🙂 ) ensure that the road to true love is far from smooth. What this genre lacks in terms of action sequences, it more than makes up through its emphasis on a solid integrated comedy track, usually entrusted in the hands of the hero’s friends. But ceaseless harping on the love-at-first-sight idea, predictable storylines, cliched characters, and an excessive indulgence towards Deus ex Machinas have meant that this particular genre has a long way to go.
The last, and possibly the most significant class of films to emerge out of the last few years is the Small Town Film, a genre built up from scratch by Sasikumar (Subramaniapuram), Samuthirakani (Nadodigal), Susindran (Vennila Kabaddi Kuzhu) and Pandiraj (Pasanga). The earthy tones and refreshingly pragmatic outlook of these films have captured the imagination of Tamil audiences like never before. Their protagonists have a cheerfully down-to-earth air about them, sport month-old beards, listen to Ilaiyaraja songs and mouth Madurai-scented Tamil like they own it. As tales unfold one by one of the rustic pleasures of these men, one cannot but wonder where were they hiding all these years?
If Nadodigal sparkled with its deliciously incisive break-down of what passes as love in our society and the exposure of its ephemeral charms, Subramaniapuram was a bloody saga of vengeance and betrayal featuring a group of seemingly drifting young-men-about-town whose descent into an inexorable cycle of violence leads to gory consequences for all.
And I would be doing a grave injustice here if I left out Pasanga, a delightful and heartwarming tale that tracks the lives of a bunch of school-children and the members of their families through the academic year. With characters that appeared to be scooped out of real life, Pasanga shone with its rib-tickling humour, endearing performances and brilliant portrayal of marital discord and its repercussions on the lives of children in the family.
Are these the only kind of Tamil films popular today? Not by any stretch of imagination. Once in a while, Tamil filmmakers do pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat like Myshkin did with Anjaathey, Arivazhagan with Eeram and Selvaraghavan with Aayirathil Oruvan.
Anjaathey shattered the painstakingly built-up myth of the all-powerful omniscient top-cop by choosing to showcase his vulnerable side and the battles he wages to overcome the inner demons plaguing him even as he is drawn into a deadly cat-and-mouse game with a ruthless pedophile. No less bold an attempt was Eeram, which held a brutally honest mirror to the moral decadence and rot that have seeped into modern urban society. But only time will tell whether these films remain glorious one-offs or more filmmakers jump into the fray to test what appear to be promising waters.
Tamil Cinema, despite the irritating persistence of the masala genre, seems to have reached an inflection point, with the attention clearly on innovation and experimentation. If only more directors come out of their self-made cocoons and more actors show willingness to shed their “superhero” mantles to encourage these attempts instead of engaging in image-building exercises in the hope of floating their own political outfits someday, Tamil Cinema would be forever grateful.
Folks, Racer would have you believe the prattle that these are the ‘heydays of Tamil cinema.’
Ha ha ha.
Who’s doin’ the talkin’ here? Wanna wager that it’s White Russian or its lesser siblings. 😉
To think that 92 years after we started making movies we are quick to pat ourselves on the back over one adventure-fantasy, a spoof, a bunch of so called small town films and a yet-to-debut science fiction movie.
Voila, we’ve arrived.
Blow the conch, fellas! Louder, please. After all, it took us only 92 years to reach these supposed milestones.
Only in Incredible India are baby-steps hailed as giant leaps forward. Oops what’s the right word – heydays, yes.
And what’s with the glaring inconsistencies.
In one paragraph, we are told masala films in these times ‘find themselves forced to adapt in terms of story and setting in order to stay relevant.’ And barely a dozen sentences later, comes the revelation from our amnesiac writer that recent masala movies like Kanthaswamy, Vettaikaran and Padikkathavan constitute a winning formula. At first, we thought it was sarcasm. Alas, it was not. If these three films have made any adaptations in terms of story or setting we remain blissfully unaware and surely so are you, dear reader.
By the way, if Vettaikaran, Padikkathavan or Kanthaswamy were resounding successes then our name is Veera Pandiya Kattabomman.
A macro-discussion on Tamil cinema and not a pip-squeak on what’s generally agreed upon as three of the biggest blockbusters in recent years – Sivaji, Dasavatharam and Billa. Trying to keep it a secret, are we? Yet, we have all the time to tell y’all about Pasanga, Eeram and Nodigal striking gold at the box office and drone on about their ‘earthy tones’ and ‘refreshingly pragmatic outlook.’
Talk of lack of perspective and ignoring the mountains for the molehills.
And what’s with the conspiratorial silence on the blatant plagiarism involving two of the most-talked about Kollywood directors in recent years – A.R. Murugadoss (of Ghajini infamy) and Venkat Prabhu (remember the thirutu nai behind Saroja?).
If there’s one trend that has remained a constant in Tamil cinema – and Bollywood too for that matter – it’s the shameless route to quick bucks through unabashed theft of Hollywood hits. And to turn a Nelson’s eye to this trend in a macro-piece on Tamil cinema is not merely blasphemy but to tacitly condone such theft.
Does A.R.Rahman ring a bell, anyone?
Not to worry. Hell, who cares about music in Tamil movies anyway, right?
As if all these omissions were not pathetic enough, the top two stars of Kollywood – Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth – get one word each. Sorry, make that half a word each since the callous writer does not care to even spell out their full names.
To compound our woes, there’s no mention at all of their films. But, hey, Pasanga gets three mentions!
Well, now you know what happens when podi pasanga get in over their head and start writing about Tamil Cinema.
Excuse us for a moment, will you, while we fortify ourselves with a White Russian to navigate through this dilettante’s Whither Tamil … tripe.
Also, one would definitely expect a piece on Whither Tamil Cinema to yak about the acting talent or lack thereof of its leading lights.
Given that Indian cinema is notorious for the poor caliber of its actors, not to touch upon this subject displays an ill-concealed contempt and haughty disdain for the reader.
Or does the neglect spring from plain sloppy analysis?
Oh well, a writer Racer has a right to his limitations and delusions.
Guys, the definitive work on Whither Tamil Cinema remains a challenge to be tackled by a more competent mind.