The phenomenon of Tamil cinema is not restricted to the region. Not only does it enthrall the audiences of neighbouring states and influence their filmmaking, it has crossed national borders and found a following among the Tamil diaspora, and foreign fans.
Tamil cinema celebrates the cult of the hero, where larger-than-life characters are essayed by even larger-than-life actors and where a 60-year-old balding man continues to play a young action hero who romances the youngest of heroines and takes on platoons of villains with nary a missed breath. It is where action sequences defy the laws of physics, scores of dancers gyrate to songs filmed on elaborate sets or in exotic locales, emotions and drama run high and loud, and every cliché is not just ample, but amplified.
That the producers and audience love these formulaic films — 'Endhiran', 'Dasavatharam' and 'Sivaji' are the top three money-makers ever in the industry — is evident in their growing success over the decades and, most recently, in the past 10 years. But the past decade also has a new trend that made a quiet entry, but is proving to be a head-turner.
This new genre of films, which began with 'Autograph' in 2004, is not what can be classified as 'art house' productions. They have every masala ingredient of a formulaic film, but what they also have is a solid storyline, a large dose of realism and actors who are almost unknown. The language of these stories seems real, the cultural and social subtexts are more nuanced, they take the audience closer to the character, to the rawness of romance and violence, and to the richness of rituals and the landscape. The resultant mix has not only struck a chord with directors and actors, but worked wonders at the box office and, hence, with producers as well.
Thus began a trickle — that has now grown into a steady flow - of such movies: 'Paruthiveeran' in 2007 and 'Subramaniapuram' in 2008 gave way to the likes of 'Angaadi Theru' (Market Street), 'Pasanga' (Kids), 'Anjathey' (Fear Not), 'Kalavaani' (Thief) and 'Madrasapattinam' (Madras Town). These movies received critical acclaim and also saw commercial success.
Last year, for instance, in the shadow of Endhiran, stood a fairly new face, quite unknown and with a sense of irony. The protagonist went through all the dramatic transformations expected of a Tamil hero: A pauper, he becomes a billionaire in minutes; an orphan, he is united with his long-lost parents as they all sing a 'family song'; he kills villains in unconventional ways (one of them laughs to death by looking at his antics) and he turns out to be an undercover policeman.
Tamizh Padam (literally, Tamil Film) took every possible cliche and illogic of Tamil cinema, spun them on their heads, laughed at them and ended third on the list of money-makers for 2010.
"I knew it would be a success, but I never even imagined it would turn out to be such a big hit,” says Tamizh Padam director CS Amudhan. The movie, which to a large extent, depended on the willingness of the audience to laugh at themselves and at the movies they once spent money on and raved about, would not have been as well received six or seven years ago. “You need a kind of self-confidence to laugh at yourself, and that comes from the fact that the opposite is also true; from the knowledge that if there are cliche-ridden movies, there are also movies that aren’t so," he says.
In the Director's Seat
'Autograph', the film that began this trend, was a nostalgic meditation on the past romance of a soft, diffident-looking young man in the days leading up to his marriage. Cheran, initially only the director of the film, ended up acting in the lead role after it was turned down by established actors. The film went on to become a huge hit.
Bala, a director with considerable commercial success, delved deeper into the darker aspects of men and society in 'Naan Kadavul' (I am God), his fourth movie. The film captures the lives of beggars in a stark manner, super-imposing it on the world of spiritual aspirants. The movie was based on a novel 'Yezhavadhu Ulagam' (70 Worlds) by Jeyamohan, one of the foremost writers in Tamil. Jeyamohan, who also wrote the film’s dialogues, lent his literary muscle to another movie Angaadi Theru.