Suddenly, everybody is an expert on Tamil cinema. Everybody knows what Tamil leading men look like (short, plump, hairy) and what the leading ladies dress like (shiny saris, pointy blouses). The average Tamil hero is adept at throwing cigarettes in the air and lighting them with guns, while the Tamil heroine can trump the Egyptians at belly-dancing. Tamil movies are full of declamatory dialogue that’s delivered at glass-shattering volumes. Hollywood has the Wild West. Indian cinema has the Sizzling South.
Real reels: Subramaniapuram, a recent film, is set in Madurai.
Thanks to YouTube, hip Indians and their nostalgic non-resident Indian cousins who bemoan the death of the masala-laden Hindi film spectacle can take comfort from southern fare. 28 August saw the release of a whole movie dedicated to the lost world of over-the-top cinema. Quick Gun Murugun evokes almost every stereotype associated with Tamil movies and seeks to simultaneously parody and pay tribute to the southern way of storytelling. But the postmodern irony specialists north of the Vindhyas tend to overlook the sea change that has taken place in Chennai in the last few years. Chennai is still cranking out spicy formula-driven fare, but several young film-makers are also reworking well-worn plots and stock characters in new and exciting ways.
Among the more interesting Tamil films in recent years are Ameer Sultan’s Paruthiveeran and Sasikumar’s Subramaniapuram. Both films belong to what I call the “rowdy genre”. They are set in the Tamil heartland (Paruthiveeran in a village, Subramaniapuram in Madurai) and are about young and aimless men who deal with forbidden love, violence and caste politics. There have been countless Tamil movies about men being chased with sickles and choppers through paddy fields for falling in love with high-born women. What makes these films special is the casting of relatively unknown actors, the realistic settings, the intelligent integration of songs and dances into the plots, and the attention given to camerawork and production design.
Other movies take the best of mainstream and parallel cinema and manage to be entertaining as well as thought-provoking. Actor Prakashraj, who earns his cheques by hamming it up as villain or policeman, runs a production house that rolls out feel-good films about middle-class families. Mozhi and Abhiyum Naanum, both of which have been produced by Prakashraj, are sweet and endearing movies with simple stories, smart dialogue and believable characters.
Offbeat movies such as Bala’s Naan Kadavul and Cheran’s Autograph were box-office hits, making it easier for films such as Paruthiveeran, Subramaniapuram and Sasi’s Poo to get produced and distributed. Of course, Tamil directors have it easier than their Hindi counterparts, in that they’re talking to a much more uniform group of viewers who share a common language and culture. It’s simpler to address one Indian state and the Tamil diaspora than it is to reach out both to Hindi speakers who’re scattered across the country and the globe as well as multilingual Indians who have embraced Hindi cinema over the years. Yet what the new Chennai films possess is the will—and the nerve—to tell old stories in new ways, which isn’t always evident in Mumbai.
Contemporary Tamil film-makers are reaping the benefits of experiments conducted in the past. Since the 1960s, K. Balachander has made several domestic dramas that brought taboo topics into the open. Among Balachander’s best-known films is Avargal, in which a woman divorces her sadistic husband and contemplates remarrying her former lover. In Apoorva Raagangal, a young man falls for a woman old enough to be his mother, while the woman’s daughter has a relationship with the young man’s father. Balachander’s films were classic melodramas that eventually upheld the sanctity of the family, but they are also memorable for their use of metaphor-laden imagery, the strong roles given to women, and probing commentary into social hypocrisy.
Balu Mahendra, who is best known outside Tamil Nadu as the director of Sadma, pioneered a naturalistic style of acting and cinematography. Mahendru’s influence is most strongly felt in Mani Ratnam’s films. Balachander and Mahendru are just two film-makers who prove that it’s possible to entertain without insulting the intelligence. The next time you google for “Rajinikanth lighting cigarette”, also look out for scenes from Paruthiveeran or Subramaniapuram. They will boggle the mind.
Nandini Ramnath is the film editor of Time Out Mumbai ( www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org