SHAJI KARUN, the acclaimed Malayalam filmmaker, had just received one of France’s most respected awards, le Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters). Asked in a December 2009 interview to Open magazine what he thought of contemporary South Indian cinema, he said, “Watch out for Tamil films. They are easily some of the most original and vibrant in India, perhaps the world.” Karun was hoping to startle cinephiles, trying to draw the attention of our huge and varied movie-going public to a new kind of Indian cinema, one that was different not just from Bollywood but even from the independent multiplex Hindi film. And what he had in mind, I’m sure, was a film like Naan Kadavul—or any of the other dozen Tamil films from the last couple of years.
I saw Naan Kadavul last February and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. There’s nothing quite like it in Indian cinema. Its director, Bala, is known to surprise with every new offering (his last film Pithamagan was about a band of outsiders—a graveyard caretaker, a ganja seller and a conman—and the unusual friendship they forge) and I was prepared for something different, but not what I saw.
I’ve seen the film a few times now, and with each new viewing it grows more fascinating. It’s a difficult film to write about, defying synopsis and explanation. Naan Kadavul brings two very strange worlds together: The netherworld of the aghori (members of a Hindu sect who live at cremation grounds, eat dead flesh, meditate on corpses and beg with bowls made from human skulls) and the hidden world of maimed beggars. You’d think the result would be bizarre and sentimental but it bursts with wit, energy, unique characters, striking scenes, uncanny casting (non-actors who outshine professional ones), real emotions, darkness and light.
Naan Kadavul is just one example among several recent Tamil films that point to a quiet but exciting revolution unfolding in contemporary Tamil cinema: an unexpected move towards believable, intelligent and strongly scripted storytelling.
What is just as remarkable is their success at the box office. These films signal a clear shift within mainstream, formulaic Tamil cinema. They don’t come with labels like parallel, arty or offbeat—this is commercial cinema with songs, dances, stars and romance. Yet they use this masala framework to tell fresh stories—half romantic, half realistic.
The new Tamil films range from intense, gritty dramas (Paruthiveeran, Subramaniapuram, Kadhal, Veyil, Katradhu Tamil MA, Polladavan, Nadodigal, Yogi) and stylish, edgy thrillers (Anjathey, Saroja, Pachaikili Muthucharam, Eeram, Akku, Achchamundu! Achchamundu!) to nuanced, feel-good stories (Kalluri, Autograph, Abhiyum Naanum, Poo, Pasanga).
“What distinguishes the new Tamil cinema is its ability to give up the almost obsessive sensuality of earlier Tamil cinema (of, say, a Bharatiraja or a Balu Mahendra) to enter the realm of disgust, or Bibhatsa, as the ‘Natya Shastra’ would define,” explained K Hariharan, filmmaker and scholar, and a fan of this new aesthetic.
“They have the audacity to kick the viewer out of the moth-eaten politics of a ‘Dravidian’ stupor to actually recognise and touch the hard grimy realities of Tamil Nadu today. These filmmakers have the courage to deny the viewers the simplistic heroics of a typical ‘Vijay’ or a ‘Rajni’ movie and shift the emphasis onto the politics of the Tamil landscape.”
Hariharan said these new films have proved that the only way to keep Bollywood and Hollywood at bay is to move deeper into the Tamil hinterland and possibly touch the basic chord of Tamil identity. “Having met some of these filmmakers, I can confidently say that they have not gone about doing this with a game plan but got their teeth into it out of sheer passion and conviction in their own experiential reality.”
The themes in these films are usually tough-minded explorations of life in villages and in the underbellies of cities. The characters display a strong inner life (a quality often missing in formulaic cinema), are rooted in their culture and tradition but forced to break out of everything because of their personal choices — usually love or ambition. The story could be a bubbly romance, a rambunctious college comedy or an overwrought family drama but with undercurrents of something brooding, dark and disturbing.
In Vetrimaran’s Polladavan, the hero, a young man from a lower middle class family background, looks for his stolen motorcycle. His search leads him to parts of the city he never knew existed, a sinister world of thieves, drug traffickers and hired assassins that operates smoothly just below the surface of the city. In an odd, provocative film like Raam’s Kattradhu Tamizh, Prabhakar, a young, bearded Dostoyevskian hero has an MA in Tamil but it gets him nowhere in life. He runs into classmates half as bright as him doing fabulously well, working at BPOs, while those with a degree in the arts and humanities are marginalised into obscurity. Working as a young Tamil teacher in Chennai for a poor school, Prabhakar narrates his tragic journey from idealism and rage to madness and oblivion. What this Tamil postgraduate has to say about the future of those who have given themselves to native culture and literature in an increasingly Anglicised society feels alarmingly true and painfully ironic. Kattradhu Tamizh is uneven, grim, violent and reactionary but full of conviction. And it still features a big star, Jeeva, right at the centre of it, and songs and romance too.
Ameer’s Paruthiveeran (2007) stunned audiences with a brutally detailed depiction of clan wars in rural Tamil Nadu. (The film received a standing ovation at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival.) It is a vibrant, colourful but deeply tragic tale of two lovers forced apart by caste and a lingering family feud. Yes, it sounds like every other Indian movie from the last 100 years. The difference is that the director creates a small town life as lived deep in the heartland of Tamil Nadu with precision. Its strongest character is the heroine, Muthazhagu (an audacious performance from Priyamani, who won the National Award for best actress that year), the village belle who fiercely knows her mind and heart.
In one unforgettable, powerful scene, Muthazhagu returns home late after secretly meeting her lover. Her mother screams at her, asking her where she has been. Muthazhagu shrugs her off, hangs up her handbag on the wall, and sits down to eat her supper. Her grandmother, sitting in a corner, chewing betel nuts, smiles sympathetically. Her father rushes in, enraged, grabs her, pushes her against the wall and begins to beat her. The mother and grandmother try to stop him but he turns around and thrashes them. Then he turns again to continue pummeling his daughter. It’s not an unusual scene in our movies. What happens next, however, is unpredictable. When the father stomps out, the heroine takes her dinner plate, heaps food on it and begins to gorge herself. She asks her mother to heap more meat on her plate as she chews with great relish, her eyes teary but defiant. This scene unfolds 20 minutes into the movie and for a Tamil audience familiar with such casual patriarchal violence, the heroine’s cool defiance instantly signals something different, something new. She’s just been beaten black and blue, humiliated and spat upon, and she’s hungry? In some film theatres in Tamil Nadu, Paruthiveeran ran a full year.
By deftly weaving mainstream Tamil film and realism, these films seem more ambitious and entertaining than big budget films with iconic stars. The formula is reinvented, not thrown out.
Sasikumar (once assistant director to Ameer), made an impressive debut with Subramaniapuram in 2008, another gritty entry in this new wave. He took the experiment
to the next level by setting his story in the 1980s, meticulously evoking what the city of Madurai would have looked like then by using authentic period details. Subramaniapuram revolves around three shiftless friends who accept petty criminal assignments from a local politician. When their deep loyalty to him is rewarded by betrayal, they plot to kill him.
WHAT EXCITES FILM HISTORIAN Theodore Baskaran, (author of The Eye of the Serpent: An introduction to Tamil Cinema) about contemporary Tamil movies is that we “see more and more authentic characters from the marginalised world. Even the secondary characters with all-too-human weaknesses are all etched minutely. Physical Tamil Nadu is captured effectively and imaginatively. Soundtracks support and enhance the visuals, without being intrusive. The songs are in the background and merge with the narrative, creating a fine balance between the visual and the aural.”
This quality of the current Tamil film soundtracks and choreography, as Baskaran noted, is just as distinctive and inventive as the cinema it is part of. Much of it is drawn from the folk music (duppankuthu or street music and dance) and the culture of South India—and often combined intriguingly with hip-hop and rap. The songs and dances are earthier, bawdier, wilder. More original, energetic, and kitschier.
A song like Nakka Mukka, for instance, became a phenomenon in Tamil Nadu. The title of the song, a meaningless phrase, was sung everywhere in Chennai, from the streets to the offices to rooftops. The style of the song is kuthu pattu, a kind of local street rap with strong roots in Tamil urban folk music rhythms. The choreography is a frenzied kuthu dance that has now become a staple in recent Tamil movies. The song is full of energy and rhythm, Chinna Ponnu’s one-of-a-kind voice hair-raising. I can only compare it to something that doesn’t actually exist: Tamil folk opera. But if it existed, Chinna Ponnu would be its diva.
The success of this brand of cinema wouldn’t have been possible without a new Tamil audience—young viewers open to seeing new things and impatient with formulaic, fantasy-driven films—and young directors willing to risk telling new stories in a different way. The box office success of two modest but artistically made movies in 2004, Kadhal and Autograph, was probably the turning point.
In Balaji Sakthivel’s Kadhal, teenage lovers elope, sing songs, get intimate and then face the frightening reality of caste violence. It’s an old story but Sakthivel brings a documentary naturalness to the narrative, crafting it with rich, telling details. The faces of these young actors remind us of real people. No movie-handsomeness here. Cheran, too maintained a fine, calibrated balance between the formulaic and the artistic in Autograph. Restrained, subtly humorous and delicately treated, this love story instantly touched a chord with the audience.
I asked director Sakthivel if he felt Kadhal had influenced Ameer’s Paruthiveeran and Sasi’s Subramaniapuram, and he said, “Sasi has said in an interview that he was inspired by Kadhal—that felt wonderful. Ameer once talked about how the ending of Kadhal had stayed with him when he was making his movies.”
Poo (2008), with a female character as its main protagonist, tells a story from a woman’s point of view. It reveals her inner life, desires and conflicts. This, as anyone familiar with Indian mainstream cinema can tell, is unusual. A just-married village housewife, Mari, has to suddenly deal with the return of a childhood sweetheart, Thangarasu, into her life. She thinks she’s over him, but she isn’t. On the pretext of going to visit some old school friends, she travels to the neighbouring village, where she grew up, hoping to run into her old flame. It doesn’t take her long to find out that Thangarasu isn’t happy in his marriage, either. Mari realises she can never return, even in her imagination, to her great love as it will only lead to unhappiness for everyone. So, she walks away from it all.
At the end, you see her waiting at the bus stop for her husband, weeping. He arrives, we see him walk to her from a distance. She does not run towards him and into an embrace, crying tears of gratitude. There is no telling us that a woman should never hope to follow her heart but return to the security of marriage. Mari continues to cry in anguish. She simply sits there. Her husband looks on, bewildered and clueless. She cries on as the camera pulls away and the scene fades out. As the credits roll, we hear Mari sobbing in the background. It’s possibly the first Tamil film—perhaps even the first Indian film—where the end credits are accompanied solely by the voice of a crying actress.
Poo is full of poetry, wit, passion and inventiveness. The director, Sasi (another Sasi), avoids many stereotypical scenes by subverting them. All the stock figures of a village-themed movie are there, and yet none of them behaves predictably. None of them say the traditional and conservative things villagers are expected to say. A potential rape scene is averted, but the hero does not beat up the offender—Mari does, with a broomstick.
The new directors have long chosen not to have item songs but Sasi even avoids the fight scenes. Also remarkable is how Sasi stays away from prettifying the interiors of the huts, keeping them looking like real spaces. There are no earthen water pots, for instance, but green and pink plastic buckets. His homework on location and setting is impeccable. Above all, I was happy that Sasi does not betray his heroine. The film ends in sadness, and this is the strongest criticism Poo makes against patriarchy. That the desires and dreams of women are often crushed by what men demand of them.
Has today’s Tamil cinema completely escaped the trap of star heroics, formulaic plots and regressive politics? Like most of mainstream Indian cinema, much of Tamil cinema has been characterised by deep undercurrents of misogyny, regressive attitudes and conservative politics. And then there’s the presence—both subtle and obvious—of an extreme machismo.
And some of these elements still, disturbingly, rear their heads in the new cinema, mostly from an un-thought out script or deeply embedded, ingratiating tropes.
For Pritham Chakravarthy, theatre performer, feminist and editor-translator of the bestselling Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, the politics of even the best films from this new wave are half-baked. Only Subramaniapuram, an honest film about wasted lives, she felt, holds its own. “Paruthiveeran opens with a lot of promise, only to collapse in the resolution. Muthazhagu is the long missing female character in Tamil cinema, with her devil-may-care attitude, raw courage, capable of faking a suicide attempt and an openly exhibited strength, enough to challenge her brutal father. But for her to suddenly insist that she should not be seen naked by another man or demand when she is gang-raped that she be butchered by the lover so she may die a chaste woman are demands that come out of the blue. One feels helpless watching a life-long feminism walk out of the window for no real reason.”
Another key feature of conventional Tamil cinema that still lingers on in contemporary movies is their dependence on violent stories to stimulate and attract an audience. Some of these new filmmakers are abruptly old fashioned in interpreting a realistic portrayal as necessarily ending in a wreck; almost saying that realism equals tragedy.
Still, there is much in this vibrant revolution to welcome and look forward to (the way, for instance, how even a commercial blockbuster like Ayan is carefully researched, smartly scripted and artfully directed, or a supernatural thriller like Eeram is atmospheric and nearly song-less), and Tamil cinema, for now, continues to be full of edge, freshness and promise.