By N.S. Ramnath| Jul 6, 2011
The time-tested quick-gun formula of Tamil movies gives way to realistic story-telling, often with unknown faces
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 cliché 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 C.S. 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 cliché-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 Eazhaam Ulagam (7th World) 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.
Vasanthabalan, director of Angaadi Theru, used hidden cameras at least 80 times to faithfully capture the sights and sounds of the bustling market place in Chennai’s Ranganathan Street. The film sheds light on workers, mostly from the rural areas, in the urban retail business. Emotions run high and even when apparently nothing is happening, it seethes with underlying tension.
There is little common among the new crop of directors: There is no common school or college they went to, no single region they hail from, their influences are varied. What is common is the experience of learning their craft under someone they admired. M. Sasikumar (director of Subramaniapuram) worked as an assistant director for Bala, while Bala himself was an assistant to Balu Mahendra. What is also common is their devotion to realism. In many cases, the story idea emerged from their own experiences, and the conflict is more nuanced than the traditional good guy-vs-bad guy plot.
The success of these directors is having an impact. “Today, producers are more open than ever to listen to new and untested subjects,” says Vikram Kumar, whose movie Yavarum Nalam (Everyone’s Fine) brings together a modern obsession with cable television and an ancient fear of ghosts.
But this was not the situation for many directors when they first came up with their ideas. There was resistance from the producers, distributors and theatre owners.
Take the case of Bala. Today, he is a big name in the industry and is known for movies such as Sethu and Naan Kadavul. He came to Chennai from southern Tamil Nadu (he was born in Theni, and studied Tamil Literature in the American College, Madurai) with dreams of making it big in Tamil cinema. He worked under Balu Mahendra for seven years. His first movie had an actor — Vikram — who was then unknown, and it didn’t impress a single distributor. The movie was released with no advertisements, with everyone afraid to waste another paisa on a project they feared will fail. It didn’t. Not only did it become a huge success — with remakes in Telugu, Kannada and Hindi — it also made a star out of Vikram. While Bala had found someone to at least produce his film, his protégé Sasikumar’s struggle to find a producer for his first film Subramaniapuram was in vain. He finally produced it himself.
How are They Different?
A study of Tamil cinema is also a study of Tamil society, says Theodore Bhaskaran, a film historian. The movies have always captured the thoughts and influences behind the social and political movements in the state, he says. At one level, Kaadhal (Love), released in 2004, is about a doomed love affair — a poor guy in love with a affluent girl — but, it also reflects the ongoing strife between the Thevars and Dalits in southern Tamil Nadu and the assertion of various castes, which is reflected in the growing strength of various political parties.
“The common thread that links all these films is their irrevocable dissent with the socio-political system prevailing in Tamil Nadu. Since they represent the angst of the millions of unemployed disoriented youth of this state, they have also become commercially successful and critically acclaimed at the same time. A closer look at these films will reveal that the days of simple love stories are over. None of them have anything positive to say about the state of living in the most corrupt state of India. So whether we like it or not, this trend is bound to stay unless the ‘real’ situation changes,” says K. Hariharan, director, L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy, Chennai.
For example, Subramaniapuram, a movie set in the 1980s, caught the attention of many through a soft, melodious song reminiscent of that decade. The story begins on a nostalgic note, but soon descends into gory violence. It trounced any romanticism associated with being rustic and the misplaced notions of an innocent and charming age by showing violence as it really was.
“These are not ‘National Award’ movies. These are not ‘art movies’ that show a man shaving for 20 minutes. These are good movies. The stories move fast, with love and romance and wit. Just that they somehow seem to blend into the setting and the characters. In masala movies, they often don’t. But, as a fan, you don’t analyse such things. You go to a cinema to get entertained, and these movies do just that,” says K. Anand, an ardent fan of Tamil movies in Madurai.
Not Just a Passing Trend
The directors behind the new crop of films are functioning in a market that is not averse to producing these movies or spending money on them.
In a year, the Tamil film industry produces between 130 and 150 films, 65 percent of which cost more than Rs. 7 crore. From yearly revenues of Rs. 770 crore, more than 80 percent comes from domestic theatres, 6 percent from international theatres, 11 percent from television rights, and the rest from home video, music and Internet rights.
Large budget movies (those that cost more than Rs. 7 crore) tend to get more revenues from theatres (85 percent) compared to small budget films (73 percent), according to an Ernst & Young report on the southern film industry. But unlike a big budget film, where the actors’ and technicians’ fee could account for 40 percent of the total cost, small and medium budget films tend to spend more on production and marketing. Thus, Sasikumar went out of his way to recreate the 1980s — from the film posters seen on the walls, to a Lambretta scooter — in Subramaniapuram.
But finances are not the only reason why this new breed of films are here to stay. The success of these films has shown that they can co-exist with formulaic masala movies. For example, Singam (Lion), starring Surya and directed by Hari, had all the elements of a masala film and was a huge success. It didn’t make the producers dump realistic movies and shift en mass to formulaic movies.
However, earlier, the scenario was different. The 1970s saw a series of critically acclaimed movies by directors who were ready to experiment. And then came Murattu Kaalai (Wild Bull), starring Rajini. It became a blockbuster, effectively put a stop to experimentation in films, and pushed everyone on to the masala bandwagon.
The new crop of movies is also part of a bigger trend. Once, the Tamil film industry was dominated by the studios, which controlled the kind of movies that were made. However, over the years, the major studios shut down, producers became fragmented and the centre of power shifted to the actors. Even newcomers, with just a couple of movies, wielded enormous clout, with an underlying assumption that actors sold the movies. The entry of big banners such as Sun Pictures is moving the centre of gravity away from the actors, and directors are filling the void.
There is also a stronger engagement between the worlds of literature and films, which was absent earlier, says Bhaskaran. Today, there are writers like Jeyamohan and S. Ramakrishnan working on dialogues and stories and lend credibility, he says.
Subramaniapuram The movie was set in the 1980s and portrayed violence as it really was
Technology too is playing its part in encouraging the trend. “We have a DVD revolution. Today, it’s not only possible to see good movies from across the world, it’s also possible to see them again and again, and analyse them, sitting in your drawing room. And that’s what many young directors are doing. Earlier, directors such as Satyajit Ray studied European directors. Today, they study Latin American directors, and you can see their influence in the movie,” says Bhaskaran.
Audience expectations have also changed. Television serials have given them complex and layered plots and they expect the same from films.
“Today we live in a very visual age,” says Vikram Kumar. “People are exposed to getting information visually in a thousand different ways — on the Internet, on YouTube, and even in print. Their expectations have changed. What you see in some of the movies today is actually in response to what the audience demands.”
But the trend is not free of pitfalls. The realistic movies seem to be obsessed with the darker aspects of society. “I don’t know why it is so, but I wonder how long the audience will take it,” says Vikram Kumar.
Amudhan, whose eye for clichés earned him huge commercial success, already sees the emergence of new norms that define realistic movies. They are all set in small towns or villages, the heroes are dishevelled and have a liking for violence. Now, isn’t that too clichéd, he asks.