Tamil cinema is one of India’s most prolific and increasingly significant film industries. Although less represented as ‘regional’ cinema, its directors have rapidly emerged as key players in the 21st century Indian cinema. Unlike Bollywood, Tamil film narratives offer a richly detailed study of the smaller social milieu. One thing I admire about Tamil cinema is the elaborate portrayal of ethnolinguistic traditions. It may not have produced as many artistic works as Malayalam or Bengali cinema, but its filmmakers have often transcended rigid boundaries of mainstream Indian cinema.
Since 2000, content-driven Tamil cinema has reaped more success than some of the easily forgettable, star-based vehicles. The new crop of directors are more nuanced in constructing visual form. If its limited business scope is broadened, and the so-called star-actors choose sensible projects, more rewarding years will await the industry.
1. Hey Ram (2000)
Kamal Haasan’s controversial historical fiction Hey Ram explored one of the taboo subjects in Indian cinema. The violence of partition. At the time of its release, the visual imagery was too complex for an average Tamil/Indian movie viewer. Today, the film is considered one of our most brave and unique works. Hey Ram tells Saketh Ram’s story, an archaeologist caught in Kolkata’s pre-partition communal violence. The collective madness of the nation deeply traumatizes Ram’s psyche. He chooses a path of fanaticism. And his personal journey takes us closer to the dark, bloody chapters of Indian independence.
Haasan designed the tale with multiple, profound layers, that suggest how religious intolerance invokes generations of hatred and violence. Indeed, it’s a very relevant film for today’s India, where insensitive politicians with power shout words like ‘Hindu nationalism.’
2. Alaipayuthey (2000)
Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey is a simple and thin love story. But, as usual, the renowned director executes it with a heart and tangible emotions. The film starts off like just another feel-good romance between an urban boy and a girl. However, it sensitively spans their love from the early blossoming to the near-wilting phase. The film’s strong point is Madhavan and Shalini’s charming performances. AR Rahman’s intoxicating music is yet another reason to watch it. The only drawback is its ending, which brings upon a contrived crisis to redeem the couple’s love.
3. Kannathil Mutthamittal (2002)
On her ninth birthday, Amudha finds out she is adopted. Her biological mother was a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee, who returned to her people in Sri Lanka. On Amudha’s insistence, the adopted parents make a trip to the escalating war zones of Sri Lanka. Unlike, Ratnam’s previous issue-based films, Amudha’s central conflict is intricately realized. The humane perspective organically flows unlike the contrived nature in Bombay or Roja. Moreover, the themes of displacement addressed in the film were about as universal as could be.
4. Anbe Sivam (2003)
Kamal took on the themes of globalization, religious fatalism, and economic disparity in this brilliant re-working of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987). Anbe Sivam is a buddy road film involving a trade-union activist Nalla Sivam and an upper-class ad-executive Anbarasu (Madhavan). Circumstances force these polar opposite figures to travel together from Bhubaneswar to Chennai. Although they disagree on everything, a brotherhood is forged through their shared humanity. Kamal Haasan’s script, apart from the formulaic flashback, shines with witty as well as thought-provoking word-plays. In the era of clashing lifestyles, religious and cultural views, the film’s laudable message is simple enough to not forget: ‘Love is God.’
5. Pithamagan (2003)
An oppressed hero’s melodramatic tale, Pithamagan is certainly not for the faint-hearted. But director Bala’s heroes don’t just face oppression in the hands of an evil individual. They are first burdened by their place in the society. In Pithamagan, the heroes are a reclusive, quick-tempered cremator Chittan (Vikram) and a charming conman Sakthi (Suriya). Nevertheless, it’s not about the tragedy of being poor. Much of the film focuses on the engaging friendship between Chittan, who grew up in a graveyard with zero social skills and Sakthi, who has a positive outlook on everything. Despite pacing problems and minor flaws, Pithamagan largely works due to Suriya and Vikram’s fantastic performances. Bala also found the perfect balance between gruesome and humane elements, which went slightly missing in his later works.
6. Virumandi (2004)
Virumandi, among actor Kamal Haasan’s wide range of cinematic endeavors, occupies a noteworthy position. The versatile actor, in his second directorial attempt, used non-linear narrative structure to explore the truth behind brutal feudal killings. Kamal infuses three subtexts in the tale – caste-based violence, conflicts for resourceful land, and a message against capital punishment. Except the extended sequences of violence towards the end, the film was perfectly executed. Moreover, the subtle directorial touches and the attention to detail (especially in the opening ‘Jallikattu’ scene) set benchmarks for rural-based narratives.
7. Kaadhal (2004)
Balaji Sakthivel’s Kaadhal has an over familiar love story plot. Rich girl, poor boy, a conservative family and the elopement. While most films conclude with the elopement phase, Kaadhal explores the aftermath. What ensues when the dewy-eyed lovers are met with reality? The film is set in Tamil cinema’s favorite backdrop (Madurai).
Sakthivel finds a perfect realistic tone for a love story, occasionally strewn with fantasies. The film strips away all the glamorous elements involved in the adolescent tale of love. It mostly focuses on their mutual attraction, curiosity, and fear as they step out into the big (bad) world. Bharath, Sandhya, and the actor who plays the girl’s uncle are all a treat to watch. The climax portions still create a huge visceral impact, considering the increasing reports of honor killings.
8. Pudhupettai (2006)
Tamil cinema’s so-called anti-hero always has a reason for his anti-social behavior. It’s usually emphasized in a melodramatic flashback. Selva Raghavan’s anti-hero in Pudhupettai, however, doesn’t have any neatly packaged reasons or redeeming factors. The harsh violence faced by Kokki Kumar (brilliantly played by Dhanush) in his adulthood is hinted as a reason. But for the most part, Kumar engages in dark deeds and savagery, because he has a desire for it. And surprisingly his selfishness is not harshly punished. Pudhupettai is partly a rites of passage film, where an innocent youngster transforms into a blood-thirsty gangster. It’s also a hard-hitting observation of the unbreakable chain between crime and high-end politics. Apart from Kumar’s characterization, the film’s biggest strength is Selva Raghavan’s raw, unflinching staging.
9. Paruthiveeran (2007)
Ameer Sultan’s Paruthiveeran excellently de-constructs one of Tamil cinema’s oft-repeated and cliched backdrop: village. Unlike in Bharathiraja’s well-made melodramas, Paruthiveeran’s characters are diffused with shades of grey. Their volatile and tender human nature keep us surprised till the end. Director Ameer never shies away from showing how archaic authority like caste wields more power in rural areas than police authority. His narrative revolves around a ne’er-do-well, foolhardy protagonist, whose biggest ambition in life is to commit a crime worthy enough to take him to Madras prison. Apart from the commendable performances, Yuvan Shankar Raja’s music is the biggest strength to the film. Paruthiveeran was infamously popular for its brutal ending that left us pondering and disturbed to the core.
10. Kanchivaram (2008)
Priyadarshan’s Kanchivaram is a brilliant social drama around an exploited silk weaver. Truthful observations, huge ironies, and a strong political commentary string the narrative. But Priyadarshan’s matured direction doesn’t let symbolism or commentaries slow down the narrative. Prakash Raj offers a subdued performance as the central character Vengadam, a silk weaver torn between his political and personal ideologies. The director focuses on the characters’ internal struggles, letting inner pain reflect through their eyes and gestures. He shows melodramas can be rightly done, without resorting to loud dialogues and glycerine. The only minor drawback is the worn out flashback narrative structure.