Tamil cinema has had the best possible trend this decade, in that the director has slowly started coming back. Oh, there were always big-name filmmakers, known for their big, commercial projects. I’m talking about the auteurist kind, young (and not-so-young) filmmakers tackling subjects not just with an eye on the box office but also because they want to say something, or simply show off their technique (which, you have to admit, is a big part of directing). Anyway, here – in chronological order – is my list of the most memorable (I prefer that to the term “best”) Tamil cinema from 2010 to 2019 (so far).
This is that rare romance that treats love as the most complicated of emotions, which reduces people to behaviours beyond the realm of reason or logic. The story deals with the sort of hurdle that’s there, yet not there. Gautham brilliantly puts across a most-maddening woman in Jessie (Trisha), who wants Karthik (Simbu) and yet doesn’t want him enough to risk shaking up the foundations of her life. The hero ends up a withered-up autumn leaf, blown this way and that in the gale force of her indecision. And oh man… AR Rahman’s Mannippaya!
With most films, you know some 15 minutes in if they’re working for you (or not). But Kumararaja’s sensational debut – an eccentric, joyously foul-mouthed, super-deluxe gangster/noir mashup, with tons of comedy, action and drama – is one of those that leave you hanging until almost the end… And then, things begin to cohere and reshape your experience, and you slap your forehead and smile and say: WOW! Have there been two more lovable characters than Kodukapuli and his hapless father? And has there been another filmmaker whose first film marked the beginnings of a... universe?
Given the “heavier” filmmaker Ranjith would become (and the politics he would come to stand for), this charming anti-romance about a never-say-die lover/loser (played by Dinesh) is delightfully light on its feet. There’s very little “plot”, but the mood is phenomenal — the connect of Santhosh Narayanan’s (the composer made his debut, too) score with the minute-by-minute emotional graph of the protagonist’s journey is tremendous. This is when you know someone is a real filmmaker, when they can capture a vibe, a life, so well with so few narrative crutches.
Ramasamy is a hit-or-miss filmmaker, and I know many people prefer his Dharma Durai, but this throwback to solid, unabashedly melodramatic storytelling pierced my heart like few other dramas. A somewhat miscast Nandita Das anchors this story about an alcoholic man (Vishnu Vishal) from a fishing community who transforms when he falls for a woman (Sunaina), but fate has other plans. With its coastal/Christian background, Neerparavai would make a very interesting double-bill with (the more ambitious but less successful) Kadal, and NR Raghunathan’s ‘Parapara Paravai Ondru’ is one of my favourite songs of the decade.
From the very beginning, from the minute a lowly MNC employee rolls off his bed in a tiny house whose walls bear a poster of T Rajendar, Kumarasamy’s noir-comedy – his first feature – is a demonstration of what’s possible when movies are made for the sheer joy of making movies. The director’s uncompromising vision extends to the songs (Kaasu… panam…) and the fights, which never cut into the pace of the narrative, but instead enhance the overall mood. Most thrilling of all is the gleeful amorality. There’s not a nalla karuthu in sight.
Suseenthiran crafts a love procedural, a painstaking step-by-step account of the arc of a boy and a girl, and in doing so, he marries the traditional concerns of Tamil cinema – romance, friendships, family honour, virginity – with modern narrative techniques. The vérité approach makes you feel we are a fly on the wall, a silent spectator with a handheld camera. The messagey final scenes are a buzzkill, but this sudden spurt of puritanism should not be held against a film that does so much so well – and in just over a 100 minutes.
We are subjected, so often, to flat staging and dialogue-over-all-else filmmaking that when someone makes a movie that actually looks like a movie, a piece of cinema, the question of how good it is becomes secondary to the sensory experience of it all. Kumar’s excitingly filmed debut (suggested by the British thriller London to Brighton) is about a sex worker (Pooja Umashankar) on the run with a 12-year-old girl. It’s also about mood and texture and disorienting canted angles that affect us at an almost-subconscious level. The style becomes the substance.
Krishna made the decade’s best B-movie. This robust, 1980s-set story about a highway robber has no use for poetry or tear-jerker sentimentality. It doesn’t want to elevate our taste, ennoble our souls. What a bloody relief! At every point, where we expect cliché, there’s a twist. And there’s, yes, vision – a word that is too often yoked to films that attempt to do lofty things. But it’s really just about how you see your film, how much you work on it, how much care you lavish on every frame. There isn’t a lazy moment in Nedunchalai.
In the decade’s best actor-cum-star vehicle, Dhanush plays an everyman-loser who just can’t catch a break. The first half plays like a Selvaraghavan movie you can take your mother (and her mother) to. And then, the narrative transforms from chalk to cheese (or cheesy, depending on your tolerance for these things), and we land in whistle-invoking superhero mode. It’s hardly the smoothest of transitions, but director Velraj makes the most of Anirudh’s chart-topping score and his leading man acts his heart out, the highlight being a long, show-stopping monologue, delivered in an unbroken close-up.
In his meticulously detailed second feature, Subbaraj pulls the rug out from under the traditional constructs of the hero and heroine (Siddharth, Lakshmi Menon), whom we almost always know as good people, washed in white. The “villain” (Bobby Simhaa), meanwhile, turns out to be the nicest person around. Apart from these subversions, this is a cracklingly inventive (and very funny) meta movie about moviemaking itself. The director seems to be saying that the only way to make the movie you really want in the present Tamil-cinema scenario is to be as ruthless as a gangster. Chew on that!
Mysskin’s cinema is all cinema. It appears to well up from some place deep within, some place even he may not be aware of. He’s at a point where he can execute the must-haves of commercial cinema in increasingly inventive (some might say “eccentric”) ways. And bless him, he remains as perverse as ever. This supremely moving ghost story is really his idea of an unrequited romance, and it’s a terrific addition to one of the most exciting oeuvres in Tamil cinema, where the filmmaking is not just formal but stylised, almost ritualised. You’re torn between buying a ticket and lighting a candle.
In just five minutes of his debut, Anucharan establishes everything – tone, texture (you can feel the milieu like fabric), and the fact that this is the story of a microscopically insignificant man. (See that title again!) The story is about Kathir’s (played by Kathir) attempts to become a big shot. The low-key nature of the narrative fuses with the low-key swagger of the telling. There’s attitude from start to finish – in K’s groovy score, in Arul Vincent’s underworld-hued cinematography, and especially in Anucharan’s editing. The film moves like a dream, and it doesn’t have a single false note.
Pandi (Vijay Sethupathi) wants to become a rowdy. But this isn’t Pudhupettai. Kadambari (Nayanthara) is out to avenge herself on the man who annihilated her family. But this isn’t Kill Bill. What Shivan gives us, instead, is a comedy – sometimes a very black one. I haven’t laughed this hard over innocent men being snuffed out by a silencer-outfitted gun. Anirudh’s jaunty score clues us in to the mood, and Parthiban is in glorious form. The scene where a few amateurs try to assassinate him is the most sustained stretch of farce in ages.
Vetri Maaran has made a name for himself as one of our finest filmmakers who also makes commercially viable films – but when he decides to be truly uncompromising, the work transcends to a whole new level. This adaptation of M Chandrakumar’s novel Lock Up is about the terrifying arbitrariness of how the powerful prey on the powerless, and it plays on our deepest cynicism, our deepest fears about the System. The director doesn’t catch us by the collar and demand empathy. His is a cool approach, almost like a procedural. The results are chilling.
There’s texture and a ton of detailing in Kumar’s gritty little first film (so many debuts in this list, no?), about four youngsters in an engineering college in 1990s Trichy. When a man is beaten up, he isn’t just oozing fake blood. He finds it difficult to speak because his mouth is swollen. An incidental touch like this says a lot about the sensibilities of the director, who balances the caste-laced drama with superbly choreographed (and brutal) action sequences. If you’ve wondered about the effect of 1000-plus degrees on the human head, your wait is over.
So many of our films are about action-heroics or comedy (i.e., “entertainment”) that when a real drama like Venkatesan’s debut comes along – with dialogues that are low-key, measured, casual, conversational – it feels like a small blessing. The film is about the circus that marriage entails, but it’s also about the truth that human relationships are necessary, yet complicated. I was very moved when Raj (Dinesh) says he doesn’t like his family very much, but he’s helpless, he’s bound to them – because they like him. He’s no hero, but he’s all too human, like this movie.
Manikandan is easily the director of the decade, and each of his films could be in this list – but I am going with this Vijay Sethupathi-starrer that’s one of Tamil cinema’s most marvellous comedies of desperation. This is the story of an honest man (named Gandhi) whose dire situation drives him to dishonesty, and who then realises that to turn honest again, he may have to adopt more dishonest means. Entertainment that is about something, that says something – it’s the elusive grail our filmmakers keep chasing. Only Manikandan seems to have found it.
The story is about the unremarkable people you’d pass by in a big city – but look closer, and their stories are remarkable. Each one is facing a crisis. What makes this thriller is the terrific screenplay, filled with chance or coincidence. But the air-tight deliberateness of the structure is given room to breathe by the randomness of the characters, who behave in ways we don’t expect. Lokesh Kanagaraj has moved up in life (the Karthi-starrer Kaithi, the next Vijay film), and this intricately designed debut makes you see why.
Every auteur keeps revisiting – and more importantly, reshaping – pet themes, tropes, obsessions. The trailer made audiences expect another Roja. Instead, this turned out to be a spin on the abusive, can’t-live-with-you, can’t-live-without-you relationship between Inba/Shashi (from Aaydha Ezhuthu), and Mani Ratnam ended up with his most controversial – and least-liked – “romance” yet. A toxic male (Karthi) as the hero? And the heroine (Aditi Rao Hydari) as the doctor who “cures” him? But despite glaring flaws (mainly in abstracting the relationship, and veering off into action heroics), this is a stunningly crafted drama with deeply felt, extraordinarily choreographed scenes.
What kind of narrative could one weave from the story of villagers heading to a faraway temple to sacrifice a goat? A road movie? A thriller? Sangaiah’s impressive first feature has a bit of the former, a bit of the latter, but it is, at heart, an unusual beast. Let’s just say this is what we might get if Bresson made an absurdist black comedy. We get a sense of the everyday-ness of a certain kind of life, with marvellously memorable characters. The director was Manikandan’s assistant, and he’s learnt well. The film is a quiet gem.
From the wide, open spaces of her childhood in a pristine town, Aruvi (Aditi Balan) moves to a flat in the big, bad city, and the noose begins to tighten around her life – even more so when, in a most audacious stretch, she decides to address her grievances through a reality show. Purushothaman’s debut is an ambitious, solidly written satire. He isn’t after “reality.” He’s after something more… postmodern. He’s asking: “What would the heroine of Parasakthi be like if she decided to do something about her plight?”, and his film is truly one of a kind.
Sree (Harish Kalyan) is a typical middle-class boy: Love = sex = marriage = kids = happily ever after. But to the upper-class Sindhuja (Raiza Wilson, who’s marvellous), he’s just a friend, even after they spend a night in the sack. The biggest achievement of writer-director Elan is that he doesn’t see Sindhuja as “easy”, even if Sree does. He’s one of the few Tamil filmmakers who not only respects women, but also gets them. And instead of running after cinematic contrivances, he delves into the very real conflicts that would unfold in an inter-class relationship. He keeps finding new things to do with the oldest boy-meets-girl scenarios.
Most filmmakers build up to a hero-introduction shot. Bharathi builds up to a landscape-introduction shot. The stage is set for a big reveal, and… we see the mountains of the Western Ghats. This is as much a story of this place as its people, with two distinct tracks: the documentary-like (i.e. the timeless, that which has been happening for generations), and the drama (the timebound, that which is contained in a lifespan). We get a sense of the passing of a way of life – but the director doesn’t judge. He leaves that to his alert camera. And to us.
Selvaraj’s powerful, yet level-headed, drama about an oppressed youth carving out a place of his own is different from other caste-based Angry Young (or Old) Man narratives — say, Pa Ranjith’s (he’s the producer) Rajinikanth films or even Madras. In the latter, the awakening comes through external forces. Here, it is more internal. The film feels personal, like reading someone’s angst-filled diary. There’s a unique sense of time and place, an attention to a way of life that feels almost anthropological. Kathir gives an extraordinary performance, taking us into the protagonist’s soul, and the final shot is a still-life painting we can ponder about for hours.
This emotional drama about a father (Mammootty) and his daughter with cerebral palsy (Sadhana) turns out to be Ram’s quietest film. He appears to have expended all his angst on his globalisation trilogy (Kattradhu Thamizh, Thanga Meengal, Taramani). Here, he’s almost meditative. It’s the closest he’s gotten to his guru, Balu Mahendra. He fills the gaps in Moondram Pirai, showing us what a well-meaning man who locks himself away with a child-like woman would have to deal with: periods and pads, sanitation and unquenched female sexuality. Ram’s films have always displayed love for his protagonists. Here, there’s much love for the medium, too.