Tamil cinema is known for its “underdog winning all odds” movies. For its hero to rise and understand the ways to realise his or her dreams, directors often let a more experienced character assume the role of a mentor. The mentor-mentee relationships are mostly explored in sports films — including Bigil, Sarpatta Parambarai, and Irudhi Suttru — but Tamil cinema has also portrayed such relationships against the backdrop of crime, national security, music and education. The latest to join this list is Por Thozhil, starring Ashok Selvan and Sarathkumar, which seems to explore such dynamics in the police procedural setup.
Ahead of the release of Por Thozhil, check out 13 Tamil films about the bonding and intricacies of the mentor and mentee.
Being a mentor comes with its own baggage. When you take the wrong route, you are leading several others to do the same. Kathiravan aka Kathir (Vijay Sethupathi) is a local rowdy helping the counsellor in Ka Ka Po. But over the years, he also realises the perils of such a job. So, when Kathir is planning to kill someone, the gang ropes in the newly joined Murali, who always aids Kathir, to surrender on his behalf. Having trodden the same path, Kathir realises that Murali might end up becoming like him. Watch out for the pre-climax scene, where he slaps a confused Murali, urging him to not follow him and instead, search for a different job. We see them together only in glimpses, but this one scene, where he shows his care and affection in the form of anger establishes their relationship, one where Kathir always looks out for Murali’s safety and life.
This Vetri Maaran film about a mentor and mentee — Periyasamy aka Pettaikaaran (V. I. S. Jayapalan) is a rooster trainer and KP Karuppu (Dhanush) is his favourite student — focuses on how father-son-like relationship evolves into a complex, hateful relationship over time. While Karuppu treats him as his father, Pettaikkaaran views him as his successor. But when ego comes into play, their dynamics change. From someone who unabashedly accepts that their team has lost even when that isn’t the case because he wants to save his team members’ lives, Pettaikaaran goes to any extent to rebuild his image when his reputation is put at stake, even if it means attacking his favourite student, Karuppu. However, for both of them, it is more complicated than taking revenge. While the guilt slowly kills Pettaikaaran, Karuppu leaves behind everything to protect the former’s reputation.
What’s super relatable about Sarvam Thaala Mayam is how most of us can never understand whether our mentors are scolding or praising us. The same happens for Peter Johnson (GV Prakash) who learns to play mridangam from the famous master Vembhu Iyer (Nedumudi Venu). Amidst castist undercurrents, Vembhu prioritises Peter’s talent and skill. More than mentor-mentee, what Vembhu calls this is a guru-shishya relationship that comes with its own disciplinary rules and restrictions.
How joyful it would be if you received a compliment from your mentor — GV Prakash is excellent as Peter, especially when he expresses emotions during such delicate moments; his happiness transcends beyond the screen. And Vembhu’s hilarious reprimands to his students add so much warmth and joy which also strengthens their bonding. In a way, an orthodox Vembhu learns a lot from Peter as well. After a small fight, when Vembhu calls Peter to rejoin him, the latter breaks down, which encompasses their bond.
Rangan Vaathiyar should be considered synonymous with the term mentor — strict, righteous and someone who leads by example. When he finds his bright student in Arya’s Kabilan Munirathnam, he also discovers a way to re-establish his dwindling empire. If Vaathiyar helped Kabilan scale up the ladder when needed, he also showed him his place and pointed out why he is wrong. Similarly, even when Kabilan takes the wrong route, the reality hits him hard only when Vaathiyar disapproves of him. Without a mentor like Vaathiyar, Kabilan might have never discovered his potential.
PS: A scene where Kabilan and Vaathiyar ride a bicycle has become meme creators’ favourite, flooding social media with some hilarious stories.
Only a few films have dealt with caste-related issues while depicting the mentor-mentee relationship. If Sarvam Thaala Mayam sees how an upper-caste man mentors someone from the marginalised community, Peranmai uncovers what happens when the tables turn around. Besides being ill-treated by his superiors, Jayam Ravi’s Dhuruvan also ends up being mocked by his students, a new batch of NCC cadets. But he never seems to take such matters to heart, or probably he never reacts. However, the students slowly begin to understand and respect him, only much later when they are stuck in a forest, battling against foreigners who are trying to hamper India’s space rocket launch. On a macro level, Peranmai is about patriotism but it is the micro details of the relationship between Dhuruvan and his students and how it slowly evolves over the course of their training period that holds the film together.
How far will a mentor go to ensure the safety and success of their students? Madhavan’s Prabhu lets go of the opportunity to redeem himself on the international boxing stage so that his student Madhi (Ritika Singh) gets to prove her talent. Irudhi Suttru brings a love angle to the mentor-mentee relationship, but even otherwise it is a beautiful film that shows the struggles of both characters with their respective flaws.
Easwar (Prakash Raj) is a kickboxing champion and Kumaran (Jayam Ravi) is his ardent fan. Kumaran slowly starts liking the sport and learns the ropes of it. He gets a chance to meet his idol, a chance where his idol will become his mentor, but he also learns that the same idol is his father who left his family to pursue his passion. With contradicting emotions, Kumaran embarks on a journey in which he tries to accept his father and his life decisions. What brings them close is the sport, as Easwar trains Kumaran for a championship.
When Fahadh Faasil’s Aadhi explains a supermarket’s structure and placement of brands using their marketing strategies, Arivazhagan (Sivakarthikeyan) represented every one of us — as he stood dumbfounded. Aadhi becomes Arivazhagan’s role model at first sight. Arivazhagan quickly learns the nuances of marketing as he works with Aadhi and achieves his targets. But everything comes crashing down when he gets to see the villainous side of Aadhi, someone who inspired and motivated him. The film then takes a different angle as they both plot ways to bring down one another. Even though Aadhi might be the antagonist of the film, he is a mentor we would always look up to.
Mentors portrayed in Tamil cinema are never vulnerable. They have their bad pasts but we rarely get to see them dwell on it. But Nandita Swetha’s Valli is unique. The way Valli trains Harish (Sivakarthikeyan) for a Marathon often reminds me of The Karate Kid (2010) where Jackie Chan repeatedly makes Dre Parker wear and remove his jacket. She makes him swim in a deep well, run as a dog chases him, catch a cock and even climb coconut trees. But it slowly helps him improve his stamina and resilience. While Harish trains hard to win the competition, we also get to see what changed Valli’s life and the politics in the sports field, as he tries to help his mentor and prove Valli’s real talent.
Bigil is similar to Sivakarthikeyan's Kanaa (2018) when we speak about the relationship between the coach and the players. The films are riddled with cliches of how a coach wins over the trust of the players and brings the team together, but these are the very scenes that also show how important this mentor-mentee bonding is. It is built mostly on trust, affection or respect is only a by-product of it. The scene where Bigil (Vijay) helps Anita (Reba John) realise her passion for football and the importance to overcome obstacles is beautifully illustrated — that is the crescendo which emphasises the role of a mentor.
An experienced person who also understands the plight of young minds, Vivek’s Mangalam aka Sundaram in Boys is the mentor we all dream to have. In the Shankar directorial which traces the story of friends who become family, Mangalam is the mentor who completed the family. Even when the parents disown the college kids — played by Siddharth, Genelia, Bharath, Nakul and others — Mangalam stands by their side, offering much-needed guidance, academic or otherwise. They fondly called him godfather and often turn to him for advice. More than a mentor, he was also their friend who encourages and helps them chase their dreams.
The Hero in the title refers to Sakthi (Sivakarthikeyan) who dons a superhero costume to fight the corporate giants and show the innovative inventions of young kids to the world. But the title is also well suited for the mentor of the hero, Sathyamoorthy, a teacher. Besides making Sakthi understand reality, Sathyamoorthy is also a hero to the many kids he trained. In his quest to make their dreams come true, Sathyamoorthy was even ready to die.
Ullaasam is a love triangle, but nestled within is a story about a smuggler JK (Raghuvaran) and Guru (Ajith) who's been following the former’s footsteps since his childhood. When everyone feared JK, Guru adored and worshipped him, kickstarting their journey together. They fight several gangsters, but their relationship runs deeper. JK doubles up as a mentor and brother who is keen on helping Guru. From offering love advice to bundles of cash, JK prioritises Guru’s happiness over everything else.