Best Tamil Films Of 2021

If the worst of 2021 are defined by their disregard for the audience’s intelligence, the best brought with them one thing: Surprise.

After a devastating 2020, this year was a revival of Tamil cinema in many ways. The releases were steadier, films that were long waiting for ‘theatre release,’ like Master and Doctor, finally found their day. OTT also had a steady output, competing strongly as an alternative channel for Tamil cinema.

In retrospect, this year had some terrific films, ten of which I’ll soon get to. But it also had its share of the absolutely terrible. Sundar C gathered the audacity to make Aranmanai 3, a horrid affair we could have all done without. Jayam Ravi’s misguided Bhoomi took a piss on the audience’s intelligence. Whatever little Santhanam entertained us with Parris Jeyaraj this year, he snatched away with Dikkilona, a patently misogynistic — and downright boring — time travel film. Nayanthara’s Netrikann squandered its potential. Jyothika’s Udanpirappe arrived quite dead. Dhanush’s Jagame Thandhiram and Rajinikanth’s Annaaththe tested the loyalties of their fans — I am somewhat relieved to see that even Tamil cinema fandom has its limits.

If the worst of 2021 are defined by their disregard for the audience’s intelligence, the best brought with them one thing: Surprise.

Each of the films I’ve picked as the best of this year surprised me in one way or another. Some of them by creating something delightfully new, yet others by subverting the norm. Here’s my top ten Tamil films, ranked.

10. Kutty Story

Kutty Story is an odd anthology for it was released in theatres. Among the four shorts it is made of, we get an inane Gautham Menon romance and a misinformed AL Vijay story about abortion. If we can look past that, there is also a surprising Venkat Prabhu love story and a terrific Nalan Kumaraswamy family drama.

Venkat Prabhu’s short Lokham is about a man and a woman who meet while playing a video game. It is well-considered, mature and in many ways antithetical to what we’ve seen as romance/relationships in Venkat Prabhu’s work. The metaphors are beautiful, the way Venkat Prabhu presents the younger man falling for an older woman is tender. Premji Amaren’s music makes it fun, without turning frivolous. It’s a surprisingly heartful film.

In contrast, Nalan Kumaraswamy’s Aadal Padal is a masterfully handled story of a cheating husband and his no-nonsense wife. Nalan’s writing is measured, the rhythm near-perfect, the dialogue crisp. Vijay Sethupathy and Aditi Balan are both terrific. But the film’s success is in the fact that it doesn’t judge. So much so that it doesn’t even conveniently resolve the conflict — leaving it to us to make what we will of what we’re watching.

9. Mandela

Madonne Ashwin’s Mandela is a film for the apolitical folk. It is an allegory of our country’s plight set against the backdrop of a small village. It is a study of the layers of discrimination we stack against the marginalised. It is a call for individual and collective responsibility of our lives.

It’s not a perfect film, though — for instance, at one point it confuses welfare schemes for handouts. Despite its flaws, it’s a thoughtful critique of society. It taunts and mocks everything we have come to accept as normal, without placing the blame squarely on an isolated individual villain. Yogi Babu as the eponymous hero is terrific, funny when necessary, and poignant throughout.

8. Jai Bhim

Jai Bhim is a small film featuring a big star. Small not just because of its OTT release, but also because of how it treats its star. We get little by way of backstory, only a mass moment here and a punch dialogue there, but Tha Se Gnanavel is measured about deifying his hero. And surprisingly, Suriya lends himself entirely to what’s written for him.

The film isn’t without its faults. The torture porn is almost impossible to watch and largely unnecessary to make the point. The writing is deliberate in demanding sympathy and guilt. Yet, it is a film that doesn’t entirely compromise its cinematic ambition at the altar of good intentions. It’s politics are in the right place. The investigative thriller-like structure keeps us hooked. The scene where Sengani (Lijomol Jose) walks back from the police station with the jeep following her is one of hope.

7. Maanaadu

The first 40 minutes of Maanaadu is like your below-average Venkat Prabhu film — a self-absorbed hero with undeserved build up, a cute heroine who inexplicably grabs a stranger’s hand in the airplane, Premji making Premji jokes, a dance song, a bride eloping and so on. It’s difficult to sit through. Which is why it’s such a huge surprise that when we get to the real story, the film takes off and how!

Not only does Venkat Prabhu keep it unpredictable, he also keeps it taut that we have no time to predict anything. The action sequences are meticulous, yet accessible. He gets Simbu to underplay — a feat in itself — so SJ Suryah can be the maniacal villain. And he makes a political statement in the most Venkat Prabhu-esque way possible: Simplistic, controlled and effective.

6. Mughizh

This is my most favourite film of the year for its simplicity. Writer-director Karthik Swaminathan is intricately aware of his boundaries — he sticks to a handful of characters, realistic dialogue and a 62 minute runtime. Within that, he tells a heartwarming story about everyday lives.

Vijay (Vijay Sethupathy) and Radhika (Regina Cassandra) are an average married couple. They have little by way of romance, but fill the screen with heartwarming love and comfort only possible among two people who’ve grown together. There is a scene where Vijay pulls at Radhika’s sleeves during conversation, a strange, yet delightful, gesture of intimacy. In another scene, he returns from work, takes off his belt and leaves it on the table, before pulling his pants up and sitting down — hardly a cinematic moment, but that’s the kind of commonness that Mughizh is going for. Radhika, too, isn’t the sacrificial wife. She is jealous in a harmless way. She demands attention without coming across as the nagging spouse.

Mughizh is a celebration of the non-hero. It is exactly the kind of film that makes me admire Vijay Sethupathy with all my heart. I would gladly watch a dozen bad Vijay Sethupathy films if hidden among them is one Mughizh and one Kutty Story.

5. Writer

Throughout Franklin Jacob’s Writer, Thangaraj (Samuthirakani) keeps insisting that his new trainee should be a “makkala nesikkara kaavalan” (protector who loves his people) — sentiment that Franklin weaves into the film with surprising empathy and laser-sharp objectivity. With the piercing eye of a documentary filmmaker, he builds a world that’s complex, inefficient, unfair and exploitative. Yet, he stays stoic in the face of atrocity, trusting his viewers have heart.

In doing this, Franklin Jacob makes a stellar debut, writing a taut film, playing out the pieces one at a time, building tension, but hardly making the viewer restless. As a director, he is confident, staging scenes with masterly clarity. Cinematographer Pratheep Kaliraja favouring wide shots, capturing the environment with a keen eye. Govind Vasantha adds a new timbre to the film, even in its most emotional moments, staying at a respectful distance, letting us mourn.

The best part of Writer — like most storytellers from Pa Ranjith’s stable — is their faith in revolution and gumption for the good fight. Devakumar (Hari Krishnan), Saranya (Ineya), Maruthamuthu (GM Sundar), and Thangaraj himself put up a fight, in whatever way they can, never once giving into the cynicism that’s looming large. Writer stands for hope, even when everything is stacked against you.

4. Karnan

My biggest grouse with director Mari Selvaraj’s previous effort, Pariyerum Perumal, was that it was a liberal appeasement film. It presents atrocities while being utterly cautious about not offending sensibilities. It almost falls into the trap of the ideal victim myth. With Karnan, Mari Selvaraj gives less of a damn, and that is glorious.

He takes elements of magical realism and mass Tamil cinema to create an enthralling narrative. He writes a community of people, each one with a story and an inner life. They might live in a remote village without so much as bus connectivity, but they’re bold, angry and embody resistance. Lal, Yogi Babu, GM Kumar, Rajisha Vijayan and Dhanush himself uphold the film with great care. Karnan isn’t perfect. But it sure is great.

3. Maadathy

Leena Manimekalai’s independent film Maadathy is folklore, horror and drama all rolled into a complete and considered whole. Writers Rafiq Ismail and Yavanika Sriram — story by Leena Manimekalai — take their time to establish the lives of each character. They write Yosana (Ajmina Kassim) with a tenderness and empathy that’s due to a young woman who is discovering not just herself but the world around her. They situate her story in an environment that’s clearly exploitative without milking it for melancholy. Leena herself captures the social, political and humanitarian excesses with a sharp feminist gaze.

Maadathy is a brave film, both narrative-wise and cinematically. The only surprise here is that it hasn’t been embraced more wholeheartedly by the Tamil audience.

2. Doctor

The biggest surprise of 2021 is watching Sivakarthikeyan resist the temptation to mouth scathing comebacks. In Doctor, Nelson achieves exactly that. As a fan of the director’s previous outing Kolamavu Kokila featuring a fantastic Nayanthara and Saranya Ponvannan, I had high expectations of Doctor. It delivered all that and then some.

Nelson takes the same theme — don’t underestimate a family in dire straits — but mounts it on a larger, more ambitious canvas. He makes it more mainstream without losing the quirkiness of his cinema; the metro fight scene exemplary of this. He makes the jokes more accessible, an upgraded edition for the Lollu Sabha-loving audience. And, as a bonus, he has a healthy and charming disregard for the family unit.

1. Sarpatta Parambarai

It should be no surprise that Tamil cinema’s finest contemporary filmmaker, Pa Ranjith, delivers a stunningly intricate piece of work in Sarpatta Parambarai. He packs it with little delights, which lend themselves to multiple pleasurable viewings.

Writer Tamizh Prabha creates a layered drama effortlessly touching on class, caste, gender and political underpinnings of what could have been a simplistic story of a struggling boxer. While Arya is adequate, Pasupathy, John Vijay, Shabeer Kallarakkal, Dushara Vijayan, Anupama Kumar give stellar performances, elevating the film. Murali G is patient and non-intrusive with his cinematography. RK Selva’s editing is thoughtful. Stunt choreographers Anbariv make art.

A completely in-control Pa Ranjith brings all this together into a wholesome film — his best yet.

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"Ranjani Krishnakumar: Ranjani is a writer living in Chennai. She graduated in film studies and began writing about Tamil cinema because she once naively believed that we, as an industry, can and should do better. A dozen years later, she still precariously hangs on to her naive idealism.."
  
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