In K Balachander’s Punnagai Mannan (1986), a couple (Kamal Haasan and Rekha) spends a languid, romantic day together as Ilaiyaraaja’s sensuous ‘Enna Satham Indha Neram’ plays in the background. But as the song draws to an end, you realise that it was more of a dirge. Moments later, the couple attempts suicide by leaping off a cliff because the woman’s family is against their marriage. She dies, but he lives, and the guilt kills him inch by inch every day.
A Diwali release, Punnagai Mannan opened to negative reviews but became a massive hit that ran for 25 weeks in theatres. It was an era when such intense love stories were celebrated, and couples going to any extent to prove their love for each other was a favourite on screen romantic ritual. The famous train scene between Karthik (Madhavan) and Shakti (Shalini) in Mani Ratnam’s romcom Alaipayuthey (2000) perhaps marked a shift in how love stories were being told on screen. She asks him if he will jump off the train to prove his love for her, he smiles and says “No”.
In contrast to the Eighties and Nineties that celebrated eternal love, many romcoms and romances in the 2000s view love as an emotion that changes and evolves with time. Dating, breaking up, moving on and finding new love have largely been normalised on screen. The latest in line is Pradeep Ranganthan’s romcom Love Today (2022). The film opens with a young couple (Pradeep and Ivana) madly in love. They’re shown to be devoted – until they exchange their smartphones and discover unpleasant secrets about each other. The film, made on a modest budget of Rs 5 crore and without big stars in the cast, has made over .
As the new millennium rolled in, the way in which love stories were written and represented gradually began to change in Tamil cinema. The internet shrank distance and gave people unprecedented levels of access and privacy. Simultaneously, what was previously considered private became material for public display. Director Balaji Mohan, who made one of the early Tamil romcoms that captured this phenomenon, said that Woody Allen’s romcoms had an influence on him as a filmmaker. “I quite enjoy his take on romance and relationships, the boy-girl connections and the differences between men and women. I like the treatment in his movies. There is no heavy melodrama. It’s laidback humour,” said Mohan.
Mohan’s film Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Yeppadi (2012), starring Siddharth and Amala Paul in the lead, is about a couple that fights over silly misunderstandings, breaks up and eventually gets back together again. In his review for The Hindu, film critic Karthik Subramaniam : “It has become a trend for films exploring romance to add so many layers to it that the audience is often taken on an intensely emotional trip. Debut-making director Balaji Mohan does the opposite with Kadhalil Sodhapuvadhu Yeppadi. Instead of adding complexities to the narrative, he simplifies it. He seems to have a good grasp of the zeitgeist of the younger generation, which is embracing the changes brought about by a global cultural phenomenon like Facebook and yet trying to keep its local moorings intact.”
Speaking about why he wanted to make such a romcom, Mohan said, “I wanted to write something fresh for the Tamil cinema space. Something new in how love stories are treated, with tongue-in-cheek humour. People are yet to figure out how to be perfect in love although it’s an emotion that’s time immemorial. There is no rulebook for it, and that’s why my film’s title is about how people mess up in love.”
Though the top stars of the industry like Ajith and Vijay are now focused on action films, romance dramas and romcoms continue to be popular genres. Apart from Love Today, another Tamil romcom that became a blockbuster this year is Thiruchitrambalam. Directed by Mithran R Jawahar, the film is about a food delivery boy (Dhanush) who is always seeking love, oblivious to the fact that his girl bestie (Nithya Menen) has fallen for him. The film released without much fanfare but made over Rs 100 crore at the box office.
Film historian Theodore Baskaran pointed out that unlike films today where breakups are normalised, love stories in the past revolved around the concept of “Oruvanukku Oruthi” (roughly translated, it means a partner for life), with great emphasis on a woman’s chastity.
“Earlier films were largely patriarchal, completely reinforcing existing prejudices on women, particularly virginity. There were films like that in the early 2000s, too. In Balaji Sakthivel’s tragic romance Kadhal (2004), which is about an intercaste couple that elopes, he goes to great lengths to show that she remains a virgin. Also, if a woman was widowed on screen, she either died or remained a widow till the end,” said Baskaran.
In the new millennium, there was greater access to cinema from outside India, thanks to movie CDs and the internet. This slowly encouraged filmmakers to experiment with ideas of love even in other genres, noted Baskaran.
“In Seenu Ramasamy’s drama Dharma Durai (2016), the hero (Vijay Sethupathi) marries a woman (Tamannaah) who was previously married to another without making a song and dance about it. In Singeetam Srinivasa Rao’s comedy Mumbai Express (2005), the hero (Kamal Haasan) falls in love with a woman (Manisha Koirala) who is a mistress to a police officer. He marries her though she already has a son through the other man,” said Baskaran.
Film critic Subha Rao agreed that love stories today are very different from what she grew up watching as a child. “Love today is very complex, because life also is. A lot many more factors come into play in a relationship. Many films in the Seventies and Eighties celebrated sacrifice – Andha 7 Naatkal (1981) and Gopurangal Saaivathillai (1982) come to mind – and giving up love for family, and I kind of scoff at them today, but they touched a chord then,” she said, adding that cinema has changed to keep pace with the times, evolving from missed calls on the landline to Tinder.
Among modern romances, Baskaran rates Vasanthabalan’s Angadi Theru (2010) highly. The film is about a young man (Mahesh) and woman (Anjali) who are employees at a large textile showroom in Chennai. The film takes us through how their love helps them survive the many challenges that life throws at them. “I also think women filmmakers like Halitha Shameem, who made the romantic anthology film Sillu Karupatti (2019), are bringing out various facets of love beautifully on screen,” Baskaran said.
Rao’s pick for contemporary love is Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Neethaane En Ponvasantham (2012), a film that didn’t receive as much love at the box office as the director’s earlier celebrated romance Vinnaithaandi Varuvaya (2010). Neethane is about a couple's changing relationship over the years. “I thought it captured perfectly the heady giddiness of teen love, the inane everyday fights and the ego tussles,” she said.
However, even as filmmakers are pushing the boundaries to represent different kinds of love on screen, there are certain conventions that they continue to follow, especially when it comes to preserving the sanctity of marriage. The “thaali” (mangalsutra) sentiment of earlier movies may have disappeared, but marriage is still largely considered to be sacrosanct.
In Selvarghavan’s romantic tragedy 7G Rainbow Colony (2004), a woman (Sonia Agarwal) decides to spend the night with her lover (Ravi) before she marries a man chosen by her parents. However, she dies in an accident the day after they consummate the relationship. In C Premkumar’s romance 96 (2018), it is the man (Vijay Sethupathi) who remains a virgin in the memory of his high school sweetheart (Trisha) while she moves on in life and marries another person.
Mani Ratnam’s OK Kanmani (2015) has a couple (Nithya Menen and Dulquer Salmaan) that decides to enter a live-in relationship only to realise the value of the institution of marriage. In Ashwanth Marimuthu’s romantic fantasy film Oh My Kadavule (2020), a couple (Ritika Singh and Ashok Selvan) on the verge of divorce gets together again after divine intervention.
Elan’s Pyaar Prema Kaadhal (2018) that looks at love, sex, romance, marriage and live-in relationships with a refreshingly non-judgmental lens, is among the few films to break such conventions around marriage.
Romance and romcom are among the few genres where women characters receive as much importance as male characters. But since most films are written and directed by men, it’s difficult to find women characters that are entirely free of the male gaze. Even in Love Today where we see the cyber shenanigans of the hero and heroine, there is a difference in how these scenes are written and directed. The extent of her “crimes” is flirting with an ex and going out with him without her boyfriend’s knowledge, but the boyfriend indulges in a whole range of shady activities, including soliciting pictures from random women by pretending to be a filmmaker. What she does is a breach of trust while what he does is criminal – yet, the film will have us believe that both are the same.
Another romcom that released this year and attracted flak for its sexist portrayal is Vignesh Shivan’s Kaathuvaakula Rendu Kaadhal (2022). The film is about a man (Vijay Sethupathi) who enters into a relationship with two women at the same time (Nayanthara and Samantha) and claims he has a “memory disorder” when he is caught. In her review, film critic Ashameera Aiyappan , “Kaathuvaakula Rendu Kaadhal ends up being a cautionary tale for women. It normalises, glorifies, and romanticises every patriarchal trope that women are expected to put up with.”
Balaji Mohan acknowledged that it isn’t easy for a male director to write about relationships from a woman’s point of view. “Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Yeppadi was an attempt to look at how different men and women can be. The film is on the maker’s cruel joke of putting two different species on the planet and expecting them to get along. When I write, I try to put myself in a woman’s shoes as much as possible. If I claimed that I understood women perfectly well, I’d be the most sought after person in the world,” he said.
Lovers may not be leaping off cliffs in 2022, but the box office clearly shows that the audience loves a good romance. Young people, in particular, are eager to see their realities being represented on screen, and a smart filmmaker who understands their pulse would explore more in this direction. After all, love yesterday or love today, this is one genre that will always remain a favourite with the audience.