Tamil Cinema And The Evolution Of The Romcom

Tamil cinema has focussed on social and economic disparities between lovers, rarely throwing the spotlight on their relationship. However, films such as Adutha Veetu Penn, Mozhi and Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Yeppadi have stuck to their romcom roots.
Tamil Cinema And The Evolution Of The Romcom

Genuine rom-coms are few and far between in Tamil cinema. Of course, there have been films such as Meyaadha Maan (2017) and Pyaar Prema Kaadhal (2018) in recent times. 'Crazy' Mohan and Kamal Hassan made Wodehousian comedies in which romance invariably played a part. But they weren't really romcoms, because they rarely explored the relationships themselves. 

Generally, our films barely give lovers time to get to know each other. It is often love at first sight and a marriage proposal at the second. So, for the most part, the obstacles lovers in Tamil cinema overcome are external — parental consent, and economic, social or linguistic differences. These are serious obstacles and it is difficult to derive comedy out of them. Hence, most of our romances have been dramas.

Adutha Veetu Penn (1960) is one of the earliest romcoms in Tamil. Its frivolity was unusual, right from its titles with animated cartoons — novel for the time. It is a film about two people who are from almost identical and affluent backgrounds. Hence, parental consent is not an issue for them. They could get married if they wanted, except that the hero has tricked the heroine into thinking that he is a singer, and they can't get married until this issue is sorted out. Incidentally, the film also started the hallowed tradition of heroes lip-syncing (when the hero's friend sings from behind a curtain) to impress heroines. Sundar C's Ullathai Allithaa (1996) attempted something similar decades later.

Director CV Sridhar made a series of romcoms in the 1960s. Take, for instance, Kadhalikka Neramillai (1964). The setting of the film is a bit more realistic than Adutha Veettu Penn. A clerk in an office is in love with the proprietor's daughter, who frowns upon the poor. Sridhar has a Wodehousian take on this serious situation, and gets the clerk to bring his friend in to impersonate his own father. The friend then tries to convince the girl's father that this potential groom is a wealthy person. That's a page straight out of Wodehouse, where Bertie Wooster impersonates writer Rosie M Banks to obtain consent for his friend's marriage. Such a farcical response to a rather serious class issue is depicted in a way that is believable, especially in the song 'Vishwanathan Velaivendum'. Though it starts off by addressing complexities, very quickly, the film slips into romcom territory. The parents in Kadhalikka Neramillai are regressive, but not stubborn. 

(Clockwise from top left): Stills from <em>Adutha Veetu Penn, Kadhalikka Neramillai, Anbe Vaa</em> and <em>Ooty Varai Uravu</em>
(Clockwise from top left): Stills from Adutha Veetu Penn, Kadhalikka Neramillai, Anbe Vaa and Ooty Varai Uravu

In Ooty Varai Uravu (1967), Sivaji Ganesan's character does a similar impersonation for a friend. These hare-brained schemes worked in these films because the parents were harmless and eventually gave in to their children's wishes, much like any decent Wodehousian adversary. AC Trilokchander in Anbe Vaa (1966) also did something similar by making a romcom that sidestepped external issues by softening MGR's larger-than-life image. 

These characters were, perhaps, not the experience of young lovers in the real world, and by the 80s, issues of class, caste, family opposition, and religion could not be avoided in films. To overcome these factors, the idea of love had to become larger-than-life. There was little time for just romance. Falling in love was a responsibility — to eventually get married. Classic films such as Punnagai Mannan (1986) and Moondram Pirai (1982) suggested that love can be transcendent; messy everyday romance is not the only kind of love. However, messy everyday romance is the source of rom-coms. The concept of love, and its social ramifications were explored far more than the people in love.

 Nenjathai Killadhey (1981) suggested that obstacles from within the family could be something other than parental consent, maybe even a hateful relative. Perhaps, K Balachander's Ninathaale Inikkum (1979) worked as a romcom, even a musical, because it was set in Singapore and featured a group of musicians. 

Typically, personal conflict between couples was rarely discussed, unless they were married, as in Mouna Ragam (1986). In a way, you could think of OK Kanmani (2015) as today's Mouna Ragam. Two people co-habit and try to work out whether they want to continue to be together. Perhaps, in the 80s, making the leads a married couple was the only way to address this idea. It was not a time to be sanguine about love. 

'Crazy' Mohan brought back some of Sridhar's comic style in the 90s starting with Michael Madana Kama Rajan (1990). In the same vein as Wodehousian comedies, romance is always present but muted in his films. Films such as Avvai Shanmugi (1996) and Panchathanthiram (2002) do briefly explore the conflict between the lead pair, but Pammal K Sambandam (2002) was a full-bodied romcom. The class difference between the lead characters is not only acknowledged but also exploited for good-natured humour.

In Shankar's Jeans (1998) and Azhagam Perumal's Dumm Dumm Dumm (2001), the obstacles continued to be external, but we got to see a bit more of what went on in the lovers' minds. V Priya's Kanda Naal Mudhal (2005) was probably the first genuine romcom in Tamil cinema with ego, not a villain, posing a problem for the lovers. There are external factors, such as a younger sister's marriage or the impending arrival of the girl's fiancé (the hero's friend) from the US. But, these are only used as narrative devices to push the lovers to act; their actions are determined by what they think. 

Un Samayal Araiyil (2014) (a remake of the Malayalam superhit Salt N' Pepper), RS Prasanna's Kalyana Samayal Saadham (2013), and Elan's Pyaar Prema Kaadhal (2018) are recent films that are genuine romcoms. Elan does not sidestep class issues, but makes them the source of humour. Two people from different social strata start a live-in relationship, and all the entertainment is in how they figure it out. Marriage is secondary. As the film showed, if lovers in our films focus more on assessing compatibility and less on getting married, it would give them more time to spend with each other, and that would add some much-needed fizz to romcoms. 

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