It's hard to find a mainstream Tamil film that doesn't have a romantic track. High octane action in films like Ghajini and Kaakha Kaakha are emotionally grounded in solid romantic tracks. And even a comedy like Michael Madana Kama Rajan allows three of its four Kamal Haasans brief romances and in Kadhalikka Neramillai, Nagesh's character gets his own comic romantic track. In films like Vaazhvey Maayam or Idhayam the romance simply sets off high tragedy. Most of these films aren't centered around romance. And even when they are, few stay strictly true to genre. But films like Kalyana Parisu and Kadhal Kottai create a drama around romance. Kanda Naal Mudhal and Pyaar Prema Kaadhal are romantic comedies. And a romantic film like Punnagai Mannan has elements of both comedy and drama.
In Kalyana Parisu, director Sridhar's debut as a director, he gives up conventions like ornate dialogues and a static camera to create an emotional and tragic love triangle between Baskar (Gemini Ganesan) and two sisters, Vasanthi (Saroja Devi) and Geetha (Vijayakumari). Vasanthi decides to give up her love for Geetha. This classic love triangle solution where a friend, brother or sister sacrifices their love for another continues to echo in films like Kadhal Desam (1996), Jeans (1998) and Ninaithen Vandhai (1998).
But Vasanthi's sacrifice in Kalyana Parisu is just the beginning of a series of events that continue to place her in close proximity to Baskar. Whether you can digest the film's tragic ending or not, it renders the film's title superbly poetic. More than the major drama of the film, Kalyana Parisu is probably better remembered today for its terrific comedy track where Thangavelu fakes it with his wife that he's employed at Mannar & Co, a fake shipping company he invents.
Director: A. C. Tirulokchandar
MGR's filmography took an unexpected turn with Anbe Vaa, in which he plays the famous millionaire tycoon, Balu, who is forced to take a break from all the hard work and philanthropy to keep his health. He takes a vacation to Shimla where he stays in his own bungalow but under a different identity. There, he meets Geetha (Saroja Devi) who falls in love with him over the course of the MS Viswanathan's classics 'Rajavin Paarvai' and 'Love Birds' at the beginning of the film when she doesn't know who he is. Again, near the end, when he reveals who he really is, she needs to fall in love with him again.
There is, of course, the customary climax fight where MGR uses chairs as weapons in a dining room, but really, that's only a device to settle the quarrel between Balu and Geetha. This film is MGR Lite. Only the year before, he had starred in the blockbuster action-adventure film Ayirathil Oruvan. It's also as far as his image would allow him to get into Sivaji Ganesan's Ooty Varai Uravu and Kalatta Kalyanam zone.
Nenjil Or Aalayam is an emotionally-rich film with an interesting variant of the love triangle: genteel and sophisticated Dr. Murali (Kalyan Kumar) finds his girlfriend, Seetha (Devika), already married when he returns abroad from his studies. He devotes himself to cancer research as way of forgetting her. But he ends up treating her husband, Venu (Muthuraman), who has a potentially terminal condition. This is very similar to how events in director Sridhar's earlier film, Kalyana Parisu, put the unfortunate couple together when it's the last thing they want.
Murali and Seetha are forced to revisit their relationship. But they have hope, only if Venu passes away. Sridhar mines this ambiguous situation for melodrama because both Murali and Seetha want to prioritize what is right (Venu's health) over what is desirable (Murali and Seetha getting together). Viswanathan-Ramamurthy's classic 'Engirundhaalum Vaazhga', sung by AL Raghavan, has become the template for dignified, unrequited romance, where the hero philosophically wishes the best for his ex with just enough self-pity to make us feel he's invested it.
On the face of it, Nenjathai Killlathe is a love triangle between Ram (Mohan), Pratap (Pratap Pothen) and Viji (Suhasini). Ram and Viji like each other but she ends up getting married to Pratap. But Nenjathai Killathe is not so much about the plot as the unrushed, naturalistic portrait of its characters and the relationships they tentatively explore.
For example, take the really quiet gem from Ilaiyaraaja, 'Paruvame'. It sounds like the voice in your head that automatically plays a tune to match the rhythm of your jog. The song plays in the background while Ram and Viji, who've only recently met, are out on a jog. They pass by a man neck deep in a lake — singing. And they break into spontaneous laughter. Mahendran chooses this understated and unassuming manner of showing two people go through the awkward process of bonding by discovering things they both enjoy. The rest of the film, too, gets this nuanced treatment, and so, it never plays out as a typical romantic drama. Like in all love triangles, Ram, Pratap and Viji keep running into each other however hard they try not to. But the psychological detailing helps you look past minor tropes of that era.
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Bharathiraja's Alaigal Oivathillai is an endearing story of innocent and intense teenage love that cuts across religious divides. Ilaiyaraaja's background score often elevates the visuals (and functional acting) and gives the film a certain moral vitality. For example, there's a scene that builds up to the song 'Aayiram Thamarai' where Vichu (Karthik) and Mary (Radha) awkwardly stare at each other as if in a tableau. And they slowly walk towards each other to hug a tree with their names carved on it. That's what you see if you're watching on mute.
But along with the score and the song it leads up to, you feel you're watching a slick depiction of the intensity and exuberance of teenage romance. It also makes the climax where Vichu and Mary are ready to even drop their religions to be together feel plausible.
In Muthal Mariyathai, an aging Malaichami (Sivaji Ganesan) lives in a loveless marriage with Ponnatha (Vadivukkarasi). Theirs is a marriage of ultimate social compulsion: Ponnatha got pregnant out of wedlock and had to be married off to someone, but preferably a relative. Malaichami weds her to 'save her honour' but they never get over their instinctive resentment for each other. Into this backdrop of a relationship that's plainly just transactional, Bharathiraja introduces Radha's Kuyili, the childlike, almost-angelic boatwoman of the village. And what you get is a subdued, dignified and effective romance between Malaichami and Kuyili.
Sivaji's performance in scenes between Malaichami and Kuyili eases around their rustic banter, but he also gets scenes that are appropriate for his melodramatic prowess, like the scene where he confronts Ponnatha about her past pregnancy. There's also muted masculinity in the character and performance: he's a village headman disrespected in his own house, a man who finds love only too late in life, a man who tried to save his wife's honour only to end both their lives in tragedy.
Director: K. Balachander
The scene where lovers Sethu (Kamal Haasan), wearing white, and Ranjani (Rekha), in yellow, jump off a cliff so they can at least die together has probably the most haunting image in Punnagai Mannan. You'd think things are as bad as they could get for them, but they go uncomfortably awry when Sethu survives after Ranjani dies: he's now failed to both live and die with her. This kind of making something just perfect worse twice over is what ironically makes this film with a title 'punnagai mannan (king of smiles)' work.
The film has amazing music by Ilaiyaraaja; the iconic theme music creates a sense of perfection in the relationship between Sethu and Revathi's Malini. It begins as Sethu kicks off an old-fashioned tape recorder and gracefully goes under the piano and all around the room in a dance, as Malini watches. And as the scene ends, Ilaiyaraaja swaps in electronic instruments with an orchestral section that plays a duet, just in time for Malini and Sethu to dance in tandem. It's just perfect and also leaves you with an ominous fear for this relationship, too.
You'd think with access to communication today, Kathal Kottai wouldn't have aged well. Parts of it haven't, like the comedy tracks and the melodramatic family angle. But the quaint idea that two people can fall in love through just their letters without ever having seen each other still works. That's because Suriya (Ajith) and Kamali (Devayani) organically fall in love as external factors around them, like Suriya's boss and Kamali's weird brother-in-law, make their growing attachment appear gradually more necessary and plausible to us.
Suriya is far away from home in Rajasthan and Kamali is in a home that she's forced to leave eventually. In this context, it's not hard to imagine that they could become each other's happy places in their minds. The tension between their psychological attachment and physical remoteness is released in the now legendary climax. It's a climax you expect, of course, but after all the pressure built up in our minds when Suriya and Kamali are separated, it feels like a terrible relief.
Kadhalukku Mariyadhai and Kadhal Kottai both have memorable endings, and for similar reasons. If Kadhal Kottai was about whether two loners who've only written to each other would ever meet (and they do by coincidence in the end), Kadhalukku Mariyadhai is about whether Jeeva (Vijay) and Mini (Shalini) who've fallen in love after a chance meeting can stay together until the end in spite of family pressure.
The film ends melodramatically with the families that belong to different religions, letting Jeeva and Mini be together. But it starts off as a cool romance between Jeeva and Mini in a bookshop where they stumble upon the same book, 'Love And Love Only', the greatest romance novel that every Tamilian knows but never reads. Ilaiyaraaja's songs like 'O Baby', 'Ennai Thalaata', and 'Oru Pattam Poochi' defined a low-key romantic sound of that period and ran parallel with the sound AR Rahman was creating in films like, say, in Minsara Kanavu released in the same year.
Director: Rajiv Menon
Priya (Kajol), the jaded daughter of a rich businessman, is moved by the Lord's Spirit to become a nun. This disappoints her father as he wants to get her married to Thomas (Arvind Swamy), the son of his affluent friend. Thomas hires Deva (Prabhu Deva) as his counsellor in love and an unexpected love triangle is set up between the three of them. Minsara Kanavu avoids the moral angle of the situation by putting it in perspective: irrespective of whom Priya marries, she'd be breaking her vow to God, anyway.
The love triangle is treated with a light, amoral touch and a big part of how the film manages to get this treatment right is through AR Rahman's quirky and original music. 'Strawberry Kanne' and 'Maana Madurai' push the limits of how much you could tweak a song structure while keeping it accessible.
Director: Mani Ratnam
Few Tamil films have realistically explored the complications of a relationship after marriage. Typically in our films, marriage is the goal of love and lovers spend all their energy convincing someone to let them be together. In Alaipayuthey, Karthik (Madhavan) and Shakti (Shalini) have only themselves to convince. You'd think they're going to be okay once they get married secretly and live secret lives that their parents don't know about.
But it's the physical closeness and availability that causes them to have doubts about whether they took it too far, too soon. Since they're in a secret marriage, there's the temptation to break everything off with little consequence. Mani Ratnam's earlier film, Mouna Ragam, shows the conflict between a married couple who're unsure about each other. OK Kanmani is about what happens to a couple when they have time to decide on marriage. Alaipayuthey is what happens when it's neither here nor there. The film has impeccable cinematography by PC Sreeram and AR Rahman's music grounds this emotionally rich story in urban coolth.
Director: Balaji Sakthivel
Kaadhal, as the title suggests plainly and directly, is about love. But it's also meant in an ironic sense. With a superb soundtrack by Joshua Sridhar, Kaadhal starts off with the ancient Tamil cinema trope: a poor, uneducated boy, Murugan (Bharath) falls in love with Aishwarya (Sandhya) who is from an affluent family. Naturally, they're forced to elope and get married.
That's when Kaadhal gets gritty and portrays how intense-but-poorly-thought-out teenage relationships could be: right from the problems an upper-class girl faces when she sees harsh reality for the first time, to Murugan's realization near the end that love will not conquer all. Kaadhal doesn't judge the couple because their love for each other always feels genuine. But it holds stark realities (of class and status) against them and forces us to judge idealistic love as often not worth the complicated pain of pursuing it.
Director: Priya V
You'd think Kanda Naal Mudhal is a light romcom but — right under its froth — it does a whole lot of subverting without making a virtue out of it. It's a typical rom com, ticking off familiar items on the checklist: Krishna (Prasanna) and Ramya (Laila) hate each other at first only to fall in love later, there's an America mappillai who is a threat for Krishna, the couple's ego gets in their way and a climax happens at an airport. But each of these points play out in unexpected ways and the film elevates itself cleverly out of these tropes.
With Yuvan Shankar Raja's amazing music ('Panu Thuli', 'Merke Merke', 'Koo Koovena') and cinematography by PC Sreeram, Kanda Naal Mudhal excavated from underground a generation of romance lovers snowed under intense, star-driven romances of the late 90s. It's one of the few Tamil romcoms where the comedy isn't just one-liners papered over a romantic drama but instead rises organically from the action between Krishna and Ramya.
There's Selvaraghavan's typical raw and conflict-heavy romance in 7/G Rainbow Colony. But it's probably one of his most romantic films because it takes to the extreme the belief that love can change anyone for the better. It's almost Biblical in it's veneration of the female for her ability to redeem lost and aimless Selvaraghavan protagonists. The film feels tentatively hopeful when Anita (Sonia Agarwal) falls in love with Kadhir (Ravi Krishna) before unleashing a psychological mess: Anita wants to sleep with Kadhir before she marries a person of her parents' choice and when Kadhir gets even more attached to her, she thinks he's doing it just for the sex.
After reducing love from a possibility (Anita is going to save Kadhir's life) to a mess (Anita and Kadhir quarrel about sex), Selvaraghavan elevates it back into an ideal, romantic love that transcends human limitations, but that's in a twisted way. Kadhir continues his relationship with Anita in the end, but only in a dark and remote sense. But in Selvaraghavan's world, it counts as a happy ending. Yuvan's 'Kan Pesum Varthaigal' from the film must be one of the earliest songs written for the soup boy demographic, much before 'Why This Kolaveri'.
Director: Gautham Vasudev Menon
Gautham Menon's films have always had strong romantic tracks. But Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa was his first serious romance. The first thing that strikes you, perhaps even before the romance and prepares you for it, is the film's music by AR Rahman and cinematography by Manoj Paramahamsa. Jesse (Trisha) is a Malayali Syrian Catholic and Karthik (Simbu) is a Tamil Hindu; religion is the reason why they cannot be together. Thirty years after Alaigal Oivathillai, romance appears to have become deeper, more mature. But lovers appear to be getting increasingly skeptical about social approval.
If Alaigal Oivathillai ends with defiant lovers throwing off the religious symbols, in Kadhalukku Mariyadhai, they fight for parental approval in the climax. Jesse doesn't even want to bother. The climax is simply about accepting both the realness of love they have for each other and the realities of their lives. But that's not what the film is really about on a scene-to-scene basis: it's about the finicky dynamic between Karthik and Jesse, a couple who appear made for each other but ironically not meant to be around each other. In Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa, love is a feeling that has a life of its own and not a means to an end.
Director: Pa. Ranjith
Dinakaran (Dinesh) is a loser in Pa. Ranjith's debut Attakathi, whose hapless romantic efforts progressively bring back poorer results. In fact, the film is romantic only in the sense that the Dinakaran is eager to strike up a romance with someone, somehow. But each time, he gets absolutely nowhere. Like the title suggests, he's a 'faker' who feels he can be a consummate boyfriend, and yet cannot get any girl to like him. The film follows his increasingly futile attempts. Every time Dinakaran is rejected by someone, he swiftly acknowledges the hollowness of his love for that girl and moves on to the next. It's a celebration of the kind of romance that doesn't strictly need two people cooperating.
With terrific music by Santhosh Narayanan ('Aasai Oru Pulveli', 'Nadukadalula Kappala'), the film strikes a superbly poignant tone in 'Vazhi Parthirundhen' near the film's end. Dinakaran is waiting at night to elope with his 'girlfriend' before realizing he's been duped once again. Far from a loser, you begin to see Dinakaran as at least mock-heroic. Not a kaththi, but at least an attakathi.
Raja Rani must be one of the biggest romantic hits in recent times with great music by GV Prakash Kumar and a cast made of Arya, Nayanthara, Nazriya Nazim, and Jai. It begins as a kind of a homage to Mouna Ragam, where there is a married couple who hate each other. Only here, both John (Arya) and Regina (Nayanthara) have a past in which they've lost someone they loved. Regina believes that her college boyfriend, Muthuraman (Jai), is now dead, while John's girlfriend had passed away in an accident. Now that these two have told each other that they are still in love with other dead people, how could they possibly move on?
Atlee organically lets warmth build up between John and Regina before a big, melodramatic ending at the airport with an emotional twist: Regina unexpectedly meets Muthuraman at the airport. She now believes that he is married, just as she once believed he was dead.
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Director: Nalan Kumarasamy
A remake of South Korean film My Dear Desperado, Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum is a mature romantic story. But for all its swagger in Santhosh Narayanan's 'Pangali', the film ends as a soft tragedy. It sets itself up with the essentials of a romance: two people stuck with each other due to circumstances slowly develop an admiration for each other that goes beyond their first impressions. But Nalan Kumarasamy spends the rest of the film showing us why that's not enough in the real world where people are far more complex than they are in films.
Kathiravan (Vijay Sethupathy) is someone hoping to receive a tiny promotion in his criminal gang for his services to them, but that appears unlikely. He gets stuck to his life as an out-of-work but mildly respected gangster. Yazhini (Madonna Sebastian), an IT professional, is temporarily stuck with Kathiravan due to problems with her family. Clearly, the two have nothing in common except their physical proximity. But soon, they start being there for each other. But what would happen to one person if the other didn't need them anymore? In another film, the climax would have united Kathiravan and Yazhini. Here, though they look genuinely happy to see each other, they don't even rush to embrace. But they don't seem to have given up either. Kadhalum Kadandhu Podum is a quirky and understated romantic gem with none of the typical romance of our films, and that makes it special.
Even if you think the climax of Pyaar Prema Kaadhal is tweaked a bit too far to make the coming together of Sree (Harish Kalyan) and Sindhuja (Raiza Wilson) more socially acceptable, director Elan still takes the idea of a live-in-relationship in a city like Chennai and finds a way of making it natural. He keeps in the background that Sree and Sindhuja are an unmarried couple by keeping their emotional conflict constantly going: while they have to deal with the logistics of a live-in-relationship, the film is really about whether Sree and Sindhuja are ready to commit.
Unlike unmarried couples who live apart, they don't spend all their time conspiring ways to meet each other, and that lets their relationship leaven to a point where they begin to have natural doubts about whether they're right for each other. It distracts you from their implausible live-in set up and focuses on, for the most part, on more interesting questions: once Sree and Sindhuja are physically together but not yet tied down by marriage, what's next for them? Is romance after marriage different from romance without one?
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Director: C. Premkumar
96 is almost entirely a recollection of lost romance, a bit like Autograph in that sense. Ram (Vijay Sethupathi) and Janu (Trisha) 'break up' in school, never to meet again, until Ram calls for a school reunion ages later. Ram assumes that Janu hated him while she assumes the reverse. If you thought the film was about them rekindling their lost romance, it's not even the zone that director Premkumar is going for. He strips the film of melodrama and that makes 96 a simple and immersive film that creates deeply emotional moments without forcing you to choke into tears.
96 is not really about a possible relationship between Ram and Janu. It's about the romance that could have existed between them in the past as we see them interact today. Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha turn in terrific performances and create great moments that feel lived: like when Janu tells Ram that she had mistaken him for a stalker or even a lighter moment like when Ram mimes the words 'yamunai aatrile' to get Janu to sing it for him. But much like the relationship between Ram and Janu, the film stays in a clean, emotional medium that's grounded in realism. Set to Govind Vasantha's amazing music and score, it's a simple nostalgia that resists becoming melodrama.