Despite the pandemic, despite the decrease in the number of releases, it has definitely been an interesting year for Tamil cinema. The biggest surprise of the year, honestly, the knock-me-over-with-a-feather surprise of the year for me, was Anti-Indian directed by Blue Sattai Maran. He proved that he could make a coherent narrative with a dash of filmmaking spirit.
Then we had the controversial Jai Bhim, which became a controversy for many other reasons. But personally speaking, it brought me the biggest brickbats of my career.
And then we had Parris Jeyaraj which gave me some of the biggest laughs of the year, including a farce scene which is one of the best I have seen.
And above all, we had PS Vinod Raj’s Pebbles which won the top award at the Rotterdam film festival. It’s a fantastic film, but the local audiences are yet to see it. I cannot include it in my list, as it’s not been released yet, either on OTT or in a theatre.
But as far as the top 10 list goes, here’s mine:
At number 10, we have Nishant Khalidi’s Kadaseela Biriyani and Arun Matheswaran’s ultra-violent Rocky. Both revenge stories, and both with a very distinctive directorial voice behind them. The most important thing to do in a first film is to show that you have a very, very distinctive directorial sensibility. And both films do that beautifully without pandering to the so-called family audience.
At number nine, we have Lokesh Kannakaraj’s Master with Vijay sparring with Vijay Sethupathi. The film did super interesting things with the hero template. For one, we began with the story of the villain building up his legend before we got to the hero. Secondly, the hero ends up causing the death of two little children. This kind of texture, this kind of risk-taking gives you hope that there are audiences in the future for heroes to break their images that they keep clinging on to.
At number eight, we have Nelson’s Doctor. Another film with a big hero that did a complete reversal. In here, we have Sivakarthikeyan playing serious from start to finish, and the supporting cast—a very wacky supporting cast, providing the humor from start to finish. This is another story that shows that the audience may be tired of being underestimated.
At number seven, we have Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan. There’s a spiritual element here that is not very well worked into the screenplay, but the rest of the film is superb. Dhanush is in great form, and the interval block is one of the most moving and most inventive ones I’ve seen in ages. Despite its mainstream trappings, the film is at heart true to itself because even at the end, even at the triumph, there is a tinge of sadness.
At number six, we have Vasanth’s superb anthology Sivaranjaniyum Innum Sila Pengalum. I’m also going to cheat and include his Payasam which appeared in the ‘Nava Rasa’ anthology. Sivaranjani focuses on three women who are suppressed and oppressed by patriarchy. The shotmaking, especially in the episode featuring Parvati is to die for.
At number five, we have Arun Prabhu Purushothaman’s Vaazhl. This is a sophisticated, philosophical film about finding yourself. It has a superb sense of cinematic craft and the story about the homing pigeon—I found it very moving. It shows how good the writing is. At every point, the filmmaking is so good that it’s hard to take your eyes off the screen.
At number four, we have Leena Manimekalai’s Maadathy, which shows us that there are hierarchies even amongst Dalits. Now, this is the first Dalit film featuring a Dalit female protagonist and directed by a female filmmaker. So I’m a little surprised that the film did not make a little more noise among the people who write articles about such topics. But if you can lay your hands on it, you should try and watch it. The director shapes a narrative like folklore, like a horror story about the consequences of injustice.
At number three, we have Maanaadu starring STR and SJ Surya. Now, this is a rollicking and very un-Venkat Prabhu like sci-fi thriller that just kept getting better and better as it went along. The screenplay is one of the best of the year. It is a masterclass on how to present complex ideas to a local audience. It is also a masterclass on how to use a template that’s already been used by Hollywood so many times and yet find something new with it.
At number two, we have Franklin Jacob’s Writer starring Samuthirkani as an ageing cop. The character writing is very impressive. There are many characters that this first-time filmmaker handles with ease. Both in terms of his filmmaking and in terms of his screenwriting. The way the central piece of this docu-drama-like film comes together is both thrilling and shocking.
And at one, we have Pa. Ranjith’s glorious return to form Sarpatta Parambarai, which has Pasupathy as a boxing coach and Arya as his trainee. The film is both epic and intimate. Every character and the narrative point is written with a dazzling amount of detail.
If you asked me what my two favorite moments this year were, it would be the one that I mentioned earlier in Master, which is the two kids dying due to Vijay. And in Sarpatta Parambarai, the fact that the so-called central fight happens at the interval point, and is broken up. In the usual boxing movie, this fight would actually be at the end, but here it’s at the interval point. The fact that our audience has accepted and cheered these risks in screenwriting shows that maybe they are perhaps ready for bigger experiments in the mainstream. We can only hope that our filmmakers are ready for the challenge.