Pongal is among the most coveted dates for film releases in Tamil Nadu. This year, Dhanush’s period action adventure film Captain Miller and Sivakarthikeyan’s sci-fi thriller Ayalaan are the big releases in Tamil. Apart from this, four major Telugu films – Guntur Kaaram, Hanuman, Saindhav and Naa Saami Ranga – and Andhadhun director Sriram Raghavan’s Hindi film Merry Christmas, starring Vijay Sethupathi and Katrina Kaif, will also be released.
If Pongal 2023 saw the clash of the titans – Ajith Vs Vijay – with the release of Thunivu (2023) and Varisu (2023), this year, it is more about content and less about star power.
Captain Miller, directed by Arun Matheswaran and produced by Sathya Jyothi Films, is set in colonial times and is about a village that resists the exploitation of the British. “The film touches dynamics that nobody has touched in a long time in Tamil cinema. It’s an anti-colonial film, and is about disparities between different groups during those times. Arun’s vision, his filmmaking and craft, are very unique. The film also talks about women being empowered, and how important power is for them,” said producer Sendhil Thyagarajan.
Others in the cast include Shiva Rajkumar, Sundeep Kishan, Aditi Balan and Priyanka Arul Mohan. Captain Miller will be released in Tamil, Kannada and Hindi on January 12. The Telugu version will be released a week later since theatres in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana give preference to Tollywood releases during Sankranti/Pongal.
The other big Tamil release is the long delayed Ayalaan, directed by R Ravikumar and produced by KJR Studios. According to producer Kotapadi J Rajesh, Ayalaan is a film that people can watch with their entire family since it will appeal to the elderly and young kids. Starring Sivakarthikeyan, Rakul Preet Singh and Isha Koppikar, Ayalaan is the first Indian film featuring a CGI alien in a full-length role.
“It is also the film with the most CG shots in India. More than Baahubali (2015, 2017), more than Brahmastra (2022). We have worked very hard to get this right,” said producer Kotapadi J Rajesh. He pointed out that director Ravi and his team had put in a lot of research to get the detailing right. “This study material, along with the superb skillset of our VFX team, Phantom, has resulted in beautiful CG. When we watch the film now, we're in awe of the amount of detailing each artwork, each background and the characters have.”
But, Ayalaan isn’t just a CGI extravaganza. “Beyond these technical specials, Ayalaan is a sweet film showcasing the relationship between an alien and a human with a very powerful message to society,” said Rajesh. This is why the team was particular about releasing the film, which has been in the works since 2016, for Pongal, a time when families throng theatres. Actor Sivakarthikeyan is known to be popular with children, and Rajesh said that they’re banking on kids asking their parents to take them for the film for a second time. “Every good film deserves to win. We hope the other Pongal releases do well too. But knowing our content, we're confident Ayalaan will do very well,” he added.
In contrast to Ayalaan’s heavy CG work, Captain Miller has no CG at all despite featuring extensive action sequences. “We had almost 2,000-3,000 people shooting every day, including foreigners, for a major war sequence in the film. There are multiple layers in the screenplay’s structure and multiple character arcs too. I’m confident it will make for very interesting viewing,” said Sendhil. Calling Dhanush one of the most versatile and talented stars in the country today, the producer noted that he is a director-actor. “He’s technically very sound, like MGR and Kamal Haasan. How he adapts to different characters is phenomenal. He’s put in a lot of hard work into this film. It’s immense,” he added.
Both the upcoming Pongal releases are of genres that Tamil cinema hasn’t explored much. Acknowledging that storytelling in cinema has become very difficult today, Rajesh said that the audience is now able to spot references and inspirations from countless other films that they’ve seen earlier. “In all honesty, that's okay as long as the film you watch entertains you and gives you value for the time and money you spent,” he said. MGR’s Kalai Arasi (1963) is the first Tamil film to feature aliens. But since then, there have only been a handful of films to explore the idea of extraterrestrial life, with none of them being particularly impressive.
“When making Ayalaan, we wanted to treat the film as a complete theatrical experience for the audience,” said Rajesh. “From the concept of an alien to the grandeur of the sets, we only had the audience's wowed faces in mind when creating the film. Since this hasn't been done before in Indian cinema, we wanted to give the alien our own look and appeal. Especially a local touch, which we think the audiences will thoroughly enjoy!”
While several Telugu films have explored the period action genre, it is fairly new terrain for Tamil cinema. That’s also why Sendhil is excited for Captain Miller. “The challenge lies in the execution. We had a very good team for art direction and so too for costumes. We had good thinkers on board. As producers, we need to ensure that things are executed in time and the flow of work is smooth. It’s very intricate and involves a lot of work. Everything was shot live, and I think that will add visual value,” said Sendhil.
Though there is an undercurrent of patriotism throughout the film, Sendhil noted that Captain Miller isn’t hyper nationalistic like many other films that have come out in recent times, including SS Rajamouli’s RRR (2022) which is of the same genre. “It’s about many other things too, especially the aspect of empowered women characters,” he said. In recent times, the amount of violence in Tamil cinema has raised eyebrows – from bloody fight scenes to beheadings, there’s been a sharp increase in depicting violence on screen. But, Sendhil said that the violence in Captain Miller happens within a context. “There is violence because the script demands it. There’s an actual war happening with a British battalion. It doesn’t follow a formula or template,” he said.
The film will follow the 58-day OTT window rule, and hence, will be released in major national multiplex chains like PVR INOX and Cinepolis nationwide, unlike recent Tamil films like Leo (2023) and Jigarthanda Double X (2023) that were restricted to smaller chains and single screens in the Hindi belt.
2023 was a mixed bag for the Tamil film industry. While a few small films like Good Night and Por Thozhil made money at the box office, it was largely star-driven films that were commercially successful. Attributing this to the audience switching to OTT platforms, Rajesh said that a lot of deserving films had failed to get the desired numbers at the box office. The preference is still strongly for films that have grandeur and are larger-than-life. In that sense, both Ayalaan and Captain Miller have enough going for them and if you add the other releases to the list, this is one Pongal where the audience is surely spoilt for choice.