Familiar tropes can make films enjoyable by cutting to the chase. For example, in the 1990s, when you got to an upbeat song in a Rajinikanth film around the interval, you expected him to become a billionaire by the end of the song. He usually did. Tropes, however, can grow tired with overuse. Even Rajinikanth films don’t use the get-rich-in-a-song trope anymore. Some tropes, like say how women are utilised in films such as Nerkonda Paarvai or Mersal, are just starting to get discussed. A few other tropes, like the heroes in director Rajesh’s films definitely have to go. Some tropes are harmless, like Vijay/Ajith references in films like Meyaadha Maan and Jil Jung Juk. Here’s a look at the top 10 tropes in Tamil cinema today that we don’t want to see anymore.
Enemies from the North
Have you heard of an acting method called the ‘bubblegum technique’? Kamal Haasan’s character in Pammal K Sambandam pioneered it when he chews gum to hide that he cannot remember his lines. He hopes to take care of it during dubbing, because who cares about lip-sync. Vidyut Jamwal in Anjaan, Jackie Shroff in Bigil, and Suniel Shetty in Darbar are students of this technique. You don’t read their lips when they act in Tamil films.
It’s not that North Indian actors shouldn’t be cast as villains in Tamil. Sayaji Shinde even played the lead in the biopic Bharati. But most directors seem to cast North Indians as villains in the hope that boringly-written characters will spring to life when played by an unfamiliar actor. Apart from boosting chewing gum sales, the practice has done little good for Tamil cinema.
Grist for the mill
Is the death of a female relative the only possible trigger for our heroes? Especially mothers and wives, who don’t have time to do anything more in our films than unconditionally love our heroes before helpfully dying, so that said heroes can pursue their narrative destinies.
Vidya Balan has little to do in Nerkonda Paarvai. She is only there to give — through her death — Ajith’s Bharath Subramaniam a reason to help the women who need him. Nithya Menon in Mersal too has to die simply to keep the narrative chugging. Giving female characters importance goes beyond making them critical to the plot. You have to also give them agency.
Films starring Vijaykanth, Arjun and Sarathkumar from the 1990s were filled with Muslim terrorists from Pakistan with impeccable Tamil diction. Directors today continue to write the Muslim villain stereotype. In Singam 2, ‘Bhai’ is a deadly villain. To atone for this bigotry, the film introduces a hapless and good-natured character called Karim Bhai who is a loyal ally of Singam. In Kaappaan, the makers hope that its majoritarian ideas will be neutralised by having a mute Muslim character as the Prime Minister’s aide.
These films often divide Muslims into those loyal to the hero or not. The loyal ones are portrayed as perfectly good. The rest are total villains.
May the worst man win
When it all started with Siva Manasula Sakthi and Boss Engira Bosskaran, director Rajesh’s comedies appeared harmless. Why shouldn’t wastrels get the good girls? It stopped being funny from All in All Azhaguraja, when it became clear that misogyny, more than comedy, was really Rajesh’s thing. Rajesh’s heroes are paragons of unproductivity. They have online degrees in stalking, which somehow seems to help them get girls who are otherwise sensible and independent.
Rajesh’s heroes have found their way into films by other directors too. Think Idhu Kathirvelan Kadhal, Nannbenda, and Varuthapadaatha Valibar Sangam. If you can’t watch these characters at a theatre, you might be able to find them at the nearest TASMAC, spending a relaxing evening with friends, foul-mouthing their girlfriends.
Going with the grain
What do Kaappaan, NGK and Viswasam have in common? Their love for agriculture. Some have agricultural subplots even when these have little to with the film’s story. In Kaappaan, Suriya’s Kathiravan even finds a way to be a part-time commando, so that he can spend the rest of his time hand-pollinating flowers and manufacturing gobar gas.
While films such as Merku Thodarchi Malai talk about real problems facing agriculture, most others simply use it for brownie points from the audience.
Public service announcements
We chafe at holier-than-thou messaging in films. In films such as Aramm, Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai and Velaikkaran, at least there was a semblance of a story onto which the message was mounted. Director Samuthirakani was among the first to find a way to directly translate moral science textbooks into films. Films such as Nimirndhu Nil, Thondan and Nadodigal 2 take us back to times we spent at the Principal’s office. However good the intentions, beyond a point, preaching is an affront to the audience.
Wishing on a star
Films align themselves to one of the two major gods in the Tamil cinema pantheon. And, these films aren’t endorsed by the stars. Yet, for example, we see Ajith references in Jil Jung Juk and Remo, and Vijay references in Meyaadha Maan and Chennaiyil Oru Naal 2. Simbu, himself a fan of Ajith, makes repeated references to him in Vaalu.
Why do this? Does it bring in fans of the bigger stars to watch the film? Wouldn’t they prefer streaming their star’s film online, instead of watching a random reference in some other film? Or are the makers simply trying to get the star’s favourable attention?
Butt of all jokes
Santhanam revived Goundamani’s ‘insult comedy’, and made it fashionable again. Today, comedy in Tamil cinema today is mostly just that. Satish and Soori are his successors. During the Crazy Mohan-Kamal Haasan days of well-written humour that was woven into the script, comedy was an ensemble performance (like, say, in Kaadhala Kaadhala) and not just a series of inane one-liners mouthed by narcissistic characters.
The worst offenders are those jokes at the expense of Yogi Babu’s appearance. He seems to be used in films solely to be the butt of jokes. Some of them are funny. The bulk of them are being clinically researched as antidote to laughing gas.
Hero introduction scenes can be an electrifying ritual for fans. We understand that they don’t want the moment to be brief. But, really, to go over (in slow motion) the star’s feet, knees, palms, one side of the face, the other side, the back of his head, and, if he is a cop, his shoes, cap and revolver — this is the stuff of motion posters, not introduction scenes. Darbar’s motion poster did exactly this: a 45-second limb-by-limb celebration of Rajinikanth.
One too many
Some sequels genuinely take off from where the first film left. Chennai 600028 II is a rare example. Singam 2 was also a serviceable successor to Singam. Raghava Lawrence’s Kanchana series is wildly successful. But, most sequels have no business existing. Saamy Square, Jai Hind 2, Manal Kayiru 2, and Charlie Chaplin 2 only served to put off some people who enjoyed the originals. They were made to cash in on the original film’s popularity, and failed to do exactly that.