First half – good, second half – weak. How often have you seen a Tamil film described this way? Many recent releases, be it Mari Selvaraj’s political thriller Maamannan (2023), Madonne Ashwin’s superhero film Maaveeran (2023) or Nelson Dilipkumar’s action film Jailer (2023), the criticism runs along similar lines – an intriguing build-up that’s squandered away with a meandering second half that doesn’t quite have the conviction of the first.
But beyond the obvious paucity of good writers in the Tamil film industry, are there other factors contributing to this situation? The problem, industry insiders said, is also the immense pressure on them to create a memorable “interval block” that divides the film into two halves, preventing the audience from looking at it as a single story.
Bucking the trend, director Ashwin Saravanan’s 99-minute horror film Connect (2022) was announced as a release without an interval. Starring Nayanthara in the lead, the film is set during the pandemic-induced lockdown and is about a single mom whose daughter is possessed by an evil spirit. Saravanan, who made his debut with the blockbuster horror thriller Maya (2015) and followed it up with the critically acclaimed Game Over (2019), wanted to create an uninterrupted experience for the audience, but it was not to be. Theatres in Tamil Nadu insisted that they wouldn’t release the film without an interval.
“I wanted the audience to experience the film as a singular piece. Since it had a short runtime, we felt that it would work better without a break. As a filmmaker, I was focused on building the tension and atmosphere in the script, and did not want to force an interval block,” said Saravanan.
However, running a film without an interval means a financial loss for theatres that earn a significant chunk of their annual revenue – as much as 30 to 32% – from the sale of food and beverages. This is also the only source of revenue that they don’t have to share with producers and distributors, unlike money earned from ticket sales. This is why most Indian theatres abruptly cut Hollywood films that don’t have an interval at a random midway point, persuading the audience to get up from their seats. Given this, the resistance to play an interval-less Tamil film isn’t surprising.
But in Tamil cinema, not only is the interval considered compulsory, it has to be “mind blowing” too, whether or not the story warrants it. Saravanan pointed out that the word-of-mouth for a film now begins from the interval point when the audience starts tweeting their experience.
“They pick up their phones and share their thoughts. This means that the interval block has to offer an elevated experience that makes them feel euphoric. It becomes a major selling point for the film if the audience calls it a ‘mindblowing’ interval block, and a lot of people make up their mind to watch the later shows in the day at this point,” said Saravanan.
A screenplay typically has a three act structure – exposition, conflict and resolution. When developed organically, it is likely that the protagonist experiences defeat or a setback at the midpoint of a story and recoups to fight back. But in today’s Tamil cinema, driven largely by star power, it has become necessary to show the hero accomplishing a major triumph midway because the interval has to make the fans feel charged up.
“When there is a high point in a film, it’s natural that there is a lull after it. When the high point is force-fitted midway, the portion after that doesn’t hold up and the climax moment doesn’t feel earned. It strikes a false note,” said Saravanan. “What ends up happening is that we have two different films connected by an interval, causing a lot of dissonance.”
Take the powerful interval block in Maamannan where an estranged Dalit father and son confront a dominant caste politician together. Athiveeran (Udayanidhi Stalin) wants his father Maamannan (Vadivelu) to sit down before Rathinavel (Fahadh Faasil) – a privilege he had denied himself so far. The past and present intersect in a piece of moving drama that ends with the father acknowledging his son’s fury and frustration at being asked to stay silent about the caste atrocities that he had experienced. But post-interval, the film visibly sags with a lacklustre election campaign taking centrestage.
Similarly, Jailer has a whistle-worthy interval block where Muthuvel Pandian (Rajinikanth) reveals his true face to his family by ensuring that the assassins sent to kill them are brutally taken out. After the interval though, the plot takes an unnecessary detour and transforms into a heist film, and is saved only by its massy climax involving three superstars.
The interval in Indian cinema has its origins in performing traditions that had episodic narratives told over several days, noted Professor Uma Vangal, Dean at the International Institute of Film and Culture. “This required a kind of seven act structure with subplots and interjections by the narrator. It was a bit similar to TV writing or contemporary web series. I also believe that with the intensity of several emotional highs in Indian melodrama, the audience needed some breathing space to assimilate these, to tie all the strands together in the second half,” she said.
In cinematic tradition, the interval functioned as an “anticipatory mini dramatic point” that built the expectations of the audience for the adrenaline-inducing tension or drama that was to follow. “In earlier decades, the real conflict for the protagonist arose post-interval – films such as the Sivaji Ganesan drama Parasakthi (1952), MG Ramachandran’s historical fiction Manthiri Kumari (1950) and action film Malaikallan (1954),” said Vangal.
In the Eighties and Nineties, the interval marked the turning point in the film. In Suresh Krissna’s blockbuster gangster film Baasha (1995), for instance, the interval block is when the humble auto driver Manickam (Rajinikanth) transforms into his real gangster self. The second half takes us back to his past, and that forms the main plot of the film – his battle with Mark Antony (Raguvaran) – and how that connects to the present.
“In social and family dramas, the moral dilemma facing the principal characters would intensify post-interval – movies made by directors like Bhimsingh and AC Tirulokchandar. In later films like Indian (1996) and Amarkalam (1999), the mini climax at the intermission gives us a heads-up for the even bigger climax at the end,” said Vangal.
An actor from the industry who did not wish to be named said that back in the day, the interval block for K Bhagyaraj’s Mundhanai Mudichu (1983) was considered shocking and discussed for days on end by the audience. It involves a young woman (Urvashi) falsely accusing a widower (Bhagyaraj) of luring her into a sexual relationship. The man challenges her to step over his infant son if she’s telling the truth – and much to his shock, she does.
“With Ilaiyaraaja’s percussion beats, the melodrama is really played up. It created such an impact then. But can you imagine such an interval block now? The audience will laugh at it,” he said. Now, the preference in major star films is for elaborate high octane action sequences that “wow” the audience but don’t necessarily contribute to plot building or characterisation.
Catering to a star’s fanbase is certainly a huge factor when it comes to writing the screenplay of a film. Actor and writer Elango Kumaravel who collaborated with Jeyamohan and Mani Ratnam to write the screenplay for the two-part historical fiction film Ponniyin Selvan, said that they had to start the film with Vikram who plays crown prince Aditha Karikalan. “In Kalki’s novel and the play that I wrote based on it, Karikalan becomes prominent only in the fourth part when he arrives in Kadambur. But we can’t do that after casting Vikram in the role – how can we bring him so late into the film?” asked Kumaravel.
Writing the screenplay for a multistarrer was no mean task because each character had to be introduced to the audience, and with the fanfare that the star’s presence demanded. “Karikalan is an angry, tempestuous man. So, we put in a war scene to introduce him – this portrayed Vikram as a star and also helped establish the character. We showed him hesitating to behead a king,” explained Kumaravel. “We didn’t make major changes to the novel as such. We drew out the small details that were already in the novel and magnified it.”
Interestingly, the interval block for PS-1 is connected to Vikram’s first scene – the reason for his hesitation is revealed in the “Chola Chola” song where the audience learns about his love for Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) and how he killed Pandya king Veerapandiyan (Nassar), ignoring her pleas for mercy. In an interview, editor Sreekar Prasad said that it took a lot of brainstorming to arrive at the celebrated final cut that we see in the film. There’s dialogue, action, emotion, song, dance, violence and shifts in time rolled into the sequence.
But not all films lend themselves to such high drama at the midpoint of a story. Vangal believes that many of the young Tamil directors today are hugely influenced by Hollywood and Korean films, and don’t do enough to flesh out a proper story.
“They put in a lot of effort into creating rising action, don’t spend time on character building or exploring motives, and are often much like Christopher Nolan – unsure where the arc is headed,” she quipped. The result is the story losing steam once the traditional Indian cinema midpoint arrives. “They hurry through the rest in a half-hearted manner to finish the story somehow. I also think they often write with the fans in mind who are forgiving, and not as invested in the outcome as they are in the star and their screen presence,” she added.
Unlike the Malayalam film industry that has always nurtured writers, production companies in Tamil expect directors to write their own scripts. It’s more convenient for them to deal with one person and the cost is lesser, too. “They don’t get that it’s two different jobs. Writers don’t feel valued in the ecosystem. Their craft isn’t respected enough and it’s not a lucrative job yet. The industry’s perception towards writing and other skills like editing need to change,” said Ashwin Saravanan.
Resisting the temptation to include a “mass” interval block is difficult for filmmakers, given how social media reviews and even professional ones are written these days. “It is in the back of your mind when you write a screenplay. You want to be liked and you want to play to the gallery,” admitted Saravanan. “When the film comes out on OTT, you will see that the response is different because most platforms remove the intermission card. People are able to view the film as a single unit, but that isn’t the case for a theatrical release.”
Vignesh Raja’s serial killer thriller Por Thozhil (2023) is a recent example of a film that dared to do away with a showy interval block. Instead of a heavy duty action scene, what we get is the police officers (Sarathkumar and Ashok Selvan) converging on a suspect through independent lines of investigation. “It is an ominous midpoint but not dramatic,” said Saravanan. “Certain stories are like that. They will have quieter moments and it’s best that they’re left that way.”
For Tamil cinema’s perennial ‘second half’ problem to resolve itself, the obsessive focus on the interval block should expand to other parts of the screenplay too. After all, if the audience must embrace a film whole-heartedly, one can’t do things by halves.