In Mysskin's Onaayum Aattukuttiyum (2013), the Wolf (Mysskin), after doing everything in his capacity to save a child and her family, ties himself to the child using the belt in her dress — like a tail but more of an umbilical cord — to protect her from a double threat. The child asks, "enna panna porom?" (What are we going to do?) He declares, in blithe Mysskinesque fashion, "Sanda poda porom" (We are going to fight). Onnayum Aatukuttiyum is far away from masala cinema's zip code and Mysskin is a sporadic actor nowhere close to the status of a star. But the line is straight out of that location, mouthed by stars with big screen charisma and is thrown into the much-maligned genre film, offering only anodyne results.
This year Nelson Dilipkumar gave a variation of that line to Sivakarthikeyan in the outrageously funny and entertaining Doctor in its standout scene. Any other year, the sequence from Doctor would have made it as the best scene in Tamil cinema. But 2021 wasn't any other year.
It was the year of masala cinema's revival, never a relic in Tamil cinema but longing for reinvention every few years. Yes, everyone will jump to point out that some of these films transcend the genre and had more to say than just entertain. Or that films that have something to say cannot be "masala". But cinema doesn't operate in binaries for our convenience. A stray line that you might ignore in a genre with the largest reach has potential cascading effects than a humourless film that has a lot of meaningful things to say but lacking in imagination. Masala and commercial and mainstream — the only stream in Tamil cinema until very recently — are not pejoratives. They play with your emotions, show you the lowest of lows and the best of payoffs, and heighten the intrigue till you root for them.
Consider some of the films in the genre before this year, not all of them strictly masala but shooting for a similar pitch on occasion. Atlee's relatively redeemable Mersal and an embarrassment called Bigil. Siva with his Vivegam and Viswasam, the latter more of a melodrama. There was the third iteration of Singam. A year later, Kaala stands alone against the likes of 2.0 and Sarkar. A greatest hits collection in Petta doesn't invite analysis except for its more than gratuitous display of violence and Anirudh's background score. In 2019, Kaithi — Lokesh Kangaraj steering this revival along with Pa. Ranjith — takes the lion's share with Asuran.
But even considering the timely interventions, 2021 witnessed a glorious rekindling of the genre with some of its best moments prefixed by a said or unsaid "sanda poda porom". Now fights are to masala cinema what superheroes are to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These are scenes of fight (Master, Doctor) or invitations to fight (Sarpatta Parambarai), fight for basic human rights (Karnan) or pathways to the big picture (Maanaadu). Above all, they highlight a hero's journey and his emotional investment.
Lokesh Kanagaraj crafted one of the best interval sequences with Master. The film begins with Vijay Sethupathi's Bhavani and until the intermission the film belongs to him. Only his strand stands as a single thread. Every other detail is part of the Vijay film checklist — from his introduction as JD to the college event to the beginning of his sabbatical and transfer to the correctional centre, a somewhat disjointed sequence of events. Bhavani steers the film, the phoenix who rose from one such centre to the dreaded gangster and present day businessman with a trademark superpower. His fist of fury causes the death of two children. Even if the kids' letter had reached JD, would he have done anything about it? But the magic is in Lokesh's juxtaposition of his two alphas. One is at his bleakest point and the other is at his zenith in the middle of conquering his final obstacle. Lokesh combines this with Anirudh's score — who stands peerless in this department today — when both the Bhavani and JD themes are heard one after another. This is commercial cinema at its finest, a rousing moment carrying the emotional weight equivalent of an avalanche.
Mari Selvaraj and editor RK Selva one up the staging of Master with their own pre-intermission sequence in Karnan. Like Master, Karnan too has a progressive build up, the donkey with its legs tied hopping around in the film just as Karna's (Dhanush) anguish reaches a boiling point. 'Rise' is an important clarion call ("Kanda vara sollunga") when it comes to form for this part of the film. From the kabaddi sequence to Karna's dogged attempt at freeing the donkey the camera stays low. Selva and Mari only insert top angle shots of people in motion — to establish distance and lend a sense of rhythm; men in transit, a family waiting at the non-existent bus stop and the donkey immobile. Otherwise almost every shot stays low and close to the ground. It is at low angle when Karna storms off, refusing to yield, it is low when he is untying the donkey's legs and it is low when Yama crosses the road towards the family.
The shots rise gradually from the moment Karna picks up a log and goes for the bus — the institution too sacred to stop for a pregnant woman from Podiyankulam. Yama is freed and can dust himself off the ground, the shots stay with the characters as they destroy the institution. The donkey climbs an incline and so do the angle of the shots putting Dhanush in the centre of the frame followed by a bird's eye view of the aftermath. Cinema can create adrenaline rush but in Karnan it transmits simmering, rising anger.
The scene in Karnan is more like Arivu's declaration of "sanda seivom" than "sanda poda porom". Pa. Ranjith's Sarpatta Parambarai is a boxing drama, sandai (the fight) is its heartbeat but once again RK Selva, with the director, makes every boxing scene play out differently. The pick of the lot that enthralled everyone is the bout featuring Dancing Rose for its sheer energy and tempo — with Shabeer Kallarakkal's superlative performance.
Selva spoke to The Other Banana podcast about making every fight unique by employing different editing patterns for each. In Kabilan's (Arya) first sparring with Raman, reaction shots were key; everyone sees Kabilan in the ring for the first time. But with Dancing Rose, Kabilan and reaction shots are relegated. Even when he's supposedly outwitted, Dancing Rose is the one quickly back in frame, on his feet, ever mobile. This scene brings everything from writing — how the Dancing Rose challenge is set up — editing and sound to the fore. Because it is the only fight that is confined to two rounds, we get a clock. As the clock counts down, we hear the ticking when Rose advances with his infectious, distracting body language, but the ticking stops when the blows rain. They restart when we look at reactions and again switch off during the blows. Then we hear the clock uninterrupted — from the time Kabilan lets his guard down to knocking out Dancing Rose. Along with the audience outside the ring, we were so immersed in the spectacle of Dancing Rose that we didn't see Kabilan coming.
Nelson Dilipkumar loves the seediness and the accompanying darkness, much like Mysskin but their treatments vastly differ. His debut film Kolamavu Kokila is much darker and noirish with its "never go against an innocent family" grain running throughout. In Doctor, he gives similar material a lighter touch maybe owing to the actor whom he reduces to a prop. And like Mysskin, at a deserted public place after hours, he has Sivakarthikeyan mouth "Sanda dhan!"
To up the ante, he plays them without lights for the most part, writing it into the scene. Doctor's metro sequence is marvellous for its action choreography, comedy, blocking and use of space. The area between two doors of the metro train, and the metal hand railings in between gives Nelson enough room to innovate. The railings give a fisheye feel that Nelson can trick you into thinking are dolly shots that dial up the tension when nobody is moving. Ten characters occupy this space for ten minutes and everyone beats and gets beaten. Not everyone is in constant motion, it's like a video game with limited weapons and lives. Lights go off and there are only so many night vision goggles, and this bit of genius gives only a handful out of ten to work with at any given time in any part of the compartment. There is no one upmanship in the vein of a masala film with one hero against all odds. The family might be fighting together but, in this instance, they are left to their own. Like Sumathi (Archana) slapping her husband Navneeth (Arun Alexander) or her father in law played by Ilavarasu, stripped off his veshti, tiptoeing to a seat in the darkness. Fun. Hilarious. Set piece gold.
Maanaadu was labelled as "A Venkat Prabhu Politics" and in an interview to Baradwaj Rangan he admitted that he wanted to insert a political statement too. Simple minded as its politics might be, Maanaadu gives one the feeling that it was as fun to make the film as it is to watch it. Self-aware masala cinema gets tiring after a point, but Maanaadu is a self-aware time loop film that is bursting with ideas. Time might repeat itself but the film gives the audience no time to stop and think. Abdul Khaliq (Silambarasan) knows what is happening to him and Maanaadu is a swift ride through the erosion of his endgame at every iteration. It's not his strategy that is clever in the film but how his macro politics become micro as he takes us on a ride like Superman speeding around the earth to turn back time.
He tries to stop further blot on the Muslim community — a party high command's desired result out of the conspiracy. Abdul goes from trying to save the leader's assassination to settling for a murder that could go any other way except as conspired. Maanaadu is the video game where the player can voluntarily jump off the cliff when all is lost. Just with one caveat: when he returns, he must do one better. It's the masala film where the hero refuses to fight. His means to protect his ideology get diluted but not the ideology itself . It's great to watch Simbu let loose as Abdul, there is no heroism, he is practically trying to get himself killed in every scene and that becomes his biggest challenge with SJ Suryah as Dhanushkodi playing a tremendous foil. A film where we can't wait to see the hero die every ten minutes? Unconventionality in masala films does not get better than this.
But hold that thought. We just had a year of Tamil masala cinema reinvented for the new age with heroes willing to give a part of them to filmmakers with clarity of thought and technical finesse. It's a year when makers took their micropolitics more seriously to service their macro visions. And the best part? No two films in this essay are alike. They do different things in different ways but get their writing, characters and craft right. This doesn't mean it's the end of loud Singams or that the actors are suddenly more refined in their script selection. But Tamil cinema has a venerable set of filmmakers to trust to carry the legacy forward. The kind of films that have always remained more than they let on. And will continue to do so.