When someone says that a conversation they had with a friend was like "something from a K Balachander film," they don't mean that you would find that exact conversation in, say, Apoorva Ragangal. What they often mean is that it could have found its way into one of his films, had it occurred to him. The audience builds a model of the director's mind and can sometimes see in everyday occurrences parallels to scenes from their favorite director's film. People also associate directors with abstract qualities. People associate Gautham Menon with sophistication, Shankar with larger-than-life ideas, and Hari with masala entertainment.
Certain directors become associated with a higher aesthetic or moral standard. Boys looks tame by today's standards, but it was labelled an adult comedy when it released because it was made by someone who had made Indian and Mudhalvan earlier. When Mani Ratnam made Thiruda Thiruda after Roja, it was perceived as not a serious enough film for him.
The reverse can also happen. Balaji Tharaneetharan made Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom, a genuine laugh-a-minute comedy. It ensured that the ponderous and deep Seethakathi never had a chance to be viewed as a film in it's own right. It was a letdown only because it wasn't Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom.
Irrespective of critical or commercial success, the following are ten times directors defied the image they had built themselves and made a film which was — for each of them — an experiment.
Selvaraghavan's protagonists have never been admirable people. They are often tormented losers and prone to self-pity. You probably thought they were just scarred people. In Aayirathil Oruvan the Chola king is eerie and strange, often shocking. You could chalk it down to lack of contact with civilization. No civilized man would behave like that. But Ramsay from Nenjam Marappathillai is civilized and he behaves with a depravity more shocking than the Chola king's. The protagonists in Selvaraghavan's other films are fallen creatures, but Ramsay is the devil himself. Given that Selvaraghavan's films have always been about the protagonist's journey, Nenjam Marappathillai is his most out-there film with a protagonist who is literally not from this world.
You could also argue that Aadavari Matalaku Arthale Verule is his most significant detour. It has the only Selvaraghavan protagonist who could be described as 'normal'.
Mudhalvan is arguably Shankar's best film. It was written and made impressively, but it's the message that was timely — the idea that one person could root corruption out. After preaching high morals in Indian (killing one's own corrupt son is justified), Boys was a shocker when it was released because it seemed to suggest that morals were passé. What mattered was individualism, but of a kind different from Mudhalvan: individualism in service of self, not society. Those who went to see Boys with the hope of finding a solution for corruption would have had to be happy merely witnessing the corruption of our youth.
Karthik Subbaraj's experimental film doesn't feature dialogues. It's an ambitious horror film which makes the genre more accessible, but it was still inaccessible to mainstream audiences. Unlike his earlier films which are intricately layered, Karthik Subbaraj sticks to genre and opts for a simple, linear narration. It's easy to mistake the simplicity of Mercury as plainness, especially when compared to Jigarthanda.
Devotees of Pizza can't imagine a Karthik Subbaraj film without a twist. The biggest twist in Mercury is that it doesn't have one.
Bala's films often have genuine comic moments, but he's known for his dark, tragic view of life. Take the scenes in Pithamagan featuring Suriya's Shakthi as a travelling salesman or those in Sethu between Abitha and Sethu (Vikram). Avan Ivan too has robust, sometimes ribald, humour. But half-way through it switches its personality and pretends it's one of Bala's great tragic films. The death of a central character doesn't evoke the kind of pity we feel when Suriya's Sakthi dies in Pithamagan.
Gautham Menon's two films before Pachaikili Muthucharam were Minnale and Kaakha Kaakha. He had established a 'classy' style featuring urban values, chivalry, and the ideal of an old-school romance in a modern world. Pachaikili Muthucharam shattered all of that. Just when we've gotten past Venkatesh's (Sarathkumar) adultery, the film drops a howler: Jyothika's Smitha is actually a con woman. A fantastic twist that must have sunk the hearts of those who had come in to see some Gautham Menon-style romance.
Nadunisi Naaygal, a psychological thriller with no background score (in a Gautham menon film!) is arguably even more stranger than Pachaikili Muthucharam.
Thiruda Thiruda was a comic-book caper film with its staples like the theft of a container of freshly printed money, a sum so huge that it puts a forthcoming Indian budget session in jeopardy! It was a dramatic departure from Roja which was a story of tenacious love with a terrorist backdrop. This film has a drug lord from London, a pop diva, two small-time thieves and a girl on the run (and a love triangle between them). AR Rahman's electrifying soundtrack is spontaneous in a way that the film rarely is, and it never becomes as entertaining as it feels like it should.
Director K. Bhagyaraj is known for his intelligent double entendres, quirky take on domestic situations, and inventive screenplay. His films are also inseparable from his presence. Vijaykanth's films, on the other hand, are action-oriented. They have simple, uncomplicated storylines and feature a morally upright protagonist. Their sensibilities collide awkwardly in Chokka Thangam. It's a film that is less instantly recognizable as a Bhagyaraj film when compared to his earlier work.
Director Bharathiraja's first two films — 16 Vayathinile and Kizhake Pogum Rail — were rural dramas. Within this period, his naturalistic images of rural life, its people and customs made him the de facto voice of rural life in Tamil films. When he followed them up with the urban psychological thriller Sigappu Rojakkal it was a shock to the audience for both aesthetic and moral reasons. The film was not only a stark departure from the style of the director's earlier films, it also redefined the kind of morality that could be portrayed on screen. The hero had to still be good, but he didn't have to be that always.
Balaji Tharaneetharan's debut Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom (NKPK) was a zany comedy unlike the usual dialogue-oriented comedies in Tamil. Seethakaathi was a tragicomedy, a reflection on 'pure cinema' and the evolution of acting from the stage to film. Perhaps, some of the baggage of NKPK could've been shed had someone other than Vijay Sethupathi been cast for the role. As the film unfolds with utmost sincerity, you're left wistfully ruminating about NKPK.
Director AL Vijay has made a range of films— remakes like Kireedom and Poi Solla Porom, genre films like Devi and Lakshmi, and regular mass hero films like Thaandavam and Thalaivaa. But nothing in the director's filmography prepares you for Saivam, which is written with delicacy and features some great ensemble acting from a cast mostly made up of newcomers. The film might seem like a lightweight in comparison to Vijay's films like Madrasapattinam or Deiva Thirumagal. But like Pappa, a cock who is a central character, the film packs a punch.
(With inputs from Vishal Menon)