Was there a ‘trend’ this year? I can’t say for sure. Maybe we can point to heroines finally finding roles of substance in big-star vehicles. Maybe we can point to the mainstream-isation of high-concept films such as ‘Super Deluxe’ and ‘Aadai’ and ‘Game Over’ and ‘Oththa Seruppu’! Or maybe, the ‘trend’ this year is simply that there’s no defining, overarching trend – and that the mix of movies below indicates that Tamil cinema found space for much inventiveness and variety, from the ultra-commercial to the offbeat.
Ram appears to have expended all his angst on his globalisation trilogy (Kattradhu Thamizh, Thanga Meengal, Taramani), and Peranbu is his quietest, gentlest, least angry film: a moving drama about a father (Mammootty) whose life revolves around a daughter (Sadhana) with cerebral palsy. The first half of Peranbu is set in the middle of nowhere, and in the midst of Nature. In the second half, the film moves away from this Eden, to the city. Paradise is truly lost — and the filmmaking conveys this beautifully. Ram’s films have always displayed love for his protagonists. In Peranbu, we sense much love for the medium, too.
Director: R Chezhiyan
R Chezhiyan’s earnest portrait of a family’s struggle to find a rented house is as real a film as you can get. There’s no artifice, no background score. Ilango (Santhosh Sreeram) and Amudha (Sheela Rajkumar) are a lived-in couple, convincingly frayed around the edges. She loves him. Yet, she’s frustrated with him. These ups and downs keep colouring their relationship throughout the narrative. Chezhiyan puts his premise through on his own terms, making you want to coin a filmic term: “staged neorealism”, perhaps? The scene where Ilango hands Amudha some much-needed money, as the grinder grinds away in a corner, is a beauty. Life goes on.
Director: Magizh Thirumeni
Magizh Thirumeni puts a new spin on one of the oldest masala-cinema tropes: the double role. Arun Vijay plays Kavin (shot mostly in daylight) and Ezhil (bathed in the orange glow of night-time street lights) — but there’s no good/evil demarcation. Neither man is exactly a moral person, but they’re both treated sympathetically. And after a murder, both end up suspects! We think we know whodunit — but do we? Despite a few low points (the motive behind the murder is too hastily explained away), the result is a deliciously pulpy whodunit. It does what a film like this should do: it keeps us guessing.
Director: Naveen Nanjundan
Looking at the trailer, this seemed to be the case of yet another young actor (Kathir) trying to give his career a jump-start by playing a cop. But rarely has a mainstream-movie cop seemed so vulnerable, so helpless over events that spin out of control around him, and so equally matched with the ruthless villain (Laguparan), who heads a child-kidnapping ring. First-time director Naveen Nanjundan’s solid, focussed cat-and-mouse thriller uses locations beautifully. We get a sense of how difficult it must be to track someone down in an urban sprawl. He fills his frames with energy. Technique can be learnt. Feel cannot.
Director: Thiagarajan Kumararaja
I haven’t summoned up the guts, yet, to re-watch Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s second film, because I was so mind-blown when I saw it and I fear a subsequent watch might bring to the fore some… flaws. But in my head, this is the year’s most dazzling film — a kinda-sorta companion piece to Aaranya Kaandam that’s unique, ambitious, insanely detailed and blessedly amoral. It’s both epic and intimate. It’s a long, slow fuse that keeps you on edge about when it will explode, and when it does, it’s a big bang. Or, perhaps, the Big Bang. WTF, right? The film has the year’s best craft, and Vijay Sethupathi’s trans-woman act is one for the ages.
Director: Nelson Venkatesan
After Oru Naal Koothu, Nelson Venkatesan makes a hell of a U-turn with a live-action cartoon about a man who battles a rat. SJ Surya was born to play this part. His cartoony rigidity, his fondness for jerky movements, his exaggerated expressions — everything fits. The director reveals an utterly unexpected eye for slapstick ballet. A micro-mini set piece involving a gas cylinder, an umbrella and a ridiculously expensive sofa is staged like a dream. The film is a combination of verbal and situational comedy, and at a time when so much of our “humour” is so mean-spirited, Monster is a lovely reminder of how gently (and generously) smiles can be evoked.
Director: Ashwin Saravanan
Is Ashwin Saravanan’s fabulously twisty film a serial-killer thriller? A supernatural ‘revenge’ story? A psychodrama about a suicidal video-game designer (a gritty Taapsee Pannu) who’s afraid of the dark and suffers from a condition called “anniversary reaction”? Is the film itself a video game? Is it a surreal David Lynchian nightmare — or dream? A depiction of PTSD? A female-empowerment saga? Game Over is all of the above — and a bona fide original. Instead of cohering into a “logical” (and conventional) story, the abstract jigsaw-pieces of information deepen the guessing game. The small miracle of the film is that it manages to pack all its conceits into a taut 100-something minutes.
Suttu Pidikka Utharavu
Director: Ramprakash Rayappa
Sometimes, you get a feel about a film from the very beginning. I got that feel in Ramprakash Rayappa’s solid little thriller, which opens with a bank robbery and keeps building — single-mindedly — towards a solid twist. Even with small flaws and a relative lack of finesse (though the location shooting is excellent), the film keeps you interested, invested — especially with Mysskin around. His brusqueness as an actor works marvellously for this cop character named Ibrahim. Given the state of the world today, it’s near-inevitable that terrorists are portrayed as Muslims. We need an Ibrahim to right the balance.
Director: Lakshmy Ramakrishnan
Lakshmy Ramakrishnan continues her quest to tell strong (and strongly written) stories about women. This time, we have middle-aged Radha (a superb Sriranjani), who cares for a husband Vasudevan (‘Aadulakam’ Kishore) with Alzheimer’s. The narrative keeps cross-cutting between the younger and older versions of this couple — and it’s a superb conceit. Instead of wallowing in misery with the present-day Radha and Vasudevan, trapped in the 2015 Chennai floods, we reflect on their current plight through moments from the past. House Owner may be the most intimate movie ever made about a calamity. It’s an ode to love, a reminder to cherish what we have when we have it.
Director: Rathna Kumar
What are we, really, when the naked self is revealed? Rathna Kumar’s film literalises this idea with the protagonist’s nudity. The “woman wakes up without clothes in a desolate building” trailer led me to expect a victim. I thought we were in for a survival drama like Trapped. But Aadai complicates our reactions by making Kamini (a sensational Amala Paul) completely unsympathetic. I was torn between feeling sorry (“no one deserves this plight”) and being indifferent (“…but if anyone deserves it, it’s her”). Despite a very talky and ungainly closing section, this is a hell of a morality tale: You were a bitch, Kamini. Well, karma is one, too.
Sivappu Manjal Pachai
Sasi’s Agni Natchatiram-like action-drama — woven around warring brothers-in-law Rajasekar (Siddharth) and Madhan (GV Prakash Kumar) — is one of the best examples of casting in recent times. The story may revolve around the men, the two big-name stars, but it’s about the woman — and Lijomol Jose is terrific as Madhan’s sister Raji, who loves her brother but also sees that her husband is a good man. There are many good combination scenes for the many characters, and they bring out a riot of shades in the relationships. Usually, when two men fight over a woman, it’s a love triangle. Sivappu Manjal Pachai, though, isn’t about the triangle. It’s just about love.
Director: R. Parthiban
This drama about a murder suspect (named Masilamani) being interrogated is one of the wittiest “message movies” ever: despite the cover of crime, it’s about haves and have-nots. R Parthiban uses several devices to push the boundaries of conventional storytelling. For one, he plays Ilaiyaraaja’s music not to lazily signify “the past” (like many filmmakers do) but to shape the character of a woman who loves Ilaiyaraaja’s music. The deliberately theatrical staging breaks the fourth wall and makes “us” Masilamani’s audience. And unlike earlier one-character dramas, there are many others in the room, but we see only this one man. A stunt? Yes. But a hugely entertaining one.
Director: Vetri Maaran
When a boy from an impoverished and oppressed farming family kills a big shot, his father (Dhanush, who’s amazing) fears retribution. He flees with the boy, with the big shot’s men in pursuit. Coming right after Vetri Maaran/Dhanush’s gorgeous Vada Chennai, Asuran evokes mixed feelings. The screenplay is brilliantly cyclical — what happens in one generation finds echoes in the next — but the character arcs aren’t convincing, the timelines feel rushed, the messaging is overt, the “mass” moments look force-fitted. And yet, there’s no denying the power of the mood, the material. Vetri Maaran manages the near-impossible: within the broadest of genre constructs, he leaves behind a distinct signature.
KD Engira Karuppudurai
There is this custom called thalaikoothal, a kind of euthanasia for the aged arranged by the family. If this is the impending plight of the aged protagonist (Mu Ramaswamy), what might be the tone of the ensuing movie? Few among you would say “a lot of laugh-out-loud comedy”, but that’s what writer-director Madhumitha has accomplished with impressive restraint, aided by the crackling chemistry between the old man and a young orphan (Naga Vishal). KD is the kind of movie you wish we got more often: serious enough to be about something, yet not taking itself too seriously. It’s the reverse of the cycle of existence. It begins with death and ends up filled with life.
Irandam Ulagaporin Kadaisi Gundu
Director: Athiyan Athirai
This fabulously titled film, starring Dinesh, is about caste. It’s about “landless” migrant labourers. It’s about unionisation. It’s about a crusade. It’s about all the things you expect in a Pa. Ranjith production. But it’s also part road-movie, part message-movie, part thriller (a missing bomb!), part romance, part black comedy (imagine an agent of mass destruction worshipped as a god!), part regular comedy (an uproarious Munishkanth), part surreal social tract — all slapped together in a blazing stream-of-consciousness style by writer-director Athiyan Athirai. This is a very impressive debut, which works hard, really hard, to earn the space for its messages.