From Shamlee To Dhanush: Why The 90s Kids Feel Tamil Cinema Grew Up To Keep Pace With Them, And Showcased Phases Of Their Lives

Children who were best friends with animals; angry young men who did not fight for love, but to save the country; adolescents who went all dreamy in school over girls...Reader Jeeva Pitchaimani on why he believes Tamil cinema happily catered to his generation as it grew up.
From Shamlee To Dhanush: Why The 90s Kids Feel Tamil Cinema Grew Up To Keep Pace With Them, And Showcased Phases Of Their Lives

I was born in 1988. When I was four or five years old, I was a great fan of Tamil movies that featured domestic animals and children — most of which starred Anjali-fame Shamlee. I don't remember any other period when there was a glut of films for children like me. Monkeys retrieving stolen necklaces, dogs guarding new-born babies from villains and goats and cows playing important roles in bringing the lead pair together provided great excitement. Even Rajnikanth's Raja Chinna Roja was a full-fledged ode to children and I bet no one of my age would have forgotten the love they had for the beautifully-animated 'Raja Chinna Rojavodu Kattu Pakkam' song.

From the mid 1990s to the early 2000s, the trend switched from children's films to love stories. Okay, I wouldn't call them love stories, since most of them were literally 'stalk' stories that featured even commercially successful heroes such as Vijay, Ajith, Prashanth and Murali. They played the same role over and over again — stalking the diffident heroine for a solid 150 minutes, by the end of which her exasperation turned into love. As a boy in his pre-teens, with a typically strict middle-class father who wanted his son to follow his footsteps, I was not allowed to form a good opinion about  these films that glorified pursuing women and making them fall for you. But there was something else in Tamil cinema that caught my attention those days.

It was not the films of Kamal Haasan or Rajinikanth but those of Arjun and Vijayakanth I was fast becoming a fan of. These films were mostly centered on heroes pursuing not attractive women or docile college-going girls, but cold-blooded terrorists and unscrupulous gangsters plotting to take over the country. It would not be an exaggeration to say that my political consciousness of early adolescence, however rudimentary and immature it was, owed a great deal to films starring Vijayakanth, Sarathkumar and Arjun. In their own unique, crowd-pleasing way, these films were effective in exposing the fallacies of the establishment, and showcasing the ways in which gangsters, politicians and the police worked hand-in-glove to exploit harmless, hard-working masses for their own benefit. And many Vijayakanth films that were blockbusters, featured powerful sequences of the Captain lecturing the ignorant masses about their nonchalant attitude towards society, how that emboldened corrupt politicians and criminals and how the system grew from bad to worse in the delivery of welfare and justice to commoners like them.

These were mostly 'clean' films for children of my age, and the best part about them for pre-teens like me was how perennially patriotic and single-minded these heroes were in their mission to serve the nation, even to the extent of ignoring attractive women who had no special goals in life other than to serve their heroes either as passive relief-providers or abiding housewives, or sometimes both. Whenever I chose to postpone my homework for watching a Vijayakanth film on television, my dad found no reason to disturb me in my noble pursuit of becoming a socially-conscious, responsible Indian citizen. 

And so, our characters were moulded by little children and Vijayakanth and Arjun. Our role models were not the dupatta-tailing heroes played by the younger lot, but the incurably-angry, hopelessly patriotic honest men.

My theory is that mainstream Tamil cinema existed for the sole purpose of meeting the requirements of my generation — the famed 90s kids — and reinvented itself from time to time to meet the  rapidly-changing preferences and needs of our growing generation. It is natural for readers to dismiss my theory outright, for lack of sufficient evidence. So, let me build my case.

2002 was the year when Dhanush's debut film Thulluvadho Ilamai made it to the screens. I was preparing for my Class 10 Board Exams and I remember most of my classmates discreetly humming the tunes of 'Oore Koothadikuthu Vaa da' and 'Vayadhuku vandha penne' while taking notes and completing assignments. Only a few weeks after the film's release did I get to know the story of Thulluvadho Ilamai, and most of my friends made full use of their contacts in local CD shops to procure a copy of the film to be watched in secret, when the parents were not around. 

The next two years belonged to films of the same genre — adolescents and early adults falling prey to their lascivious instincts during the first half of the movie, finding themselves in a soup during the interval, trying to reform and make a name for themselves in the second half before reaching unforeseen heights. Even if some films deviated from this template, the overarching theme was adolescent love and its impact, and this was being explored or celebrated by the likes of Selvaraghavan and even Shankar

The songs in these films were massive chartbusters and most part of Yuvan Shankar Raja's career was solidly founded upon these films. Even though I was no exception to the pulls and pressures of my adolescent impulses, my consciousness rooted in MGR-Vijayakanth cultural prototypes didn't allow me to publicly acknowledge my interest in these films.

I remember newspaper reports in The Hindu about directors preferring to make only either adolescent-themed films or films that could potentially earn them an 'Adults-Only' certificate over others, as more and more school and college-going people were found to be flocking to the theatres.

I was 21 when Gautham Vasudev Menon's Vaaranam Aayiram made it to the theatres. A fresh graduate Surya (Suriya) challenges Meghna (Sameera Reddy) in a glorious five-minute sequence in the train with his iconic line — "I will come into your life and sweep you off your feet", culminating in the soothing 'Nenjukul Peidhidum' number composed by Harris Jayaraj.

In the 2010 Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, Karthik, played by Simbu, was just 23. This was the first film ever in Tamil cinema to feature a break-up that had nothing to do with external factors such as religion, disease, caste or class or even parental intervention. When Jessie turns down Karthik unceremoniously for virtually no understandable reason and when the latter screams like a madman below her balcony, my college-mate and I were simultaneously cheering and wincing in the theatre. The last 30 minutes of the film, where an aimless, devastated Karthik finds his feet in his favourite world of films, swaying to the animal rhythms of 'Aaromale', we were discovering for the first time in our lives the curious possibility of both wrenching pain and animal ecstasy cohabiting the same body at the very same instant. If Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya was not made for youngsters like me, tell me one good reason why it got made in the first place.

The early part of the last decade, the 2010s, had a stream of new-gen directors entering Tamil cinema and making movies for an urban, well-to-do niche audience. Needless to say, a large section of this population made its living out of opportunities in the now  well entrenched Information Technology sector. 

The term '90s kids' soon percolated into Tamil cinema as well via engineer-turned filmmakers who soon began to dictate trends in the industry. The customs and practices followed in the IT sector, and the lifestyle and attitudes of this generation, which were nothing but those of our own, began to be represented widely in almost all mainstream Tamil films.

Tamil cinema that made it a point to include the preferences of children like us in the 1990-2000 period, moved into the phase of prioritising adolescent tastes over others in the early 2000s, the very same period when we guys were actually entering our teens. But by the time our generation began our careers as IT professionals, it quickly shifted gears to keep pace with us and, in the last decade or so, Tamil cinema has transformed itself. It now resembles the protagonists of the 'stalk' sagas of the early Vijay-Ajith-Prashanth era, pursuing IT employees like us relentlessly and obsessing over the choice and preferences of our generation to a deeply sickening level.

"It's over. Pls go away Karthik"

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