Can Men And Women Really Be Friends? Tamil Cinema Has Some Answers

At the heart of Dhanush and Nithya Menen's Thiruchitrambalam is a refreshing bond that they share. But the film also continues a Tamil cinematic tradition — of friends turning lovers
Can Men And Women Really Be Friends? Tamil Cinema Has Some Answers

Dhanush and Nithya Menen's sprightly coming-of-age film Thiruchitrambalam tries to give us the answer to an age-old question that's been prodding humans off and on the screen for years — can men and women just be friends? The Mithran Jawahar film follows the friendship between Thiru and Shobana, played delightfully by Dhanush and Menen. They are not just your ideal best friends but are also neighbours, who routinely climb in and out of each other's homes, solving life crises together with so much ease that it reminds you of your own irreplaceable friend.

Even if the movie is one for the books for its unaffected portrayal of friendship and family dynamics, Thiruchitrambalam continues a cinematic tradition, one that's existed for years across languages — of friends turning into lovers. Men and women simply cannot be friends, declares an inscrutable Billy Crystal to Meg Ryan in the seminal 1989 American film When Harry Met Sally. And Tamil cinema, for the most part, sees eye to eye with this philosophy. 

Few plotlines have remained constant over the years. In Kamal's Piriyadha Varam Vendum (2001), Sanjay (Prashanth) and Nithi (Shalini) are childhood best friends whose love language is poking fun at each other. They are also neighbours who share the same birthday — this is an important piece of history in their friendship, which cements the fact that they haven't spent even a day without each other. So, when they are forced to spend a week apart because of a college event, Sanjay questions his feelings. He is egged to get there by Kannu (played by a hilarious Kovai Sarala), who only talks in rhymes. "England lerndhu India varaikum kadhal onnu dhan: The concept of love is the same from England to India," Kannu points out, turning on a light in Sanjay's head. The rest is history.

In Ajith and Jyotika's Poovellam Un Vasam (2001), the nudging doesn't come from outside forces. Best buds Chinna and Chella are also the grandchildren of best friends — actually platonic in this case — played adorably by Nagesh and VS Raghavan. While the film has no open discourse on men and women not having the capabilities to maintain a friendship, a few sequences into the film, the friends are pushed into the throes of love. And their families are pleasantly taken aback by this news – a new development in this genre, which otherwise features characters that root for friends to turn lovers. 

But sometimes, friendships turn into romances only after a series of heartbreaks and character developments. An earliest example of this story hook can be found in PA Arun Prasad's coming-of-age drama Badri (a remake of the filmmaker's 1999 Telugu film), which stars Vijay and Bhumika as childhood friends. Even if Badri sees Jaanu as a dear friend, he often uses her naïveté to get ahead in life, unaware of her feelings for him. But when he is ostracized by his family and girlfriend for his recklesness, Jaanu stands by his side, and the two find love.  

Vijay and Bhumika in Badri
Vijay and Bhumika in Badri

Jeeva's Ullam Ketkume (2005) follows the loves and lives of five college students — two men and three women, so you can do the math. Pooja (Laila) is madly in love with her best friend Shaam (played by Shaam), who is oblivious to her advances. A turning point in her life is when Shaam lambasts her tomboyish style, further giving her a lecture on femininity.  This only makes Pooja fall for him more (sigh). Shaam, on the other hand, is enamoured by Priya (Asin), an elegant classical dancer and the obvious epitome of "femininity". But Priya is not your "loosu ponnu" prototype. She rejects his advances with logic, and gently friend-zones him. After many years, when a college reunion reveals that Pooja and Shaam are still unmarried, realisation dawns upon the guy.

But a unique take on the friendship template comes in Ashwath Marimuthu's Oh My Kadavule (2020). Bestfriends Anu (Ritika Singh) and Arjun (Ashok Selvan) play a dangerous game and get married because, well, there is no reason not to. Anu has known him since she was in pigtails, understands his flaws, and laughs at his jokes. What more do you want in a marriage, she asks. But the real trouble starts after. Arjun struggles to look at his friend as a wife, let alone a sexual being. This brilliant contradiction is explored in hilarious scenes in the first half. "Wife ah kuda friend aa paathuralam, but friend ah wife a paakamudiyadhu / You can even see your wife as a friend, but cannot see your friend as a wife," Arjun bemoans, when he experiences divine intervention. But the film takes the predictable route soon enough, albeit with a touch of fantasy.

But not all friends have taken the tired old step in the journey of Tamil cinema. There have been friendships that have also helped the leads succesfully romance other interests. In Enakku 20 Unakku 18 (2003), Shriya Saran is Reshma, a student coach who helps Sridhar look for Preeti (Trisha), a woman he fell for on a train ride. There is also the wacky relationship in 96 (2018) that Vijay Sethupathi shares with Devadarshini, who keeps him in line. But there are a few real disruptors whose platanic relationships find deep meaning in films.

Priyamaana Thozhi (2003) is an anomaly in the Tamil friendship film. Julie (Sridevi Vijayakumar) and Ashok (R Madhavan) are best friends whose friendship is constantly derided and romanticised by everyone around them. Friends don't always have to turn into lovers, maintains Ashok, who even breaks into a platonic "duet" song (detailing their friendship), if you will, with Julie. So, even when Ashok gets married to Nandini (Jyotika), the film stops itself from exploring the jealous wife trope. 

R Madhavan and Sridevi Vijaykumar in Priyamaana Thozhi
R Madhavan and Sridevi Vijaykumar in Priyamaana Thozhi

In Cheran's National Film Award-winning drama Autograph (2004), there are many moments of stirring friendships. But the best of them all is the one Senthil (Cheran) shares with Divya (Sneha). Work-besties turned life-besties, the film sees the duo mend their broken hearts and uplift each other, without crossing any boundaries. Autograph also finally gives us a female character who doesn't fall for the man she is "fixing". 

While some have stuck to cinematic tradition, and some haven't, all these films share a commonality — they depict largely refreshing family dynamics, and in particular, non-toxic parents, who are supportive of their children's life decisions. In Thiruchitrambalam, too, the families are endearing and flawed, but never get in the way of their children's drama. This is perhaps a win. Thiru and Shobana enjoying the warmth of friendship, leaving behind the romance that relentlessly pursues their genders, is probably a movie for some other time. 

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