I’ve been obsessed with Indian film for some 14 years now and since I’ve started writing about those movies and the people who make them, I try to get to Mumbai and Chennai every year, to stay in touch.
Yes, Chennai too, because only a few years after the Hindi movie bug bit me, my local Indian cinema in New York (since closed) had one special weekend screening of the first Tamil movie I’d ever seen, and it was another lightning bolt moment for me, the start of another branch in this obsession.
At that time, around 2000, Tamil films were harder to come by at the desi video stores in New York. So in spite of my newfound craving, Hindi movies remained the dal chawal for me, and Tamil movies only an occasional payasam.
But from my first trip to Mumbai, meeting up with a bunch of fellow bloggers and writers, any mention of Tamil movies, or Chennai even, would elicit either puzzled smiles or that kind of 'Ok, I hope you know what you’re doing' shrug you give people who you think have embarked on some questionable venture, but whom you’re powerless to stop.
I remembered many years before in Manhattan, an Indian taxi driver generalising and telling me about the attitudes Indians from north and south can have toward each other, and how there was sometimes distrust or disdain, but it surprised me to actually see it in the sophisticated, worldly Mumbai. That said, we’re all subject to our own parochial chauvinism (just ask a New Yorker if they’d ever consider living in New Jersey…) But if you’re reading this as you sit in Delhi or Mumbai, and you’re rolling your eyes too, please stay for a bit and hear me out.
Sense and Sensibility
That movie I saw back in 2000 was Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It), a wonderful Tamil adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (with, I would venture, some influence from the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson film as well). Though I knew few of the big names of Tamil cinema, I immediately recognised the two women in the lead roles — Tabu and Aishwarya Rai — and I figured if they were on the bill, how bad could it be?
To say I was enthralled is an understatement. Tabu plays the older, more serious, practical sister Sowmya and Aishwarya is the younger, romantic, impulsive sister Meenakshi. Add to that Ajith, and Mammootty as a vet from the war in Sri Lanka and you’d be smitten as well. I was hooked from the inventive touches in the first song picturisation- Konjum Mainakkale – with the beautiful, fearless, sari-clad Meenakshi capering through fields and dancing, at times tomboyishly, while surrounded by male dancers wearing a series of masks of faces as diverse as tigers, Ganesha and the Tamil poet Bharathiyar. The stories, the melodies, the rich visuals and cinematography by Ravi K. Chandran, all flowed together so flawlessly, that I practically floated out of the cinema.
Youtube video of Konjum Mainakkale
For me, part of the charm also was hearing the sounds and intonations of the Tamil language and its very unique stop-and-start rhythms for the first time. A decade later, after fitful attempts to learn the language, I’m still mesmerised by it enough to listen to audiobooks in Tamil, as I try to identify snippets that I understand, or, more often, just to listen to language and let it roll over me.
Mani Ratnam and the Sri Lankan Civil War
If Kandukondain was the initial first crush, the movie that cemented my love of Tamil film forever was one that I saw in 2002 on a long Sri Lankan Airways flight from Zurich to Colombo, and had as its backdrop – much to my surprise, given the carrier - the Sri Lankan civil war. It was Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal (For a Peck on the Cheek).
The movie begins in a Tamil area in the north, with Shyama (Nandita Das) getting married. Shortly after, her husband goes off to fight with the Tigers. Shyama learns that she is pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl in a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu and then returns to Sri Lanka while the little girl, Amudha, grows up in Chennai. On her ninth birthday, her new parents (played by R. Madhavan and Simran Bagga) reveal to Amudha she is adopted. Devastated, Amudha wants to meet her birth mother, which then puts a whole series of events into motion.
Aside from the moving story, it is the way that Mani Ratnam has told it that still thrills and awes me, almost 10 years later and probably about as many viewings. For example, Madhavan’s character, Thiruchelvan, is a writer, and when a flashback explains how he came to know of the infant Amudha and realise he wants to adopt her, the story begins as Tamil script, handwritten, moving across the screen, superimposed over his image, with a voice narrating the words. Seamlessly, without our realising it, that artifice slowly disappears as we are deposited fully into those scenes.
Unlike so many Tamil films that have a boy-meets-girl romance at their core, here it is actually the story of Thiruchelvan and Indira (Simran) falling in love with the orphan baby that is so beautifully told, without an image or a word wasted. To see what I mean, just look on YouTube for the two versions of the film’s title song, in one case picturised with mother and daughter, the other with father and daughter, the music by A.R. Rahman and lyrics by Vairamuthu. For a real treat, Google the lyrics in English; even in translation, they are exquisite.
Before you conclude that I only go for films that have done well on the worldwide festival circuit and easily defy a facile either/or classification as “art house” or “mainstream”, I happily admit to also enjoying the “entertainer”, masala type movies that still contain action, drama, a love story and family values. Take, for example, Vel (2007)and Singam(2010), two hits starring the Tamil heart throb Surya. Both have about 50% of their stories taking place in rural Tamil Nadu, before the action flips to Chennai; both have Surya in a role as a hero, a man who is physically strong and who can be counted on to do the right thing, and both have catchy soundtracks. And wait till you see what a phenomenal art the men make of furling and unfurling their veshtis at key moments as a means of self-expression.
In spite of not having much patience for the obligatory slapstick comedy that is usually performed by a family servant or villager and usually played by Vadivelu (think Shakti Kapoor, but with a big moustache and wearing a veshti) and the long, superhuman fight scenes during which I start to get fidgety, overall there’s enough to keep me there for the three hours.
Plus, the song picturisations are great entertainment. With the romantic numbers, a large part of the choreography involves the boy and girl actually walking together a lot (watch Otraikkanle from Vel), with frequent, closely color-coordinated, matching costume changes for both hero and heroine (En Idhayam from Singam or Nenje Nenje from Ayan) and trippy special effects that make the image on screen ripple or bend.
Aside from the romantic numbers, a big draw for me are the songs and picturisations that retain elements of a folk style, fast and heavy on the drums, that I believe is known as dappan koothu (see Ava Enna from Vaaranam Aaiyram, with a distraught and intoxicated Surya expressing the grief of losing the love of his life). Those songs always end up in heavy rotation on my iPod.
There must be at least some folks in the Hindi movie industry watching the goings on down South and taking note, as there have been more and more influences trickling upwards toward Mumbai. Think of Salman Khan’s 2009 hit Wanted, directed by Southern dancer and choreographer Prabhu Deva. The action sequences in it and Khan’s other blockbuster Dabangg both had signature touches that you’ll often see in Tamil films (e.g. the “wave” of objects or bad guys exploding outward in slow motion from the hero’s fists, the long stream of white SUVs speeding toward a location then stopping and arraying themselves in a row).
Aamir Khan had a super successful re-make of Tamil Ghajini in 2008, and Singam did so well last year that it’s now being re-made in Hindi with Ajay Devgan. Then that song you probably can’t get out of your head right now (I know I can’t) - “Dhinka Chika” from this week’s upcoming release Ready- is a re-do of Devi Sri Prasad’s “RingaRinga” from the 2009 Telugu Arya 2. Salman Khan heard it when holidaying in the Maldives and knew he wanted to use it.
In watching Tamil films over the past dozen years, alongside Hindi movies, I can’t help but notice that as life in India changes, and so rapidly, so too do the ways filmmakers are telling their stories. One-size-fits-all, everything-AND-the-kitchen-sink masala films are no longer the only way to get people into cinemas, and we moviegoers are so fortunate to be living during this time as directors in both Mumbai and Chennai take chances and try new things.
Before I close, yes, I know, I’ve barely scratched the surface, and not even touched on the huge body of work of the much beloved Thalaivar, Rajnikant, or the other living God of Tamil filmdom, Kamal Haasan, but so much has been written about them already and here, I wanted to chronicle my own particular path to learning about these films.
To wrap up, let me just urge you to also consider a couple of other Tamil movies, namely Bala’s dark and disturbing 2009 tale of one aghori man, Naan Kadavul (I Am God) which was like nothing I’d seen before or since, and in a much different vein, Vennila Kabbadi Kuzhu (The Full Moon Kabbadi Crew), and no, if you’d have ever told me that I was going to sit througha movie that has a rural team of kabbadi players at the centre of its story, and that I’d enjoy it, I would have laughed, but it does and I did.
And finally, one very soon-to-release film from new director Thiagarajan Kumararajan that endured a lot of tussles with the censors in Chennai and Delhi, Aaranya Kandam (Anima and Persona), a smart and cheeky crime story wherein you will see an edgy Jackie Shroff letting it all hang out as a Mafia boss.