Filmmakers who transformed Tamil cinema in this decade, from Karthik Subbaraj to Pa Ranjith, Vetrimaaran
In Tamil cinema, 2019 has become a solid proof that if big stars opt for an experimental film, audiences embrace it with open arms.
In the last ten years, one could witness the progress in the taste of moviegoers in Tamil Nadu. If you look at films starring mass heroes before 2010 and now, there is a vast difference in every department. Audiences no longer expect five songs, gravity-defying stunts, and punch dialogues in mass entertainers. Even in the tried and tested gallery pleasing entertainers, audiences expect logic and something unique in the execution.
2019, in particular, has become a solid proof that if big stars opt for an experimental film, audiences embrace it with open arms. The massive success of content-driven films like Asuran, Nerkonda Paarvai, and Kaithi talks volumes about the change in the overall expectations. Even the typical mass entertainers like Petta, Viswasam and Bigil were executed differently from the tried and tested path hence they reaped gold at the box office.
This change hasn't happened in a year, several filmmakers are responsible for this amazing progress which drives the entire industry in a promising path.
Big names who lost the market
Today, the films of directors like Hari, Lingusamy and KS Ravikumar who ruled the box office arena before 2010 have become irrelevant because of the change in the expectations. KS Ravikumar's Dasavatharam (2008) and Aadhavan (2009) were huge hits but the lackluster performances of his films like Lingaa (2010) and Manmadhan Ambu (2014) indicate that audiences are no longer interested with his usual formula.
The formulaic commercial films have become irrelevant because of the arrival of intelligent directors like AR Murugadoss and KV Anand who slightly tweaked the formula with glossy visuals, slick stunts, twists and turns in their screenplay.
How Murugadoss and KV Anand changed the commercial cinema format
Before 2010, Vijay's films mostly begin with intro songs glorifying his mass image and his emotional connect with fans. The stunts in his films were so unrealistic that some of his films were trolled big time by the rival fans. It was Murugadoss who changed this stereotypical formula of Vijay with Thuppakki. The film had an intro song for Vijay but not with lyrics glorifying his mass image. Instead, it shed light on his characterisation and how an army man would enjoy his holiday.
After Thuppakki (2012), Vijay tried to get back to his safe-bet mass route again with films like Jilla and Bairavaa but the audience rejected it with average box office numbers so he reinvented himself with Kaththi (2014) again with Murugadoss. This time, the director showcased the performer Vijay to the audiences. Vijay's performance as the helpless Jeevanandam won the hearts of the people. Kaththi is not a realistic film but Murugadoss upgraded the old formulae with a subtle heroic treatment and it worked big at the box office. People who trolled Vijay started appreciating him after he joined hands with Murugadoss.
KV Anand's Ayan (2009) gave the much-needed push to Suriya's career. While Murugadoss's films had the usual action episodes with a little revamp in the execution, Anand brought in the Hollywood-ish action style in Ayan and with Suriya's extraordinary commitment, they created magic in the commercial cinema format.
Vetrimaaran, Ranjith, Karthik Subbaraj, Lokesh and Vinoth
While Murugadoss and KV Anand only worked in the larger than life space with a grand budget and glossy visuals, Vetrimaaran tweaked the offbeat space by bringing in a star named Dhanush.
Had Vetri made Aadukalam(2011) with a newcomer, the film would have earned him the same accolades but with the presence of Dhanush, it also yielded big money. Vetri just borrowed the star image but he didn't compromise his execution-style with needless intro numbers. Vetri's only compromise is in the action department with a little glorification for the hero who surrendered himself and bestowed faith on the director.
Vetri's Vada Chennai and the recent Asuran expanded the market for Dhanush although both the films didn't have any stereotypical formulae. Interestingly, these two films are Dhanush's top grossers.
Karthik Subbaraj is another important filmmaker of this decade. Before Karthik, the usual norm to become a filmmaker is to work under a proven filmmaker. But Karthik used the short film platform as his entry ticket and created a revolution in Tamil cinema.
His debut film Pizza gave us the star named Vijay Sethupathi to Tamil cinema. Just like Vetrimaaran, Subbaraj didn't compromise his style for his heroes. His Jigarthanda and Iraivi changed the overall film watching the culture of the audiences.
Today several Tamil filmmakers explore Dalit politics in cinema but the man who is responsible for this trend is Pa. Ranjith. Though his first film Attakathi (2012) was a hit, Ranjith grabbed everyone's attention only with Karthi's Madras (2014) which created a debate on how politicians use caste for their own gain.
The phenomenal success of Madras helped Ranjith to work with Superstar Rajinikanth in Kabali and Kaala. Though a section says that Ranjith decreased the market of Rajnikanth, the humongous fame of the star sent out the right message to the audiences. Ranjith also brought back the performer Rajinikanth and roped in a non-star actress like Eswari Rao to pair opposite the Superstar. Fans who have seen Rajinikanth's films in the '90s and early 2000s were completely surprised by Ranjith's treatment.
H Vinoth's research work is unparalleled, he introduced the trend of research-based commercial films in Tamil cinema. Vinoth's con thriller Sathuranga Vettai was completely new to Kollywood, the film didn't have any big star yet earned good profits at the box office. His sophomore film Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru is considered as one of the best cop thrillers ever made in Tamil cinema.
His recent collaboration with Ajith in Nerkonda Paarvai earned massive respect for him because the director didn't dilute the core theme of Pink yet satisfied the fans of Ajith with a subtle mass action episode.
Though a few may say that it's too early to add Lokesh Kanagaraj's name to this list, I would say his recent blockbuster Kaithi is more than enough to justify his presence. The film is a standing proof for the producers to bankroll films without songs by simply respecting the intelligence of the filmmaker.
Some of the other filmmakers who are responsible for changing the commercial cinema formulae are Mohan Raja (Thani Oruvan, Velaikkaran), Ajay Gnanamuthu (Imaikka Nodigal) and PS Mithran (Irumbuthirai).
What's more encouraging here is that leading stars understood the ongoing change and started working with these sensible filmmakers who are aware of the commercial pulse. Vijay's next film is being directed by Lokesh Kanagaraj, H Vinoth is directing Ajith's Valimai, Suriya's next is with Vetrimaaran, and Ajay Gnanamuthu is the director of Vikram's Cobra.
In the above-mentioned names, Murugadoss and KV Anand's recent films weren't up to the mark and they seem to refuse to adapt to the ongoing change brought in by the current generation filmmakers. If they refuse to upgrade themselves, others will eventually replace them. Gautham Menon who brought in a revolution with his stylishly shot films like Kaakha Kaakha, and Vetaiyadu Vilayadu, and Vinnai Thandi Varuvaya has also become predictable these days with his films.
Where do we place Atlee and Siva?
I see Atlee and Siva as the upgraded versions of KS Ravikumar and Hari. If given big stars, these two filmmakers would package the content within the current trend to deliver blockbusters. While Atlee is a master of handling big-budgets and expanding the market of the heroes with his grand presentation skills, Siva completes his films with an affordable budget and yields profit to all associated parties.
Mani Ratnam and Shankar
While we see a change in the names of the leading directors in each decade, both Mani Ratnam and Shankar are the two senior Tamil filmmakers who are still pushing the boundaries by reinventing themselves and make a comeback from their failures.
Shankar's Ai and 2 Point 0 received mixed reviews but his technical brilliance and grandeur still attracts the masses. 2Point0 is still the highest Tamil grosser and it is also the most expensive Tamil film ever made. Debuted in 1993 with Gentleman, Shankar has been constantly upgrading himself with his films and hence, audiences flock to theaters for his name. Shankar can be termed as the Rajinikanth of directors because he single-handedly opened new doors for Tamil films with his films in the last 26 years.
Mani Ratnam has got the niche crowd thanks to the patrons he gained in the 'A' center of the trade ever since Mounaragam (1986, his first biggest hit) to his latest blockbuster Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018). Some of Ratnam's films like Raavanan (2010), Kadal (2013), and Kaatru Veliyidai (2017) didn't perform well at the box office in this decade but he bounced back with the new-age romantic drama O Kadhal Kanmani (2015) and the blockbuster multi-starrer action thriller Chekka Chivantha Vaanam.
Ratnam is currently directing the magnum opus Ponnyin Selvan, the biggest multi-starrer in Tamil cinema and Shankar is busy with Kamal Haasan's big-budget vigilante action entertainer Indian 2. These two filmmakers have been occupying the top two slots continuously for three decades.
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