Trends in Tamil cinema of 2021: While male star vehicles brought back audience to theatres, women dominated streaming

The question of the year has been, ‘Will people come back to the theatres?.' They did and how. 2021, even with a hiatus in between, saw some major star vehicles that set the cash registers ringing.

Ashameera Aiyappan December 20, 2021 10:29:16 IST
Trends in Tamil cinema of 2021: While male star vehicles brought back audience to theatres, women dominated streaming

Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi in Master

2021 is a strange year. It is the year of languishing, a term now made popular by Adam Grant’s viral New York Times piece. The pandemic dread has lost its urgency, and has settled into something more persistent. As Grant observes, languishing is the middle child of flourishing and depression. We moved from focusing on survival to living.

One could say the same about Tamil cinema as well. In 2020, the industry had woken up to the digital sphere, in a massive manner, to survive.

The biggest question of the year has been, ‘Will people come back to the theatres?.' They did and how. 2021, even with a hiatus in between, saw some major star vehicles that set the cash registers ringing.

There was Vijay’s Master, Dhanush’s Karnan, Karthi’s Sulthan, Sivakarthikeyan’s Doctor, Rajinikanth’s Annatthe, and recently Simbu’s Maanadu.

The other question of 2020 was, ‘Could theatres and OTT co-exist?’ We all knew they had to. But how was it going to be? While the dust still has not settled on this battle, we seem closer to a truce. 2021 saw a healthy list of films — both star films and otherwise — hit the OTTs. Some popular examples would be Dhanush-Karthik Subbaraj’s Jagame Thandhiram, Pa Ranjith-Arya’s Sarpatta Parambarai, Suriya-TJ Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim, Vijay Sethupathi’s Annabelle Sethupathi, and Tuglaq Darbar amid others.

But what is fascinating is the decreasing space between the theatres and OTTs. When digital releases started gaining steam in Kollywood, there were agreements in place to ensure a film was digitally available only 100 days after its theatrical release. This eventually shrunk to 50 days, and the number continued to get lower, to the distributors’ displeasure. (Karthi’s Kaithi and Dhanush’s Pattas were available to stream in 31 days.)

But with the pandemic, these cards have been completely reshuffled. Master, one of the biggest releases this year, began streaming in just two weeks! For a few days, theatres still had shows while the film streamed online. Rajinikanth’s Annaththe, another biggie, followed suit. It began streaming on Netflix India, 20 days after it hit theatres. Sivakarthikeyan’s Doctor was available for streaming 26 days after its theatrical release. There are now demands for regulations that mandate a 50-day theatre run for big films, and a 30-day run for medium-budget films. But we do not know if and when these will be implemented.

However, that is not the only disruptive change the digital sphere has ushered in. OTTs have become the top pick for films with female leads. In 2020, Jyothika’s Ponmagal Vandhal was one of the first Tamil films to get a direct digital release. In 2021, the actor had another one, Udanpirappe, which is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India. Ahead of the film’s release, she observed in an exclusive interview with Firstpost how the theatres are ‘geared’ towards male-led films while OTTs are increasingly catering to women-centric cinema. Apart from Udanpirappe, Nayanthara’s Netrikann, Aishwarya Rajesh’s Thittam Irandu and Boomika, and Trisha’s Paramapadham Vilayattu all found homes in the archives of different streaming platforms. (The only notable exception in this trend would be Kangana Ranaut-AL Vijay’s Thalaivi, which hit the theatres first and was available for streaming a month later.)

But the most exciting trend of 2021 is how Tamil cinema is trying to find a middle ground between commercial-template cinema and content-driven films. The biggest stars in the industry are trying to experiment with their choices, go beyond the 'five-fight, five-song routine.' In Master and Maanadu, the performances of Vijay Sethupathi and SJ Suryah found more acclaim than Vijay and Simbu. Doctor saw the funny man Sivakarthikeyan step out of his comfort zone, and play the only serious character in a black comedy. While Suriya definitely anchored Jai Bhim, the soul of the film belonged to Lijomol Jose and Manikandan.

Stars are experimenting with genres (time loops, dark comedies, legal dramas), picking greyer characters, circumventing commercial templates, and growing more comfortable picking scripts that do not only revolve around them. This means we get stronger supporting characters and villains, making the storytelling more holistic and rewarding. Pandemic or no pandemic, theatres or OTT, I hope this trend flourishes in Tamil cinema.

Ashameera Aiyappan is a film journalist who writes about Indian cinema with a focus on South Indian films.

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