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An Abridged Initiation to Classic Tamil Cinema12 min read

27 April 2020 8 min read


An Abridged Initiation to Classic Tamil Cinema12 min read

Reading Time: 8 minutes

The Tamil film industry is known as Kollywood, named after the vicinity of Kodambakkam in Central Chennai, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu. The industry began with the screening of its first silent movie in 1918. Today, more than a hundred years later, Tamil cinema rivals Bollywood in revenue and scale despite being a much smaller and more niche industry, which is perhaps what stops it from being accessible to others. 

When one thinks of Indian cinema, they immediately gravitate towards Bollywood – the Hindi language industry. In fact, many do not know that there are a variety of languages and their respective movie industries within the Indian subcontinent. Tamil is the oldest language in the world with its film industry churning out an average of over 200 films a year. Context is a heavy prerequisite required to fully understand and appreciate these films, which a simple Google search will provide you with – trust me, it is worth it.

Kollywood is dominated by male actors, often referred to as heroes. Veteran actors such as MG Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan have moulded the industry into what it is today and paved the way for the current generation to explore different genres, experiment with ways of filmmaking and endeavour to break the status quo.  

MGR (left) and Sivaji (right)/Credit: Cinema Express

The former two actors thrived in the 50s and 60s, the golden era of Tamil cinema. This period, however, is an incredibly niche portion of film history and not the ideal place to start your Kollywood journey. The latter two actors thrived in the 70s and have not stopped producing hit movies since. Having a combined experience of more than 100 years of cinema between them, Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth are the revolutionaries of the industry, making up the entirety of this list.    

In Singapore, there are dedicated theatres to Indian films alone, where the premiere screening madness can be felt as early as 6am when ardent movie-goers flock to the cinema to celebrate the release of their favourite heroes’ films (yes, I am guilty of it too). The movies are colourful narratives, sprinkled with melodrama and boisterous song and dance.

Ever wondered what all that hype is about? If you’ve ever wondered why Indian people take their cinema so seriously and want a piece of that action, you’ve come to the right place.

Nayakan (The Hero) – The Tamil ‘Godfather’

Director: Mani Ratnam
Cast: Kamal Hassan, Janagaraj, Nassar Saranya, Karthika
Year: 1987
Runtime: 147 Minutes

(A poster depicting Nayakan running successfully in theatres for 175 days / Credits: IMDB)

Inspired by Varadarajan Mudaliar, an underworld Don in Mumbai, Nayakan is arguably the most iconic Tamil film of all time. Kamal Hassan plays Velu Naicker, a do-gooder for Tamil people in the Dharavi slums while using the slum as a haven to propagate his illicit criminal activities – true to Mudaliar’s real character.

The general theme behind Nayakan is the battle between what is morally upright and what is not – i.e: what is good versus what is bad. Naicker is seen as a God amongst the people of the slum, having erected a separate “judicial system” for them while sharing the profits of his loot with his people. Yet, he is villainised by his own daughter who faces much loss because of her father’s profession. The recurring theme for the audience watching this film is the conundrum of  whether crimes are justified if they are committed to help others. Think Tamil Robin Hood.

Nayakan combines the expertise of trailblazing director Mani Ratnam and the visionary Hassan. Every director and actor in Kollywood that has emerged since are students of this masterclass film. The technical aspects of Nayakan were ahead of their time, with the cinematography and art still being celebrated today. Bear in mind that this movie was made in the 80s without today’s technology and yet, it is still regarded as the gold standard of the industry. 

(Behind the scenes image of Kamal Hassan (left), Mani Ratnam (Center) and Saranya (right)/Credits:IMDB)

I will be honest and say that while I respect Hassan immensely, I had never been head over heels in love with him like most people are, men and women alike. It is only while compiling this list, having combed through my memory of growing up with these films, that I realised I am most proud of Hassan’s work and eager to share it with the world. Nayakan is a film that I have watched countless times. It is that film that has me dropping everything I am doing and racing to the television whenever it is on. 

Stream Nayakan on Amazon Prime here.

Watch the trailer below.

Anbe Sivam (Love is God) – The Ultimate Tamil Cult Classic Film

Director: Sundar C.
Cast: Kamal Hassan, Madhavan, Nassar, Kiran Rathod
Year: 2003
Runtime: 160 Minutes

(Movie poster for Anbe Sivam/Credit:Lakshmi Movie Makers)

Anbe Sivam rivals Nayakan as the greatest Kamal Hassan film ever made. It has been number one on the top Tamil films of all time on for a long time. It follows the story of Nallasivam, played by Hassan, a Karl Marx-loving communist and atheist. He meets Anbarasan, played by Madhavan, a bratty ad film director, and the two are forced to travel home together after a missed flight.

Anbe Sivam bombed at the box office when it was first released in 2003, simply because it is a film that was ahead of its time. Back then, what worked in Kollywood was very different from what works now. Now, there is an appreciation for message-driven films thanks to greater education amongst the audience to understand its nuances. However, this was not the case in the past when people just wanted to go into theatres and watch their favourite heroes bust a move with their glamorous heroines.

Over the years as television stations used this low budget movie as a matinee filler, more and more people started picking up on it again, slowly amassing a following long after its original release. If there was ever a cult classic Tamil film it would be Anbe Sivam

(Anbe Sivam Movie Poster/Credit: IMDB)

Hassan has been extremely vocal about his views as an atheist and humanist for a long time and Anbe Sivam is an ode to his personal religious and political beliefs, having written the film himself. Nallasivam’s character was said to be modelled after communist playwright Safdar Hashmi who was an instrumental part of political street theatre in India. Communism and atheism are topics that go hand in hand and this movie gives a new meaning to that partnership. 

To many, Anbe Sivam is Hassan’s best performance. Nallasivam’s character was modelled after the great Charlie Chaplin, with his body language and comedic timing. The audience gets used to seeing Nallasivam this way and are completely thrown off when the flashback scenes introduce the Nallasivam of the past. Hassan became one with his role, perhaps because of how personal this film is to him. Madhavan had his job cut out for him, having to portray a stark and irritating contrast to Hassan’s character – a role he pulls off very successfully. 

(Anbe Sivam Movie Still/Credit: Lakshmi Movie Makers)

The unlikely partnership between the two actors is half the reason why this film works. The other half of its success is owed to Madhan, a cartoonist and writer, who wrote the multi-layered dialogues in this film. It is witty, funny, heartwarming and brilliant – all the right elements for a very successful script. If there is one reason to watch this film, it is for the script which is complex enough to be thought-stirring but simple enough to not get lost in translation for those who do not understand the language.

As a child watching Anbe Sivam, I did not understand it, let alone be able to appreciate it. Having heard much about this film over the years, I resolved to give it a second chance and I have since watched it over and over again. Anbe Sivam is a warm hug from the industry and will remain unchallenged for a very long time to come.  

Stream Anbe Sivam on Amazon Prime here.

Watch the trailer below.

Thalapathi (The Commander) – The Leading Example for Friendship, Still

Director: Mani Ratnam
Cast: Rajinikanth, Mamooty, Arvind Swami, Shobana, Jaishanker
Year: 1991
Runtime: 167 Minutes

(Thalapathi Movie Still/Credit: G. V. Films)

The late 80s and 90s were unequivocally ruled by director Mani Ratnam. Having already explored two Kamal Hassan films, it would be unjust to leave out the reigning Superstar of Tamil cinema, Rajinikanth. In 1991, Rajinikanth took a leap of faith to act in a deeper role, alongside Mamooty, one of the biggest star in the Malayalam movie industry. That decision was arguably the best decision of his career. 

Thalapathi follows the inseparable friendship between Suriya (Rajinikanth) and Deva (Mamooti), when the latter hires the former to become the commander of his gang. Together, the two navigate the dense web of loyalty, while exploring themes of love, heartbreak and valour. It is also one of the rare movies in the 90s where women were allowed to shape the narrative, subtly but very beautifully, as expected from Ratnam. 

(Thalapathi Movie Still/Credit: G. V. Films)

Thalapathi is based on the Hindu epic, The Mahabaratham, which is the longest poem ever written. Those who are familiar with the epic will be able to spot its intricacies and references in Thalapathi. However, the resounding success of the movie comes from its accessibility to the audience and ability to enjoy it, even without context, making it a great place to start exploring the Tamil movie scene. 

Thalapathi was a roaring success, both in the box office and amongst the critics. The reason for this is the versatility of the film. Ratnam creates his magic on screen by creating layers upon layers for the audience to dissect if they wanted to. However, Thalapathi also makes for a purely entertaining watch for those seeking just that. This ability to take from the film what you want is one of its biggest assets.

With magnificent visuals, the film’s cinematography is one of the best of all time. Santosh Sivan is the king of cinematography in Tamil cinema and this film exhibits some of his best work, with every mood being reflected by his camera. Nobody can forget the epic scene featuring Suriya juxtaposed against the descending sun with his face pensievely angled. Illayaraja’s background music is the perfect complement to this moment, creating one of the most iconic scenes of all time. 

(Thalapathi Movie Still/Credit: G. V. Films)

Almost 30 years later, the songs and dialogues from Thalapathi are still used as beacons of lasting friendship and camaraderie. Each time I watch it, I pick up a new nuance or peel back another layer that brings me closer to the film. This once in a lifetime pairing of Mani Ratnam and Rajinikanth created a milestone in Tamil cinema that will be preserved through time.

Stream Thalapathi on Amazon Prime here.

Watch the trailer below.

For anyone interested in exploring this world on Tamil cinema, these timeless classics are the way to go because they paved the way for the industry as it stands today. Tamil cinema is not the epitome of gender equality or intellect; it still has a long way to go in those departments. However, Tamil cinema is all heart, just like its people. If you approach the genre with an open heart and mind, you are bound to see what I have seen in these films, throughout my life. 

Stacy is a self-proclaimed wordsmith who tries to see the good in the world.
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