Let’s start with the one of the most used devices in Tamil cinema
– the Flashback. It will help us understand the hero better.
After the invasion of cable TV in the nineties, housewives turned captive to the charms of the idiot box. The cinemas of the North and South acted in diametrically opposite ways. Hindi cinema went abroad, chasing the NRI.
Meanwhile, Tamil cinema took to the streets because only the poor and the wayward (the population that didn’t particularly like staying at home) frequented the cinemas. Only a Kamal Haasan comedy or a rare Padayappa would drag family audiences to the movie hall.
As filmmaker Saran once observed, the audience in the cinema halls was all-male… and you know how much the boys love a little sex and a lot of violence.
The Tamil film hero had turned into a full-blown rowdy. He could send ten guys flying with a single blow. He loved to stalk, sexually harass women and would occasionally give the heroine lessons on how to dress.
Javed Akhtar, during an interview, remarked that the Hindi film hero was turning self-centred. It was no longer about the society, but about the individual. The hero was busy wooing the girl, sorting out his relationship woes and later went serial-kissing women, including some who were already married.
By contrast, the Tamil film hero still stood up for the people when
provoked. Superstar film plots were rehashed again and again. Captain Vijaykanth continued to make films for the rural centres, Sarathkumar began to experiment once in a while, Satyaraj bravely went full-on arthouse and, Prabhu returned to do weighty character-roles.
During the first half of the decade, Tamil cinema shamelessly
celebrated the hero and new matinee idols were born. Vijay, Ajith and Vikram together sent hundreds of stuntmen flying and once they became popular, they came with a premium for producers and rarely did anything remotely offbeat.
Meanwhile, Hindi films turned their attention to multi-starrers and
scouted around for fresh stories and newer conflicts, rarely
succeeding but at least, filmmakers tried. A new breed of multiplex
films was born and corporates were encouraged to put their money on newcomers.
Tamil cinema saw the arrival of a fresh batch of filmmakers
responsible for making stars out of actors – directors including
Saran, Bala, Dharani, Ameer, Selvaraghavan, Murugadoss, Linguswamy and Gautham Menon who believed in their script more than the star. And there were those (like Perarasu, Ramana and Hari) who continued to hero-worship the star.
The seniors Mani Ratnam, Shankar, K.S. Ravikumar and Cheran continued doing what they did best and succeeded with great consistency while the ruling demi-gods Rajni and Kamal made a conscious effort to stay clear of formula and experiment with offbeat scripts. They set a fine example for the younger breed of actors like Suriya, Madhavan and Dhanush who followed their path of alternating commercial films with offbeat roles. Simbu seems to have a taken a cue too signing up with Gautham Menon and Prashanth is set to make a comeback with an offbeat
The young and the brave pioneered Tamil cinema’s foray into the road less travelled during the second half of the decade that saw the arrival of Venkat Prabhu, Vishnuvardhan, Mysskin and Sasikumar.
Encouraged by the cinema produced and promoted by Shankar and Prakash Raj, talented filmmakers such as Balaji Sakthivel and Radhamohan flourished and the script once again turned hero.
For want of stars to back these scripts, filmmakers turned actors
following the example set by Cheran and S.J.Suryah. With scripts back in focus, half a dozen women filmmakers (Janaki Viswanathan, Priya V, Anita Udeep, Gayathri Pushkar, Nandhini JS, Madhumita) got a break.
As stars churned out flops, the business became risky and distributors turned wary of Minimum Guarantee. Ironically, this only made it more difficult for films without stars to be sold.
Film families saw this as an opportunity to launch a new generation of stars – Jeeva, Vishal and Jayam Ravi – who were open to the idea of doing script-based films.
To add to the list of problems including escalating star salaries,
production and marketing costs, increasing cost of popcorn,
old-fashioned policies on satellite and video rights and the lack of
takers for script-based films, the film business continues to be
plagued by pirates. No visible solution seems to be in sight.
But there are some problems that can be fixed.
Observes Anjum Rajabali, professional screenwriter and Department Head of Screenwriting at Film and Television Institute of India, Pune and Whistling Woods, Mumbai: “Flops are always attributed to every other reason other than the script. It’s like the elephant in the room. Nobody wants to admit that the film failed because of a bad script.”
The inherent problem with star-based cinema is that the star wants to play a character so powerful that there can be nothing that can affect him. The hero cannot be slapped since it amounts to blasphemy and villains are reduced to caricatures. The hero’s journey is, well, a cake-walk.
It’s high-time filmmakers and actors realised the importance of
conflict in storytelling. The greater the struggle, the greater the
glory. The sweet is not as sweet without the sour. The hero must get knocked down so that he can get up again.
But the Tamil movie star is too busy counting his money, perennially scared of losing his market. Unless he remembers the way back to the road that brought him all the way, he will continue to be lost and films will continue to flop.
Let’s have more films like Chennai 600028, Paruthiveeran, Mozhi and Subramaniapuram. Let the filmmaker make the film he wants to make. Let the director call the shots, please.
(Have removed the list of films because people seem to assume these were good films despite the Disclaimer!)