Some reflections on Kollywood’s recent stretch of fascinating versatility…

Mani Prabhu

The New Year in Kollywood, for the first few weeks, seemed anything but surprising. Selvaraghavan started off by upping the scale for his socially retarded and frustrated non-achiever. Bala made his ‘labyrinth of gloom and doom’ movie again, with a splash of the usual eccentric humour. Pandiraj devoted yet another one hour to a romance – which Mangalam master would probably call the ‘irundhuttu po’ type- before starting his drama-thriller at half way point for the umpteenth time. Udhay attempted another genre with another hot-shot heroine, at the expense of a bound script. Sundar C went partying with the same pei again – and probably all the way to the bank. In short, Kollywood seemed to be comfortable playing the alphabet allowance game with its cinema – safe bets for each of the letters!

But wait. Towards the fag end of January, things took a delightful turn. It was almost as if the industry had been holding back in silence, only to unleash a string of surprises in a row. And truly, what a fascinating stretch the last few weeks have turned out to be! And when I say ‘fascinating’, I am not talking of cinematic perfection or what we usually connect the adjective ‘brilliant’ to. No, I am not hinting at classic box-office game-changers. Fascinating in the sense, I am referring to the unshackled variety that is splashing off the theatre-screens since the last thirty odd days. And in the context of our Tamil cinema, which usually contents itself in experimenting within the confines of the three core genres (Action, romantic comedy and horror), it’s definitely more than just ‘refreshing’.

Some reflections on Kollywood's recent stretch of fascinating versatility

Consider the final Friday of January. When the concept of a sports film had been watered to the likes of Maan Karate and Ethir Neechal erstwhile, Sudha Kongara showed how it’s done with conviction and grace by resolutely sticking to the basics of the craft and refusing to gloss up the narrative. So, what we got in Irudhi Suttru was essentially an honest-to-heart sports-drama that smartly used the genre clichés to its advantages. The songs became a part of the narrative, continuing to define the characters and taking the story forward. And more importantly, the film had a female lead that wasn’t a caricature. She was there in flesh and blood, emoting and breathing fire, so much so as to the point of literally owning the movie.

Vetrimaran’s reality check

Some reflections on Kollywood's recent stretch of fascinating versatility

And then, it was the turn of Vetrimaaran to catch us off-guard, sending shivers down our spines with his unflinchingly brutal semi-fiction adaptation of a lesser known novel. We have had our share of decent courtroom dramas but lockup dramas were a never-heard-before entity. And add to the fact that adaptations are a true rarity here unlike the Malayalam industry, Vetri was truly threading on uncharted territory. With whatever little experience we have had with adaptations, the narrative had always been let down by the perceived mainstream flab, leaving the final product nowhere near the written version in terms of the intended feel. But here was a film, which not only stayed far away from any bloat, but also made it more sharp, powerful and gut-wrenching. And yes, it was in the mainstream space. That didn’t make Vetri use the female lead as an excuse to dish out a timid romantic affair. Instead, the character’s unforeseen disappearance was used to drive home the unpredictability stalking our lives. There wasn’t a necessity for a melodramatic song in Raja Sir’s voice with the camera slowly arcing down the dimly lit interrogation room. It was uncompromising ‘mainstream’ cinema at its ‘cut the crap’ best!

Quirky? We got it !

Some reflections on Kollywood's recent stretch of fascinating versatility

Following it up was the riotous Jil Jung Juk. Debuting with a nonsensically bizarre, goofball – dark comedy definitely takes the guts of someone like Deeraj Vaidy. The film was awash with audacity right from quirky scenarios, deliciously amoral humour, wacky characters and a general disdain for anything normal or mundane – things we get to see very rarely in our cinemas. And if that wasn’t surprising enough, the film even managed to get rid of a forced female lead. Even the irreverent songs and the devil-may-care colour palette were tweaked into the stuff of hard-core stoner films. Despite the few lulls, it was like nothing Tamil cinema had seen before, even within the quirky-comedy space.

Some reflections on Kollywood's recent stretch of fascinating versatility

The subsequent weekend saw Shakti Soundar Rajan attempting another genre for the first time – the zombie thriller. The results, while trying to fit the genre in the action thriller space, might have been middling, but there is no denying the Adrenalin bursts that the director could elicit by working within the limits of a foreign genre, not so yielding to our kind of mainstream bending. The experience of seeing such uninhibited madness on-screen compensated quite a bit for the inability to emotionally connect with the characters. And again, the romantic track was brushed off quickly with some finesse. Opting for a run-time of 105 minutes and just a couple of songs – one of which was used to anchor the climax – Shakti was anything but timid in his endeavour to experiment.

Style meets sense

Some reflections on Kollywood's recent stretch of fascinating versatility

Arun Kumar SU, the man who made the heart-touching Pannaiyarum Padminiyum, made a jaw-dropping. smooth transition from his poignant debut to a lively cop-action movie, again the same weekend. And with loads of organic humour and delightfully staged, matter-of-fact sequences of family bonding, Sethupathi proved to be that sensible masala film, we had long been craving for. Arun was silently taking on our industry’s fixation with the extremes, by writing scenes that constantly question the ‘mass-class’ dichotomy. Refusing to resort to star-appeasing clichés, this commercial pot-boiler instead relied on engaging emotional trajectories and the screen-presence of his lead actor for evoking the sparks.

These contrasting releases within a specific time frame, despite the obvious differences in the perfection of the end product, had one thing in common. No, I am not talking about their more-than-decent performances at the box-office. These films in the mainstream space were nonchalantly squashing deep-seated industry myths… that our audience are painfully orthodox in their expectations while paying for a ticket… that sports dramas are a strict no-no unless you have colourful duets cropping up in between the matches… that female-lead oriented films don’t sell… that the audience are not yet ready for brutally honest societal reflections… that anything less than overt melodrama would never drive the point across… that the romantic angle cannot be axed at any cost… that there is no audience for bizarre stoner comedies… that recovery of investment is impossible by targeting a niche audience… that a run-time of anything less than 140 minutes would be purely suicidal… that you can’t convince A list stars for experimental genres… that a successful ‘masala’ movie cannot be made without pandering to the masses.. And it’s never ending.

As I said before, this might not be indicative of a sustained trend, but inventive ‘niche’ scripts/treatment seem to have caught on, at least for the season. And look at the people who are making these happen! Young and daring filmmakers, none of them more than three films old, constantly rebelling against the must-haves. People who make movies, also for the joy of making movies. And you know the difference their commercial successes, even if narrowly marginal, would do? The industry’s commercial frontiers would be stretched… the mainstream waters would be deemed safer for future ambitious film-makers to thread with less fear and resistance. Frankly speaking, what more does our industry need?