Enable Javscript for better performance
Tamil cinema in a year of tumult- Cinema express

Tamil cinema in a year of tumult

Unusual protagonists, scathing social commentary, a departure from star-centric cinema… Though the year 2020 was asphyxiating and unkind to cinema, Tamil films still found a way to survive

Published: 29th December 2020

When the opening weeks of this year were punctuated by the release of films featuring the likes of Rajinikanth and Dhanush, films that were designed for the community-watching experience of a theatre, it seemed unthinkable that we would spend the remainder of the year glued to televisions, and remaining awake at dawn, catching the midnight OTT premieres of many a film that had to settle for a TV release. Films like Darbar, Psycho and Pattas now feel like they came out in another year, a time when we travelled in groups… wait, a time when we travelled. It’s in taking stock of the year’s releases that one is reminded that the opening three months—before the pandemic well and truly claimed this year—belong to 2020 too. How long this year has been, and how short its filmography. Tamil films came out in a trickle this year—largely those that were either made for OTT platforms or those that couldn’t afford to wait for theatres to be opened again—and yet, there were still some good films, some useful patterns… And prominent among the trends this year is the…

Searing social commentary

Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban

There were quite a few films unafraid about taking on the system, with many turning out to be enjoyable cinema too. The first prominent entry was Raju Murugan’s Gypsy, which attacks a telephone directory of issues in the country, including right-wing extremism, suppression of women, religious fundamentalism, hate politics, caste oppression, patriarchy… Even if it bites way more than can be chewed in a single story, the film is notable for never backing down from throwing punches. Arun Karthick’s Nasir does quite a bit of this, but in a less obvious, more silent way. The film captures the life of a Muslim man almost with documentary precision, so that when a cruel fate befalls him, you don’t ignore him as a statistic and instead recognise him for being a real person—and not as the ‘other’ as the system would rather we did. Towards the end of the year, we got two more strong entries: Ka Pae Ranasingam and Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban. While the former documents the struggles of a woman desperate to bring her husband’s corpse back from another country—and the systemic corruption and political manipulation that hampers her at every step—the latter is a takedown of police brutality and the impunity with which the department’s authority is often exercised. Coming as it does in the same year as the Jayaraj-Fenix murders, the message is particularly relevant. Many of these films are also notable for their…

Emphasis on realism

Oor Iravu (Paava Kadhaigal)

Perhaps on account of theatres being closed, or on account of how sombre the year turned out to be, quite a few of the year’s good films approached their stories with a firm footing on reality. Be it the hyper-realism of Nasir, or the faithful depiction of the village life, including its art forms and customs, in Sethum Aayiram Pon, filmmakers seemed fascinated about training their cameras on microscopic detailing. This desire to capture reality as-is was evident even in a film like Vetrimaaran’s Oor Iravu (one of four segments in the anthology, Paava Kadhaigal). A film like Oru Pakka Kathai, despite dealing with a topic like premarital pregnancy, refused the temptation to get loud, instead choosing to rely on subtlety in conversation and silences. Perhaps the best feature film of the year, Soorarai Pottru, was an experience designed for the movie theatre, and featured a star at its centre. And yet, there was no desire to capitalise on his appeal to offer ‘easy entertainment’. The emphasis was very much on portraying the reality of the protagonist’s struggle, not simply to utilise it to create ‘mass’ moments. The film’s protagonist, Maara, is a unique man, who is single-minded in his pursuit of an ambition; he is a man willing to wait long hours, and willing to shoulder the incredible grief and pain that trying to realise such an ambition can result in. He is a man who achieves his dream not through stunt sequences, but through perseverance and patience. This, of course, brings us to…

The unique protagonists

Ka Pae Ranasingam

…of which there were several this year, with almost all the best films striking for featuring protagonists whose design insulates them from any image trappings of actors who played them. Raju Murugan’s Gypsy features a casteless, religionless man without a last name. Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban features not a hero, but a common man whose tribulations are a symtom of the helplessness we can witness on the roads every day. Nasir’s protagonist is another victim, a minority religion member with everyday aspirations and modest desires. Ka Pae Ranasingam’s is yet another victim, of systemic apathy; the protagonist in this case is a woman, which serves to make the world even more difficult for her. I saw Oru Pakka Kathai’s protagonist as being a woman too, one dealing with the social and familial judgments for bearing a child when she should not be. Vetrimaaran’s Oor Iravu (the segment from the Netflix anthology, Paava Kadhaigal) went furthest of all these films, in choosing a murderer for a protagonist, for the singular purpose of launching into a character study on him. The protagonists of the beautifully shot Andhaghaaram are all victims in a sense too. Across all these films can be seen the admirable refusal of filmmakers to make protagonists attractive for mass entertainment or to design their character arcs with the end goal of drawing easy applause. Special mention also to the protagonist of Dharala Prabhu, who is unafraid to seek assistance throughout the film. All the protagonists suggest that we may be in for a bright future because many of the aforementioned films are those from…

Debutant filmmakers

From films that launched scathing attacks against the powerful, like Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban (RDM), Nasir (Arun Karthick) and Ka Pae Ranasingam (Virumandi), to those that showed great mastery over the craft of filmmaking like Andhaghaaram (Vignarajan), the year saw many promising debutant filmmakers mark their arrival with strong statements. There were also entertaining films of the more commercial variety—and no less remarkable for being so—in films like Oh My Kadavule (Ashwath Marimuthu) and Kannum Kannum Kollaiyadithaal (Desingh Periyasamy), which were particularly notable for the empathy they extended towards the women characters. The year also saw…

The experiments of experienced filmmakers

 Paava Kadhaigal

Filmmakers like Vetrimaaran, Rajiv Menon, Sudha Kongara and Gautham Menon all stepped into the anthology space this year. Gautham Menon, especially, was able to wade into new territory with his segments in Putham Pudhu Kaalai and Paava Kadhaigal, showing an eagerness to explore himself as a filmmaker. The latter especially has him jumping headfirst into disturbing territory (to largely positive results), as his characters, designed in shades of grey, grappled with the notion of honour and what they were willing to give up to garner social approval. Rajiv Menon’s segment in Putham Pudhu Kaalai (Reunion) saw him drawing the portrait of an addict, one forced by circumstances to share a home with two strongers with whom she has a series of experiences that make her a better person. Sudha Kongara shone bright both as a filmmaker stepping into an anthology (Putham Pudhu Kaalai) and as one handling the expectations that result from working with a star like Suriya. The big letdown was from Bala whose long-awaited Arjun Reddy remake, Varma, got an OTT release, and turned out to be a lifeless film devoid of the meritorious touches the auteur is famous for. It was an unintended horror show—and oh, this year too, as with recent ones, there were those films that belonged to…

The horror genre


The horror genre has been all the rage over the last decade, and while there weren’t as many as in previous years, we still got a few this year, including duds like Sandimuni (starring Natty). There were also films like Psycho and Penguin that contained horror elements. While the former had some interesting subtext over the creation of a misogynist—even if it didn’t make for riveting cinema—the latter, despite a valiant performance from Keerthy Suresh, held no intrigue. There was also Draupadi this year, which can be said to be a horror film in its own way, given the dangerous ideas it propagates. While on old trends surviving into the new decade, we also got sequels this year, mainly two of them: Naadodigal 2 that in true Samuthirakani style was high on the messaging and had only good intentions to offer; and Irandam Kuththu that seemed to think that soft-core cinema was the same as a sex comedy. We may have to wait for the coming year to offer conclusive judgments on the fate of sequels and horror films. But this year did not seem favourable to them.

This seeming disinterest in the horror genre is perhaps a direct reflection of the horror of our realities, this year: The pandemic, the suffering, the debilitating effect on the lives of countless people, including artists, the loss of lives, including those of legends like SP Balasubrahmanyam. It is with a bit of gloom that we step into the new year. As a fan of the movies, it’s tempting to wish for the return of unrestricted theatre experience, but right now, with another strain of the virus making the news, it may be more practical to settle for a less difficult year in 2021. The practicality would be quite in keeping with the nature of good films this year.

Ten films that stood out (in no particular order):

Soorarai Pottru

Paava Kadhaigal

Dharala Prabhu

Kannum Kannum Kollaiyadithaal

Ka Pae Ranasingham


Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban

Oru Pakka Kathai

Sethum Aayiram Pon



Related Articles


Disclaimer : We respect your thoughts and views! But we need to be judicious while moderating your comments. All the comments will be moderated by the newindianexpress.com editorial. Abstain from posting comments that are obscene, defamatory or inflammatory, and do not indulge in personal attacks. Try to avoid outside hyperlinks inside the comment. Help us delete comments that do not follow these guidelines.

The views expressed in comments published on newindianexpress.com are those of the comment writers alone. They do not represent the views or opinions of newindianexpress.com or its staff, nor do they represent the views or opinions of The New Indian Express Group, or any entity of, or affiliated with, The New Indian Express Group. newindianexpress.com reserves the right to take any or all comments down at any time.