CE Year in Review: Tamil Cinema's Breakout Talents of 2021
With the year coming to an end, we look back at the artists and technicians who made a splash in Tamil cinema this year
It’s a joyful exercise to witness the arrival of new talent or see even some old artists finally get their due. While some of these names proved that screen-time doesn’t necessarily define visibility, others demonstrated that the strongest presence is often made by those behind the camera. Here are breakout actors, filmmakers, and technicians who left a strong impression this year.
(In alphabetical order)
Anagha (Actor, Dikkiloona)
If you are on Instagram, there’s a 99.42% probability that you have seen clips of Anagha dancing to the remastered version of IIlaiyaraaja’s Per Vechalum from the forgettable Dikkiloona. The song was a surprise hit and made the actor a sensation among netizens. While she is yet to exhibit her acting capabilities to the fullest, the hardest job—catching the attention of the public—seems to have been accomplished. The actor also appeared in Magizhini, a music video exploring same-sex love, and it should be interesting to see where she goes from here.
Arun Matheswaran (Director, Rocky)
Has a filmmaker ever bagged two more projects, each bigger than the other, even before the release of their debut film? Arun Matheswaran is an anomaly, a breakout talent in every way. An erstwhile associate of one of Tamil cinema’s most cherished filmmakers, Thiagaraja Kumararajan, Arun made his debut with Rocky, a film with great visual grammar. His interest in people and violence is evident in Rocky, and the poster of his sophomore film, Saani Kayadham, starring Keerthy Suresh and Selvaraghavan (!) seems set to build on this. The director is now set to collaborate with Dhanush, and the anticipation is already palpable.
Bjorn Surrao (Singer & actor, Master and Doctor)
You might not recognise Bjorn Surrao as the voice of Master the Blaster, a track that cinephiles across South India quickly embraced as their ringtones—just like JD, the protagonist of the year’s biggest blockbuster, Master. However, you surely noticed Bjorn’s rib-tickling performance in Doctor. Bjorn, whose music credits include Velaikaaran and Naalu Peruku Nalladhun Edhuvum Thappilla, turned actor for Nelson Dileepkumar’s dark comedy, and the result was a cracker that became an instant viral hit. Bjorn appears in the film for merely five minutes, but his dialogues are already a part of pop culture, including, “He’s asking for some aambala… where will I go for aambala…”. Bjorn’s next has a Vijay connection once again, as he is set to team up once again with Nelson in Beast.
Dushara Vijayan (Actor, Sarpatta Parambarai)
Pa Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai might have been a testosterone-heavy boxing drama about men flexing their triceps and abs, but a wonderful Dushara Vijayan managed to stand out as Mariyamma. Dushara embodied the character with both vulnerability and ferocity. In times when the agency of female characters is under close scrutiny, Mariyamma comes across as a fully fleshed-out human being, who neither flinches to violence nor restrains her expression of love, lust, disgust, or anger. She is set to follow up with yet another Ranjith directorial, Natchathiran Nagargirathu, a project little is known about, but we are already excited.
Hakkim Shah (Actor, Kadaseela Biriyani)
Few villains this year have been as entertaining and menacing as Hakim Shah’s psychopathic Johan Arza. The film’s screenplay holds back Johan’s viciousness for a major part of the film. His sadism is also used to evoke a wickedly funny effect. Once Johan unleashes the demon inside him, his mere presence becomes an unpleasant sight to behold. He’s funny yet terrifying, making Hakim a talent to look out for.
Lakshmipriyaa Chandramouli (Actor, SISP & Karnan)
Lakshmipriyaa Chandramouli played two of the best roles of her career this year: Padmini from Karnan and Sivaranjani from Sivaranjaniyum Innum Sila Pengalum. With a substantial role and an equally compelling performance in Karnan, Lakshmipriyaa broke herself free of the indie actor tag; “The audience now knows I exist,” a candid Lakshmipriyaa told us after the release of the Mari Selvaraj directorial, and she is absolutely right. She also remains attached to films that are deemed niche with Sivaranjaniyum finally getting a release and its due… It’ll be interesting to see how her career trajectory shapes up going forward, especially after her TV stint with Survivor.
Lijomol Jose (Actor, Jai Bhim)
In the Suriya-led Jai Bhim, a disturbing procedural drama about unthinkable police brutality, it was Lijomol Jose who walked away with two glorious mass moments. Lijomol, who debuted in Tamil cinema with the 2019 film Sivappu Manjal Pachai, was unrecognisable as Sengeni, a tribal woman seeking justice for her unjust inflicted on her husband and community, in Jai Bhim. Even when subjected to physical and mental torture, Sengeni doesn’t relent. Lijomole’s portrayal turned a victim into a warrior, and the actor, even in these early days, has already shown that she has what it takes to justify author-backed roles.
Madonne Ashwin (Director, Mandela)
Madonne Ashwin made a remarkable debut with Mandela, which premiered a day before elections in Tamil Nadu, and the timing couldn’t have been better. A social satire that paints a funny portrait of how closely electoral politics and caste are entwined, the film served as an avenue for Madonne to vocalise his ideology, but this messaging never took over the form. The Yogi Babu-starrer was hilarious yet thought-provoking. Speculations are now rife that Madonne will be teaming up with Sivakarthikeyan for his next and we can’t wait to see how this unique collaboration turns out.
Shabeer Kallarakkal (Actor, Sarpatta Parambarai)
Another artist from Pa Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai to gain instant fame is Shabeer Kallarakkal. The actor, who earlier played minor roles in Adanga Maru, Petta, and Teddy, finally found a role that pushed him to the foreground and how! In the boxing drama, Shabeer’s Dancing Rose is initially introduced as a playful character but once he wears his boxing gloves, he sets the ring on fire. Dancing Rose’s showdown with Kabilan (Arya) is not only one of the most enjoyable bits of Sarpatta Parambarai, but is among the best Tamil cinema moments of this year. Shabeer’s body language, a result of months of training, was a joy to behold, and Dancing Rose will remain one of the most memorable characters of this year.
Shreyaas Krishna (Cinematographer, Jag
Shreyas Krishnan has had three releases this year: Jagame Thandhiram and Peace (Navarasa), both directed by Karthik Subbaraj, and Arun Matheswaran’s Rocky. The cinematographer, whose credits also include Jil Jung Juk and Aval, left a strong impression with his work this year. While his stylish frames stood out in the otherwise lacklustre Jagame… his surreal imagery was instrumental in making Rocky what it is. The cinematographer has finished filming Mahaan, and we can’t wait to see what’s in store.
Tha Se Gnanavel (Director, Jai Bhim)
Tha Se Gnanavel made, what I would say, the most discussed Tamil film of the year, Jai Bhim. It’s safe to say that Gnanavel’s no-holds-barred portrayal of police brutality and caste discrimination, well, made a few heads turn. The sophomore filmmaker adapted real-life judicial proceedings to the screen to give a brave and unadulterated film, resulting in one of the most celebrated and controversial films of the year. Its contentious and unpleasant aftermath aside, few films in recent times have created an impact of this scale; it’s not every day you see viewers reaching out to the people whose life inspired a film. An erstwhile journalist, Gnanavel shared in an interview with us that he has many more stories to tell, and well, colour us intrigued.
Vijay Kartik Kannan (Cinematographer, Docto
Doctor is not only one of the funniest Tamil films of the year but also one of the most exquisitely shot ones. A prominent part of it can be attributed to cinematographer Vijay Kartik Kannan, who, backed by director Nelson Dileepkumar’s vision, created one of the most arresting visual experiences of the year. Vijay received praise for his work in the 2019 film Aadai, but it’s Doctor that put him on the map. In Doctor, Vijay managed to strike a balance between cartoonish playfulness and sophisticated symmetry, ensuring that the Sivakarthikeyan-starrer will be remembered for its distinctive visual treatment. He is set to follow up Doctor with Kaathu Vaakula Rendu Kaadhal and a Rathna Kumar directorial starring Santhanam in the lead role.