CE Year in Review: The Old Guard stands tall even as the New Guard take centrestage

Looking back, it is safe to assume that Tamil cinema came out swinging and ended the year with its head held high
CE Year in Review: The Old Guard stands tall even as the New Guard take centrestage

As 2022 drew to a close, Tamil cinema was primed to kickstart the year with a bang. The biggest stars of Tamil cinema had releases planned. A release strategy that ensured every few months, a major star would have an opportunity to put Tamil cinema on the map and keep the cash registers ringing. Unlike earlier years, Tamil cinema wasn’t just wringing it within their fraternity. They now had to face stiff competition from every Indian industry thanks to the pan-Indian phenomenon. 2023 was primed for great things even before the first release hit the theatres. 

Looking back, it is safe to assume that Tamil cinema came out swinging and ended the year with its head held high.

The Title Card

The calling cards of 2023 were the biggies — Varisu and Thunivu. We won’t get into the hassle of discussing box-office returns, but one thing is sure, Tamil cinema kickstarted 2023 with its biggest box-office draws putting their best foot forward.

It was almost like stuff that dreams are made on, right? 

The New Order 

2023 will also be known as the year the new order chimed in to establish its presence. Kavin triggered the proceedings with his much-loved and deservingly celebrated film, Dada. A couple of months later, Yaathisai came out of nowhere to knock the wind out of Tamil cinema’s sails. Tamil cinema took hardly a couple of weeks to hit it out of the park with the Manikandan-starrer Good Night, which zoomed right into many a list of favourite ‘feel-good’ films of 2023. The fantastic thing about this new order was how a lot of these potential stars delivered hits in different genres. While Ashok Selvan made a mark with his hugely celebrated thriller, Por Thozhil, and the joyous comedy Saba Nayagan, Harish Kalyan’s take on toxic masculinity and its fragility in Parking reaffirmed their status as some of the frontrunners of this race into the future. There was Vasanth Ravi with the horror thriller, Asvins, Rio Raj with the slice-of-life Joe, Adhi with a superhero film in Veeram, and Sathish with the horror comedy Conjuring Kannappan delivering notable films too.

On the actresses front, it was a rather sedate year for newcomers with only a few like Preethi Asrani (Ayothi) making a mark. Actors like Nimisha Sajayan and Saniya Iyappan made their Tamil debuts this year with much fanfare and acclaim, but it was a largely mixed bag barring compelling performances by a few others like Shraddha Srinath and Abernathy for Irugapatru, and Aparna Das for Dada.

It is not just the actors but a bunch of promising filmmakers dishing out one success after another with impressive consistency. Ganesh K Babu (Dada), Dharani Rasendran (Yaathisai), Vinayak Chandrasekharan (Good Night), MR Madhavan (Dinosaurs), Ram Arun Castro (Harkara), Vignesh Raja (Por Thozhil), PS Vinothraj (Koozhangal), Ra Venkat (Kida), Hariharan Ram (Joe), Ramkumar Balakrishnan (Parking), Selvin Raj Xavier (Conjuring Kannappan), Abbas A Rahmath (Fight Club), Ravi Murugaiah (Aayiram Porkaasugal), CS Karthikeyan (Saba Nayagan), Balaji Venugopal (Lucky Man), Tarun Teja (Asvins), Shan (Bommai Nayagi),  Sanjay Narayanan (Maalai Nera Mallipoo), and the list goes on… I have not even included the sophomore filmmakers who made a triumphant step up in their careers like Madonne Ashwin (Maaveeran), Sy Gowtham Raj (Kazhuvethi Moorkan), and ARK Saravan (Veeran).

We know what the OG is, but we know not what the New Order might be, and it is safe to assume Tamil cinema is in safe hands, right?

The Laughs 

Yet another year, and yet another disappointment with the lack of films that celebrate the power of laughter. Of course, we had Santhanam’s rousing DD Returns, but he also spoiled all the goodwill with duds like 80s Buildup and Kick, which were plain abysmal. While there was a Conjuring Kannappan here and an effective Aayiram Porkaasugal there, and a Lucky Man somewhere in between, 2023 was largely bereft of quality comedies.

While we did have enough unintentional ones that left us ROFL-ing, a joke by any other name isn’t always funny, right?

The Romance in the air

There is always a nip in the air when romance rules roost in our films. It is interesting how most of our superstar vehicles nowadays have relegated romance to the sidetrack, which works in favour of these films that allow the stars to play their age. But still, Lokesh found a way to rekindle nostalgia and play to the gallery by having Vijay and Trisha romance in Leo. It was effective but short-lived, and we were back to square one in Tamil cinema where romance is receiving the cold shoulder. Dada was among many things… a love story. The same holds true for Ponniyin Selvan, which was a love story at the centre of all its layers. And there was the curious Bommai, which flattered to deceive. Similarly, we had LGM, Margazhi Thingal, and Adiyae which had a strong core idea but didn’t deliver to its fullest because it had other layers to cater to. The one film that provided a mirror to today’s romance, especially post-marriage, was Irugapatru which received a lot of warmth from a discerning audience. I asked this in 2021, and I ask it again… where are the 96s and Oh My Kadavules and Pyaar Prema Kaadhals and Ispade Rajas and Idhaya Ranis?

Where art thou… Romance?

The Proverbial Comebacks

Everyone loves an underdog. 2023 saw multiple people making comebacks that were the story of the year. Director Karthik Subbaraj returned to the big screen after 4 years with the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Jigarthanda Double X. Incidentally, it was the same four-year hiatus that brought the best out of director SU Arun Kumar, who made the poignant Chiththa, which was… wait for it… Siddharth’s first Tamil film in four years (I know Takkar was there, but why let logic come in the way of a good comeback story?). Another four years, another actor-filmmaker Vijay Kumar had a solid comeback through Fight Club this year. A nine-year sabbatical made filmmaker Yuvaraj Dhayalan forget the horrors of Eli and change how he is known in Tamil cinema with the successful Irugapatru. An eight-year lull period gave Adhik Ravichandran a major success in Mark Antony. And what a year it was for actor Sarath Kumar! Ponniyin Selvan 2, Por Thozhil, and Paramporul ensured it was a Perfect year for the actor-politician. And there was this really small thing of Nelson winning back the naysayers with Jailer that resulted in the now-rare feat of winning the hearts of critics, audiences, and that group of people who are so tough to please… the Rajini fans.

It isn’t easy to exceed expectations because expectation is the root of all heartache… but this is Rajinikanth we are talking about, right?

Women of this year’s cinema

It wasn’t an entirely rosy picture for Tamil Cinema this year. After back-to-back years of films lead by women making a mark frequently, 2023 failed to capitalise on that trend. Yes, we had a slew of Aishwarya Rajesh films (Farhana, Driver Jamuna, Soppana Sundari, and The Great Indian Kitchen) hit screens within weeks of each other, but didn’t quite make a mark despite promising premises. While Mirnaa did find the limelight through her role in Jailer, it was disappointing to see her Burqa not be received with the same fervour. Nimisha Sajayan had a terrific 2023 with her roles in Chittha and Jigharthanda Double X. Irugapatru also offered all its leads a solid outing, and Shraddha Srinath, Saniya Iyappan, and Abernathy came out with their career-best performances. Director Lakshmy Ramakrishnan made a warm film about adoption in Are You Okay Baby? Another film that had promise was Kannagi, but it became a case of too many issues and too little focus. While Nayanthara didn’t really have a fabulous outing in Tamil cinema, her exploits in Jawan more than made up for it. 

2023 will be known for cementing Trisha’s superstardom that was reinvigorated by Ponniyin Selvan in 2022. This year, she had the half-decent The Road sandwiched between the gargantuan Ponniyin Selvan 2 and Leo. But there is no doubt that 2023 lacked in telling the stories of women it did so well in the past two years. But it also is important to analyse whether the audience thronged the theatres for such films that were indeed made.

Sometimes, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves, right? 

The Anti-Climax 

If the overall narrative of women in cinema was disappointing in 2023, it was even worse with a bunch of films that only flattered to deceive. Take, for instance, I Ahmed’s Iraivan, which became an indulgent exercise in gore with very little substance going for it. While the year is marked by young talents coming to the fore, we also saw some of them failing at the big stage. Promising films like Michael, Custody, and Pichaikaaran 2, and promising filmmakers like Vasanthabalan (Aneethi),  CS Amudhan (Ratham), and Raju Murugan (Japan), among others failed to deliver on these promises. It would have been easier to accept these missteps if competent people didn’t do it. But here were actors and filmmakers with a proven track record, which made the hurt sting a lot more.

However, success befitting their prowess is just around the corner because all things are ready if our mind be so, right?

The Big Guns Deliver in the Climax

If the year began with Thunivu and Varisu, it also had the ever-reliable Dhanush try his hand at doing a solid bilingual with Vaathi, which was released in Telugu as Sir. Silambarasan TR’s Pathu Thala too stood testament to the charisma and crowd-pulling power of the resurgent star. Vetri Maaran, a star in his own right, made the compelling Viduthalai Part 1 that gave rise to the transformation of Soori from a comic actor to a full-fledged hero. While Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan 2 continued from where it left off last year, Sivakarthikeyan finally delivered a massive blockbuster through one of his more experimental films. Maaveeran was the perfect fuel Sivakarthikeyan needed to be part of more such ‘experiments’ in the future and not be bogged down by the burns he received in the recent past. Soon after, Nelson brought big guns in Rajinikanth’s Jailer to remind everyone that age is just a number.  As the year came to its last quarter, Tamil cinema had already raked in money from the successful star vehicles, and a surprising 1-2 punch in the form of critical and commercial acclaim from the small-budget films featuring future stars. Anything from here was supposed to be a bonus. Then… Leo happened. 

Lokesh Kanagaraj added Vijay to the LCU, and delivered a film that became a bonafide blockbuster rewriting existing records, and creating new benchmarks. It was also a showcase for Vijay, the actor, showing signs of where our superstars could go from here. With Leo becoming the talk of the town across the country, and even certain other parts of the world, Tamil cinema tied a neat little bow to 2023. 

A year that had things that were done well and with care, which in turn, gave it a sense of fearlessness. 

The Post-Credit Surprises 

This year also saw a bunch of re-releases becoming quite the rage in select parts of the State. Films like Dhanush’sand Mayakkam Enna, Suriya’s Vaaranam Aayiram, Kamal Haasan’s Virumaandi and Aalavandhan, Rajinikanth’s Muthu, Sasikumar’s Subramaniapuram, Silambarasan TR's Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, Vallavan and Manmadhan were released in a few theatres and ran to packed houses.

In the end, more the things change, the more they stay the same, right? 

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