Well! 2021 was officially a very dramatic year for all of us. Earlier this year, just when the public was warming up to the idea of returning to cinema halls, the second wave of Covid brought those plans to a halt. While cinema halls eventually reopened after four months of closure, it was only around October the crowds got back to theatres in full swing.
There is no doubt that making films in such a volatile and vulnerable period is itself an act of courage. And one might want to applaud all of them for just doing what they did. But then, such generic niceness wouldn’t give us an idea of what the interesting and not-so-interesting phenomena of the year were.
So, let’s take a closer look at this year’s releases, and see who and what surprised us – and who and what put us to sleep.
Counting down, from #7 to #1.
First, the Super Seven.
#7 - The Restraint of the Star
The delightful thing about the films Master and Doctor were how actors Vijay and Sivakarthikeyan allowed themselves to play a much restrained role in them. Contrary to the general loudness of the commercial genre, both these films were narrated with a lot of subtlety. Filmmakers Lokesh Kanagaraj and Nelson Dilipkumar tried to reinvent the masala formula with some newness and it mostly worked. While Vijay allowed Vijay Sethupathi to play a more flamboyant role in Master and stuck to a very controlled performance himself, Sivakarthikeyan let his co-actors steal all the comedic thunder in Doctor.
These were brave choices made by stars who often don’t intend to disturb their market expectations. But the success of these minor experiments revealed how the audience always has a much bigger appetite than what they are accused of. The restrain of the stars at #7.
#6 - V for Victory
While filmmaker Vasanth has given very memorable films in the 1990s – like Keladi Kanmani (1990), Aasai (1995) and Rhythm (2000) – some of his later works didn’t create the same impact, even if they weren’t particularly bad. While most people would have written him off as a filmmaker past his peak, it was delightful to see his return this year in a completely new cinematic form.
Both Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum and his episode Payasam in the Netflix anthology Navarasa reveal to us a filmmaker who is in absolute control of his filmmaking. There is a certain world cinema sensibility in his new style and it is exciting to see what else he is going to make in the coming year.
Similarly, Venkat Prabhu, who had surprised us with his iconic Chennai 600028 (2007), seemed lost in recent years, focusing mostly on formulaic star vehicles. But he disproved all his naysayers with the absolutely fantastic script of Maanaadu. Writing a script based on a time loop and making it accessible to the Tamil public without dumbing it down is no easy task, but Venkat Prabhu pulled it off in style.
Filmmakers Vasanth Sai and Venkat Prabhu at #6, for returning with renewed strength.
#5 - Therukural Arivu
The omnipresent Arivu.
If there was someone omnipresent in Tamil cinema this year, it has to be lyricist-singer-rapper Arivu.
Apart from the iconic independent single Enjoy Enjaami that he created with Dhee and Santhosh Narayanan, he wrote and sang for several big film projects, and they have all been consistently super hits. From "Vathi Raid" in Master to "Yela Yelo" in Mandela to "Neeye Oli" in Sarpatta Parambarai to “Power Song” in Jai Bhim to “Voice of Unity” in Maanaadu to "A for Annaatthe" in Annaatthe – Arivu has delivered his power packed lyrics and voice to each one of them. The melodious "Yela Yelo" from Mandela was particularly unique and allowed us to witness a different shade of Arivu’s writing and singing.
Arivu at #5 for all the super hit songs.
#4 - The Triple S
Sethupathi continues to charm us.
The Triple S – SJ Suryah, (Vijay) Sethupathi, Silambarasan – delighted us this year with their performances. While Sethupathi was mildly mocked on social media for too many back-to-back releases and for his lackadaisical performances in Laabam, Tughlaq Durbar and Annabelle Sethupathi, he compensated for all that of with Master, Kutty Story (segment Aadal Paadal) and Mughizh. It is not often an actor can pull off roles where he is a cocky super-villain, a man dealing with a midlife crisis, and an understanding father of a young girl, all with equal ease.
If Sethupathi charmed us with his grounded quality, it has been a pleasure to witness SJ Suryah’s over the top performances. In both Nenjam Marappathillai and Maanaadu, his histrionics were absolutely fun and even addictive.
Speaking of Maanaadu, Silambarasan got back to form after the unremarkable Eeswaran. It was reassuring to see how likable he can be when he submits himself to the role and the film. The Triple S at #4.
#3 - Anti-Caste Cinema
Tamil cinema continued to address the problem of caste in its films. Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan, Madonne Ashwin’s Mandela, Leena Manimekalai’s Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale, Franklin Jacob’s Writer and TJ Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim offered important social commentary on the structure and practices around the caste system.
While the politics of some of these films might not be perfect, it has to be understood how, even with all its flaws, Tamil cinema remains one of frontrunners in Indian cinema in documenting and critiquing the role of caste in Indian society. The Dravidian and Ambedkarite movement in the state have made this possible and it has been impressive how both the filmmakers and the audience have chosen to have this conversation. Tamil anti-caste cinema at #3 for its progressive politics.
#2 - Pa Ranjith and Neelam Productions
The Dravidian-Ambedkarite legacy in Sarpatta Parambarai.
While anti-caste cinema might not be new to Tamil industry, it clearly has drawn new strength this decade through the films made and produced by Pa Ranjith.
The filmmaker’s Sarpatta Parambarai was one of this year’s best and it even saw his harsh critics applauding it. The way the film infuses Dravidian and Ambedkarite political history into a game of boxing in North Chennai was particularly brilliant.
The filmmaker’s production house, Neelam Productions, also co-produced Franklin Jacob’s Writer, which is another important film that released this year. The criticism it places on the structure and procedure of the police system and its perspective on the labour of the police force are very pertinent and powerful.
Pa Ranjith and Neelam productions at #2, for pushing the boundaries of Tamil cinema.
#1 - The Glimmer of Independent Cinema
The Tamil industry’s attempt at independent cinema has been few and far in the past. But surprisingly, the past year or so has seen several independent filmmakers demanding our attention. In fact, the most talked about film of the year must be PS Vinothraj’s Koozhangal/Pebbles. The film, an interesting blend of the sensibilities of Tamil filmmaker Bharathiraja and Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, went on to win several international awards. including the prestigious Tiger award at Rotterdam.
A still from Pebbles.
There was also Shyam Sundar and Manoj Leonel Jason’s Kuthiraivaal, Kiran R’s Kayamai Kadakka, Leena Manimekalai’s Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale and Balaji Vembu Chelli’s Nilanadukkam. While some of these films were available only at festivals, it is interesting how there has been a concerted trend towards independent filmmaking. The courage and honesty that these films exuberate could create a positive influence on the rest of Tamil cinema.
While we might have to wait it out and see what this new trend leads to, its very existence in the midst of a pandemic year that saw the closure of theatres and onslaught of OTTs has been promising.
Next up, the Snoozy Seven.
#7 - Gautham Vasudev Menon
There was a time when everything that Menon did was snazzy and slick. But it is difficult to say the same anymore. Whether it was his segment Ethirpara Mutham in Kutty Story or Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru from Navarasa or his performance as Vathapirajan in Rudra Thandavam, there was something mechanical and mundane about the actor-filmmaker these days.
While the news of his multiple projects continue to bring us curiosity and excitement, the fact that they all land flat and ineffective has been an utter disappointment. One hopes the coming year brings Menon back to his old, classic form of Minnale (2001), Kaakha Kaakha (2003) and Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya (2010). Gautham Vasudev Menon at snooze #7.
#6 - Style over Substance
We also witnessed a slew of films that made a lot of noise for their visual style. But unfortunately, when it came to writing, they uniformly lacked an emotional core or consistency.
Bachelor, Vaazh and Rocky all had unique voices, but it was difficult to understand what they were trying to say. Coincidentally, all these films repeatedly staged long scenes that almost bordered on indulgence.
The biggest disappointment, however, was Jagame Thandhiram. It had big names like Dhanush, Karthik Subbaraj and Santhosh Narayanan and the promos kept us all excited. But only to let us down with the film. All these stylish but incoherent films at snooze #6.
#5 - Superstar Rajinikanth
Superstar gets back to old formula.
When we almost feared that Superstar Rajinikanth’s career had come to an end with Kochadaiiyan and Lingaa in 2014, he reinvented himself and bounced back with Kabali (2016), Kaala (2018) and Petta (2019). Just as we consoled ourselves that Darbar (2020) might have been a one-off misfire, this year’s Annaatthe revealed that the Superstar was indeed going back to old formulaic films.
Annaatthe might have done well commercially. But for the actor, he was effectively regressing back into 1980s masala mould. While he still holds our attention, we continue to hope for him to be more contemporary and experimental in his choices of script and character. Rajinikanth at snooze #5 for taking us back to the dark ages.
#4 - Propaganda Cinema
Hate propaganda in Rudra Thandavam.
Even as we applauded Tamil cinema for the infusion of anti-caste films, we also witnessed films countering this new wave.
Mohan G’s Rudra Thandavam and Prabhu Jeyaram’s Yennanga Sir Unga Sattam spoke the politics of the right-wing. The latter might not have received much attention owing to its low-key OTT release, but Rudra Thandavam was backed by the Pattali Makkal Katchi and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders in the state, and attempted to cause social unrest through its casteist and communalist politics.
Thankfully, these films weren’t very well made and the absence of an entertainment quality restricted their reach to some extent.
Propaganda cinema at a scary and snoozy #4.
#3 - OTT platforms
Technically, we were all promised that OTTs would revolutionise cinema – and we naively believed it too. We were told they would make filmmakers more independent, resulting in more interesting films and series being made.
Sadly, OTTs have turned out to be more boring than the regular producer-distributor-exhibitor model. Whether big or small, OTTs continue to work as corporates and are heavily dependent on what their customer-watching data says. This has made them play it too safe and we’ve hardly had any interesting films or series being produced by any of the OTTs. In fact, they have made good old television seem like a radical medium in comparison.
And that’s made it easy for the public to return to the theatres. OTTs singing a lullaby at #3.
#2 - No Woman’s Land
While we certainly had interesting performances by male actors this year, it’s difficult to say whether enough meaty roles were written for female actors. In fact, the news is that most assistant directors are made to primarily scout for female actors on Instagram. Interestingly, this is not how male actors are found or cast. This Instagram to Tamil cinema model has been made possible because most films only want their female actors to look good, and expect nothing more.
Most films seem happy to draw from the actor’s social media presence rather than any real acting quality. The fact that we can’t easily come up with top three performances by female actors this year reflects the lack of acting space created for them by Tamil cinema. So, poorly written female roles at #2.
#1 - Navarasa
Navarasa, or the magical melatonin dose.
Netflix announced its anthology Navarasa with a lot of fanfare. It literally had all the big names in Tamil cinema and the public too were excited with the announcement. But yet, when it released, it was one of the most boring series ever made. We literally saw our favourite filmmakers compete with each other in a bottomless pit. The series was so terrible that one couldn’t even hatewatch it. It even managed to make production houses allergic to the very anthology format.
Navarasa at #1 for ensuring we all got our beauty sleep. And curing those suffering from post-Covid sleeplessness.
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