2017 was one of the better years for Tamil cinema. With the taxation row, theater strikes, and financial woes, the business side of the Tamil film industry still faces a hazy situation. Yet new crop of film-makers blessed with broader social vision have made a considerable impact. Once again low-budgeted movies really stood out for their content and performances. Here’s my selection of the 15 top Tamil movies in 2017:
Mohan Raja’s blatant message movie revolves around conflict between Arivu, a go-getter hailing from slums, and a cunning capitalist. Unlike in Thani Oruvan, Mohan Raja largely fails to blend pulpy entertainment with idealistic notions. Rather than telling a truly engaging story, the director often throws outdated rhetoric on capitalism and corporate entities. Despite such flaws, if the film remains partly engaging it is due to the earnest performances. Sivakarthikeyan, for a change, plays a socially conscious character and does pretty well. However, Fahadh Faasil (in his first Tamil role) as the suave villain steals the show.
It is commendable that Mohan Raja tackles rampant social problems (including sexual harassment in workplace). But the spoon-feeding and preachy tone turns what could have otherwise been an excellent drama into a pamphlet against capitalism.
Director Ram‘s films entice us with a promise to explore relevant and interesting social themes. But I often feel his basic narrative core is confusing and contradictory, to say the least. The chief flaw in his narratives is the characterization of protagonists. Their extremely irrational, tad psychotic behavior is repeatedly shown as the only possible outcome of liberal-capitalist set-up. I’m all for tackling modern relationships and corporate lifestyle through Marxist lens. But Taramani (for at least, the large portions of its second-half), is half-baked and unnecessarily meandering.
Perhaps the saving grace of the film is Andrea’s marvelous performance as Althea, a single mother with a no-nonsense attitude. If the narrative unfurled more from her perspective than from the wastrel of a protagonist, it would have been totally intriguing. Unlike many critics, I don’t find faults in Ram’s brief socially conscious voice-overs. Those fine interludes are more exciting to hear than watching the extreme behavior of the characters. Furthermore, Ram’s visual sense is mostly unerring.
13. Thupparivaalan (Detective)
With Thupparivaalan, critically-acclaimed director Mysskin has once again taken a chance with mid-budget cinema and star cast. The last time he took that chance (Mugamoodi), it brought out the worst possible film in his career. However, this Vishal-starrer procedural retains the director’s distinct brand of quirkiness and visual acuity. It is true that Thupparivaalan neither contains top-notch intellectual twists nor a staggering emotional arc. But it’s definitely a watchable action thriller with quite a lot of well executed sequences.
Vishal plays Kanniyan Poogundran, an eccentric private detective. He takes a little boy’s request to investigate the murder of his beloved Pomeranian dog. The simple and the seemingly silly investigation puts the detective to track down a family of ruthless criminals. The action set-pieces are spectacularly realized, but the film’s major flaw is it’s non-thrilling and dragged out second-half.
12. Adhe Kangal (Same Eyes)
Rohin Venkatasan’s thriller doesn’t have a very unpredictable mystery at its center. But the smooth direction and deft characterization make Adhe Kangal an entertaining watch. The film revolves around Varun, a visually challenged chef, who runs a profitable restaurant. Varun’s small inner circle includes his loving parents and journalist friend Sadhana. Fate propels him to meet Deepa, a woman in dire need of financial help. Over the course of casual exchanges, they take a liking to each other. Soon, Varun meets with an accident and even gets back his vision. But Deepa goes missing.
The film’s fascinating aspect is Sshivada’s delightful performance. She breaks the mold of a typical Tamil heroine archetype with her chameleonic turn. Director Rohin keeps a good pace throughout and infuses humor without impeding the narrative flow.
Hari Viswanath’s award-winning independent feature is set in the picturesque Pondicherry. The 83-minute film tells the moving tale of an old man and his unbridled love for a vintage radio-set. Stage actor Lakshmanan Koratur soulfully plays the character of a grandfather. The crisp writing and cinematography keeps the emotions subtle, never tending to exploit the premise for melodrama. Radiopetti won the audience award at Busan International Film Festival.
10. Theeran Adigaaram Ondru (Theeran – Chapter One)
Vinoth’s cop-action flick would have been more riveting if it had avoided the cliched, annoying romance and dance numbers. Theeran is based on the true incident of a high profile case, successfully handled by TN police in the 1990s. A young, idealistic cop is entrusted with the task of solving a series of murders. It seems to be the handiwork of the notorious Baawariya criminal tribe (from Rajasthan). The narrative tracks down the TN police force’s painful attempts to nab the deadly gang in their own domain.
Director Vinoth deftly and authentically portrays the functioning of police bureaucracy. The usual commercial glorification of police characters are largely amiss. Karthi plays the titular role with aplomb and Abhimanyu Singh is terrific as the gang’s leader. The stunt sequences in the parched lands of Rajasthan are well choreographed. Theeran would have been a great action thriller, if only it had scissored the irritable romantic track.
9. 8 Thottakal (8 Bullets)
Sri Ganesh’s directorial debut is a well-crafted study of the meek and honest individuals’ existential angst. Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) serves as an inspiration for the script. A rookie sub-inspector named Sathya loses his gun to a pick-pocket, while following a dangerous suspect. The fully-loaded gun ends up in the hands of a bank robber. The film starts off as a simple conflict between good and bad people. But the thoughtful script with its complex backstories denies the characters to perfectly fit into the roles of hero and villain.
M.S. Bhaskar’s scene-stealing performance as the exasperated 57-year old man is the most commendable aspect of the narrative. The chance encounter between Sathya and Mr. Bhaskar’s character, and the ensuing monologue was brilliantly staged. Despite the logical flaws, irrelevant songs, and a little tiring final stretch, Ganesh’s buoyant direction provides an immersive experience.
8. Kurangu Bommai (Monkey Doll)
Similar to Maanagaram, Nithilan Swaminathan’s debut feature is a hyperlink thriller. While Maanagaram connects its characters through a kidnapping incident, the central element here is a travel bag imprinted with a monkey face. The bag is passed through various people and what’s inside is kept a mystery till the end. The narrative isn’t tonally perfect and falls into some of the pitfalls of commercial cinema. Yet, director Nithilan’s keen eye for detail and portrayal of hardscrabble urban life are fascinating. The most memorable scenario in the narrative is the well-detailed staging inside a police station. The ensemble cast — that includes Vitharth, veteran director Bharathi Raja, Thenappan, and Elango Kumaravel — delivers brilliant performances.
Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan’s disturbing cautionary tale examines the dark, perverse corners of the digital space. Arvind, a software engineer and a family man, is first seen sitting in front of a computer in his locked room. Estranged from his wife, he joyously searches for an online session of voyeurism and virtual sex. Arvind accepts a random friend request from a girl with a beautiful profile picture. But only a tall, bald man graces the screen on the other end. And, he has one simple yet menacing request: ‘please watch me commit suicide’. Arvind immediately disconnects, but the stranger has already set up a vivid, seemingly cruel plan to trap Arvind.
Director Jayaprakash avoids explicit manner of storytelling and neatly suggests the violence and sexual abuse inflicted upon the characters. Anand Sami’s performance as the vindictive stranger is one of the big talking points of the narrative. Altogether, it’s a hard-hitting drama that warns us about our reckless, irresponsible behavior in the virtual space.
6. Maanagaram (Metropolis)
Lokesh Kanagaraj’s socially conscious debut feature is a good, complex interplay of dramatic elements. It follows the structure of hyperlink cinema. The narrative revolves around a kidnapping incident and four diverse characters: a youngster from a small town seeking employment in a BPO; a carefree, tough guy who woos a well-employed girl; a taxi-driver who has moved to Chennai for his son’s asthma treatment; and a wannabe criminal whose naivety incites gales of laughter.
Initially, the plot unfurls like a ‘city-bashing’ feature. But the sensible writing doesn’t turn the narrative into one-long condemnation of city life. Even though the narrative relies on an unbelievable number of coincidences, the dark humor and tense atmosphere keep things lively. The final, idealistic stand may seem a bit blunt, but it’s definitely a fine meaningful entertainer.
Gopi Nainar’s well-grounded social drama is adorned with the saintly, soulful presence of Nayanthara. She plays a district collector named Madhivadhani, the rare empathetic individual in the bureaucratic machinery. Aramm is structured as a rescue thriller, observing the chaos surrounding a little girl’s fall into a deep bore-well. Through the single incident, Nainar takes on the various layers of discrimination and corruption in the society.
Aramm does lack the nuance of Manikandan’s Kaaka Muttai and at times, tends to be overly preachy. Yet the narrative, which brims with irony, finely showcases our creaky democracy in action. Moreover, it’s commendable to not include any backstories to unnecessarily elevate the good-hearted nature of the collector protagonist. And, Nayanthara perfectly plays the part with elan and grace.
4. Baahubali 2: The Conclusion
SS Rajamouli’s second instalment of the highly-anticipated fantasy fiction might be painfully predictable. Nevertheless, it’s an awe-inspiring visual extravaganza. The film picks up right where the previous film left off with our hero Amarendra Baahubali set to begin his reign as the king of the mythical kingdom of Mahishmati. The Herculean hero’s surrogate mother Sivagami dispatches him to an idyllic nearby kingdom with his protector Kattappa. Consequently, throughout the journey, Baahu learns a lesson or two about love, war, slyness, bruised egos, and betrayal.
The second part is comparatively less inclined to showcasing the hero’s physicality. The action might seem semi-cartoonish, but Rajamouli’s imaginative leaps diffuse perfect popcorn-entertainment. Although the hype-machine perpetually overstates the film’s qualities, it’s definitely a fine, uncynical entertainer.
3. Vikram Vedha
Pushkar-Gayathri’s pulpy crime thriller pits a clean-handed police officer against a remorseless gangster. But gradually the narrative questions the duo’s true character nature through a string of moral dilemmas. Spearheaded by spectacular lead performances from Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi, the film is an interpretation of popular folklore Vikramadityan and Vetal. The basic plot seems familiar and when the moral conundrums are solved it looks like a fairly simplistic tale.
However, the twisty non-linear narrative attaches interesting perspective to an otherwise thin story. Even when the script delves into a predictable flashback mode, Sethupathi keeps alive the high-wire intensity. On the whole, it’s a thrilling and mordantly witty entertainer.
2. Aruvi (Waterfalls)
Arun Prabhu’s much-hyped directorial debut is a part satirical comedy, part character study of an ostracized young woman. Aruvi opens as a simple tale of a free-spirited girl. But her adult life in the repressive and unforgiving urban atmosphere takes unexpectedly worse turns. The lead character’s outcast status gradually becomes a prism that reflects the ugly side of the society.
There are a few narrative inconsistencies. But Arun Prabhu’s flawless direction and Aditi Balan’s deeply emotional performance create an indelible experience. The narrative tactic of withholding key information in the initial part imparts huge payoff to the proceedings. Like other good debut features of the year, Aruvi expresses its righteous fury over the highly industrialized and corrupted contemporary Tamil society. The film also boasts a rare, (for Tamil cinema) sensitive and empathetic on-screen portrayal of a transgender character.
Overall, Aruvi is a refreshing addition to the growing list of intriguing Tamil social dramas.
1. Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu (One Goat’s Mercy Petition)
Suresh Sangiah’s well-written social realist drama unfurls through the eyes of a goat that is soon to be sacrificed at a temple. The film opens with an utterly bewitching sequence which perfectly sets the tone. It takes us through the fuss surrounding the villagers’ preparation to visit the Muniyandi Temple. Prominent members among those journeying to the temple are newlywed couples – Ramamurthy and Seetha. Ramamurthy’s grandmother has promised to offer a goat once her grandson is married. The supposedly happy pilgrimage turns sour when their lorry runs someone over and kills him. The villagers, over the next twenty four hours, confront a whole lot of trouble to disentangle from the morally tricky situation. The goat silently observes all the frail human actions, although its death too seems imminent.
Sangaiah, who worked as assistant director to Manikandan (of Kaaka Muttai fame), elegantly imparts the feeling of living amidst eccentric yet deeply humane villagers. Similar to Kannada art-house drama Thithi, the director brings together an utterly realistic ensemble cast. The earthy verbal jousts and unflagging camaraderie between the characters enliven the proceedings. Most importantly, there is no romanticized nostalgia or melodramatic notions, common to Tamil dramas. It’s an admirably earnest and entertaining attempt to reflect on the oft-disregarded village life.
By Arun Kumar
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