Tamil movies capture the imaginations of millions, and completely command the attitudes of a good chunk of them. A certain segment of Tamil movie fans will swear by their favorite movie stars. To them this shit is real. And this is evidenced by the large proportion of actors who become very successful politicians in Tamil Nadu.
In Sri Lanka growing up in a Muslim household with plenty of uncles who were fans of the likes of Rajni Kanth, MGR (who was born in my hometown) and Sivaji I had somewhat of an early exposure. I never developed into a frenzied fanboy because my extended family was probably much saner by the time I was born. But walk along Galle Face on any evening and chances are you’ll see plenty of guys wearing Kolaveri Di t-shirts and denim jackets or busting the latest Danush and Suriya dance moves on the pavements, while music blares from parked vans with open doors and loud sound systems. Tamil movies are getting bigger. And continue to penetrate the zeitgeist here. A part of a global phenomenon of Indian ‘soft power’ making strong inroads into global culture.
Actors who play heroes appeal to masses because they idealize perfection on screen, or so goes my theory. They’re always honorable, powerful and love the poor. And so the poor love them. Tamil movies are never complete without a despicable villain; evil and convoluted as much as the hero is honorable and upright. It is always black versus white, good versus evil.
The villain isn’t villaining for business. He’s in business purely for the villaining. He is intelligent but too confident, loud and brash, and reveals the full extent of his evil plans in fierce monologues often overheard by a lowly minion or his long suffering mother. Always displaying some suitably spine tingling idiosyncrasy, he will either fling his shirt collar back in a manner that reveals an acre of chest hair, walk with a swagger so pronounced he is practically turning sideways at every step, or if he is old and ugly which he often is, will have a uniquely spine chilling sound affect play every time he enigmatically breathes out his cigar smoke.
The villain and his muscles-for-brains goons carry out their unbroken assault on society; raping, stealing and kicking dogs, all the time laughing at some rich private joke that no one else understands. They are mean and petty, brutally cruel. But their spree of glee ends when they finally mess with the wrong guy. Usually by messing with the wrong girl. And the hero, awakened from his humble, everyday-Tamilian stupor by a maddening righteous anger, rises to spell doom and gloom to all villainy, everywhere.
But before the villain can meet the hero, whom he always underestimates, in the final battle; several important events must take place. There is, for instance, the small matter of the chemistry between the hero and the heroine that must bubble with an acidic fervor. When locked in their haphazard game of a thousand flirtations, they must dance along at least a dozen different beaches, alpine mountain ranges, and botanical gardens and develop the skill of surreptitiously changing costumes in the few seconds when the camera pans to the horizon. Random strangers and distant acquaintances in marketplaces, college campuses, night clubs and ‘autorickshaw’ stands must suddenly develop remarkable skills of coordination as they dance along in tandem to music that apparently plays out of speakers hidden in barrels and fruit baskets.
Heroes in tamil movies have full scale symphony orchestras following them around with different tunes for every on screen emotion, innovative punch, kick and every cleverly executed pun. Of course there are separate actors who specialize in comic relief. But they don’t have it so well in terms of physical prowess or sexual prospects. Their orchestra comprises of random pings, poinnggs and other scraping noises to complement their varied failings and faux pas as they bravely attempt to aid the hero in his struggle against his personal Goliath. These actors tend to be a few in number and can often be seen in the same role in countless movies. Vadivelu for instance has been around for as long as I can remember and is quite the powerbroker now I hear.
With roughly 65 million moviegoers in India, 12 million Indian Tamils abroad and countless other Tamil speakers in Sri Lanka including Muslims, Tamil films enjoy a bigger market than the UK cinema industry. In Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh (which makes films in Telugu – 75mn people), India’s biggest movie industries outside of Bollywood, popular films are more recognisably ‘about’ local culture and exhibit a close relationship between film and politics. Fanclubs will often morph into political organizations as a particular actor decides to become a hero in real life (I.e politician). Actors become politicians and fail to do anything helpful sparking the need for more actors to become politicians in order to replace them. A neat vicious cycle.
Of course not all Tamil movies are so stereotypical and transparent. Many movies, even those of the cornier variety show a high level of political and social awareness. Their heroes wouldn’t appeal to the masses otherwise. But some movies do stand out as masterpieces all on their own. A real fan would rattle off many. To me right now Mani Ratnam‘s Roja and Bombay come to mind.
In terms of entertainment, they are pretty good when they get the formula right. Pretty much like any movie industry.