The new darlings of Kollywood


The Tamil film industry has a new, lean, experimental energy. Akhila Krishnamurthy examines what’s keeping its battery going

Red hot A still from Aaranya Kaandam
Red hot A still from Aaranya Kaandam

A FEW YEARS ago, Kollywood was abuzz with directors like Selvaraghavan who would darken their plotlines to intense levels. Now a newer crop of filmmakers is already updating that aesthetic with a new focus on rooting their (often dark) scripts in specific milieus. From Madurai’s alleys to Chennai’s East Coast Road, actors on the big screen are increasingly speaking local dialects while the camera works hard to bring the physical space around them alive. The excitement of this new wave lies in how filmmakers are being able to put out films at almost guerrilla budgets, get wide distribution and acclaim as well as assured niche audiences. Most of these films are being budgeted at or below the retrievable limit of Rs 5 crore (see box).

This new energy in the Tamil film industry swept the National Awards this May with seven wins. Director Vetri Maaran’s Aadukalam was the runaway winner with six trophies — for its story about rooster fighters in Madurai. The seventh went to Thambi Ramiah for best supporting actor — for playing a lowly constable in Mynaa. And last November, debutant director Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Aaranya Kaandam won the Grand Jury Award at the South Asian International Film Festival in New York — for its a story of gangsters set in the concrete jungle of North Chennai.

Prabhu Solomon’s Mynaa was the critics’ darling last year. “It was a classic example of old wine in a new bottle,” says Solomon. “I’m a huge admirer of Tamil films of yesteryears. Back then, the script was the cast. I think somewhere along the line, Tamil cinema forgot that. I wanted to return to the classic style of filmmaking.” His film is a romantic drama set in Kollywood’s favourite backdrop of the moment — Madurai. “In Mynaa, all five songs are melodies,” he continues. “The industry predicted it wouldn’t work, but it did. At the audio launch, Kamal Hasan said he only knew the actors by their screen names — Surli and Mynaa. That is the biggest success of the film.”

Or take writer-director Kumararaja, who says about Aaranya Kaandam: “I want the film to be remembered as a work of art. For the lighting, I asked my director of photography to reference the Renaissance style of painting, where a lamp or window is the only source of light. There were no kicks or fillers and we used only the source light. The idea was to make the film look as real as possible.”

‘I want my filmto be remembered as a work of art. I asked my photo director to refer to Renaissance paintings,’ says Kumararaja

Set in the grim bylanes of North Chennai, Aaranya Kaandam unfolds over two hours and three minutes as a gangster flick bubbling with testosterone. The story is simply about one day in the life of a group of gangsters who curse at the drop of a pin and kill mercilessly to keep their territory intact, almost like animals in a jungle — and reaches a crescendo in a tense climax. After many trials and tribulations with the Censor Board, the film opened on 10 June this year across India. And while it hasn’t made much commercial noise, the filmmakers are being showered with critical acclaim.

A handful of producers are supporting all this by betting on new directors and actors who want to present scripts that go beyond just love stories. “I loved the first narrative instantly,” says SP Charan, a Chennai-based producer who invested Rs 5.25 crore in Aaranya Kaandam. “It was like a dream project for me — the reason I came to cinema for. It had a superbly woven screenplay and [director] Kumararaja knew exactly how he wanted to treat the film.”

Boomtown Budgets


Rs 1.65 crore

Nadunisi Naaygal

Rs 3.5 crore

Thamizh Padam

Rs 3.5 crore

Chennai 600028

Rs 1.65 crore

Azhagarsamiyin Kudhirai

Rs 4.5 crore

Va Quarter Cutting

Rs 4.5 crore


Rs 5 crore

Aaranya Kaandam

Rs 5.25 crore

Vellore Mavattam

Rs 5.5 crore

R Rangarajan, chief financial officer and director at AGS Entertainment, among Kollywood’s most powerful production houses, agrees that the time is ripe for a newer, leaner cinema. Up their sleeve this summer is RNR Manohar’s Vellore Mavattam — starring upcoming actor Nanda as the lead. “It isn’t easy casting an unknown face,” says Rangarajan, “But it’s a risk we need to take.”

Financiers like Sashikanth of Y Not Studios are going even further with hopes of formalising the process of creative collaborations in Tamil cinema. Originally an architect, about two years ago, Sashikanth decided to plunge into supporting young auteurs. “I’m open to hearing young writers with random ideas,” he says.

He has already produced two features: Thamizh Padam and Va Quarter Cutting. “I spend nearly a year fleshing out a project with the director,” he says, “A financier needs to understand cinema and not just the money aspects.” Sashikanth is currently setting up an innovative executive production company that will help coordinate between directors and producers. “That’s how it is in Hollywood,” he muses. “The making of a film and seeing it through into a brand is a very fluid process here. I want to professionalise it as much as possible.”

Fresh take Poster of Mynaa
Poster of Mynaa

ONE WAY to trace realism in contemporary Kollywood would be to start with a 2007 film called Chennai 600028, which heralded a new model with its deft combination of populist themes (cricket and comedy) with young and unfamiliar actors who looked their parts. “That’s the biggest advantage Tamil cinema has,” says RS Prasanna, an aspiring filmmaker. “Unlike other Indian counterparts, actors here have an eyelevel relation with their audience, and so the audience develops a sense of empathy with them.”

Not that star power doesn’t help. Stars are increasingly willing to thin their make-up and play characters more realistically. In Aaranya Kaandam, Jackie Shroff plays a local don who’s slowly losing his grip upon his world and his young concubine. In Avan Ivan, lead actor Vishal’s opening sequence is a thumping song-and-dance sequence where he’s dressed like a woman. “Taking that risk paid off,” says Vishal. In Aadukalam, Dhanush looks his part — a rooster fighter and speaks a lingo that demanded rigorous homework. In Myshkin’s crime thriller Yudham Sei, actor and director Cheran dons the role of an intense cop.

‘I spend nearly a year fleshing out a project. A financier needs to get cinema and not just the money aspects,’ says Sashikanth

The new crop of auteurs often emphasises simple plots.Azhagarsamiyin Kudhirai narrates the story of a young man called Azhagarsami who loses his horse and whose marriage is stalled. The film comes alive in the backdrop of a village temple festival and draws inspiration from writer Bhaskar Shakti’s short story. Despite newcomers Appukutty and Saranya Mohan in the lead roles, the film is already in its seventh week and still showing across Tamil Nadu.

These young filmmakers often spend months in research. Vetri Maaran, for example, shifted to Madurai for a year before canningAadukalam. Prabhu Solomon travelled the forests of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala to understand elephants’ behaviour patterns for his upcoming project.

Fresh take A still from Aaranya Kaandam
A still from Aaranya Kaandam

There remain some sceptics such as filmmaker Gautham Vasudev Menon, who released his Rs 3.5 crore experimental venture Nadunisi Naaygal earlier this year. A psychological thriller with Veera Bahu in the lead role, the film vanished without a trace at the box office. “Theatres,” says Menon, “were too afraid to run it. They said women weren’t coming to watch the film. It’s impossible to make anything bold in this industry.”

“That is not true,” retorts Bijoy Nambiar, who just directed the Bollywood feature Shaitan. Previously an assistant director who worked with Mani Ratnam, Nambiar believes Kollywood is the best place to be right now. “The fact that a film like Aaranya Kaandam gets made is a statement of sorts for young filmmakers.”

Fresh take Poster of Avan Ivan
Poster of Avan Ivan

Earlier this year, actor and music director Raghav, along with a group of family and friends, pumped in money to see the fantasy thriller Nanjupuram through. “It was a struggle,” says the lead actor, Raghav. “But after a rather rough patch of sourcing distributors, we finally managed to get Ramanarayanan of Thendral Films, one of the biggest distributors in the country..”

Of course, innovative storytelling still demands filmmakers to focus ample energy on promotion and publicity, but “innovation is key” even here, declares filmmaker KV Anand, whose latest feature Ko is among the biggest hits of the year so far. For Ko’s audio launch, Anand printed an invitation that looked like a police FIR report. “Whether it’s a big film or small, publicity is mandatory,” says Anand. Adds Rangarajan of AGS, “The producer needs to have the financial muscle to provide enough advertising support. Ultimately, you see, it’s about the money, honey, small budget or big.” And that is the bottom line.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment may take some time to appear.