The new wave in Tamil cinema, launched around the turn of the millennium with much fanfare, may have already seen its best days. In recent times, the new wave has fizzled out and once edgy films have lost their appeal.
Director Bala was once at the pinnacle of the new wave. His latest, Tharai Thappattai, released in 2016 didn’t create a commercial ripple.
Newly released mainstream fare such as Dora and Kavan are repackaged and dull, offering content that is uninteresting. Technology like the digital camera and non-linear editing, which helped in bring about a refreshing change, are still available. But we may be back to the days when the scarcity of a good script was the main scourge plaguing our cinema.
In an attempt to truly understand the characteristics of the new wave, let’s go back a few years and see how it evolved.
It was towards the end of 1999. Standing in Chennai’s Anna Salai, I could see a group of people paste posters of the sensation of the year, Sethu. The posters were celebrating the film as a paradigm shift in the reel world.
Sethu featured actor Vikram in his breakthrough role. It was Bala’s first project, which begins as a college romance and ends in a mental asylum. It was mounted among many difficulties, the story of which has gone on to acquire cult status. The film is tragic and grounded in realism.
Sethu came as a fresh wave of hope for an audience tired of dealing with the outdated and the formulaic. Vikram’s acting, a landmark in histrionics on the big screen, became the toast of the town. The movie, released in a single theatre in Chennai, soon began running to packed houses all across the city, marketed purely through word of mouth.
And so, as the new millennium dawned, Tamil cinema took a turn for the better. It was shrugging off years of stagnancy and embracing the new, edgy and the dark. Though the mainstream movie clan took note, it would take a couple of years for the new wave to take root properly and spread its wings.
There had been a similar wave of novelty in the 1970s, when directors like Mahendran, Balu Mahendra and Bharathiraja began making movies with a personal vision and zest. Their work ushered in the era of parallel cinema. In their work, the dramatic gave way to the realistic and was embraced by moviegoers. It made the film-watching experience exhilarating. Sadly, the movement fizzled off after a few years.
Then, in the 1990s, cinema brought in a whiff of the romantic, philosophical and unreal. The canvas was bigger this time, bolder and brazenly commercial. Movies grounded in the truth of everyday life were rarely released.
In the 2000s, a post-commercial landscape made possible the rise of ‘new’ cinema, which gave voice to marginalised elements. The focus shifted to topics that were real – and the sacred was the first victim.
Directors took pleasure in portraying subjects not shown before and in a way not seen before. Their convictions and sensibilities came first. Violence and sex were not glorified but made integral to the narration. Being artsy was not as much the point as being truthful was. The wilful suspension of disbelief as a trope of storytelling was abandoned. Fear and guilt gripped lead characters. All pleasantness left cinema. You came out of the theatre shocked; your values shaken.
Ever so often, the setting was the underbelly of a big city like Chennai (e.g. Pudhupettai, 2006) or the evilness lurking behind the verdant scenery of a village (Paruthiveeran, 2007). The hero became the anti-hero and his or her angelic qualities gave way to the darkness of the lumpen.
For the hero of the 2000s, the end justified the means. Thulluvatho Ilamai (Youth Cavorts, 2002), the movie that launched actor Dhanush’s career, was a coming-of-age movie dealing with six high school students. It spoke to a generation like films seldom had before.
As a sign of the nihilism that would become the hallmark of the new wave, Kadhal Kondein (I Fell in Love, 2003) featured a young Dhanush as a psychopath who kills anyone who comes between him and his ‘true love’. It was a massive hit.
However, it was Kadhal (Love, 2004), directed by Balaji Sakthivel, that proudly announced the unmistakable launch of the new wave. It brought to the fore the simple fact that caste and class equations decide on the fate of a love story, especially if the lovers have eloped. The evilness of the heroine’s father was bone-chilling and the handling of the subject unique and deft.
In the coming years, Kollywood would witness the release of films like Katrathu Tamizh (What I Learnt was Tamil), Veyil (Sunshine), Chennai 600028, Polladhavan (A Vile Man), Anjathey (Don’t Fear), Subramaniapuram, Poo (Flower), Vennila Kabadi Kuzhu (The White Moon Kabbadi Team) and Naan Kadavul (I Am God).
In recent years, films like Naduvula Koncham Pakkatha Kanom (Some Pages are Missing in between), Pizza, Soodhu Kavvum (Vice Engulfs), Visaranai (Investigation), Jigarthanda and Kakka Muttai (A Crow’s Egg) have cemented the reputation of the new wave.
In 2016, in fact, Kuttrame Thandanai (The Crime is the Punishment) was released to rave reviews. It featured a man with tunnel vision who accepts money to stay mum after supposedly witnessing a murder. The movie is nerve-wracking and to watch the climax unfold is a pleasure by itself.
Another film that won the audience’s hearts was Joker, which used clever satire to take on the absurdity of petty politics. And for all its efforts, Tamil cinema has been regularly appreciated at the National Awards.
It has to be noted that mainstream films that fought to coexist alongside the new wave also became smarter, such as in the cases of Ayan (2009) and Thani Oruvan (A Lone Man, 2015). At the same time, the big stars like Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth have firmly gone the other way, relying on special effects and makeup to see them through what have essentially been big-budget carnivals.
New cinema has cut itself from the umbilical cord that began with Thyagaraja Bhagavathar. The directors of present time like Mysskin, Karthik Subbaraj and Nalan Kumarasamy are essentially cineastes. They are in love with cinema beyond the borders -- including those coming from Iran, South America and Korea.
The brute has come into his own in Tamil cinema. Romanticism has been redefined. Actor Vijay Sethupathi’s early films set the trend. The primacy of the script gave way to the usual commercial formula.
Another aspect of new cinema was that it was exhilaratingly entertaining. Films like Soodhu Kavvum set the tone for dark humour, which became a benchmark.
But those days may well be behind us. Very few films based on fresh material land in theatres every year. A few like Joker which win critical and commercial acclaim are but blips in the radar.
Tent pole movies, riding on the strength of a robust marketing campaign, go on to become commercial successes. The smaller movies usually end up as flops. If one considers the last 15 years or so, the new wave is at its weakest now. When Kadhal happened, you knew it was a drastic shift in Tamil cinema – it’s difficult to credit any new release with such an impact.
There may not be a quick fix remedy to what ails Tamil cinema. As the new wave weakens, will a few surgically fix the cancerous rut causing cinema to rot?