Andha Naal to Maanaadu: 62 Tamil films that broke the mould

In this piece, we look at some of the films that can be considered path-breaking for the industry in terms of content, making, innovation or intent.
Collage of Andha Naal characters and Simbu from Maanadu
Collage of Andha Naal characters and Simbu from Maanadu
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The first-ever Tamil film was called Keechaka Vadham and was released in 1918. It's been over a hundred years since then, and the Tamil film industry has contributed several important films to the art of cinema. In this piece, we look at some of the films that can be considered path-breaking for the industry in terms of content, making, innovation or intent. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and fans are sure to have their own favourites that they feel should have made it.

1. Andha Naal (1954): Directed by S Balachander, a visual from this film that shows several people pointing a gun still features in several memes. The first film noir in Tamil, Andha Naal has no songs at all. The story revolves around the murder of a radio engineer, played by Sivaji Ganesan. Inspired by Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, the plot has the suspects giving differing versions of the murder.

2. Kalai Arasi (1963): The first Indian film to feature aliens, Kalai Arasi was directed by A Kasilingam and starred MGR and Bhanumathi in the lead. The rich girl-poor boy love story is complicated by the arrival of aliens who decide to abduct the rich girl because they need someone to teach them the performing arts! The film reportedly flopped at the box office at the time but it is still remembered for introducing aliens to Indian cinema.

3. Karnan (1964): Produced and directed by BR Panthulu, Karnan is celebrated as one of Sivaji Ganesan's best-ever performances. Based on the story of Karnan from the Mahabharata, it also had Telugu superstar NT Rama Rao playing Krishna. The film, along with Sivaji's Thiruvilayadal, brought back the trend of Hindu mythological films in Tamil cinema. It has also been cited as one of the inspirations for SS Rajamouli's Baahubali.

4. Thillana Mohanambal (1968): Directed and produced by AP Nagarajan, this film is a love story between a dancer (Padmini) and a musician (Sivaji) and was based on a novel written by Kothamangalam Subbu. The songs and dances in the film still have high recall value, and several people from the Tamil film industry have quoted it as having a big influence on them. It also inspired subsequent films like Karakattakaran that have a similar premise.

Watch: 'Maraindhirindhe Paarkum' from Thillana Mohanambal

5. Aval Oru Thodar Kathai (1974): Directed by K Balachander, this is perhaps among the first few Tamil films that were heroine-centric and enjoyed a good run at the box office. Starring Sujatha in the lead, the film also had Kamal Haasan, Sripriya, Vijayakumar, MG Soman and Jai Ganesh in pivotal roles. The film tells the story of a woman who is forced to sacrifice her personal happiness at every turn for the sake of her family. It was remade in four languages.

6. Aval Appadithan (1978): Directed by C Rudraiah, the film is about a young woman and her romantic dalliances. It starred Sripriya, Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth in the lead. Although it has since been criticised for its portrayal of female sexuality, the film deserves credit for daring to put a woman's desire at the centre of the story. It's also among the first Tamil films to look at the concept of 'women's liberation' and what it means.

7. Sigappu Rojakkal (1978): Directed by Bharathiraja, this film on a serial killer has misogynistic underpinnings, but is still looked on as a landmark film for inspiring the genre of psycho films in Tamil. The film has Kamal Haasan playing a disturbed young man who resorts to killing women because of his abusive childhood. Sridevi plays the female lead.

8. Johnny (1980): Mahendran has directed some of Rajinikanth's best films, capturing a sensitive side of the superstar that filmmakers have seldom explored. Johnny has Rajinikanth playing dual roles as a con artist and barber. Sridevi plays singer Archana, and Ilaiyaraaja's evergreen hit 'Kaatril Enthan Geetham' features in the film's climax. The film was noted for breaking away from the macho man stereotype and giving the audience a vulnerable hero.

Watch: Scene from Mahendran's Johnny

9. Thaneer Thaneer (1981): Directed by K Balachander, this film won two National Awards, and is among the first Tamil films to showcase water scarcity in the state, linking it with bureaucratic red tape and corruption. It features Saritha in the lead role as Sevvanthi, and portrays the plight of a village where the women have to walk several kilometres to fetch water.

10. Mouna Ragam (1986): Directed by Mani Ratnam, the film is about a young woman who reluctantly gets married but is unable to move on from her past relationship. Revathy plays Divya, the unhappy wife who asks for a divorce from her earnest husband (Mohan). At a time when thaali sentiment was running strong in Tamil cinema, a heroine like this, who also had a past romance, went against the norms.

11. Pesum Padam (1987): Written and directed by Singeetam Srinivasa Rao, this is a silent film starring Kamal Haasan in the lead. This was perhaps among the earliest attempts to make a 'pan-Indian' film. Since the film has no dialogue, Singeetam wanted to cast actors from different industries to extend its appeal. The final cast included Amala, Tinnu Anand, Farida Jalal and Prathap Pothan. Despite the plot revolving around mistaken identities and having no dialogues at all, the strong writing ensured that the audience was never lost. The film also became a hit at the box office.

12. Nayakan (1987): Mani Ratnam's film, inspired by The Godfather, is loosely based on Mumbai underworld don Varadarajan Mudaliar. It traces the story of Velu, an orphan, who becomes a smuggler and later an underworld don. Kamal Haasan played the lead in this film that fetched him a National Award for his performance. Nayakan is easily among the most influential films to have come out of Tamil cinema, and is still talked about with reverence by several directors.

13. Michael Madana Kama Rajan (1990): Directed by Singeetam Srinivasa Rao, this film has Kamal Haasan playing four roles, and is considered to be among the best comedies to have come out of Tamil cinema. Kamal played four distinct characters in the film, changing his dialect, accent, body language and personality entirely. The film also has Urvashi, Rupini and Khushbu playing the female leads. The story revolves around quadruplets who are separated at birth and a conspiracy that they together unravel.

14. Keladi Kanmani (1990): Directed by Vasanth, this film stars singer SP Balasubrahmanyam and Radhika in lead roles. At a time when cinema was shifting to youth-centric films, Keladi Kanmani narrated the story of a middle-aged couple, one of whom is a single parent. The film is also famous for the 'breathless' 'Mannil Indha Kaadhal' song that SPB rendered.

Watch: 'Mannil Indha' from Keladi Kanmani

15. Anjali (1990): Directed by Mani Ratnam, this is a rare film that took on the subject of mental illness and developmental difficulties with sensitivity. Baby Shamili played the titular role while Revathy and Raghuvaran played her parents. The film had a very contemporary and fresh exploration of marriage and parenting. It won three National Awards.

16. Pulan Visaranai (1990): Directed by RK Selvamani, this film has Vijayakant playing the lead role of a police officer. The film is loosely based on serial killer Auto Shankar. It is considered to be among the best crime thrillers to have come out of Tamil cinema. RK Selvamani and Vijayakant also worked together on Captain Prabhakaran which is again considered to be an intriguing thriller. The film is loosely based on forest brigand Veerappan.

17. Magalir Mattum (1994): Directed by Singeetam Srinivasa Rao, the film is based on the Hollywood film 9 to 5. Even now, it's considered to be among the few Tamil films that have discussed workplace sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination and violence that women experience. It revolves around three women from different social classes and caste identities (Revathy, Urvashi and Rohini), and their struggle against their lecherous boss (Nasser). Though it deals with dark themes, the film is a hilarious comedy that has tremendous repeat value.

18. Kadhalan (1994): Directed by Shankar, this romantic thriller is still remembered for its amazing music. AR Rahman had stormed into the music scene with Roja two years ago. With Kadhalan, starring Prabhu Deva and Nagma in the lead, he became nothing short of a god to Tamil cinema fans. Though the film's plot doesn't really command a place on this list, Prabhu Deva's sensational dance and AR Rahman's music are unforgettable. Even today, 'Muqabala' is a favourite with dancers across the country.

19. Sathi Leelavathi (1995): Directed by Balu Mahendra, this comedy is about a woman who plots to get her straying husband back. Although the premise isn't new, Leelavathi (Kalpana) isn't characterised as the typical, self-sacrificing wife. The agency she commanded was new at the time, as was the film's treatment of the 'other woman' (a far more sympathetic portrayal than what was common at the time). Ramesh Aravind, Kamal Haasan and Kovai Sarala also play key roles in the film.

20. Kuruthipunal (1995): Directed by PC Sreeram, Kuruthipunal is the remake of the Hindi film Drohkaal. At a time when college romances were ruling the roost in Tamil cinema, this dark, gripping film about two police officers (Kamal Haasan and Arjun Sarja) who plan a counter-terrorism operation was distinct in its approach and treatment. The film has no songs but is noted for being the first Tamil film to have a Dolby sound system. The interrogation sequences in the film have inspired similar scenes in subsequent Tamil films.

21. Sethu (1999): Directed by Bala, this film marked Vikram's arrival as an actor. It's about a young man with a violent streak who abducts a woman he's obsessed with. He later suffers from a bout of amnesia and struggles to recall his past. Though the film has a problematic representation of romance, it garnered praise for Vikram's acting, and Bala's stark, disturbing portrayal of society. It broke away from the lightweight romantic fantasies that were popular at the time.

22. Snegithiye (2000): Priyadarshan's novel attempt has only women characters throughout the film. Starring Jyotika, Sharbani Mukherjee and Tabu, the story unfolds in a women's college where a man's dead body is found. Though the film failed to impress at the box office, it's among the few films to have explored female friendships and placed women's aspirations at its centre.

23. 12 B (2001): Based loosely on the Hollywood film Sliding Doors, the film, directed by Jeeva, is about how a small choice or decision can change the course of one's life. Though the film brought together Jyotika and Simran, the two rival queens of Kollywood at the time, it did only modest business at the box office. Shaam played the male lead. The film is credited with bringing the concept of a dual narrative to Tamil cinema.

24. Kaakha Kaakha (2003): Directed by Gautham Vasudev Menon, Kaakha Kaakha, starring Suriya and Jyotika in the lead, is considered to be one of the best cop films to have come out of Tamil cinema. Suriya plays Anbuchelvan IPS, an iconic character, while Jyotika plays a teacher and his wife, Maya. The film works well as a romance as well as thriller, and is a favourite with fans of the star couple.

25. Anbe Sivam (2003): Directed by Sundar C, this drama, featuring Kamal Haasan, Madhavan and Kiran in the lead, raises questions on faith and religion. It follows the story of Nallasivam, a social activist, who meets a privileged director, and the life-changing conversations and experiences that they share, being stuck together in difficult circumstances. Though the film was a flop at the time, it is now considered to be among the most moving yet entertaining films to have come out of Kollywood.

26. Virumaandi (2004): Directed by Kamal Haasan, who also played the lead role, the film takes a closer look at the death penalty through the story of a man who is a murder convict. Also starring Abhirami and Rohini in key roles, this film too employs the Rashomon effect, narrating different versions of what happened. Although it has been criticised for glorifying violence and caste pride (along with his previous film Thevar Magan), the screenplay of Virumaandi has been cited as an influence by many subsequent directors, including Vetrimaaran.

27. Kadhal (2004): Directed by Balaji Sakthivel, this tragic romance is about a dominant caste woman who elopes with a mechanic who comes from an oppressed caste. Starring Sandhya and Bharath, the film is said to be based on a true story that a passenger on a train narrated to the director. Though familial opposition to romance has been a common trope in Tamil cinema, caste is usually disguised as a class problem. Kadhal was among the first few films to openly look at the violence that dominant caste groups unleash in the name of 'honour'.

Watch: 'Thadathi Karupayi' song from Kadhal

28. Pudhupettai (2006): Selvaraghavan's gangster film with brother Dhanush in the lead received a lukewarm response from critics at the time, but is considered to be one of the best films in the genre now for its unapologetic and amoral characters. The film also has Sonia Agarwal and Sneha playing pivotal characters. It became a trend-setter of sorts for the anti-hero, a role that Dhanush has played to great success in several films.

29. Chennai 600028 (2007): Venkat Prabhu's directorial debut is on the world of street cricket; the friendships, rivalries and competition that govern it. The film stars Shiva, Jai, Premgi Amaren, Aravind Akash and several others. Despite not having any famous faces, it struck a chord with the audience for depicting a familiar story with authenticity and lots of situational humour. It would go on to become Venkat Prabhu's trademark style.

30. Enthiran (2010): Directed by Shankar, Enthiran saw Rajinikanth play dual roles as a scientist and a robot that later goes rogue. Made on a lavish budget, the film won National Awards for production design and visual effects. It's among the few science fiction films to have come out in Tamil cinema and saw Rajinikanth play the villain after several years. It is on the list of highest-grossing Indian films.

31. Tamizh Padam (2010): Directed by CS Amudhan, this parody film was a fresh attempt to critique common tropes and stereotypes in Tamil cinema, particularly in "mass hero" films. It stars Shiva and Disha Pandey in lead roles, and the story is a hilarious mishmash of all that passes for popular culture in the state. A sequel was also released in 2018.

32. Aayirathil Oruvan (2010): Directed by Selvaraghavan, this epic fantasy film was an ambitious effort. Starring Karthi, Andrea and Reema Sen in lead roles, the story straddles different time periods and takes an intriguing journey into history. It was a novel attempt in Tamil cinema. Although it wasn't thought to be a commercial success at the time, Selvaraghavan recently tweeted that the team had deliberately hiked up the budget figure to generate hype back then, and that the film had actually managed to collect back the money.

33. Angadi Theru (2010): Directed by Vasanthabalan, this film is centered on Ranganathan Street, one of the busiest commercial streets in Chennai. It captured the plight of workers in establishments located there and was a hard-hitting film on labour rights and exploitation (including workplace sexual harassment). Starring Anjali and Mahesh, the film broke out of the conventional love story mould and won critical acclaim.

34. Goa (2010): Directed by Venkat Prabhu, this fun travel film is about three men from a conservative village who holiday in Goa and the adventures they have there. Starring Jai, Premji, Vaibhav, Aravind Akash, Sampath Raj and others, the film is credited to be the first Tamil film that portrayed a same-sex relationship without mocking it.

35. Manmadhan Ambu (2010): Directed by KS Ravikumar, this romantic comedy has Kamal Haasan, Madhavan and Trisha in the lead. The song 'Neela Vaanam' from the film employs the reverse chronology technique, narrating the sequence of events in reverse.

Watch: 'Neela Vaanam' from Manmadhan Ambu

36. Aadukalam (2011): Directed by Vetrimaaran, this film with Dhanush and Taapsee Pannu in the lead, revolves around the sport of cockfighting and the politics within it. The film won six National Awards and received praise for its impeccable research and unflinching portrayal.

37. Vaanam (2011): Directed by Krish, this hyperlink film follows the story of five individuals and how their lives intersect at a Chennai hospital. Starring Simbu, Bharath, Anushka Shetty, Sonia Agarwal, Prakash Raj, Saranya and others, the film had an empathetic portrayal of a sex worker as well as a trans woman, both rare in Tamil cinema. The screenplay that connected the different story arcs and gave a cogent plot also won praise.

38. Engeyum Eppodhum (2011): Directed by M Saravanan, the film narrates two love stories, one in Chennai and another in Trichy, and how they intersect on a fateful day. Mixing romance and humour within the thriller format, the film won acclaim for its gripping screenplay.

39. Pizza (2012): Directed by Karthik Subbaraj, this clever horror film has enough twists to keep you guessing till the end. It was the first Tamil film to have 7.1 surround sound. The story is about a pizza delivery boy (Vijay Sethupathi) who finds himself trapped in a haunted house. Breaking away from routine horror films that used tried and tested tropes, Pizza was a very fresh attempt that's still popular with fans of the genre.

40. Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom (2012): Directed by Balaji Tharaneetharan, this unique black comedy is about a man who suffers from temporary memory loss on the eve of his wedding. Even more bizarre, it's based on the real-life story of its cinematographer C Prem Kumar. The film has several repetitive sequences that send the audience into peals of laughter. It stars Vijay Sethupathi, Gayathrie, Vigneshwaran, Bhagavathy Perumal and the director himself.

41. Vishwaroopam (2013): Directed by Kamal Haasan who also plays the lead, this espionage thriller faced several legal hassles and controversies before it was released in Tamil Nadu. It was the first Tamil film to have Auro 3D sound technology. Kamal Haasan's transformation scene from a vulnerable Kathak dance teacher to a RAW agent capable of killing several people within minutes is still talked about today for how it was shot. The bullet time shot was popularised by films like The Matrix but it was new for Tamil cinema.

Watch: Fight scene from Vishwaroopam

42. Pisaasu (2014): Directed by Mysskin who'd already impressed with Onaayum Aatukuttiyum, this horror film with an unconventional ghost was full of surprises, from the plot to the execution. The film stars Naga and Prayaga Martin in lead roles and inspired several remakes.

43. Madras (2014): Directed by Pa Ranjith, Madras is considered to be a landmark film for breaking away from stereotypical depictions of North Madras and also bringing Ambedkarite politics into the mainstream. The political thriller stars Karthi, Catherine Tresa and Kalaiyarasan.

44. Kaaka Muttai (2015): M Manikandan's directorial debut is about two boys from an underprivileged area who want to eat pizza. The simple premise raises several questions on class and privilege while also making for an entertaining film. It stars J Vignesh, V Ramesh and Aishwarya Rajesh in the lead and picked up two National Awards:

45. Visaranai (2015): India's official entry to the Academy Awards for that year, this hard-hitting film from Vetrimaaran is based on a real-life story of custodial torture. The film has Dinesh, Kishore, Samuthirakani and others in key roles, and is about a group of labourers wrongfully accused by the police in a robbery case. The film won three National Awards.

46. Irudhi Suttru (2016): Directed by Sudha Kongara, this sports drama about a female boxer was unique in Tamil cinema where the genre had thus far been limited to male sportspersons. The film stars Ritika Singh (a trained kickboxer) and Madhavan in the lead, and won critical acclaim.

47. Vikram Vedha (2017): Directed by Pushkar-Gayathri, this crime thriller showcases a cat and mouse game between a police officer and a criminal. The story unfolds in the format of the Vikram-Vetal folklore where a moral dilemma is presented to King Vikram and he has to resolve it. The film stars Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi in the lead.

48. Maanagaram (2017): Directed by Lokesh Kanagaraj, this film has no names for any of the characters. It tracks the stories of different people in a metro city and the hyperlink thriller was widely appreciated for its screenplay. It stars Shri, Sundeep Kishan, Regina Cassandra, Charle and others.

49. Pariyerum Perumal (2018): Directed by Mari Selvaraj in his debut venture, this film follows the story of a law student from a Dalit caste and the struggles he faces in a caste-ridden society. Apart from intercaste love and the violence it triggers, the film also spoke of systemic injustice in educational institutions. The film was widely praised for speaking up about caste and its use of symbolism. The film stars Kathir and Anandhi in lead roles.

50. 96 (2018): Directed by C Prem Kumar, this love story of high school sweethearts who meet decades later at a reunion, was beautifully done. Reminiscent of Before Sunrise, which has two characters having a conversation over the course of a night, this film starring Trisha and Vijay Sethupathi gave equal weightage to both the roles and also had wonderful music. Trisha's look from the film became a trendsetter.

51. Kaala (2018): Pa Ranjith's second film with Rajinikanth is a subversive take on the Ramayana with land rights at its heart. Also starring Easwari Rao, Huma Qureshi, Anjali, Manikandan and others, the film questioned majoritarian politics and made the link between caste and denial of land rights, paving the way for subsequent films like Asuran. The film also won praise for its portrayal of female characters, particularly in a sexual assault scene.

Watch: 'Kattravai Pattravai' from Kaala

52. Peranbu (2018): Directed by Ram, this film tells the difficult story of a father and his adolescent daughter who has cerebral palsy. The film has Mammootty, Anjali, Sadhana and Anjali Ameer in lead roles. It's among the rare Indian films to have talked about the sexual needs of people with disabilities and had several scenes that were in a marked departure from Tamil cinema conventions. It also had a dignified portrayal of the trans woman character.

53. Kolamaavu Kokila (2018): Directed by Nelson Dilipkumar, this black comedy about a female drug mule was refreshing in many ways. It had a seemingly submissive young woman playing the lead role, with her family also getting involved in the drug trade. The amoral tone and exaggerated sequences were fresh for the audience. The film stars Nayanthara, Yogi Babu, Saranya and others.

54. Sethum Aayiram Pon (2019): Directed by Anand Ravichandran, this film looks at the troubled relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter, a seldom explored aspect. The grandmother is an oppari singer while the granddaughter is a makeup artist. In a hero-centric industry where few films pass the Bechdel Test, this was one film led by two women that went beyond the usual 'women's issues' that are packaged on screen. The film stars Nivedhithaa Sathish and Srilekha Rajendran in lead roles.

55. Super Deluxe (2019): Directed by Thiagarajan Kumararaja who made a splash with Aaranya Kaandam, this hyperlink film was wildly fun and had unique characters caught in trying circumstances. With lots of heart and humour, the film won high praise from the audience, critics, and people from other film industries too. Vijay Sethupathi won a National Award for his performance as Shilpa, a trans woman. Others in the ensemble cast include Samantha, Fahadh, Ramya Krishnan, Mysskin.

56. Game Over (2019): Directed by Ashwin Saravanan, the film revolves around a sexual assault survivor who suffers from PTSD and finds herself in a trying situation at home. The film makes for a gripping, genre-bending thriller, placing two women characters in the lead. The film stars Taapsee Pannu and Vinodhini Vaidyanathan in the lead.

57. Otha Seruppu Size 7 (2019): Directed by Parthiban, we see only one person's face throughout the film. The character of Masilamani, an unstable murder accused, is also played by Parthiban. The one-man show received acclaim from critics who appreciated the film for its inventive storytelling.

58. Sarpatta Parambarai (2021): Directed by Pa Ranjith, this film tells the story of boxing clans in north Madras of the '70s. Featuring Arya in the lead, the film mixes real-life historical events with the exhilarating personal journey of a Dalit boxer.

59. Koozhangal (2021): Directed by PS Vinothraj, this film has been chosen as India's official entry for the Academy Awards. It tells the story of a troubled, violent marriage through the eyes of a child. Set in an arid landscape that plays an equal role, the film stars Chellapandi and Karuththadaiyaan in the lead. It won critical acclaim for its making and authenticity. It is yet to be released in theatres or OTT platforms.

60. Jai Bhim (2021): Directed by TJ Gnanavel, this film is based on a real-life case fought by retired Madras High Court judge Chandru when he was a lawyer. It follows the story of an Irular family wrongfully arrested by the police and subjected to custodial torture. The wife of one of the men fights for justice after the police claim that they have escaped from custody. The film became nothing short of a phenomenon and is currently the highest user-rated film on IMDB. It stars Suriya, Lijomol Jose and Manikandan in lead roles.

61. Maanaadu (2021): Directed by Venkat Prabhu, this clever time loop film is about a Muslim man who is trapped in a political conspiracy. Starring Simbu, Kalyani Priyadarshan and SJ Surya in key roles, the film became a blockbuster, thanks to its inventive storytelling and performances.

62. Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum (2021): Directed by Vasanth, this anthology film tells the story of three women across decades, their dreams and aspirations. Starring Kalieaswari, Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli and Parvathy in the lead, the film won high praise for its realistic and empathetic depiction of women's lives. Though it's been in the festival circuit for a while now, it's only recently that it was released on an OTT platform.

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