‘Suryavamsam’, ‘Minsara Kanavu’, ‘Bharathi Kannamma’, ‘Kaalemellam Kadhal Vaazhga’ were some of the other successful movies while there were lesser hits such as ‘Iruvar’, ‘Ullasam’, ‘Nerukku Ner’ and ‘Pistha’.

Rajinikanth in ArunachalamYouTube screenshot
Flix Flix Flashback Thursday, June 23, 2022 - 16:57

There was a time in the pre-Netflix era – and even before multiplexes – when our affair at the movies was a totally different experience. If we rewind to exactly 25 years ago, we are transported to a time when private Tamil television (Sun TV) was only five years old and standalone theatres were still mostly the only place where we courted the stars.

As it turns out, 1997 was a distinctive and extraordinary year for Tamil cinema. There was no shortage of critically acclaimed movies or blockbusters. A high was guaranteed practically every time you went to the theatre. Back then, before the age of social media, the movie-watching experience was so pure and so highly anticipated that satisfaction was always on the cards.

The year was known for successful movies like Suryavamsam, a monster hit at the BO, and Minsara Kanavu, a rage among the youth. These movies are so readily imitated now that we know that they continue to capture the hearts of newer generations. Minsara Kanavu’s songs by a yet-to-mature AR Rahman blared out from every speaker in town and caught the imagination of feverish young ones everywhere. Prabhu Deva, Arvind Swami and Kajol (debuting in Tamil) were suddenly stars everyone knew and appreciated. Though he was to never direct another movie for years, Rajiv Menon’s work in this movie came in for high praise.

Kamal Haasan, taking a brief sabbatical from Tamil cinema, produced, co-wrote and directed, for the first time, a Hindi movie called Chachi 420, a remake of the Tamil hit Avvai Shanmughi. His main rival for the affections of the Tamil people, superstar Rajinikanth, released Arunachalam, in which director C Sundar proved once again that he had a flair for comedy. Coming on the heels of Baasha and Muthu, Arunachalam (featuring a monkey prominently in the climax) was underwhelming to many, but it was still a movie that defined 1997 in the annals of Tamil cinema history.

There were other movies too. Director Fazil, better known for his body of work in Malayalam cinema, remade Aniyathipravu as Kadhalukku Mariyadhai with Vijay and Shalini in the lead. With a superb score by Ilaiyaraaja, who was on his comeback trail despite an admirable resistance from the resilient Rahman, the movie was a hit all across Tamil Nadu (in A, B and C centres as they were called back then). The story was quite conservative, where the lead couple, in spite of their mutual attraction, decide not to marry due to opposition from their families. The said families eventually reconcile and get the lovers married, bringing the movie to a surprise ending. The song ‘Ennai Thalatta Varuvalo’, a melody with a thumping heart imagined the way only the maestro can, was on everyone’s lips at the time.

1997 also saw the debut of director Cheran with his well-regarded Bharathi Kannamma starring Parthibhan and Meena. The title of the film might be better known as a television series these days, but back in those days it was seen as a sentimental mash of a film. This film – with its rural milieu – heralded the arrival of Cheran as the new Bharathiraaja. Audiences too flocked to the movie, especially in the smaller towns and villages, where it struck a deep chord with the people.

Kaalemellam Kadhal Vaazhga, a love story between a singer (Murali) and a music enthusiast (Kausalya), was a little gem of a film that did really well at the box-office. ‘Oru Mani Adithal’, composed by Deva, became an anthem for the year.

Another gem was Arasiyal, starring Mammootty. Directed by RK Selvamani, the film released to decent box-office returns.

Porkaalam, Cheran’s second movie of the year, was released to critical acclaim and BO success. Starring Murali, Meena, Sanghavi and Vadivelu, the film was a tear-jerker, most famous for some memorable shots of pottery scattered all through the film.

Both Arasiyal and Porkaalam took home Tamil Nadu State Film Awards for Best Film, along with Arunachalam.

For this critic, the best film of the year was the awe-inspiring Iruvar, directed by Mani Ratnam. Based on the lives of Tamil Nadu politicians MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, the film had an ensemble cast including Mohan Lal, Prakash Raj, Aishwarya Rai (making her rip-roaring debut in a dual role), Tabu, Gautami and Revathi. With memorable cinematography by Santosh Sivan, the film released to critical acclaim but poor BO receipts.

Mohanlal plays Anandan, a struggling actor, who strikes up a lasting friendship with Tamizhselvan (Prakash Raj), an upcoming writer and Dravidian ideologue. With the passage of time, their comradeship, however, sours as the two get increasingly entangled in a fight for political power in Tamil Nadu. With a convincing production design by Samir Chanda, the film was a period piece that captured the political bonhomie and, later, the rivalry between MGR and Kalaignar.

It was Ratnam’s best work up until that point. The score by Rahman broke new ground with influences from Carnatic music and even jazz. The hot, pulsing beat of ‘Ayirathil Naan Oruvan’ worked like a shot of steroids and lifted your spirits every time you listened to it. ‘Hello, Mr Ethirkatchi’ has graduated from a radio favourite to a YouTube rage. Suresh Urs’s work on the editing table was accomplished with much finesse. Santosh Sivan and Prakash Raj picked up National Awards.

Ullasam, produced by Amitabh Bachchan, starred Ajith and Vikram in the lead roles, with Maheswari playing their love interest. The film, directed by the JD-Jerry duo, failed to interest anyone at the box-office despite Karthik Raja’s soaring music.

Nerukku Ner, in which Suriya makes an awkward debut, fared better at the BO. Technically, this was the first movie that Simran signed in Tamil, though she had other movie releases ahead of this one. Composer Deva, who dominated the 1990s in many ways, put together a great score for this movie. Vijay and Kausalya put in adequate performances. Vasanth directed this movie with panache.

Actor Karthik, whose career was sputtering to an end as a bankable male star, made Pistha (directed by KS Ravikumar) with Nagma as the female lead. The movie delivered a strong dose of male chauvinism along with dollops of laugh-aloud humour. The combination worked wonders at the BO and the movie was a bona fide success.

Ratchagan had a couple of great songs, including KJ Yesudas’s soulful rendition of ‘Nenje Nenje’ (one of Rahman’s underrated gems). Despite the sizzling chemistry between its lead pair played by Nagarjuna and Sushmita Sen, the movie, directed by debutant Praveen Gandhi and produced by KT Kunjumon, flopped miserably.

There were some minor hits too, but we don’t recognise their names any more. Take movies like Aaha and Love Today that did reasonably well at the box-office. These movies have not transcended time by any measure. If you are in your teens right now, you cannot be expected to know these movies intimately.

It was also a tough year for the Tamil film industry due to the strike by the Film Employees’ Federation of South India (FEFSI). A small problem at the shooting spot of the film Raman Abdullah (director: Balu Mahendra) spiralled into a major issue, causing a disruption in the schedules of many major movies, including Jeans and Kadhal Rojave. The Tamil Film Producers Council soon entered into a heated dispute with FEFSI that was resolved only after Chief Minister M Karunanidhi intervened.

It is easy to see that 1997 was really an action-packed year for Tamil cinema. Some movies – even the hits from that year – have become outdated. Others that had seemed to break fresh ground then, now look positively old-fashioned. But there are films like Iruvar and the light-hearted Minsara Kanavu that are so precious that they deserve to be treasured. We will do well to remember them. We will do even better to re-watch some of them.

Nandhu Sundaram lives in Medavakkam, a Chennai suburb, with his wife and 10-year-old daughter. He loves the city deeply and wants to change it everywhere he goes. He loves movies (all kinds), books and cricket. He is also trying his hand at short stories.

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