2016 was a good year for Tamil cinema. Even though Visaranai lost out in the race for the Oscars, it was a film that made the rest of the country sit up and take notice of an industry that's mainly known for Rajinikanth outside of the South.
Without a doubt, Kollywood has entered an era in which offbeat films have a good shot at succeeding at the box-office, alongside formulaic ones that are championed by the big stars of the industry.
However, even as plots change, themes diversify and the film-making gets better, the average Kollywood heroine still doesn't have much to do in a film. Director Suraj's distasteful comments about female leads being around only for "glamour" kicked up a furore recently but sadly, his crass statement was a reflection of views that many hold but don't voice in as many words.
However, there were a few films in 2016 which had realistic female characters and deserve mention for veering away from the trend of casting the heroine as a mix of the manic pixie and objectified "glamour doll".
Most of these films were hero-centric but the etching of the female characters was strong and commendable. There's thought invested in there, and it showed.
Karmeghakuzhali (Aandavan Kattalai)
Directed by M Manikandan who co-wrote the film with Arul Chezhiyan and Anucharan, Aandavan Kattalai has to be among the best of 2016 in any critic's list. Funny and insightful by turn, the film had the right amounts of irony and black humour to keep the audience laughing and thinking at the same time.
Vijay Sethupathi as Gandhi, the hapless young man who wants to go to the UK, was the nucleus of the film, but he was ably complemented by Ritika Singh who plays Karmeghakuzhali, a short-tempered journalist.
While Karmeghakuzhali comes across as a "strong" woman, she doesn't follow the usual trajectory of having to champion a cause or win a medal at a male dominant sport (as Ritika did in Irudhi Suttru) to prove her worth.
She was endearingly real as she casually dropped rejoinders (when a prospective groom suggests that it would have been better if she'd worn a sari, she shoots back asking why he hadn't come in a veshti?) and made her own decisions about her life.
Vinodhini Vaidyananthan who plays a junior lawyer in the film was another delightful female character. Quick thinking, practical and hilarious, she was outstanding as a supporting character.
Lakshmi, Kavya, Susheela (Oru Naal Koothu)
This film took me by surprise. An honest look at the institution of marriage and the drama that surrounds it, Oru Naal Koothu was directed by Nelson who co-wrote the film with Sankar Dass. The film is about three female characters, each crafted with authenticity and a lightness of touch, and their long and arduous journey to the kalyana pandal.
There's Lakshmi (Mia George), an obedient daughter whose fastidious father thinks no man is good enough to marry his girl. As women her age get married and bear children, Lakshmi's quiet optimism is slowly corroded by frustration. Her moment of rebellion doesn't lead to a new life but we nevertheless see a change in her demeanor and her approach to those around her.
Then there's Kavya (Nivetha Pethuraj), the rich woman who is in love with a middle-class man with an inferiority complex to boot. Practical yet passionate, Kavya bends to the rules only when they suit her.
Her character could have been written as that of the villain, but the script of Oru Naal Koothu is always one step ahead of falling into the cliche trap. Though there's so much drama and heartbreak, there are ultimately no villains in it.
Susheela is played by the talented Riythvika. An RJ who is desperate to get married, Susheela is willing to take any amount of insult till the point when she decides it isn't worth the trouble any more. Along the way, the film offers a refreshing commentary on sex and the big deal everyone makes of it.
Yazhini (Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum)
This film was the official remake of My Dear Desperado but was beautifully adapted for the audience it was meant for. Directed by Nalan Kumarasamy who also wrote the screenplay, it told the unlikely love story between a middle class woman (Madonna Sebastian as Yazhini) searching for a job in the IT sector and a thug (Vijay Sethupathi as Kathir).
The earthy Yazhini who speaks her mind, hosts ambitions of her own, and is not afraid of her desires, was a sea change from the usual "loosu ponnu" heroine who dominates the romcom genre. The warm chemistry between the lead pair ensured that the somewhat dramatic twists in the plot remained believable.
Written and directed by Raju Murugan, there are several things to like about Joker - its unusual theme, dark humour, effective pathos and a solid script. But this film about a man's attempts to fulfill his wife's desire for a toilet in their home would not have worked, if not for its realistic heroine who looked and lived the part.
Ramya Pandian as the quietly determined, no nonsense Malliga was right at the centre of the movie, even if she's comatose for a good portion of it. Joker is among the rare films in Tamil cinema that has looked at a social issue from the eyes of a woman and how important it is to her.
The relationship between Mannar Mannan (Guru Somasundaram) and Malliga was crafted with aching detail, without it ever becoming saccharine and overly sentimental.
Rudra from Kodi was unlike any female villain we've seen so far in Kollywood. Firstly, she was played by a top heroine in the industry, Trisha. Secondly, she did not fall into any of the "villi" stereotypes that are popular in Tamil cinema. She was a dignified, ruthless female villain who even killed the hero (Dhanush) to get what she wanted! And surprisingly, she was also one of the female leads of the film.
Directed by RS Durai Senthil Kumar who wrote the film along with Ve Ki Amirtharaj, Kodi's second heroine, Malathi (Anupama Parameswaran), was along predictable lines. But the film nevertheless demands a place on this list for overturning many a stereotype about the female villain.
Kumudhavalli and Yogi (Kabali)
Pa Ranjith's gangster story was a superstar film and wasn't one in equal parts. What elements made it a Rajinikanth-starrer are obvious but what made it different include the treatment of its women characters.
Kabali (Rajinikanth) has a wife, Kumudhavalli (Radhika Apte), who not only orders him around but also gives him political advice. When Kabali learns that Kumudhavalli might be alive albeit in a brothel, there's no hesitation on his face, no mourning that her "virtue" might have been lost: he's eager to reunite with his beloved.
He also adopts a young woman, Meena (Riythvika), who sells her body for drugs, as his daughter. There's no moralizing, no sermon on womanly behaviour as is typical in a Rajinikanth film.
And then, of course, there's his biological daughter Yogi (Dhansika), with her short hair and guns, who actually pushes her father behind her as she tries to protect him from the villains. Rajinikanth saved by a woman's bravado - when was the last time you saw that happening?
To be honest, Karthik Subbaraj's Iraivi didn't appeal to me on the whole. The film's conceit depended on polarizing the masculine and the feminine, and though it was a novel attempt to look at the lives of women through male eyes, it didn't work for me.
While the characters of Yazhini (Kamalini Mukherjee) and Malarvizhi (Pooja Devariya) fell back on the same old-new portrayals of sacrifice, martyrdom, and "virtue" when it comes to women, Ponni (Anjali) was far more real.
The feisty Anjali did a convincing job, playing the role of a small town woman who has no ambitions in life other than to get married. She ends up in a loveless marriage and must negotiate her way through it with clever chess moves, even as she keeps social facades intact.