Aravaan to Kaaviya Thalaivan: Five Tamil historical films to watch before Thangalaan

Pa Ranjith’s ‘Thangalaan’, a much anticipated historical drama centred around the lives of indigenous people who worked in the Kolar gold mines in the 18th century, is slated for release in April.
Stills from the movie Aravaan and Kaaviya Thalaivan
Stills from the movie Aravaan and Kaaviya ThalaivanX
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Historical films serve as a bridge between distant eras, shaping our understanding of the past and the lasting impression its events, people, and cultures have left on our world. Pa Ranjith’s Thangalaan is one such much-anticipated historical drama, revolving around the lives of the indigenous people who worked in the Kolar gold mines in the 18th century. There is still a few months’ wait for Thangalaan, as the film which was originally slated for release in January 2024 has now been postponed to April. But in the meantime, here are five Tamil historical dramas you can binge on. 

Madrasapattinam (2010): Set in colonial era Madras, this Arya-starrer follows the love story between an Indian washerman Ilam Parithi (Arya) and Amy Wilkins (Amy Jackson), the daughter of a British official posted in India. Written and directed by AL Vijay, the film oscillates between colonial Madras and present day Chennai after Amy and her granddaughter Catherine arrive in the city in pursuit of Ilam Parithi. The rest of the film follows Amy and her search for a long-lost love in a city that is familiar and foreign to her at the same time. Madrasapattinam narrates the harrowing tale of love that was subversive, flouted social norms, and the fate of lovers from two worlds in the backdrop of the Indian independence movement. 

Watch a video song from Madrasapattinam here:

Aravaan (2012): Unlike most Tamil period dramas which are set in the colonial period and involve a segment of the struggle against the British, Aravaan takes the audience to Tamil Nadu before the colonisers set foot in the state. Directed by Vasanthabalan, Aravaan is based on Su Venkatesan’s Tamil novel Kaaval Kottam. An MLA from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the state, Su Venkatesan also wrote dialogues for the film. The film follows a gang of thieves led by Komboodhi (Pasupathy) who steal from the rich in the village for sustenance. One day, they are wrongly accused of stealing from their village’s king, so they in turn catch hold of the thief, Varipuli (Aadhi). After Varipuli is injured in a bullfight, Komboodhi and his gang take pity on him and let him stay in their village, but soon learn that Varipuli is not who he claims to be. While Aravaan received a mixed response from the audience, the film was critically acclaimed for its historical narrative, the authenticity of the sets, costumes, and the dialogues. 

Watch the trailer of Aravaan here:

Kaaviya Thalaivan (2014): Another Vasanthabalan directorial, Kaaviya Thalaivan is also set in colonial Tamil Nadu but is centred around a drama troupe, theatre artists, and their inner lives in the face of the Indian Independence struggle. The film follows the lives of two artists Gomathinayagam Pillai (Prithviraj) and Kaliappa Bagavathar (Siddharth), who live like brothers before jealousy drives a wedge between them. The rest of the film tracks the distinct paths Gomathinayagam and Kaliappa take after the death of their drama troupe’s leader Sivadas Swamigal (Nassar), and whether they are able to see past their youthful transgressions. The richness of the film is also complemented by the elaborate costumes, sets, and extravagant performances of the drama troupe.

Watch the trailer of Kaaviya Thalaivan here:

Ponniyin Selvan 1 and 2 (2022 and 2023): Tamil writer Kalki’s magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan was adapted for the celluloid screen in 2022 and 2023 by filmmaker Mani Ratnam. While readers who have pored through the series of five novels expressed concerns about how they can be condensed into two films, both PS-1 and PS-2 were lauded for effectively capturing the essence of the books. Starring big names like Trisha, Aishwarya Rai, Karthi, Jeyam Ravi, and Prakash Raj among others, the films are set against the tumultuous Chola Empire facing threats from the rival Pandyas and their own nobility. The films omitted several parts from the novels but managed to retain the treachery, betrayal, and royal intrigue to a significant extent. The opulence of the costumes and the set also earned praise from the audience and critics alike.

Watch the trailers of PS-1and PS-2:

Captain Miller (2024): The recent Arun Madheshwaran film is also set in the backdrop of Britain’s colonial rule, but its novelty lies in how it explores the caste dynamics among the foot soldiers recruited by the coloniser. The film narrates the story of Analeesan (Dhanush), renamed Miller, and his tryst with the British army which is opposed by his elder brother Sengannan (Shiva Rajkumar), who is in turn leading a revolt against the coloniser. Captain Miller deftly captures the protagonist’s internal struggle of allying with the British because they do not treat him differently due to his marginalised caste identity, but having to kill his own people at the same time. With a mix of stolen idols, revolutionaries, and gory violence, Captain Miller is a treat for history buffs and film aficionados alike. 

Watch the trailer of Captain Miller here:

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