Because I spent a good part of my childhood in Delhi and Bombay rather than Chennai, I grew up knowing Hindi movies better than Tamil. I am talking about a time before video cassette players. When you saw movies, you went to theaters. So it was only on vacations in Tamil Nadu that I got to watch a few MGR and Shivaji Ganesan movies. I recall going to Thanga Pathakam with my family while visiting my uncle, aunt and cousin in Salem in the late Seventies. Afterward, on the lawn outside the theater, a heated discussion of Shivaji Ganesan’s (over)acting raged over roasted peanuts with shredded coconut and slices of spiced green mango.
Thanga Pathakam is a good reminder that no cinema in India is more masala than Tamil cinema (okay, maybe Telugu is). And no film tradition is more interesting historically and sociologically. Much has been written about the links between Tamil cinema and the Dravidian movements that transformed politics in Tamil India, and indeed eventually across all of the country. One might say that Tamil film personalities (C. N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi, MGR, amongst others) pioneered the political uses of cinema. Call what they did masala with politics. If you are familiar with the “crepes” with potatoes that many associate with Tamil cuisine, call it masala dosa cinema.
Of course, not all Tamil cinema is masala dosa cinema. Most Tamil films, especially today, are simply masala, not masala dosa—brashly commercial and apolitical. And though Tamil cinema is famous for lacking the kind of auteur-driven film traditions found in Kerala and Bengal, there are even films that may be classified as alternative.
Here, then, are ten essential masala, masala dosa and alternative titles from Tamil cinema, with brief annotations. Translations of titles are mine; official DVDs might have alternative translations. When not translated, titles are proper nouns.
- Parasakthi (The Goddess Parasakthi)
1952. The original masala dosa film. Written by M. Karunanidhi, later Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, with covert political themes and directed by the team of Krishnan-Panju. Main role brilliantly acted by Shivaji Ganesan.
- Kadalika Neramillai (No Time for Love)
1964. A brilliant metacinematic comedy directed by C. V. Sridhar. Show stolen by Nagesh in the role of an aspiring film director.
- Server Sundaram (Sundaram the Waiter)
1964. Melodrama by the directorial team of Krishnan-Panju. Nagesh is brilliant in the title role of a poor waiter who rises to become a film star.
- Enga Veetu Pillai (Our Son)
1965. Perhaps the most famous of MGR films. MGR, also later Chief Minister, in a double role at a time when he was rapidly transitioning from a film icon to a political heavyweight. The song “Naan Annai Itaal” played a big part in that transformation.
- Thaneer, Thaneer (Water)
1981. Film adaptation of a classic Tamil play of the same title by Komal Swaminathan (English translation by me). Directed by K. Balachander, who carved out a niche between masala movies and alternative cinema often referred to as “middle cinema.”
1998. Written and directed by Santosh Sivan, one of the most acclaimed cinematographers in Indian cinema. A thought-provoking and beautifully shot study of a female suicide bomber. Definitely alternative cinema.
- Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Seen)
2000. Adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility by director Rajiv Menon. With an early Aishwarya Rai and with Malayalam superstar Mamooty. Music by A. R. Rahman.
1995. Directed by Mani Ratnam, perhaps the most renowned of current directors working mainly in Tamil and inheritor of the mantle of “middle cinema director” from K. Balachander. A torn-from-the-headlines fictional account of the religious riots in Bombay in the early Nineties. Equally renowned for the music by A. R. Rahman.
2007. Huge Rajnikanth hit about a do-gooding entrepreneur. What list of essential Tamil movies could be complete without Stylemaster Rajnikanth? Pure masala.
2008. Typical of a contemporary trend towards low-budget offbeat films. Directed by M. Sasikumar. A study of young men drawn into a culture of violence. Acclaimed for its direction and authenticity of presentation.
No list of ten could ever do justice to such a long and distinguished film tradition. If you are a fan of Tamil cinema, feel free to share your favorites.