Tamil Cinema: Ten Essential Titles for New Fans of Indian Movies Who Want to Venture beyond Bombay

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.”

  1. Terrorist

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.

  1. 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.

  1. Bombay

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.

  1. Sivaji

2007. Huge Rajnikanth hit about a do-gooding entrepreneur. What list of essential Tamil movies could be complete without Stylemaster Rajnikanth? Pure masala.

10. Subramaniapuram

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.


Don’t Call It Bollywood! (Call It a Masala Movie)

What’s in a name? Everything of course. Why call India’s popular cinema Bollywood when there is a perfectly good name that most Indians have grown up with? Bollywood suggests that Indian popular cinema is derivative of Hollywood. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Indian popular film is a completely different artistic product than Hollywood. And there’s a word that captures this difference perfectly—masala.

I grew up watching and loving masala movies, not Bollywood. (I love India’s alternative cinema too, but that is grist for another blog.) A movie is masala when it gives you hours of spicy entertainment for your hard-earned rupees. This is the recipe for a masala movie—a little melodrama, a little song, a little dance, ground together for a visual extravaganza that stimulates every one of your artistic taste buds. In the hands of a great director and great stars (as in, for example, Yash Chopra’s Hindi-language Deewaar with Amitabh Bachchan as Vijay) the result is a spectacular work of art.

There is no shame in melodrama, a genre with deep historical roots. And there are other kinds of artistic integrity than that prized in Hollywood. When I teach Deewaar, I often focus attention in class on that great scene in which Ravi (played by Shashi Kapoor) and Sumitra Devi (played by NIrupa Roy) storm out of Vijay’s palatial mansion forever without stopping to grab even a single personal item (toothbrush, change of clothes, a necessary document like the ration card, a beloved photograph).

Psychologically implausible? Of course. No Hollywood film worth its Oscar ambition would ever have such a scene. But the masala movie would—because the grand truths it pursues (if it is a work of art, not all are of course) would be diluted by a slavish and narrow adherence to psychological plausibility.

So don’t call it Bollywood. Call it a masala movie. Indian popular cinema cannot be understood by reference to Hollywood. Masala is an Indian word comprehended all over India, and increasingly outside. There is a history of applying the word to Indian popular films. As far as I am concerned, these are reasons enough to jettison the tendentious Bollywood and go back to masala movie.

(Next blog—return in a couple of weeks for notes on Tamil masala movies, about which so little is known amongst international audiences.)