By Pascal Grenier (see also 10 Essential Bollywood in the Classic and Art-House section)
Following my post on Bollywood cinema (in our Classic and Art-House section), here’s a list of some essentials to discover the cinema of Tamil Nadu (colloquially referred to as Kollywood) a slice of Indian cinema producing films in Tamil language. This is the second largest and popular films in Indian cinema, only second to the ones made in Hindi language.
Parasakthi (1952- R. Krishnan and S. Panju). The Goddess was the 6th film by a famous duo of South Indian filmmakers who went on to make close to 60 films over four decades (more than 75 % of their films being made in Tamil language). This film tells the misfortune of members of a Tamil family during World War II. It was controversial when first released as it portrayed Brahmins and Hindu customs (including a rape) in a bleak way. Even today, this significant film is really poignant, packing an emotional wallop.
Adimai Penn (1969- K. Shankar). Slave Girl is one of the first big commercial success in Tamil cinema. This very enjoyable peplum (one of the very first of the genre in Indian cinema) features M.G. Ramachandran in a Maciste-like character in a colourful and fun film that went to win the Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Film.
Nayakan (1987- Mani Ratnam). One of the major films of the 1980s, The Hero is loosely based on a real-life Bombay underworld crime-lord. It also helped establishing Kamal Haasan (who was already in films for over a decade) as a superstar. The director, Mani Ratnam, went on to become one of the most prominent directors in Indian cinema. Despite the obvious influences by The Godfather, the film managed to keep everything fresh and was remade a year later in Hindi as Dayavan.
Roja (1992- Mani Ratnam). This romantic thriller is Mani Ratnam’s best film to date. An emotional romantic drama, its characters have more depths than your usual Kollywood (or even Bollywood) film. The Indian political background contributes a big part in the interaction between protagonists. This was the first film scored by famous musician A.R. Rahman who redefined contemporary Indian film music.
The Terrorist (1998- Santosh Sivan). Presented worldwide by John Malkovich, this terrific thriller is one of the most important Tamil films made in the 1990s. Famous cinematographer-turned director Santosh Sivan brings great complexity around the despicable main character of a young female terrorist who goes on a suicide mission. Not your typical Kollywood movie by any mean (the movie is only 95 minutes long and without any song and dance numbers), this is nonetheless a must-see drama.
Hey Ram (2000- Kamal Haasan). Hey God! is a film that was simultaneously made in Tamil and Hindi language and was written, produced and directed by Kamal Haasan, one of the most important figure in Kollywood of the last 25 years. It’s an important and controversial period film that mixes religions, romance and fantasy with the theme of the partition of Bengal as a background. Hey Ram criticizes severely Mahatma Gandhi (played by Naseeruddin Shah of Moonsoon Wedding fame) as being the sole responsible of India’s religious divisions an aspect that makes it controversial. Shah Rukh Khan also co-stars as an archeologist and the film features some bizarre fantasy-sequences that seems to come out straight from an Indiana Jones movie !
Aalavandhan (2001- Suresh Krishna). What a crazy flick this one is. Kamal Haasan adapted his own novel on the screen and played two (a decorated Major in the Indian Army/his estranged and psychopathic brother who goes out on a rampage) in this wild and kinetic romp of action and thriller. Sort of like a trippy and surreal version of The Silence of the Lambs, (there is also a few animation sequences). This is one of the most singularly bizarre Kollywood films ever made.
Autograph (2004- Cheran). This award-winning film was shown at the Montreal Film Festival among others. A romantic film, dealing with childhood memories, it is mostly interesting as a nostalgic piece of cinema with recollection of past memories à la The Wanderers ( by Philip Kaufman). It also offers some beautiful sceneries and a great soundtrack.
Enthiran (2010- S. Shankar). Robot is a sci-fi blockbuster film. The equivalent (Well… sort) of the Transformers phenomenon in Hollywood… but more clever and fun ! This immensely enjoyable variation on the myth of Frankenstein stars Tamil’s superstar Rajnikanth in the dual-role of a scientist and his android robot. A mega production (nearly the equivalent of 30M dollars) it is visually impressive and it features some excellent digital effects that rivals anything made in Hollywood these days.
Thuppaki (2012- A.R. Murugadoss). The Gun is one of the best Kollywood films of its genre. Directed with a high dose of energy and flair, this action thriller was Tamil’s highest-grossing film of 2012. The director remade it two years later in Hindi as Holiday with Akshay Kumar.