Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Tamil Cinema

The term, 'larger than life' somehow falls short of describing Tamil Cinema. The industry has been around from the silent era and seen the transition from the days of black and white visuals through Eastman Colour to Colour cinema. It has produced stalwarts like M.G.Ramachandran, Shivaji Ganeshan, Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth among the heroes, Music Composers like Viswanathan-Ramamurthy, Ilayaraja and A.R. Rahman and the skilled directors like C.V. Sridhar, Bhimsingh, K.Balachander, Bharathi Rajaa, Mani Rathnam & Shankar. Members of the industry have gone on to make forays into politics, banking on the vast support that they enjoy from the masses. Yet, that's only part of what Tamil Cinema is about.

Cinema holds an integral place in peoples' lives in Chennai. It's never a simple case of watching a movie - It is regarded as an outing for the family or among friends, with a meal at a favourite eatery added to the program.

Depending on the genre of the film, a typical theatre in Chennai will attract a variety of watchers - families, groups of friends, couples and in smaller theatres, even the occasional drunk.

When it's a new release, however, things take a dramatic turn. 

On the day the movie releases, a festive atmosphere prevails outside the theatre. Fans of the lead actor throng the city's theatres and profess their loyalty in ways unimaginable to audiences elsewhere in India or even outside it. The fans perform pooja (worship) of a cut-out image ten times the size of their hero. There are garlanded posters of the actor everywhere and fans also wear T-shirts with the actor's pictures printed on them. The shows are normally sold out for the first weekend of the release. People vie with each other and use their best contacts to procure a precious ticket. Die hard fans don't let details like attendance at college or work, come in the way of taking active participant in the First Day frenzy. 

For fans, the dividing line between real and reel life gets blurred once the film begins. There are cat-calls when the haughty heroine is cleverly fobbed off by the son-of-the-soil hero. Silver foil and coins are thrown at the screen during the song sequences. There are certain key dialogues in every movie, which are greeted with much encouragement from the masses. A fight sequence is accompanied by raucous applause every time the hero gets the upper hand. In short, the actor's signature style takes precedence over the intricacies of the film.
Tamil film actors have adopted signature styles, having learnt fairly early, that fans and fan clubs are the true indicators of a Tamil film hero's popularity. The same goes for directors who have their own trademark elements in each of their movies.

However, the most intriguing element of Tamil Cinema is the economics of movie-making. The budgets are lavish and so are the promotional expenses. The amounts that actors charge are the stuff of urban legends. Simultaneous releases across the world are now the norm for films made on big budgets. With the coming of the multiplexes, the audiences are now experiencing the same cinematic elements in greater luxury at a ticket cost they would have baulked at paying even two years ago. 

There are certainly films made, that break away from popular cinema's song-and-dance routine. There have been many films that have gone on to win critical acclaim and awards at the national and international level. The success of these films depends on the same factors, ironically, as the formula-centric ones – the team and the theme. 

No mention of Tamil Cinema and the audiences is complete without getting into some seemingly strange phenomena. For instance, the actor, Rajinikanth's films enjoy great success in Japan. Chennai's movie-watching frenzy is not restricted to Tamil cinema alone - Jackie Chan and Jet Li attract quite the crowd. And what could be more surreal than watching Captain Jack Sparrow with his customary flourish intact, spout Tamil dialogues in the dubbed version of the Pirates of the Caribbean? 

(An edited version was published in the March 2008 issue of 'At A Glance'. Picture by author.)

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