Lights, camera, action: 10 Tamil films that explore the essence of cinema

South First examines films that explore cinematic reality through illusion, using Kavin's 'Star' as an example.

ByAvinash Ramachandran

Published May 14, 2024 | 1:20 PMUpdatedMay 14, 2024 | 2:01 PM

A collage of Tamil films that dealt with the world of cinema.

Maverick filmmaker Ari Aster once said, “Filmmaking is so much about catharsis anyway. It’s therapeutic.” But who all benefit from this catharsis?

Is it the audience? Is it the filmmaker? Is it the cast and crew? It could be for all of them, some of them, or none of them.

But when a film is made about films, the struggle to make it big in cinema, and the sacrifices that one has to go through to accomplish an ambition in a fickle world, things get personal on so many different levels.

Last Friday, we had Tamil cinema’s upcoming star aspirant Kavin headline a film about many such aspirants.

Titled Star, the film directed by Elan (Pyaar Prema Kaadhal-fame) opened to mixed reviews but initiated a conversation about what it takes to make it big in the world of cinema.

Using Star as a basis, let’s explore other films that showcase the reality of the industry through the illusion of cinema.

Server Sundaram (1964)

Nagesh in Server Sundaram

Nagesh in ‘Server Sundaram’. (Facebook)

It is almost sixty years since the director duo of Krishnan-Panju brought to life the travails of Sundaram (Nagesh), who began as a hotel waiter and became an actor.

The film not only dealt with the highs of stardom but explored the pitfalls of the same. It spoke about love, loss, longing, friendship, and more through the eyes of fame, and the powerhouse performance of Nagesh.

Server Sundaram is essentially a rags-to-riches story about an underdog defying the odds. The victory felt immensely relatable. But what happens after the victory is what the film explores beautifully. I see it as an extension of life. Does everything that we are passionate about give us contentment?” asks director Murali Karthick, known for helming the underrated Zee5 thriller, Kalavu (2019).

Dhavani Kanavugal (1984)

Dhavani Kanavugal poster.

‘Dhavani Kanavugal’ poster. (Supplied)

As a multi-hyphenate talent, K Bhagyaraj has had a ringside view of the highs and lows of success in cinema.

In Dhavani Kanavugal, he donned multiple hats of an actor, writer, director, and producer, and made a film about the quick rise to the top that is facilitated by the magic world of cinema.

The film’s protagonist Subramani wasn’t someone who breathed cinema. His life didn’t always revolve around the sounds of rolling, action, and cut.

He saw cinema not as a passion but as a profession that would help his family rise the social ladder.

But he was true to the art. It was a stark reminder that cinema respects talent, but values dedication more.

He was at the right place at the right time, but remaining at the right place at all times can only happen when dedication meets dreams, even if it is the dhavani kind.

Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000)

Ajith and Tabu in 'Kandukondain Kandukondain'. (Supplied)

Ajith and Tabu in ‘Kandukondain Kandukondain’. (Supplied)

Rajiv Menon’s ensemble family drama is a lot of things. But at its heart, it is a fascinating exploration of human emotions.

Some of the film’s strongest emotions are showcased through the story of Manohar (Ajith Kumar) and Sowmya (Tabu).

Manohar, an aspiring filmmaker, has to go through a rollercoaster of emotions before getting the chance to direct his first film.

He has to swim through elements waiting to throw a spanner in his works, and still hold on to his integrity. The film spoke about how cinema isn’t for the weak, and it relies heavily on compromises.

Kandukondain Kandukondain also drilled in the belief that any cinema aspirant will be known for what they say “no” to rather than what they say “yes” to.

Also read: Kannada actor Nanda Gopal gets candid about old jobs, latest films, and much more

Mugavaree (2000)

Ajith in 'Mugavari'.

Ajith in ‘Mugavari’. (Facebook)

Everyone loves the underdog. It is easier for us to root for such characters because we see them as reflections of the self. Seeing them achieve their dreams after a struggle feels cathartic to us.

It is almost like many of us vicariously live through such characters and get a second-hand taste of success.

The template for many such films includes the final hurrah where the struggle finds fruition. That is probably why Mugavaree’s Sridhar (Ajith Kumar) is a wonderful anomaly.

When every other film in this genre wanted to provide catharsis for the dreamy souls, VZ Durai’s sophomore directorial wanted to assuage the emotions of the ones who were forced to take a reality check.

Mugavaree spoke about an all-important factor for becoming successful in cinema… Luck. Even if there are people who motivate you throughout and throw their weight behind you, without the luck factor it is tough to crack it in the world of cinema. As they say in Jigarthanda 2, art indeed chooses you,” says Murali Karthick.

Kodambakkam (2006)

Struggles in cinema are often romanticised to the point where they start feeling alienated.

Isn’t there a place for filmmakers who don’t want to take the commercial route? Should all films be mass masala entertainers?

Through Kodambakkam, director KP Jagan documents the life of an assistant director who wants to make a film that he truly believes in.

Does the system allow him to? This is the question that is posed in this Nandha-starrer that is based on the simple question that often weighs heavily on the minds of many filmmakers when it comes to the concept of filmmaking… How much is too much?

Star review: Kavin and Yuvan steady a rocky emotional ride that flatters to deceive

Velli Thirai (2008)

Another film that wonderfully explores the nuances of “compromises” is Velli Thirai, a remake of the Malayalam blockbuster, Udayananu Tharam (2005). But it also touches upon the rather touchy but pertinent topic of plagiarism.

When the script of aspiring filmmaker Saravanan (Prithviraj Sukumaran) is plagiarised by upcoming actor Kanniah aka Dilipkanth (Prakash Raj) there is pandemonium.

But soon enough things clear up because there are no checks in place to curb such IP theft.

The largely lighthearted film explored an ingenious way of shattering a star’s ego and laid bare the fickle-mindedness of our star system, and how this elevation of such stars to demigod status is detrimental to the welfare of cinema.

Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa (2010)

Silambarasan in VTV

Silambarasan in ‘VTV’. (Supplied)

Gautham Vasudev Menon’s seminal work, Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa, is a film that continues to play in theatres. What worked for the audience?

Is it the tumultuous romance between Karthik (Silambarasan TR) and Jessie (Trisha)?

Did finding a homegrown “Will they won’t they” couple fascinate us no end?

Did Karthik looking at his father and saying “Padam pa… cinema” when asked what he wanted to do in life resonate the most with a lot of us during that time?

It also showcased how many filmmakers tap into their repository of happenings to mount their first film.

Furthermore, it spoke about how relationships can take a hit when you are working 24×7.

Talking about the impact of VTV in his life, aspiring filmmaker and an assistant to Gautham Menon, Anirudh Sriraman says, Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa is pretty much his gateway into films and more importantly filmmaking.

“The film, its music, the dialogues, and the whole feel of it was very fresh to me at that time and I remember being enamoured by it. Now over 14 years have passed and I can’t even count the number of times I have revisited the film,” adds Sriraman, with a smile.

The characters of Jessie and Karthik are still relatable and real, he points out.

The songs are still part of Sriraman’s daily playlists.

“Karthik’s conviction and his journey to becoming a filmmaker and eventually making a hit film about his own love story was my first example of Martin Scorsese’s quote, ‘Most personal is the most creative’.”

Jigarthanda (2014)

A still from Jigarthanda

A still from ‘Jigarthanda’. (Supplied)

The uniqueness of Indian cinema, especially Tamil cinema, is that most of its films cannot be relegated to a single genre.

It has to travel through multiple genres before settling down as a well-furnished package.

At a time when films about filmmaking often spoke only about the struggle and ultimate redemption, one-film-old filmmaker Karthik Subbaraj too followed suit.

But he had a trick up his sleeve. What if you add a survival thriller into this mix?

What if you add slapstick comedy into this mix? What if you add slice-of-life into this mix?

What if you add unbridled violence into this mix?

What if you add an almost Shakespearean romantic tragedy into the mix?

Well… you get two national awards, a swashbuckling franchise, and one Jigarthanda.

Uppu Karuvaadu (2015)

Uppu Karuvaadu

A still from ‘Uppu Karuvaadu’. (Supplied)

Director Radha Mohan likes making films about films. If his debut film, Azhagiya Theeye (2004) married filmmaking aspirations to romance, albeit with more focus on the latter, his hugely underrated Uppu Karuvaadu married the same concepts too, but with a focus more on the former.

Between Azhagiya Theeye and Uppu Karuvaadu, cinema had changed tremendously, and Radha Mohan made a satirical film that touched upon these observations with his trademark wry humour.

The struggles of Chandran (Karunakaran) trying to find the right producer, the right actors, and the right crew, but ending up making one compromise after another and doubting his filmmaking intent is an important observation of how the industry works.

Radha Mohan is a bundle of optimism, and that is why Chandran gets to make the film he wants to. But reality is not a Radha Mohan film, right?

EXCLUSIVE: Earning the trust of my audience has been a long process, says Kavin

Uttama Villain (2015)

A screen grab from 'Uttama Villain'. (X)

A screen grab from ‘Uttama Villain’. (X)

Uttama Villain is what happens when one of Indian cinema’s greatest icons decides to make a film on the vagaries of being a superstar.

Written by Kamal Haasan and directed by Ramesh Arvind, Uttama Villain is a deep exploration of the psyche of a star. It spoke about how they are a different breed altogether.

“This film is a misunderstood masterpiece. The superficiality that surrounds the life of a star whose personal life is nothing but a deep reality. The depth in the screenwriting took a while for me to grasp but once I did, the film took a special place in my head,” says Anirudh Sriraman.

While Tamil films about cinema often stopped after the peak was surmounted, Uttama Villain dealt with the life of a superstar who has seen and done it all.

It is like a sequel to the film we started this listicle with.

What if Sundaram continued to make films without going back to his server duties?

Would Sundaram be any different than Manoranjan (Kamal Haasan)? Hmmm… coming back to Uttama Villain, imagine getting a peek into the minds of various Indian cinema icons.

Are they satisfied? Does the adulation get to their head even after years of getting the same?

Can fame ever be enough? Are they worried about the legacy they’d leave behind?

Will their legacy be their long career or the last film in the collective memory of their audience?

Uttama Villain was Kamal Haasan’s love letter to cinema. To his audience. To his detractors. And most importantly… himself!