I’m going to write down a few thoughts about the current state of the Tamil film industry. I am going to be commenting on a bunch of themes, but primarily I will be commenting on some of the things that have changed and what has stayed the same. I will be grouping my ideas into two categories: the good and the bad.
What needs improvement
Let’s start off with the stuff that needs improvement. This is done first because I think there is a big issue that is facing Tamil film today:
Gender inequality is a big, big concern
Now, I know this occurs in not just this industry, but in film industries the world over. However, I sincerely want the Tamil film industry to improve hence I am making this commentary with regards to this specific industry. The different roles that actors and actresses play vary starkly when you look at gender. Many of the roles that are played by men are the roles of heroes and villains. These characters are the main driving force of the story. In fact, most stories are shown from their perspectives. The heroines in a movie? Almost all the time, they are relegated to three roles: the damsel in distress, the love interest, or some sort of sexual object in a dance number. Note, that sometimes, a heroine will take on more than one role over the course of a film. But let’s take a look at these roles for a moment shall we? None of these roles serve a particularly important role in the film except for the damsel in distress. The dance number role could easily be removed from the film. The love interest role can be useful to a film, but in most Tamil films that I have seen, it’s kind of like a third wheel that has been bolted onto a bicycle: it serves a purpose, but its absence won’t be missed. Then there is the fact that strong-willed or independent heroines are kind of rare in Tamil films. When I try to think of exceptions to this trend, I can only come up with two. First, there is Bhavani in Bhavani IPS where we see the actress Sneha play a police officer in the lead role of an action film. The second exception is in a film I saw a while back where the main villain was a female crime lord. Other than that, the roles of the heroines are almost always relegated to damsel in distress or love interest. The heroine isn’t out there kicking ass and taking names. She isn’t the one who saves the day. Usually, she is some meek or shy person who is only interested in loving the hero and is perfectly content with sitting on the sidelines for most of the film. If that doesn’t happen, then she is treated as somebody that can be kidnapped by the villain and must be rescued by the hero. This infuriates me to no end. Of course, Tamil film isn’t the only industry that is guilty of this. Hollywood does this to a large extent as well, but the difference is that in Hollywood, there is a much higher percentage of films that feature strong female roles. These types of strong female roles are severely lacking in Tamil films. Where are my Tamil equivalents to Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games, Ripley from Aliens, The Bride from Kill Bill, Sarah Connor from Terminator, and Hermoine Granger from Harry Potter?
Next, let’s examine the disparity between the career lengths of Tamil actors and actresses. The career lengths of Tamil actresses are MUCH shorter than Tamil actors. How is it that Rajinikanth or Kamal Hassan have multi-decade careers in acting but many actresses don’t? The main answer here is marriage. Once an actress gets married and has children, it is game over for them in the industry. They are expected to end their careers in order to focus on family and children. The actors? Nah they are good. Even if they get married and have a family, they are still free to continue their career. The actresses never get this chance. A good example of this is Jyothika who stopped acting once she got married, but her husband Surya still appears in films. Very few of these actresses ever come back once their kids are old enough that they can resume work. The only exception that really stands out in my mind is Sridevi.
Another thing that also needs much more improvement is the progression of the romance subplots that occur in movies. In many films, the romance goes something generally along the lines of the following. The guy sees a beautiful girl somewhere and falls in love with her at first sight. She does not reciprocate or is unaware of his feelings. The guy then becomes a creeper and follows her to various places, maybe even standing outside her house. Usually, the girl develops mutual feelings if she sees the guy doing something nice like helping some neighbourhood kids. The important thing is that she sees a few acts of kindness, not the guy persistently being nice. She falls in love based on a narrow sample set of kind acts. On the other hand, if the girl does not reciprocate when the guy confesses his feelings, the guy seems to think that this is a license to keep stalking, bothering and sometimes harassing her until she likes him. The baffling thing is that script writers think that this is what it takes to win the girl: if you harass and stalk her enough, she will fall in love with you. Personally, I am fine with most of the general structure of the romance subplot except for the stalking, constant badgering and harassment until she falls in love with you parts. This is not the type of thing you want to legitimize in films especially when there are reports stating that this often happens in real life to women in India. Romance structures need to be improved to a point where there is much more respect towards the heroine.
Then, there is the other stereotypes that most heroines need to fall into. The main ones I am talking about are: light skin and high pitch voices. Apparently, if you don’t have either of these qualities, you are not cut out to be an actress. Of course, I acknowledge that everyone wants to see a beautiful actress on screen. I do too. But I have seen tons of beautiful Indian women who don’t have light skin and who don’t have high pitch voices that look attractive enough to be actresses. Related to the above is the disparity of requirements for looks between actors and actresses. My sister summed this one up pretty well when she asked my mom the following question: “Why are Tamil actresses always so pretty, but Tamil actors are always so damn average looking?” She raises a good point. Young, new, aspiring Tamil actresses are expected to be: well proportioned, light skin and a good looking face. Heck most of the time, all you need to be is thin and light-skinned to land a job as an actress! Now let’s look at many young actors: any skin colour counts, any body shape counts, and as long as you don’t have any scars or deformities, any face will do. This disparity is quite something isn’t it?
What has improved
If after the above rant, you are still with me, let’s take a look at the improvements in the industry. There are many things that have improved from the late 90s until now (2013).
More Diversity in Plots, Settings, Genres
Plots, genres and settings have diversified greatly. It used to be that most, if not basically all, Tamil movies would take place in India (particularly the state of Tamil Nadu) and follow a basic story structure: there is a hero who squares off against some villain. The hero always has a love interest and there are two plots: how the hero defeats the villain, and the romance between the hero and the heroine. Often, the two plots are either interwoven with one another such that one influences the other, or they run in parallel with minimum impact from one plot to the other. Of course, you throw in some fight scenes and dance numbers into the film as well. Now, I am not saying that all films were like this, but most had this structure. Recently though, I have noticed that films are getting a lot more diverse in their settings, plots and even genres. Let’s start off with setting. Over the past few years, I have started seeing an increased amount of films that are set in places like New York (and some other parts of the USA) and Europe (particularly London, UK). These films have some or all of the characters as Indians living abroad. This is such a wonderful thing to see. It allows films to show people back in India how Indians abroad are living and it gives Indians abroad some connection to the films. I’ve also noticed fantasy settings as well such as Aayirathil Oruvan, which takes place in an expedition in a more exotic, mysterious part of India. There is also Raavanan, which takes place deep in the jungles of a national park in India.
We are also starting to see much more diversification in plots and genres. There are new genres being explored. For example, there is Enthiran which involves an Android as one of the villains and is a great foray into the science fiction genre. There is Naan-Ee (where the hero is reincarnated as a house fly) and Aayirathil Oruvan (a very Indiana Jones style film), both of which are fantasy films. Then there are the plots. They are becoming much more diverse and have started diverging more often from the plot structure I highlighted earlier. I remember watching a couple of films where the heroine was absent completely and I remember a few films where they did not have any dance numbers. The names of these films don’t come to mind at the moment, but I recall that they came out in the last 5 years or so.
The Tamil film industry has been a bit slow on the uptake of HD in my opinion. Without a doubt, they have been shooting in higher resolutions than HD already and have been using digital for a while now, but HD has not trickled down to consumers. Almost all films are still released exclusively on DVD. However, there are signs that change is coming. There are a bunch of films, both new and re-releases of old films, that are being released on Blu-ray so that audiences can watch them in full HD. There is still a ways to go until all films get Bluray releases, but at least they are making an attempt to get there. The other improvement that is the most noticeable in the visuals department is the huge improvement in the technical quality and frequency of computer generated imagery in Tamil films. I used to cringe slightly whenever I saw the greatest and latest Tamil film use visual effects that Hollywood thought was new maybe 10 years ago. But today, it seems that the visual effects industry has matured greatly and the computer generated imagery in modern Tamil movies is almost on par with Hollywood. There is still a noticeable gap between Tamil films and Hollywood, but the gap is much smaller today than it was 10 years ago. Some examples of the great work produced by the Tamil visual effects industry are Enthiran and Naan-E, both films who rely heavily on computer generated images that are almost on par with what Hollywood has to offer.
The songs used in Tamil films have always had a number of genres, but recently I have noticed that there are more genres being used. Electronica sounds are becoming a lot more prominent and as a big fan of electronica, I am ecstatic about this. It’s great to see music composers start playing with even more genres. Even the underscoring that occurs in scenes to highlight emotions has diversified in terms of sound. It used to be that if there is a sad scene or one that is heavy in emotions, the underscoring relied heavily on some sad, distant voice to create the atmosphere. Today, I see films using more diverse instruments to create that atmosphere without relying on that distant voice
I think overall, the Tamil film industry has improved greatly over the last 10 years or so. Yes, some major issues exist, but I think recent films (last 3 years or so) indicate that these issues are becoming overcome (albeit slowly). I am hopeful and I look forward to seeing how the industry changes over the next 10 years.