January 29 was an important day in the history of Tamil cinema. A day when it learned to laugh at itself, says Sudhish Kamath

Somewhere in the sagging second half of Venkat Prabhu's “Goa”, Vaibhav, one of its heroes, takes his time to narrate a crucial flashback. He throws in a romantic duet to prolong it, much to the frustration of the restless audience watching the film. At the end of the sequence, Premgi walks into the frame to admit he left to get popcorn halfway into the song. And, almost everyone in the hall bursts out laughing at the dig taken at the film's expense.

In debut director C.S. Amudhan's spoof Tamizh Padam, its hero Shiva, in a bid to hurry up the narrative, says: “Let's cut to the Railway Station” And the director (off-screen) yells: “Hello! We will handle the cutting” and hastens to add: “Nadikarathey arakkorai, idhule direction verai” (He can barely act, he wants to direct). Again, the audience is in splits.

You can see why January 29 was an important Friday in the history of Tamil cinema. It was the day the land of a thousand fan clubs that literally worships its idols, developed a self-deprecatory sense of humour. Tamil cinema learned to laugh at itself. The very concept of matinee idol took a beating and the sacred image of the quintessential Tamil film hero came crashing down.

Within a week, on the very first day of a much-awaited commercial film, a group of boys laughed out loud at the build-up the mass hero was getting. One of them said: “They need to make ten ‘Tamizh Padams' before these jokers realise they are making a fool of themselves.”

Interestingly, Ajith set a fine example recently by dropping his “Ultimate Superstar” tag from the opening credits of “Aasal”. The self-glorifying sobriquets (such as Chinna Thalapathy and Vice-Captain) are one of those things filmmaker Amudhan makes fun of in “Tamizh Padam” that begins in a village called Cinemapatti where male infanticide is enforced to prevent boys from heading towards the city, with ambitions of becoming a hero and announcing their political intentions.

Whether it was Vijay sending 10 guys flying in “Vettaikaaran” or Premgi Amaren doing an encore in “Goa” to exactly the same background score, the audience response is the same. “Goa” and “Tamizh Padam” may have succeeded in making even fans realise these ploys are at best laughable. Not everyone can get away with what Rajinikanth did/does.

What better person to produce and back “Goa” than THE Superstar's daughter Soundarya Rajinikanth! “Tamizh Padam” is produced by the Chief Minister's grandson, Dayanidhi Azhagiri — one of the most important reasons these films got made, in the first place.

Venkat Prabhu isn't doing it for the first time. Right from “Chennai-28”, the maverick filmmaker has been treating cinema with the seriousness it deserves — NONE! Imagine the cheek of the director to end a film about street cricket with its heroes losing to a school team. He once again showed sparks of irreverence in “Saroja” with his spoof on TV serials and went back to his roots with “Goa”.

Venkat Prabhu starts the film in Pannaipuram — the home of Gangai Amaren, Ilaiyaraja and family — as an excuse to poke fun at filmi village stereotypes. The ‘Nattamai,' for instance.

Doing away with cliches

While Venkat Prabhu's digs at pop culture are more celebratory than satirical, Amudhan's is a no-holds barred review of the eccentricities, clichés and ridiculous conventions of Tamil cinema. What differentiates “Tamizh Padam” from the good old Lollu Sabha spoofs on TV is Amudhan's film stops to make a point when the hero revisits his old village in Cinemapatti to discover that very little was left back there.

Our cinema had moved away from the villages and its rituals, only to get stuck in a rut of hero-worshipping star-vehicles. Heroes were made because of their ability to beat people up and were cheered for their innovative ways of settling scores. Everything from learning Bharatanatyam to becoming a millionaire was a song montage away. The kid could grow up in the next frame and a bullet that leaves the gun might take ages before it hits the victim. Or so, Amudhan illustrates in his film/review.

If Venkat Prabhu names one of his heroes after Ramarajan, Amudhan has a statue of Ramarajan milking a cow (“Enga Ooru Paatukaaran”) and also cues in a family song to reunite son with father.

Both films have been criticised for leisurely pace (“Goa” more than “Tamizh Padam”) and lack of story… In fact, the ad for “Tamizh Padam” says: “Please don't keep calling the director for the film's story. We would tell you if we knew it.”

But there's no denying the fact that these films celebrated irreverence and also broke convention.

Venkat Prabhu treats a gay couple as a regular couple with security issues (probably the only time the film gets a tad serious). And, a dead serious Amudhan picturises full-blown spoof songs with the grandeur of commercial films, subverts a rape scene (the female gangster chases a virgin college boy) and employs humour by exaggeration to great length and effect to put the “Scary Movie” genre to shame.

Tamil cinema may never be the same again.