Many period flicks are being made these days and they keep the cash registers ringing. What determines their success?

“This is a great time for period cinema,” director Vasanthabalan told me one evening. Being a novice and unsure of trends in Tamil cinema, I was ambivalent about period films making a comeback. But seeing the maker of films such as Veyil and Angadi Theru leapfrog genres and base his next movie, Aravaan, in the 18th Century, made me think.

Subramaniapuram, Aayiraththil Oruvan, Madrasappattinam, 7aum Arivu, Vaagai Sooda Vaa, Dasavatharam, Vaaranam Aayiram and 23am Pulikesi came to mind. Besides, Ponnar Shankar and Ilaignan asked for attention. That's quite a lot of period films off the cuff, I felt. I could see a trend being set. Armed with a phone and a pen, I dusted the seat of my trusted motorbike and rode off into the past.

Time travel

At first, the landscape was barren. The period film street was practically deserted in the 90s and quite frankly impoverished in the 80s. Rajinikanth's Sri Raghavendra (1985) offered some solace. I stopped by M.G. Ramachandran's last film, Madhuraiyai Meetta Sundarapandiyan (1978). It told me of magnum opuses, epics and sagas of a golden era. I accelerated towards the beginning of it all.

A crowded pirate ship echoing a song of freedom in Aayiraththil Oruvan; Lord Shiva incognito stopping time in Thiruvilaiyadal (1965); an industrialist sacrificing all for his country in Kappalottiya Thamizhan (1961); a warrior rescuing a princess, killing the schemer and saving the kingdom, all in a day in Nadodi Mannan (1958); the last bit of colour glowing in the Scheherazadian Ali Babavum Narpadhu Thirudargalum (1956), P. Kannamba goading Sivaji Ganesan into bringing down the roof in Manohara (1954)…

Swords clanged, trumpets blared, kingdoms fell and horses galloped past, neighing. Then there was silence. I was in the silent era, an unfamiliar territory. To my navigational rescue came actor and film historian Mohan V. Raman.

Stifling a cough as dust from the tomes of film history irritated his throat, he said, “In the silent and early talkie eras, 98 per cent of films were either historical, mythical or biopics of saints, because filmmakers depended on the audience's familiarity with the story or legend. Very few filmmakers, such as Raja Sando or T. P. Rajalakshmi, used social themes.”

Then, a twist in the tale. “With the advent of playback, the likes of MGR and Sivaji came to the fore. Dialogue became the focal point and dependence on mythology waned. ‘Raja-rani' stories began to be message-driven. By the 60s, the ratio between fantasy and social themes had been reversed.” Agreed, cases in point are Nadodi Mannan (1958) and Ayirathil Oruvan (1965). But the trend waned. Why?

“First, economics. The sets, the art work, the costumes… it got too expensive. Besides, a powerful political movement had blown the winds of change over cinema.” Myth and legend were no more in vogue. End of an era. After a dramatic pause, Mohan Raman perked up. “But there's been aresurgence of period films now. You can't serve the same dish over and over again. CGI is here. With green screen or blue screen technology, you could achieve 100 per cent perfection. Imagine the possibilities!”

Cut to the present

I made my way back, pondering over the images of on-screen Gods the historian had conjured up — Ganesha with an animated trunk, Brahma who could talk with more than one head, and so on. It had been quite a ride and I needed a halt. My phone buzzed — it was Kavithalaya Krishnan. Who would he introduce me to now?

It was a high-end hotel, a shoot was imminent. Dressed in crisp linen, actor Jayaprakash (Pasanga, Naan Mahaan Alla, Mangatha) got talking about period cinema. After minutes of enthusiastic recollections of the swashbuckling heroes, their dialogue delivery and the grandeur of the sets, the actor lingered on Thillaanaa Mohanambal (1968). He explained, “The story was based decades before its release year. That makes it a period film. It was beautifully made.”

To cite an example of the beauty and variety of cinema, even within a genre, Jayaprakash made a connection from Thillaanaa... to a movie made in 2008. “A near-perfect film,” he and Krishnan exclaimed. I was going to Subramaniapuram next. Sasikumar let me into his world — “We were meticulous. The hairstyles, the fabric they used in their clothes, the jewellery, the language… we wanted to get everything right.”

And getting it right they did. Subramaniapuram was a runaway success. So was Vijay's Madrasapattinam (2010). Sargunam's Vaagai Sooda Vaa (2011) cast a big net too. I wondered what makes a period film tick.

“No matter how contemporary your message, the perspective is uncluttered if the story is set in the past. Also, when looking at a different era, a community can better judge what they've gained and what they've lost over time,” Sargunam told me.

Ah, audience is always king, isn't it? Has the viewer changed, then? “Story works now. Once the viewer is in the theatre, he expects you to keep him engaged for the next three hours. He doesn't care how heavy the cast is. If you tell the story well, he will accept it,” said Sasikumar.

So the audience is more accepting. What else has changed?

“There's a creative boom of sorts. Films important to Tamil cinema are being made, and the number of directors who can make them has increased,” said Vasanthabalan.

And tomorrow?

Good stories, competent directors, willing audiences — making a period movie must be a cinch now. Not quite. As I rode back into the city, I realised the landscape of cinema had changed. Star power might not cut ice anymore, nor ostentation. Story is bigger than ever and authenticity, indispensable. So while the tools of the trade have become more sophisticated, filmmakers have raised the bar for themselves.

I parked my bike, listening to the ticking engine. I couldn't help but think about the swashbucklers of those times; not too hung up on authenticity, but so rich in content, providing the feel they set out to give. Those were good stories too. What would today's leading men look like in plumes and tights, swinging from mammoth chandeliers, rescuing princesses with tousled hair? Not a bad picture, really.

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