It's back to glistening aruvaals, lush paddy fields, gripping cockfights and undiluted love as Kollywood revives its rural romance. Anand Venkateswaran on the fresh breeze from the countryside

Here's a word picture. Guess the film — the metallic whoosh of the hero's aruvaal slicing the screen, war trumpets blaring in the background. Cut to scenery; verdant hills, paddy fields, lead actor and love interest gazing passionately into each other's eyes, conversing in a dialect which doubles as a geography lesson.

Here's another word picture. Guess the film — the metallic whoosh of the hero's aruvaal slicing the screen, war trumpets blaring in the background. Cut to scenery; verdant hills, paddy fields, lead actor and love interest gazing passionately into each other's eyes, conversing in a dialect which doubles as a geography lesson.

I was describing two different movies. Couldn't you tell? In your defence, between Aadukalam which hit the screens in January and Mambattiyan which rolled out in December, the year 2011 saw at least 25 movies set, partly or wholly, in Tamil Nadu's villages. There are many more awaiting release in 2012.

Vetri Maaran's vision of Madurai's cockfights and Dhanush as the leading man was a powerful push to the genre. Bala's Avan Ivan (June), Hari's Venghai (July) and Sargunam's Vaagai Sooda Vaa (September) were all movies with stories set in distinct regions, often established with shots of landmarks, subtitling and a practised accent. They all raked it in.

So there's definitely a trend, which has evidently picked up steam over the past three years or so. Time for a debate then: is this good for Tamil cinema, or will it end in a painful era of stereotypes and formula filmmaking?

Reluctant to call it a trend, director Vetrimaaran says filmmakers are increasingly aware about who and what the film represents. “A filmmaker's quest for authenticity might take him away from the beaten path. Aadukalam was our search for identity, for ethnicity. That it took us away from the metropolis is incidental,” he says.

For one, the success of films with rural themes has opened a huge window of creative opportunity to an entire generation of filmmakers and writers. The convenience of basing a movie in one's native town and the confidence that this familiarity inspires has meant that debutants have drawn happily from recent memory. A case in point — Sargunan. He would've thought twice about making Kalavani (2010) or Vaagai Sooda Vaa even five years ago. “It is better this way,” Vetrimaaran says. “A filmmaker is better off working with what he knows, so that he stays true to the geography, the sociology and to the people his movie is about. Also, he would have control over the film,” he explains.

And the veterans in the field could now explore a wider range of material and locations close to their heart. Bala's Avan Ivan, for instance.

However, some say it is criminal to restrict movies to a particular geography. Admittedly “obsessed with cinema,” actor and film analyst ‘Kavithaalaya' Krishnan says, “It is ironic that filmmakers lose track of plausibility, trapped by the rules of their genre. And the trend is on its way out. One swallow doesn't make a summer, after all.”

An overview of movie performances this year makes it hard to disagree with Krishnan.

Other filmmakers attempted to ride the Aadukalam wave all through the year, but very few made a mark. Ammu Ramesh's Thambikottai (February) with Narain (of Chittiram Paesuthadi fame) got a lukewarm response in B and C centres, Azhagarsaamiyin Kudhirai (May) met with critical acclaim, but so many others, such as Nandhi (February), Maithanam (May), Bodinayakanur Ganesan (July), Varnam (October) and Thambi Vettothi Sundaram (November), tanked. Strangely, AVM, a usually canny production house, released a rather forgettable Mudhal Idam (August). That this movie was its 175th is tragic. Clearly then, it's not the theme in particular that pulls the movie past break even and into hit territory. Perhaps that ‘X' factor isn't much of a secret. Vox populi seems to tell us right after the first show why a movie is liked or disliked — acting, story or songs.

What kundakamandaka…?

Be it realism or something exotic in Tamil cinema, filmmakers are turning to villages for content and inspiration. If you found yourself gyrating to ‘Otrakkannaale’, or feeling the heat and dust of brick kilns as ‘Sengasoolakara’ engulf you, or wishing you went on your honeymoon to the villages featured in ‘Naan sonnathum mazha vanthuchcha’, you know what I’m talking about.

There’s now a strong flavour of ethnicity; stories are no longer too colloquial, dialects are no longer too specific. Idioms and catchphrases you could never find in a Tamil dictionary are now essentials in casual conversation. ‘Kundakamandaka,’ for instance, to describe something lopsided or messed up, ‘karachal’ is a mishmash or ruckus. The borrowed ‘nasookku’, an appeal for finesse and ‘vittu’, a good one-liner.

A touch of philosophy to wrap it up — Koottikazhichchu paaththa kanakku sariyathaan varum (In the end, it all evens out).

Keywords: Kollywood

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