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It is the package that ultimately matters

The message from the audience is clear — that the Tamil film industry needs to redefine its overbearing star system and inflated budgets, says SREEDHAR PILLAI looking back at 2002.

"Run" changed Madhavan's image from the boy-next-door to an action hero.

THE YEAR 2002 was particularly bad for Tamil cinema, when `house full' boards and frenzied crowds in front of the theatres were missing. There were only 63 straight films, though a 100-odd were dubbed from other languages, mainly English. Among the 63 films, only five were able to make profit through theatrical rights and the ratio of hits is only 8 to 10 per cent compared to the usual 15 to 20 per cent.

The biggest letdown of 2002 was the failure of Rajnikanth's "Baba" at the box-office. In fact, none of the so-called Tamil superstars had a single hit that could make it to the top five (see box). Five years back, one film with a good superstar formula was enough to satisfy film lovers from Anna Salai to Andipatti. Today, as the market splinters, different genres work in different regions. The urban audience connects more with Kamal Hassan comedies while a crass comedy like "Sundara Travels" appeals in the interiors. Still, soul searching is on, and most trade people cite various reasons for Tamil films' poor showing at the box office.

According to G. Venkateswaran of G. V. Films, who had two releases this year, "Unless the content is good, people will not come to the theatres, whatever the star cast. But stars alone cannot be blamed as the overall presentation has to improve." Take the case of "Gemini," the biggest hit of the year that ran on the strength of an item number "O...Podu". And its hero Vikram's new-found action image. But the same Vikram could not live up to his star image when his next two films proved to be duds at the box-office.

Suddenly, the so-sweet Madhavan, who had a boy-next-door image, was found playing action hero in ``Run." The bottom line is all about the right kind of packaging to woo the loyal cinemagoers of today, who are basically in the 15 to 30 age group.

And stars like Ajit and Vijay have been working to woo this audience with their song and dance routines. The audience is also increasingly veering towards other forms of entertainment, particularly the television.

Added to that, the heroines of Tamil films have been reduced to playing the hero's glamorous sidekick, and they have nothing much to do other than do the routine song and dance numbers.

"Gemini"... it ran on the strength of the "O...Podu" number.

Asked leading actress Sneha, "Where are the meaty heroine-oriented roles in Tamil cinema?" More alarming is that voice of the top five heroines is dubbed, as they cannot speak proper Tamil! No wonder women these days prefer serials like "Annamalai" and "Anni," where women are the protagonists.

Another irritating and jarring trend seen only in Tamil films is that the comedy runs on a different track. In the recent "Run," Vivek does not exchange a single word with the film's main characters, but has his own slapstick comedy interpolated into the narrative.

Vivek, along with Vadivelu, has created a trend in Tamil films with their brand of jokes and double entendres that have become repetitive and tedious. Members of the tribe — Vivek, Vadivelu, Karunas, Ramesh Kanna and the old brigade of Goundamani and Senthil — are so busy these days that they work on daily wages.

But there are some silver linings. New stars like Srikanth and heroines like Sneha, Kiran, and Meera Jasmine have been noticed for their freshness and mass appeal. Cameraman-turned-director Thankar Bachan has carved a niche audience for his films with "Azhagi" and "Solla Marantha Kathai." Master craftsman Mani Ratnam moved away from popular cinema to make an art classic — ``Kannathil Muthamittal" — which almost made it to the Oscars. The boom of making small budget films with newcomers, peppy songs and lots of glamour and glitz seems to have gone bust with the release of 20-odd films in this genre.

All this started with a small film, "Thulluvatho Ilamai" hitting the bull's eye. The film that was made on a very low budget of about Rs. 90 lakhs garnered nearly six to eight times its investment, and a spate of similar films followed suit. Unfortunately, none of these films could recover the cost of its print and publicity.

The only reason for audience apathy towards Tamil films has been the third rate products being churned out by Kodambakkam dream factories. The message is clear that the Tamil film industry needs to redefine its overbearing star system and inflated budgets. No film is viable if it costs more than Rs. 5 crores, and if 40 to 50 per cent of the budget goes towards the payment of the stars' salary. The only way out for the industry is to rationalise budget, re-orient the star system and most importantly, tell good stories.

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