In the rush to celebrate mass movies, genuine stories got lost somewhere along the way. But, not all hope is lost, writes SUDHISH KAMATH

Let's start with the one of the most used devices in Tamil cinema — the flashback. It will help us understand the hero better.

Year 1999. After the invasion of cable TV in the Nineties, housewives turned captive to the charms of the idiot box. The cinemas of the North and South acted in diametrically opposite ways. Hindi cinema went abroad, chasing the NRI. Meanwhile, Tamil cinema took to the streets because only the population that didn't particularly like staying at home frequented the cinemas.

Only a Kamal Haasan comedy or a rare “Padayappa” would drag family audiences to the movie hall. As filmmaker Saran once observed, the audience in the cinema halls was all-male… and you know how much the boys love violence. The Tamil film hero had turned into a full-blown rowdy. He could send 10 guys flying with a single blow. He loved to stalk, harass women, and would occasionally give the heroine lessons on how to dress.

Telling contrast

Javed Akhtar, during an interview, remarked that the Hindi film hero was turning self-centered. It was no longer about the society, but about the individual. By contrast, the Tamil film hero still stood up for the people when provoked. Superstar film plots were rehashed again and again.

Captain Vijaykanth continued to make films for the rural centres, Sarathkumar began to experiment once in a while, Sathyaraj bravely went full-on arthouse and Prabhu returned to do weighty character-roles.

During the first half of the decade, Tamil cinema shamelessly celebrated the hero and new matinee idols were born. Vijay, Ajith and Vikram together sent hundreds of stuntmen flying, and once they became popular, they came with a premium for producers and rarely did anything remotely offbeat.

Meanwhile, Hindi films turned their attention to multi-starrers and scouted around for fresh stories and newer conflicts, rarely succeeding, but, at least, filmmakers tried.

A new breed of multiplex films was born and corporates were encouraged to put their money on newcomers.

Refreshing change

Tamil cinema saw the arrival of a fresh batch of filmmakers responsible for making stars out of actors — directors including Saran, Bala, Dharani, Ameer, Selvaraghavan, Murugadoss, Linguswamy and Gautham Vasudev Menon who believed in their script more than the star. And there were those (such as Perarasu, Ramana and Hari) who continued to hero-worship the star.

The seniors, Mani Ratnam, Shankar, K.S. Ravikumar and Cheran, continued doing what they did best and succeeded with great consistency, while the ruling demi-gods Rajinikanth and Kamal made a conscious effort to stay clear of formula and experiment with offbeat scripts.

They set a fine example for the younger breed of actors such as Suriya, Madhavan and Dhanush, who followed their path of alternating commercial films with offbeat roles. Simbu seems to have a taken a cue too, signing up with Gautham Vasudev Menon, and Prashanth is set to make a comeback with an offbeat role.

The young and the brave pioneered Tamil cinema's foray into the road less travelled during the second half of the decade, which saw the arrival of Venkat Prabhu, Vishnuvardhan, Mysskin and Sasikumar. Encouraged by the cinema produced and promoted by Shankar and Prakash Raj, talented filmmakers such as Balaji Sakthivel and Radhamohan flourished, and the script once again turned hero.

For want of stars to back these scripts, filmmakers turned actors following the example set by Cheran and S.J. Suryah.

Woman power

With scripts back in focus, half-a-dozen women filmmakers (Janaki Viswanathan, Priya V, Anita Udeep, Gayathri Pushkar, Nandhini JS and Madhumita) got a break. As stars churned out flops, the business became risky and distributors turned wary of Minimum Guarantee. Ironically, this only made it more difficult for films without stars to be sold.

Film families saw this as an opportunity to launch a new generation of stars — Jeeva, Vishal and Jeyam Ravi — who were open to the idea of doing script-based films. To add to the list of problems, including escalating star salaries, production and marketing costs, increasing cost of popcorn, old-fashioned policies on satellite and video rights and the lack of takers for script-based films, the film business continues to be plagued by pirates. But there are some problems that can be fixed.

For instance, script. Observes Anjum Rajabali, professional screenwriter and Department Head of Screenwriting at Film and Television Institute of India, Pune and Whistling Woods, Mumbai: “Flops are always attributed to every other reason other than the script. Nobody wants to admit that the film failed because of a bad script.”

The inherent problem with star-based cinema is that the star wants to play a character so powerful that there can be nothing that can affect him. It's high time filmmakers and actors realised the importance of conflict in storytelling. The greater the struggle, the greater the glory. Unless the Tamil movie star remembers the way back to the road that brought him all the way, films will continue to flop. Let's have more films such as “Chennai 600028”, “Paruthiveeran”, “Mozhi” and “Subramaniapuram”. Let the director call the shots, please.