Tamil cinema in 2023: From ‘Leo’ and ‘Jailer,’ to comebacks and trends the industry followed this year

With the Tamil film industry having one of its most creatively rewarding and financially lucrative years in recent times, here’s a look at what made 2023 special for those belonging to it and the audience

December 20, 2023 01:39 pm | Updated December 25, 2023 12:21 pm IST

Tamil films that made a mark in 2023

Tamil films that made a mark in 2023 | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The year is coming to a close and it’s safe to say that 2023 has been one of the best years for Tamil cinema in the post-pandemic era. Almost all the movers and shakers of the industry had a release, with most of them turning out to be blockbusters. There were some endearing comebacks, some great performances from unexpected talents, and a certain shift in the kind of roles written for our protagonists. Here are some of the major trends in the year that went by:

When small films ruled the roost

Apart from the biggies that pull in audiences for the big-screen experience, each year also dishes out some comparatively-smaller films that garner plaudits and fans for their storylines. . This year, the list was longer than usual, with gems like Por Thozhil, Bommai Nayagi, Dada, Ayothi, Yaathisai, Good Night, Kida and Parking. What made this year extra special for those involved in these projects?

‘Por Thozhil’ director Vignesh Raja

‘Por Thozhil’ director Vignesh Raja | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Por Thozhil director Vignesh Raja says, “Extrapolating from my experience, most of the films were greenlit either during or just before the pandemic. That is probably why there were not any debutants in 2020 after February, and in the following years, there were only a few. Films like Dada, Good Night and Por Thozhil were completed in 2022. I also strongly feel that the quality of films from debutants has been phenomenal. I think it was back in 2016 when we had a similar splurge with the debut of directors like Lokesh Kanagaraj, Sri Ganesh and Suresh Sangaiah. After the pandemic, the theatre footfall has also apparently increased and for them to choose a film, it’s got to be a star film or one with a strong content,” says Vignesh.

‘Dada’ director Ganesh K Babu

‘Dada’ director Ganesh K Babu | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Dada filmmaker Ganesh K Babu echoes the need for filmmakers to understand the business. “There are many factors that decide the success of a director’s first film. The artists in the film, distributors, theatre owners, the release date, and films competing with us on that particular day are just some of them. We actually put more effort into figuring out the right release window for Dada, because Varisu and Thunivu were still running in theatres and we pushed our release date a little further. Red Giant Movies releasing our film was actually a selling point. So apart from the creative aspects, we also need to consider the business aspects of filmmaking.”

“The way we stage a film not only decides its success but also the scale of our next project. It might look like a debutant’s film winning but I’ve been in the industry actively for 12 years now. So the process of making a film is still a struggle and those aspects of filmmaking haven’t become easy. But today, streaming isn’t looked at as a secondary medium and one can make a film there before making their feature film debut as well,” he adds.

Kavin in a still from ‘Dada’

Kavin in a still from ‘Dada’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“These days, we have to finish the film’s business before going for the shoot. Kavin’s Lift did well and based on its selling value in OTT, theatres and other languages, it became a yardstick for my film. The fact that my film was completely shot in Chennai and didn’t have outdoor expenses makes it easy for the producer. Such minute factors and the overall business of making a film are necessary knowledge for first-time filmmakers.”

Manikandan, Meetha Raghunath in a still from ‘Good Night’

Manikandan, Meetha Raghunath in a still from ‘Good Night’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Manikandan, who played the lead inGood Night, says, “I personally believe that non-star films not having what it takes to work as an illusion. Time and time again, Tamil cinema has proved that wrong and we’ve seen smaller films working all the time alongside big films. It would be a healthy space if an equilibrium is maintained between such smaller films and the star-driven ones. The success of smaller films also encourages the next round of newbies waiting for their turn to turn filmmakers.”

Rise of the anti-heroes

Gone are the days when heroes used to strive for the goodness of their people. These days, they are either robbing a bank and walking out of it with a cool background score or are drug peddlers who are trying to turn a new leaf. And, from the looks of it, it works. Ajith and Vijay, two of Tamil cinema’s biggest stars, played with grey shades this year in Thunivu and Leo respectively. It actually became a recurring theme for many of this year’s star vehicles such as Jigarthanda DoubleX, Mark Antony, Pathu Thala, Japan and Agilan.

Vijay in a still from ‘Leo’

Vijay in a still from ‘Leo’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“It comes down to what is liked and expected from a director. I do only action films, and I want to explore the possibilities of doing something new and innovative within that,” said Leo’s director Lokesh Kanagaraj to The Hindu during the film’s release. He believes such characters and action films featuring violence and bloodshed are not given the cold shoulder anymore. “I find the women in the audience to be an integral reason for the success of my previous films. I remember watching how two women cheered the most for the ‘jimiki’ scene in Kaithi. If the emotional aspects are taken care of, the family audience will like a film.”

ALSO READ | A history of violence: In defence of ‘Leo’ and Lokesh Kanagaraj’s penchant for the action genre 

When comedy turned into serious business

Comedians playing lead roles is not particularly new to Tamil cinema; everyone from Nagesh, Goundamani, Vivek and Vadivelu have done it. But what set this year apart is how three of the industry’s top comedians lapped the opportunity to do more than just make us laugh. Despite playing the lead several times before, nothing prepared us for Vadivelu’s outstanding performance in Maamannan. While he has shown his acting mettle in films like Thevar Magan, Sangamam and Em Magan, his titular character in Maamannan was unlike anything the veteran has attempted before.

Yogi Babu, who, apart from playing the comedian in films like Varisu, Maaveeran, Jailer and Jawan, also played the lead in Pa Ranjith’s production Bommai Nayagi, and wrapped up this year with light-hearted entertainers like Yaanai Mugathaan and Lucky Man.

Soori in a still from ‘Viduthalai’

Soori in a still from ‘Viduthalai’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Probably the biggest surprise this year was Soori turning “kadhayin naayagan” (plot’s protagonist) in Vetrimaaran’s Viduthalai. Along with the ever-dependable Vijay Sethupathi, Soori spearheaded a gripping tale on the abuse of power and its repercussions. “I was offered hero roles earlier, but they were in comedy films; the comedian Soori would have just had more screen space in these films. It didn’t feel like a risk worth taking. I think rejecting those films gave me Viduthalai,” said Soori earlier, during the film’s release. “I would still love to do films like Kadaikutty Singam and Varuthapadatha Valibar Sangam, and I get those types of stories too. But given that people are ready to spend money on me and do films starring me as the lead, I cannot afford to do random roles as a comedian anymore.”

A special mention for Kovai Sarala is also imperative given how the veteran played the lead in Prabhu Solomon’s adventure drama Sembi, which came out two days before 2023 dawned.

Where are the women-fronted films?

The last few years saw a sharp rise in women-centric films headlined by top actors from the industry. While the number of films starring women in the lead did not drop drastically, the ones that got critical acclaim were meagre when compared to previous years. One of the more prominent female-driven films of the year was Nelson Venkatesan’s Farhana, starring Aishwarya Rajesh.

A still from ‘Farhana’ and its director Nelson Venkatesan

A still from ‘Farhana’ and its director Nelson Venkatesan | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Speaking about it, Nelson says, “Right after the pandemic, many of the female-driven films were acquired by OTT players. The mood after the pandemic has also changed as to which content will and will not work theatrically. There’s an impression created that only action-driven drama and star-studded films will work in theatres. Very few producers, who are particular about content, are interested in small and mid-size films which is the category for female-driven films. When those films don’t do well, it’s difficult to mount such projects,” says Nelson.”

“The business sentiment, which is temporary, is not favouring such films right now. But thankfully, producers who believe in content and can manage the business with it are still focussing on such stories. The market is open to these films provided the content is good.”

Trisha in a still from ‘Leo’

Trisha in a still from ‘Leo’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Interestingly, the very same year saw the resurgence of Trisha, who not only collaborated once again with Mani Ratnam for the auteur’s magnum opus, Ponniyin Selvan 2, but she also reunited with Vijay for Leo. In an interview with The Hindu, she called this the most satisfying phase of her career. “To be where I am now, in a space where I know nothing’s gonna go away, and can afford to take some risks… I feel very secure. I didn’t have this in the early parts of my career, where there was just no time to process anything. I’m really enjoying it and wouldn’t trade it for anything,” said Trisha. Early next year, she’s starring alongside Ajith in Vidaa Muyarchi and Ram with Mohanlal.

The year belongs to Anirudh

Anirudh Ravichander

Anirudh Ravichander | Photo Credit: @anirudhofficial/Instagram

Last year, composer Anirudh Ravichander completed a decade in the film industry and incidentally, 2022 was also his busiest year. So what made 2023 even more iconic for the rockstar? Anirudh not only got together with some of his favourite collaborators, Nelson and Lokesh Kanagaraj for Jailer and Leo respectively, but also reunited with his actors Vijay and Rajinikanth. If that was not enough, he also made his debut as a solo composer in Hindi cinema with Atlee and Shah Rukh Khan’s Jawan. With next year’s line-up including films with Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Ajith and Jr NTR, the streak does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

Staging a comeback

There were quite a few filmmakers and actors who made their resurgence in various degrees after being a part of fruitless titles earlier. The biggest story has to be that of filmmaker Nelson who made a stellar comeback with Rajinikanth’s Jailer. Vinoth, whose Valimai opened to mixed reviews, teamed up with Ajith for the third time, for the successful Thunivu. Mark Antony, apart from being a wacky entertainer, doubled up as the return of filmmaker Adhik Ravichandran and actor Vishal.

ALSO READ: Karthik Subbaraj: ‘Jigarthanda DoubleX’ is my tribute to Clint Eastwood and Satyajit Ray

Raghava Lawrence in a still from ‘Jigarthanda DoubleX’

Raghava Lawrence in a still from ‘Jigarthanda DoubleX’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Sasikumar, whose recent films have not been crowd-pleasers, gave us Ayothi, one of this year’s most underrated flicks. Similarly, Chithha turned out to be one of Siddharth’s career-best movies, while Jigarthanda DoubleX was a much-needed success for Raghava Lawrence. “I’ve never thought about awards while selecting stories. I have always wanted to do commercial films, but thankfully, in Jigarthanda DoubleX, both commercial elements and great characterisation have been woven in,” said Lawrence to The Hindu during the film’s release.

On the whole, it has been a fantastic year for the Tamil film industry and a gratifying one for the audience. Here’s to hoping the industry makes more strides in 2024!

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