How are best-of lists curated? Are films picked based on how much they minted at the box-office and added to the star’s fandom? What about those that inspire us? Or do we just want simple salt-of-the-earth stories that we can relate to the most?
The answer is quite simple: nobody quite knows. The best film of the year/ decade needn’t necessarily be your favourite film — the one you liked, nay, loved —for reasons best known to you. Everyone is right about cinema, and everyone is wrong: isn’t that what makes it so great? And frankly, we are nobody to tell you what to think.
As Kamal Haasan himself best put it when asked how he chooses his favourite films: “It’s like falling in love! Why do you fall in love with someone? Who knows? It’s the same with movies.”
We couldn’t agree more. Without further ado, these are our picks.
Pradeep Kumar’s pick: Merku Thodarchi Malai (2018)
Tamil cinema’s bountiful list of fantastical duds over the past decade does not make it easy to pick a favourite film; it still isn’t as simple as choosing apples over oranges.
But Merku Thodarchi Malai is a personal favourite for the story that filmmaker Lenin Bharathi chose to bring to life on screen.
The film has, what I would prefer to call, a universal script. It encapsulates various facets of human life that cuts across class, caste and gender borders. Merku Thodarchi Malai chronicles the life of Rengasamy (played by a debutant, Antony), a daily wager who works in one of the estates bordering Theni and Idukki districts in Tamil Nadu and Kerala respectively. The narration is linear, and how Rengasamy’s life is turned upside down by factors not in his control is what the story is about.
The element of trust is a crucial cog. It is what decides the course of the story line right from when Rengasamy is handed a bag of cash by his employer to be taken uphill to when a betrayal of trust by a politician decidedly alters the protagonist’s life.
The pluses begin with the setting: the story unfolds on the Western Ghats (note the preposition), which meant that the expertise of Theni Eswar (cinematographer), a Bodinayakkanur native, was required to make the viewer dwell upon and appreciate the lofty ghats in all its vigour. He also seemed to know exactly what kind of shots would achieve this desired effect. Secondly, it is no mean task to get untrained artistes to act on screen. The fact that almost no performer in the film, at any point of time, even remotely appeared to be camera conscious is credit to Lenin Bharathi.
Besides trust, money and politics too are at the core of this subject. Merku ... is perhaps the only film in the last decade (if memory serves right), which adopts a neutral stance on left politics, depicting both the essential and the ugly side of it.
Choosing a community seldom represented in a mainstream feature in order to weave a tale that finds resonance with the majority audience is something of a masterstroke by the filmmaker. Rengasamy’s quest for a land he could call his own is at the same time a commentary on how the caste hierarchy left majority communities landless as it is a critique of the middle class ambition. And when he loses his bag of cardamom, we grieve, not only for Rengasamy but also with him.
For these reasons and more, Merku Thodarchi Malai is everything Tamil cinema could look up to, and aspire to evolve into, going forward.
Other picks in chronological order: Aaranya Kaandam, Yuddham Sei, Kalyana Samayal Saadham, Madras, Kaaka Muttai, Kuttram Kadithal, Visaranai, 24, Uriyadi, Joker, Kaala, Pariyerum Perumal, 96, Oththa Seruppu Size 7
Gautam Sunder’s pick: Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum (2016)
Browsing through 10 years of incredible original content, yet picking a remake of a Korean film as my favourite of the decade should count as some kind of disqualification.
Never mind, Nalan Kumarasamy’s relationship dramedy is so charming, so whimsical, so deliciously stand-out in a decade starved of urban middle-class romances that aren’t about the class divide or a desperate attempt to modernize the characters and appear woke, that it just about justifies the choice. And in a decade which we agreed belonged to Vijay Sethupathi , surely, a film in which his character is so quintessentially Vijay Sethupathi-esque, deserves more cheer?
She’s (Madonna Sebastian in the most dazzling of Tamil debuts) an engineering graduate from Viluppuram who cannot wait to lead an independent life in the big city; he’s an affable, mid-tier gangster who’s just out of jail and now dreams of printing his own visiting card that reads ‘Bar Owner’.
Right from the beginning, you know this is going to be something … not just different, but also special, in that immersive Maheshinte Prathikaaram -kinda way (which is my Malayalam film of the decade) when you start falling in love with every person who comes on screen. The heroine’s parents who continually keep surprising us with their reactions whenever the time is ripe for a dramatic meltdown. I’d love to see a movie about that family. Heck, even a backstory chronicling the friendship/rivalry between Samuthirakani and G.M. Sundar’s characters before they ended up at this point, sounds eminently watchable.
Or the best arc of all: the almost blink-and-you-miss-it bromance between Sethupathi’s Kathiravan and his sidekick/ gangster-in-the-waiting Murali (played with such exquisite obsequiousness by the talented Manikandan, that you long to adopt and keep him safe). The anti(?)-climax when Kathiravan thrashes Murali and sends him on his way, is a moment of such subtle ‘ Anna -ness’, I couldn’t stop beaming.
But what about the ‘love’ story? That’s just it: there isn’t one. It’s one thing to make your directorial debut with a devil-may-care hoot like Soodhu Kavvum , but quite another to cast two leads with ridiculously engaging screen presences, in a script that at no point establishes an obvious romantic angle between them, and expect audiences to stay invested in your sophomore effort.
Yet, Nalan succeeds brilliantly, and the writing indeed is so good that we don’t even notice that he’s given us one of Tamil cinema’s most relevant, progressive heroines of the decade. Madonna’s Yazhini gets over an ex-boyfriend without much ado, fights to move away from home and pursue her career, gets mattai -drunk with her next-door gangster neighbour (and doesn’t regret it too vehemently the next morning), pepper sprays the hell out of a creepy HR who tries to sexually harass her, and in the funniest line of the movie, tells Sethupathi she only hugged him like Eskimos hug their pet dog when they feel too cold.
This, and many other moments: right from the first 15 minutes of the film that is narrated from Yazhini’s perspective (the hero doesn’t even make an entry until then), the gloriously-awkward ‘fight’ scenes which still pack in a great deal of invention, the meet-cutes and banter between the leads (Kathir’s ‘drunken prawn’ analogy to explain her dad’s mind-numbing spiel to Yazhini is hilarious) all make for heady viewing.
But at the centre of it all is Sethupathi: just watch him in the scene when he swaggers out of Yazhini’s office after that interview scene, mission accomplished, or the pure unbridled joy that radiates from him during the opening stretches of the Ka Ka Ka Po song (another fantastic soundtrack from Sa Na) and you understand that this is an actor at the peak of his powers, without even realising it himself.
And, that, is a pretty special darn thing.
Other picks in chronological order: Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa, Soodhu Kavvum, Kaaka Muttai, Jigarthanda, Velaiyilla Pattathari, Visaranai, Uttama Villain, O Kadhal Kanmani, Aandavan Kattalai, Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru, Meyaadha Maan, Vada Chennai, Kaala, Pariyerum Perumal
Srivatsan S’s pick: Vada Chennai (2018)
Director: Vetri Maaran
How ludicrous of me to put together a listicle on 15 favourite movies of the 2010s, in an era that gave us Thiagarajan Kumararaja, Karthik Subbaraj, Nalan Kumarasamy, Pa Ranjith, K Manikandan...with remarkably distinct voices? I ask nothing but forgiveness from Cinema Gods, for I have sinned. Let me admit; a movie that came remotely close to toppling Vada Chennai , obviously, is Super Deluxe (probably because it is Tamil cinema’s first attempt at avant-garde).
About The Godfather , film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “If ever there was a great example of how the best popular movies come out of a merger of commerce and art, The Godfather is it.” Kael’s beautifully-concise review of The Godfather is why I picked Vada Chennai , which treads a fine line between art and commerce, and that it achieves effortlessly by being simple and grounded. Where does one even start? Should we talk about how each era reinterprets the gangster genre, and how Vetri Maaran’s gangster saga is both primitive and primal? Should we discuss how sprawling the narrative is, which employs a twisted flashback-within-flashback-within-flashback (like The Irishman ) in Vada Chennai , spread across several decades (it opens in 1987, the year in which the best gangster movie released, Nayakan . Perhaps an ode?) Or should we begin with how painstakingly researched it is, giving us both rich detail and texture? For instance, in the jail portions, an inmate says, “Innuma balli beedi ezhukara (lizard tail lacing)?” Vetri’s OCD for detailing shows even in that split-second scene.
Let us start with the basics: Vada Chennai is an epic, whose marvellous achievement lies in the way its characters have been designed and performed by a terrific ensemble. What is more fascinating about its larger structure is the extent Vetri goes to establish the nested lives of Rajan and Anbu, wherein the signs are even throughout. For example, Anbu peeps at Padma through a pair of binoculars gifted by Rajan. Anbu, in fact, takes to carrom (with which he would get close to Senthil’s camp) upon Rajan’s suggestion. The character Siva (who is one-sided in love with Padma) in Anbu’s world is sketched to mirror Guna (who falls for Chandra) in Rajan’s. What Rajan says to Chandra’s father is what Anbu says to Padma’s. And they both make a rousing statement about anchoring, with Santhosh Narayanan’s orchestral piece of music.
Scratch the surface and it keeps giving, and you will find Vetri paying a silent tribute to Shakespeare (Kannan says he lost sleep because of the blood stains in his hands...Macbeth?) and Coppola. The latter because the assassination of Rajan — from construction to execution — is Vetri saying, “Listen, let us do a Michael Corleone kills Sollozzo scene.” The “compromation” between Guna and Senthil, I suspect, is also a retelling of the meeting of five families from The Godfather . There are two vital scenes, if you consider the art side of it. The first is the gloriously-staged interval block, where Velraj’s camera just oscillates on screen ending with a bang: the frame is lit in such a way that it literally puts the spotlight on Anbu, where the narrative gear shits from thereon. The second being the Rajan murder stretch, which has a wonderful three-minute long shot. Vada Chennai requires a standalone post, deconstructing the greatness of Dhanush, the actor, and a character study on the most ballsy femme fatale, Chandra.
For a filmmaker who made his second movie in the start of this decade, Vada Chennai reiterates a) why Vetri Maaran has further cemented his position among the masters and b) why it is important to not let his voice bogged down by producers.
Other picks in chronological order: Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, Aadukalam, Aaranya Kaandam, Soodhu Kaavum, Onayum Aatukuttiyum, Jigarthanda, Madras, Uttama Villain, Kaaka Muttai, Uriyadi, Meyaadha Maan, Pariyerum Perumal, Merku Thodarchi Malai, Super Deluxe
Srinivasa Ramanujam’s pick: Pariyerum Perumal (2018)
How much of an impact can a character that lasts for just the first five minutes if a film have?
A more than significant one, if you’re aware of a new filmmaker named Mari Selvaraj and his powerful Pariyerum Perumal (2018).
The first deeply-affecting five minutes involving a hunting dog (accentuated by Santosh Narayanan’s anguish-filled ‘Karuppi’) sets the right angry tone for PP . The exasperation in ‘Karuppi’ spills into the next song ‘Vanakkam Vanakkamunga’ (that has a line that goes, ‘Sollil Kopam Kooda Irukalaam’) and into every frame in PP.
The Angry Young Man template gets a major changeover in this film — for, Pariyan (an excellent Kathir) is not up against a traditional villain or force. He’s battling an entire mindset in the modern age (the film is set in 2005) — one that still distinguishes based on caste.
A professor in his law college calls him a “a chicken that came through the quota system”. More abuses are hurled against him by fellow students. Being Pariyan isn’t easy.
If karuppi the dog was his ‘devathai’ (angel) during his hunting days, he finds more angels on the way at college. There’s a teacher who helped him pass but the one that has a lasting impact is Jothi Mahalakshmi (an innocent, so oblivious to the caste conflict happening around her).
It’s because of his friendship with her that Pariyan, now out of the comfort zone of ‘his people’ and out in the society, faces the wrath of a few for whom caste differences are ingrained in their minds. The kalyana mandapam scene is one for the ages, be it the dialogues (If you study with her do you think we are equals, asks the father) or the performances. When Pariyan arrives at the hall, he has a gift in hand and a smile in face. But once he’s humiliated (and even urinated upon), he’d left there, writhing in pain, as a door that he thought was open now closes on him. The imagery in this fantastic interval block is powerful — you can see Pariyan banging on a door that has closed on him, and subsequently lying, in anguish, amidst a heap of vegetable waste. Minutes ago, he was among ‘them’ and now he’s among their waste.
Every aspect of PP screams attention: be it the colour patterns in ‘Naan Yaar’ (blue and red are used extensively), or the attention to detail. Watch out for the scene in which Pariyan sits in a front bench and refuses to go back. ‘Why should I go back? I’ll sit in the front,’ he thunders, in a tone so similar to Rajinikanth saying ‘I will wear a coat’ in Kabali — which is, interestingly, directed by PP producer Pa Ranjith, a director solely responsible for introducing caste-based discussion in mainstream Tamil cinema this decade.
There are other interesting characters; a devastating old man whose intentions become clearer as the film progresses, a Principal whose father happened to be a cobbler and the best of it all, Pariyan’s father: a man who dresses up like a woman to perform in dance programmes. This is an assortment of characters you’ll rarely find in Tamil cinema
Pariyerum Perumal deserves far more accolades than it has already got, for its performances, its writing and most importantly, its intention. It deserves to be seen far and wide; thankfully, it’s on Amazon Prime, with subtitles. For, which other film in recent times in any language has managed to convey what PP did in its stunning climax single shot of two tea glasses?
Other picks in chronological order: Aadukalam, Pizza, Kalakalappu, Thegidi, Madras, Kaaka Muttai, Indru Netru Naalai, Uriyadi, Maanagaram, Oru Kidariyin Karunai Manu, Theeran Adhigaram Ondru, Pyar Prema Kadhal, Ratchasan, Super Deluxe