Media Talks Back: The Independent Spirit in Tamil Cinema

A cinephile masquerading as a chemical engineer ultimately turned award winning film critic – Baradwaj Rangan’s journey into the realm of cinema has won him the National Award for Best Film Critic, placed him in the position of deputy editor at The Hindu, and taken him on film festival forays around the world. His most recent cinematic excursion was to the Berlin Film Festival 2015, where he was invited to cover the event. “It’s a cinephile’s dream come true,” he begins, waves of nostalgia washing over his tone of voice. “It’s amazing to see the most prestigious directors, the biggest stars. I really liked Peter Greenaway’s new movie Eisenstein In Guanajuato that premiered at the festival – a return to form for him, and for a filmmaker to have that sort of energy at his age is incredible. I especially enjoyed the section devoted to technical Hollywood cinema – they had restored a few iconic films, so we saw The African Queen the way the audience in 1951 actually saw it! This was beautifully done, and it honoured the original makers.”

Back now on home turf in Chennai, we spoke more with Baradwaj on the cinema that lies close to his home and heart – Tamil cinema through the ages, its evolution from a theatre tradition to the silver screen, and the pioneers who had the courage to break out of the mould, showcasing the imaginative spirit of the independent filmmaker and creating avant-garde works of art that were years ahead of their time.

Nirupama: Tell us more about the origins of Tamil cinema and its roots in the tradition of theatre?
Baradwaj: See, Tamil cinema takes a lot from theatre – some of the most prominent screen writers have come from the theatre tradition. So until the end of the 60s, you had a Tamil film culture that was very rhetoric based – people spoke these long-winded dialogues, created dramatic situations, it was almost a stage play shot on camera. When you talk about cinema – elements like mise en scène – there wasn’t much of that. There’s a famous director called K. Balachander – he came from the stage, so again his films were very stage bound, dialogue oriented. But then once the 70’s came around, he like many other filmmakers changed the way he made films, they became much more cinematic.

Nirupama: What was it about the era that made the 70s such an experimental playground for directors of Tamil cinema?
Baradwaj: There’s a phrase one often uses in circumstances like this – ‘there must have been something in the water’ [laughs]. In the 70s you saw a lot of new filmmakers who came in and broke the mould of how stories were told – P. Bharathiraja, Balu Mahendra, J. Mahendran. They were unique for their time, but I would hesitate to lump them under the independent category – but they were independent spirited. A lot of these films were still made with big stars, so there was no struggle – the moment these faces are on a poster, you’re guaranteed sales! But they did interesting things with naturalistic camera work, the music started to evolve with the arrival of Ilayaraja – he pioneered a music that emerged from symphonic stores, all sorts of influences that he would effortlessly blend together. The cinematography also evolved – natural lighting started to emerge, and for the first time we saw good looking colour films, naturally shot.

Earlier, one thing that was very popular was plot – it was all drawn earlier from the Tamil theatrical tradition where the emphasis was placed on plot – but now, with the advent of these filmmakers you saw emphasis on mood and character, long pauses, shots of characters simply not doing anything.

Nirupama: Why do you think Tamil cinema flowered the way it did during the 70s? What was it about the era that inspired directors to experiment so boldly?
Baradwaj: I think it was something in the fact that both MGR and Sivaji Ganesan were winding down – and in their heydays, they defined the kinds of movies that were being made. MGR was making all these commercial wham bam films, Sivaji was making these theatrical sorts of films, but when they started winding down in the 70s there were a lot of people coming in and discovering you could make films without these two, and there were a newer crop of heroes rising up who were open to experimenting. Also, there was a lot more exposure to international cinema because of the film festivals coming up, so a lot of these younger directors were trying to do something different. You’re also talking about a decade of when people suddenly said ‘this is cinema, let’s not use it just to tell stories, let’s use it to showcase the medium and the way stories are told’ – so we saw different styles of acting, photography, and music emerging.

Agraharathil Kazhutai

(From left to right: Agraharathil Kazhutai; Aval Appadithan;Subramaniapuram)

Nirupama: Your top 3 picks of Tamil cinema that our readers should watch, that showcase this independent spirit we’ve been talking about?

1. John Abraham – Agraharathil Kazhutai
This is a film about a donkey living in an enclosed Brahmin area – it’s a very political, very Marxist film. Why this film (like the one above) is so fascinating is because of the ethos it represents, the intellectualism, the way they it’s shot – it’s true to the material rather than some misconstrued notion of what the audience wanted at the time.

2. C. RudhraiyaAval Appadithan
This was an independent spirited film that ironically features some of the biggest stars of the time – Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth. It’s a film about a documentary filmmaker making a film about the state of women, and about a woman who has faced some traumatic circumstances who comes into the character’s lives. Now the reason I call this is an independent film is because it was made in black and white, these actors agreed to taking time out of their busy schedules, and it was the directorial debut of a very young filmmaker named C. Rudhraiya. It’s a very well made movie because it doesn’t unfold in the typical way, you could lump it under art cinema.

3. M. SasikumarSubramaniapuram
I thought this film was extraordinary because it took Bharathiraja’s template and used an international filmmaking sensibility in it, and what’s really nice today is you see a lot of filmmakers who keep up with international cinema, and it means they try all sorts of exciting things in their films. There are people who are willing to try new things – and that’s what will keep the medium exciting.

For more of Baradwaj Rangan’s reviews, visit his blog at

Nirupama Belliappa

Nirupama is a musician, TV presenter, photographer, and the instrumentalist/vocalist for the popular electronica live act BLaNK - the winners of MTV's Ultimate DJ Championship. An accomplished journalist, she is a features writer at IndiEarth. Follow her on instagram: @nipsiandthedeepseas Facebook:

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