Readers Write In #457: Grammar, Vocabulary, Kaadhal, and all that

Posted on April 10, 2022


By Kailasham R

In a post on Prashant-Simran movies from the 90s that went live shortly after Diwali 2021, I made a comment that “on-screen romance in Tamil cinema would see a tectonic shift in grammar and vocabulary” in the decade or so that followed. A reader requested that I elaborate on this point. While this request forms the cue that triggered this post, I realized that a proper response would need to cover how the portrayal of the hero and heroine characters changed over this period, before getting to how the romance between these characters was captured on screen. You are now entering a narration that meanders and have been warned.

No one is claiming that at the stroke of the midnight hour on the first day of the current millennium, drastic changes were witnessed in Tamil cinema. The transition was gradual, and several movies in the early 00s retained the 90s ethos. A few of them still clicked with the audience. Those that were too anachronistic were consigned to the refuse heap accordingly.

Mechanical Engineering student-na oru fire vendaan?

Actor Murali in Idhayam is a medical student, Arjun and Vineeth are aspiring doctors in Gentleman, Prabhudeva is an arts college student in Kaadhalan, as are Vineeth and Abbas in Kaadhal Desam. Kunal is a business school student in Kaadhalar Dhinam. Arjun has completed a degree in visual communications in Mudhalvan. Ajith is an aspiring composer in Mugavari and a filmmaker in Kandukondain Kandukondain. The twins Prashant run a catering business in Jeans. Many movies of Sarathkumar and Sathyaraj show the protagonists as school dropouts. Several movies that released in the 90s did not focus on the professional background of the lead characters and this lack of detail, in many cases, did not really affect the story and its progression. Explicit references to engineers during this period, were few and far between. There were exceptions: Prashant is introduced as an electronics engineer in Kannedhirey Thondrinaal, while Rajinikanth’s character is an engineer in Padayappa. Madhavan is a software engineer in Alaipayuthey

It would take a 2001 film to formally burnish the image of an engineering student as the movie’s protagonist. While the machinations of wooing the belle in Minnale did not stray too far from the ideas developed in the 90s, the scene where Maddy is introduced as a rebellious mechanical engineering student was a cinematic acknowledgement of the growing number of engineers in society. The engineer had arrived on the silver-screen, at 4 AM queues outside the embassy, as a statistic waiting for H1B approval, and an identity in themself. 

It would take a wake-up-call, more than a decade later, in the form of Velaiyilla Pattadhaari to acknowledge the challenges and travails faced by the male Indian engineer.

American Mappillai

Again, a case of art reflecting life, as the new way of life promised by the land of the free and home of the brave, also provided a cinematic plot point in the form of a groom from the USA being introduced as a wrench in the wheels of romance between the lead pair of the movie. The Groom-of-Doom character makes a brief appearance in Alaipayuthey, before receiving a more full-fledged picturization in Minnale. In many movies, this plot element is treated as a minor inconvenience that could be brushed away, as shown in Endrendrum Punnagai. Santhanam delivers a brilliant parody of this plot element in Thillu Mullu 2.

The concept was turned on its head in Sivaji, where the lead character is an expatriate who returns to India, finding love and fulfilling his true calling.

Manamedai Blues

We are in the 90s. We are entering the last half an hour of the movie where despite their best efforts to unite, the lovers have been separated by fate and appans-with-weapons. The girl is getting married off to someone else, possibly an American Mappillai. Our hero, in the final throw of dice, snatches the microphone from the insipid performer singing at the wedding, and pours his heart out. The lady leaves the altar and runs into the open arms of our hero. Oru poiyaavadhu sol kannae is an archetypal example of such a song. Cue short speech from the teary-eyed couple to the elders, and all ends well. 

The trope of last-minute drama in the wedding hall gets repeated well into the 2000s and 2010s, featuring in movies like Thiruvilaiyaadal Aarambam, Boss Engira Bhaskaran and Oru Kal Oru Kannaadi, with the major exception that there would no longer be any tear-jerking symphonies at this stage of the movie.

Pick up. Drop. Escape

In an era where the narrative largely followed the arc of two lovers versus the world, the concept of infidelity was portrayed, albeit in a slightly heavy-handed manner, in Manmathan. It is hard to imagine that STR was only 21 when he acted in this movie. Amongst the Tamil movies in this period, the only other movies to tackle this topic must be Pachai Kili Muthu Charam and Naan Avan Illai.

The rural-urban divide

In the 90s, movies set in the villages would involve themes of family honour, rivalry, scheming and plotting, comedy scenes featuring Goundamani-Senthil, and the works. Romance, if any, in the movie would play out amongst the backdrop of elements discussed above. 

By the early 2000s, romances set in the city had a predictable pattern to them: the role of the heroine in these movies were so peripheral as to be filled by vacuous imports who couldn’t speak the language. For every gem unearthed in the form of Laila, Simran or Jyothika, we have had several one-film and no-hit wonders fall by the wayside. The meek heroine trope is plain to see in Dheena, Saamy, Dhill, Dhool, Ghilli, and Pokkiri, to name a few. Pithamagan and Ghajini, despite their dark themes, provided welcome relief in the form of heroines with an impeccable sense of humor. 

Subramanyapuram and Paruthi Veeran renewed the appeal of rurally filmed movies and kicked off a trend which has not yet peaked. 

I’ve fallen for on you

In a frightening number of movies from this period, the actual spark of romance between the lead actors is kindled when one of them physically and quite literally runs into another. This marked a change from the “kandavudan kaadhal” (love at first sight) concept from the 90s. Rendu and Maruthamalai are a couple of examples that readily come to mind.

Three Karthiks and their love stories

Lastly, if I had to pick three definitive movies from this decade that could be considered veritable treatises on romance, I would pick the arc that begins at Alaipayuthey and ends in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, passing through Unnale Unnale. The male lead in all the three movies is named Karthik. All of them are engineers. While all of them contain the love-at-first-sight plot point, they also faithfully capture the vagaries of romance. VTV particularly shows that unrequited love need not end in self-destruction for the lover.