Readers Write In #573:  Objects in the rear view mirror: 90s Kollywood

Posted on April 23, 2023


By Srinivasan Sundar

Those five were the ones that were easily and quickly visible in my mirror. Most memorable films; Not necessarily the greats of the decade. I peeped again, this time to catch glimpses of my film memories of the nineties. It is like trying to open up a case that’s been filled with one thousand butterflies. The first ones to flutter out need not be the most magnificent ones. Kollywood of the last decade of the second millennium (simply, the 90s) did not have any specific defining feature. But a lot of water was flowing. There was an explosion of commercial film-makers like P.Vasu (reloaded), Suresh Krissna, K.S.Ravikumar, Shankar et al.Music and sound of Tamil films got revolutionised with the arrival of A.R.Rahman. Seeds of pan-Indian films were sown (?).Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan abruptly cut down the number of movies they did but successfully retained their special spots; Ajith Kumar and Vijay were getting established.

Muthu (1995, K.S.Ravikumar)

This is a gem. Coming after the legendary Baasha, K.S.Ravikumar’s first film with Rajinikanth had sky high expectations right from the word go. A remake of a Mohanlal film, Muthu is also the first of A.R.Rahman for the Superstar. And man what an album! As an intro song for Rajini, nothing yet to beat ‘Oruvan oruvan muthalali..’ – both in music as well as lyrics (Vairamuthu). Intermission is something unique to the Indian films. A story has to be broken and restarted at an elevated level. Commercial directors like Ravikumar knew only too well the criticality of the interval block. Muthu’s interval gave goose bumps. Following Annamalai, the film had the tested cast of Radha Ravi and Sarath Babu fulfilling their mandate. Rajinikanth sparkles in Muthu even till this date. Icing on the cake – Rajini conquered the hearts of the Japanese too.

Nadigan (1990, P.Vasu)

This is such a fun film of a man posing as an old music master and getting caught up in a triangular love trap with a lady and her much older aunty. This is one of the few full length comedy films by Sathyaraj. The actor pairing up with Goundamani delivered a laugh riot; and the duo continued their dream run for years. Along with the lead actor, the ageless Manorama too carried the film on her shoulders. The entire story is set off by an ‘English comedy/Comedy with English’, a recurrent theme in Tamil films. P.Vasu, who had been directing films since the 80s, flourished in the initial years of the 90s as he rolled out blockbusters year after year. It was as if he had cracked the code suddenly. Nadigan is a remake of a Hindi film from the 60s.

Bombay (1995, Mani Ratnam)

The second film in the nationalistic series by Mani Ratnam, Bombay is a bold and beautiful package. Right from Nayakan to Alaipayuthey to the latest PS-1 (incidentally), Mani Ratnam’s films have an in-built element of a journey of the lead characters; Bombay is a story of a Hindu-Muslim couple from southern Tamil Nadu who find themselves caught up in the communal riots of Bombay. It is not a given thing that bringing together an A-Team delivers success. The secret of Mani Ratnam’s longevity and versatility seems to lie in his capability to make an A-Team deliver. Bombay is a film where the cast and crew were having a fight to outperform each other with a single goal of making the film victorious. Easily among the most impactful works of Rajiv Menon, A.R.Rahman, Manisha Koirala, Arvind Swamy and so on.

Sethu (1999, Bala)

It is tough to make comedies. It is tougher to make tragedies like Sethu that can render you sleepless for nights. Sethu is the Moonram Pirai of the 90s. Living up to his master’s legacy Bala, with his very first film, etched himself in the memory of Tamil film lovers forever. The director drew from the deep reserves of actor Vikram, who delivered a once-in-a-lifetime performance (..well till the director’s next one with him). Maestro Ilayaraja gave a supremely melancholic number in ‘Enge sellum indha paadhai..’ that just wrenches your heart. Films like Sethu are rare; They come once in a decade.

Indian (1996, Shankar)

I had watched this film multiple times in theatre. It is tough to capture a film like Indian that had such a grand vision and extraordinary execution in a few lines. Indian is simply a movie of superlatives. Kamal Hassan gave an incredible performance as Senapathy, the veteran vigilante who had stood by the side of Shubash Chandra Bose in India’s struggle for independence. The film had 3+ hours runtime and it ended up getting trimmed at the theatre level. The story had a radical but an organic ending. Indian has so many elements like – varmakalai, freedom movement, corruption, family sentiment, animal rights, love triangle, investigation, and so on – that could stand on their own legs as independent films by themselves. The talent of filmmaker Shankar lies in managing complex and mammoth projects like this and steering them to success. It is intriguing and disappointing that he is yet to reach the scale of a Bahubali or RRR.

Last words – Thevar Magan, Aasai, Kadhal Desam