Beginning today, the Chennai International Film Festival (CIFF) provides a great opportunity for the cinema buffs to expose themselves to world cinema. The CIFF or any international film festival for that matter has never been a forum that attracts too much regular viewership. It is mostly seen as an elitist platform where film makers and intellectuals interact in jargon that is way above the head of the cinema buff. But, one believes that this time, it can be different for Chennai and Tamil cinema.
Reason; you only have to look at the list of Tamil films that have been entered in the competition section of the festival. You can easily be forgiven for thinking that it is the nomination list for the 2011 Filmfare Awards. In a way it’s true; if Filmfare were to draw a list of the films that would make the cut in next year’s awards ceremony, it wouldn’t look much different from the current CIFF manifesto.
Aadukalam, Ko, Deivathirumagal, Azhagarsaamiyin Kudhirai, Avan Ivan, Engeyum Eppodhum, Muran, Thoonga Nagaram, Vaagai Sooda Vaa; these are the prominent features on the list. Reading this list for the first time is a pleasant surprise for anyone who has followed cinema for some time. Usually, during the CIFF, we would come across names of certain Tamil films which we had never heard of before. Those unknown and unheralded films would be the torchbearers of Tamil cinema in Chennai’s very own film festival. That told us a lot about the sharp commercial-art divide that existed in Tamil cinema, or Indian cinema for that matter.
Looking at the list this year, we have to admit that Tamil cinema, has almost cracked the code of unifying commercial and art cinema into one stream; good cinema. The names that feature in the competition section of the CIFF are also amongst the top box office hits of the year. Ko, perhaps the most popular movie of the year (in spite of not being the third highest grossing film of all time), the highly loved Aadukalam, the acclaimed Engeyum Eppodhum are all proof of the fact that Tamil cinema has created a strong bridge over the imaginary ford that separated commercialism and art. The only movies in the competition category this year that can be called box office duds are perhaps Varnam, Vengayam and Maithaanam. But, of course, these were films made primarily to convey a message more than anything else.
The biggest grosser also being the most critically acclaimed is one of the rarest of rare occurrences in world cinema. Even the Oscars only rarely go to global superhits, they are usually reserved for the intellectual and arty works like The King’s Speech. It is in this context that Tamil cinema presents an overwhelming majority of box office hits in the competition section.
This says quite a few things; the development of Tamil film makers into experts who know how to strike a balance between commerce and cinema. But, even more important is the development of Tamil audiences who have made it a habit of never letting down worthy efforts. This has fostered a healthy and confident cinema culture wherein producers can bravely invest in ventures that promise different and high quality fare. A few years back one wonders whether a film like Azhagarsaamiyin Kudhirai would have found decent release centres. In today’s environment, it is seen as an exciting release. That transformation is wonderful to see-the result of a fruitful symbiosis between conscientious film makers and a sensitive audience.
No other film festival in India this year has so much commercial cinema representation in its competition section. That says a lot about Tamil cinema’s development. Even Malayalam cinema that seemed to have the commercial-art bridge figured out a few years back has fallen behind now. The International Film Festival at Trivandrum featured many Malayalam films that could not get decent theatrical releases. Tamil cinema in contrast, looks to be in excellent health.
But, there is one sore point. The screening of Deivathirumagal and Muran at the international film festival! We know that these films have been adapted quite plainly from Hollywood films, I am Sam and Strangers on a Train respectively; that too without credit for the concept or story being given to the original makers. Really, one finds it difficult to imagine how an educated foreign audience would feel when Deivathirumagal and Muran are presented as Indian films at the festival. Not sure what that would do to Tamil cinema’s reputation.
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