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If you haven't heard of Tamil cinema, you aren't alone. At the international level, South India's film industry is all but unknown and often gets confused with Bollywood, Mumbai's Hindi film business. But, over the past five years, the "Other Bollywood," led by Tamil cinema, produced more than half of all Indian movies. Budgets for Tamil films now rival Bollywood's, and South India's film industry is emerging as a creative dynamo.
A new wave of hard-hitting, realistic films is shaking up the Tamil movie business.
CHENNAI, India — “Aadukalam” or “Arena,” the Tamil film that won India's 2011 best picture award, opens with arthouse slowness. But the gangster-bio voiceover lays out the stakes, lest there be any confusion. This isn't ponderous, naval-gazing. It's Tamil cinema's new wave.
The camera lingers on the white dust floating in the air as a cockfighting enthusiast carefully chalks out the ring for an upcoming battle, then cuts to a closeup shot of an attendant lovingly trimming and sharpening his bird's talons. But, foreshadowing the murderous action to come, in a deep, resonant voice, the narrator intones: “Cocks fight. Humans fight. Sometimes this sport ends in fights and death.”
For the Tamil industry, the realistic treatment is a radical departure — even if “Aadukalam” does end with an operatic fight scene.
For decades, Tamil movie makers have specialized in almost surrealist “masala movies” — potboilers so-called for their "masala," or "spicy," stories — in which beefy heroes pummeled villains by the dozen on the way to winning the heart of one or two scantily clad, fair-skinned starlets from up north. But over the past five years, thanks to a crop of young directors influenced by Korean and Latin American movies, as well as Hollywood, a new wave of hard-hitting films featuring tight scripts and convincing, understated performances is shaking the industry's foundations.
Like the French new wave spearheaded by Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard, these movies blend an artistic sensibility with a deep attraction for popular culture and a gritty, almost amateurish film-making style — a stark contrast with the glossy films of Bollywood and super high budget Hollywood.
The shift is starting to bring global attention to Tamil cinema for the first time, with new wave films now earning invites to prestigious film festivals in Toronto and Berlin and garnering a place for Tamil-language films at Indian festivals across the world.
“The audience now sees a wide range of different films [from other countries], and they are ready to accept different kinds of content,” said Vetrimaran, who directed "Aadukalam" and an earlier movie called “Polladhavan,” or “Ruthless Man.” “We know the limitations and we know the restrictions. … People are ready to accept films that both entertain them and have serious content.”
“Aaranya Kandaam,” an amoral neo-noir written and directed by first-timer Thiagarajan Kumararaja was named best film at the 2010 South Asian International Film Festival. Madurai-born Ameer Sultan's “Paruthiveeran” received a special mention from judges at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2008.
More from GlobalPost: Complete coverage of the Other Bollywood
But critical accolades aside, these are films designed to make money, too.
That's why for “Polladhavan,” a “Rebel Without a Cause”-style drama loosely based on Vittorio De Sica's 1948 classic, “The Bicycle Thieves,” Vetrimaran tweaked the key elements of the Tamil masala movie rather than eliminate them altogether. The story he wanted to tell was about the alienation of the lower middle class — reflected in the protagonist's desperation when a thief steals his motorcycle. But to make it a success, he needed a heroine, songs, a car chase and a few well-choreographed fight scenes.
“Then it became a hero film,” Vetrimaran said. “But the most interesting thing for me is that it was a common man's film, a lower middle class story.”
The new wave
At first glance the new wave films have little in common, apart from documentary-style, on location shoots and scripts and performances that are more understated than typical masala movies. The subjects are varied, the settings are urban and rural, the stories elegaic, comic and tragic.
In one of the earliest films of the new wave, “Autograph” (2004), veteran director Cheran, previously known for movies with strong social messages, used flashbacks to tell the story of a young advertising executive revisiting his past loves to invite them to his upcoming wedding.
“Paruthiveeran” (2007) , a romance set in the Tamil Nadu countryside, portrays a tragic love affair between a village girl and a petty criminal whose biggest aspiration is to commit a crime worthy of a trip to the central jail in Chennai. “Subramaniapuram” (2008), a period film set in 1980s Madurai, is the story of young unemployed thugs maturing into full-fledged murderers. “Aaranya Kandaam” or “Jungle Chapter”