Why is Tamil cinema so reluctant to explore varied shades of romance?

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Stills from ‘Thiruchitrambalam’, ‘Modern Love: Chennai’, ‘Good Night’, and ‘Sillu Karupatti’

Stills from ‘Thiruchitrambalam’, ‘Modern Love: Chennai’, ‘Good Night’, and ‘Sillu Karupatti’
| Photo Credit: Netflix/Prime Video/Disney+Hotstar

Greta Lee’s Nora turns her back to Teo Yoo’s Hae Sung and to a life she could no longer even daydream, and walks back to John Magaro’s Arthur, a life she was gifted with. The rain outside as I watched the scene might just be the tears of all star-crossed souls. And hours after watching Past Lives, a romantic could only sigh at the cinematic wonder and whisper, “How could something seem so effortless?” Back home, meanwhile, a believer in Tamil cinema raises a suspicion, of what seems like a growing distrust in exploring niche conflicts in a relationship, with creators always opting for a more mainstream approach to silver screen romances.

A still from ‘Past Lives’

A still from ‘Past Lives’
| Photo Credit:
A24

The death of old-school romance

With creators struggling to understand the sensibilities of Gen Z audiences who are quick to conclude any old-school displays of emotions, like love, as ‘cringe-worthy,’ the long-gone but still dampening fatigue for old-school romance has evidently affected the way creators look at relationship dramas. It is as if they no longer see value in exploring the vastness that is a human’s affair with another. While we have seen many love stories this year that sometimes teased a niche conflict such as in Dada, Good Night, and segments of Modern Love: Chennai, it becomes apparent that even though good love stories are in regular supply, there has been no mainstream attempt to evaluate if there’s an audience for a Normal People-like series, even on streaming platforms.

Often, ‘niche’ is relegated to only a doomed romance or a well-fought-for relationship between two starkly different characters, but seldom in the last few years have creators tapped into the crevices that divide two people, of eight billion, who carry billions of dreams and desires that make them. So when a character like Anu from Good Night tugs at your heartstrings simply by holding back her tears on seeing her husband lose himself over something she has no control over, it comes as a breath of fresh air. Good Night majorly resists the urge to let the unusual situation — that of a man suffering from sleep apnea — take the spotlight by disguising itself as a romance drama. The conflict becomes a tool, a necessary one, to explore something personal but also universal.

A still from ‘Good Night’

A still from ‘Good Night’
| Photo Credit:
Disney+ Hotstar

Sometimes a writer brings in something stunningly nuanced but in a film that lacks the gravitas or has no intent of doing anything niche about it. Dada is one such film; for all that it got right, it seems to have strangely decided that perhaps its two lead characters didn’t need the ‘interruption’ of their child, until the climax, to tell their story. In a film like Peranbu, which isn’t about a romantic relationship, or for an older example, Kannathil Muthamittaal, the child becomes both the avenue and the bridge to two souls while also retaining their own inherent value in the story — whether it was the experience of being an adopted child or a child on the spectrum.

On the other hand, films like Theera Kaadhal, Adiyaeor Oh My Kadavule are restrained rightfully by their genres. But Farhana is memorable not just for its thriller story, but more for how a difficult conversation between a married, conservative Muslim couple is written and staged.

Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Ninaivo Oru Paravai in Modern: Love Chennai, which is about a heartbroken woman’s attempt to piece together memories for the ex-lover with partial memory loss, is an exception to a lot that we have spoken about as it doesn’t succumb to the pressures of its genre or the assumed social norms of what is considered acceptable. A recent example of a film that touched upon something real but baffling to imagine is Thalaikoothal, in which a son’s refusal to let his comatose father be euthanised creates a growing wedge in his marriage. This father-son story is constructed within the physical and metaphysical walls of a family, lending itself to a fascinating scenario.

A still from ‘Ninaivo Oru Paravai’ in ‘Modern: Love Chennai’

A still from ‘Ninaivo Oru Paravai’ in ‘Modern: Love Chennai’
| Photo Credit:
Prime Video

All kinds of love

In Super Deluxe, through Shilpa and Jothi, we are torn between feeling proud of a transwoman coming out to her family and a cishet woman who has to deal with a precarious situation. Queerness is still considered a nascent topic for mainstream cinema, and it seems like it might take decades to see a love story of, say, a pansexual non-monogamous non-binary person. Regardless of sexuality and gender, explorations of the sociological and psychological complexities and stories that delve into the taboos of the changing world are still few and far between in general.

Also, how wonderful was it to just see creators write an elderly couple, like in the case of OK Kanmani, Pa Paandi, and Pannaiyarum Padminiyum? Sillu Karupatti took it up a notch by telling a story about finding love with silvered hair.

A still from ‘Sillu Karupatti’

A still from ‘Sillu Karupatti’
| Photo Credit:
Netflix

And what a fresh breath of air Dhanush’s Thiruchitrambalamwas; not many films have depicted so well that friendship and romance aren’t poles on a spectrum.

In the present time, when human flaws are looked at more closely and toxicity in relationships gets spotlighted on social media, attempts like Kaatru Veliyidai make much more sense from the market point of view as well. Shorts from Modern Love: Chennai, like Imaigal, Margazhi and Lalagunda Bommaigal reiterate that even familiar stories can evolve and become something different thanks to the changing sensibilities of creators and audiences. A popular idea can change over time and become a niche for a different generation or vice-versa.

The need for niche romance

Conversely, ‘mass’ romance has been doing well; films that just want to tell a simple and good love story that can easily connect with the audiences, like Nitham Oru Vaanam, Sita Ramam, 96, Dada or Love Today are still going strong. But Bharathiraja’s humble tribute to Balu Mahendra in the Paravaikoottil Vaazhum Maangal segment of Modern Love: Chennai is a reminder that perhaps Tamil cinema’s falling out of love with niche relationship dramas has the best of reasons that one can find in the pre-2010s.

But falling out of love is also part of love.

The growing discussions on the plurality of the human experience, and Tamil cinema’s golden history, should have aided more experiments. And relationships can be more than just an element of masala or a reason to churn out boy-meets-girl-will-they-won’t-they dramas. While most creators do not want to make a film for only a specific set of audiences, the definition of what’s niche and the feasibility of working on such keeps changing and hence necessitates a few trial-and-error attempts. Without such trials, in this ever-changing world of cinema, this spat with romance will continue.

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