With Amala Paul’s Aadai releasing this week, we look at the changing face of Tamil cinema.

Vikram and Amala Paul are going head-to-head at the Kollywood box-office this Friday. Their movies are a tad different. Kadaram Kondan, starring Vikram, is an action-adventure thriller directed by Rajesh M Selva, while Rathna Kumar-directorial Aadai has been in the headlines after the makers released a “controversial” teaser featuring a nude shot of the lead actor, Amala Paul. Both are likely to draw their fair share of moviegoers. However, trade sources believe the ‘buzz’ and ‘opening’ will be higher for Kadaram Kondan as it relies primarily on Vikram’s star power. We hear Kadaram Kondan will occupy over 500 screens and Aadai will have around 350 screens.

It’s no secret that Tamil cinema is largely dominated by hero-oriented scripts. But things have changed in the past few years drastically with Nayanthara, Jyotika, Taapsee Pannu, Samantha Akkineni and others delivering experimental films within the format of commercial cinema. Though it’s being said Nayanthara is the only female actor who guarantees house-full shows, it’s heartening to see the rest follow suit.

For instance, Mahanati, the Savitri biopic, made more than Rs 80 crore worldwide and Anushka Shetty’s Bhaagamathie earned around Rs 65 crore across the world. Likewise, Kaatrin Mozhi, the Tamil remake of Tumhari Sulu, collected more than Rs 4 crore within a couple of days of its release and Kolamaavu Kokila grossed approximately Rs 30 crore only in Tamil Nadu. These can very well mean audiences’ tastes are evolving and reflect how the industry is open to adapting to changing times in terms of scripts and ideas.

A trade analyst, on condition of anonymity, observes, “It’s easier to market a female-oriented script than a film involving a ‘middle-level’ hero.” He elaborates, “Take Aishwarya Rajesh’s Kanaa, for example. Though she’s not a star yet, the audience thronged the theaters because of the curiosity factor. The rise of multiplexes plays a huge role as they bring in a new set of female and family crowd. If one solo film of a female actor becomes a hit, naturally, it sets a precedent for others.”

Earlier, female leads were made to dance around trees. Now, both in vocabulary and body language, women are louder and bolder. Though the playing field is still far from even, to Amala Paul, the future looks bright. “I am so glad I did Aadai as it is the most audacious film an actress can get. In fact, I felt liberated playing Kamini. It was refreshing to see a filmmaker approach me with a non-pseudo feminist subject. I saw a lot of honesty in the way Rathna Kumar had written the characters with complexity, reflecting contemporary preoccupations. Women in Tamil cinema are no longer painted in black and white,” she says.

Amala Paul adds she is receptive to working with directors who cite filmmaking as a collaborative process. This is why heroines take on a project as a co-producer. “My say is there starting from developing a story. That way it becomes easier. I can make my characters more engaging and relevant to the plot,” she smiles.

Taapsee Pannu, also, is of the same opinion. The Game Over actor says her job isn’t restricted to simply acting and leaving. “I don’t want to sign a film just because someone needs a woman character,” she adds.

Further, Taapsee is unhappy about how women characters are described in Tamil cinema. “While men are referred to as ‘strong’ and ‘successful’, women are associated with ‘beautiful’ and ‘attractive’,” she points out.

In an industry that produces nearly 200 films a year, she hopes it’s possible to bring out scripts featuring terrific women characters in the lead role. “Tamil cinema needs more films like Lipstick Under My Burkha, Fashion, Hichki, Raazi that highlight the stories of women from their perspective,” she tells us.

A woman filmmaker notes, “90 per cent of the film posters don’t feature female actors unless it’s a women-centric project. Over and above that, women characters most probably don’t have individual songs like male counterparts.”

Following Raatchasi and Oh! Baby, again, the myth that a married heroine doesn’t work with audiences has been broken. Both Jyotika and Samantha have always placed greater emphasis on films with solid scripts and challenging roles, re-emphasising that one’s marital status isn’t actually a roadblock.

All said and done, mostly, films are still told through the male gaze. Though we talk about ‘change’, men still hold powerful positions in the industry and decide things. Female-centric films may have started to come in, but Kollywood’s inequalities run along more than gender lines, laments another woman filmmaker, adding, “It’s harder to have our skills recognised and rewarded with equal pay.”

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