Anand Fadeout

Mdeii Life - Anand Krishnamoorthi's blog

Friday, March 25, 2005

Defining Tamil cinema in the International context with a reference to Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal

Note: This is NOT a review or even an analysis of Kannathil Muthamittal. I think that trivia has a big role in publicity and not in analysis; therefore this writeup might not contain any. It has also been modified from its original academic format. This time I have not split it up into parts either. All in one go! Also note that the use of the term "Bollywood" has been forced upon me. I would not chose to use it otherwise.

Even though this essay takes Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal as an example, it goes beyond the film to look at Tamil cinema and Indian cinema in a larger context.

The essay begins with a definition of Indian cinema, Tamil cinema and the Tamil cinema market. The political and cultural issue surrounding Indian, Tamil and "Bollywood" cinema are discussed next. The essay then identifies what is referred to as a "crossover" market. Mani Ratnam and his film Kannathil Muthamittal are explained, and then the discussion moves onto other terms that can be associated with it like "middle cinema" and "minority cinema". The essay concludes with a brief discussion about the international distribution of Kannathil Muthamittal and its ramification for future Tamil and Indian cinema distribution worldwide.

Indian Cinema
The Indian film industry is a conglomeration of various big and small regional language industries. Considering the multitude of languages in India, there are as many film industries; but the biggest in terms of economics are the Hindi/Urdu (Based in Bombay), Tamil (Based in Madras), Telugu (Based in Hyderabad), Bengali (Calcutta), Kannada (Bangalore), and Malayalam (Kerala) industries. Other smaller film industries include the Marathi and Oriya film industries amongst others.

Tamil is one of the four main south Indian languages, and like its more popular cousin from the north, (the Bombay film industry), the Tamil industry boasts of an old homegrown film culture. As the film medium evolved in India, regional film industries consolidated themselves along linguistic lines. Nevertheless, it would not be inappropriate to define a common Indian film aesthetic. The most obvious traits of which include song and dance, lavish productions and high melodrama. This though is the accepted "format" for mainstream or popular cinema. But, taking for example internationally popular Bengali cinema from the 1950s and 60s, filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Bimal Roy and others yet made meaningful cinema which did not conform to the stereotype.

Tamil cinema and defining the Tamil cinema market
The worldwide Tamil cinema market can be roughly calculated from the about 74 million Tamil speakers around the world, most of whom are based in the southern part of South Asia (South India and Sri Lanka), with a significant number of speakers in the Malay peninsula, South Africa, various Indian Ocean islands and a large number of expatriates settled in Europe and North America.

Even though each of these places can be construed as an independent market, for the sake of convenience, the Tamil (or for that matter, any South Asian language’s) market can be divided into two main sections: natives speakers market (in Asia); and expatriates market (mainly in Europe and North America). The native market is the old entrenched market, where it can be understood that film conventions are more ingrained. The expatriate market is interesting because it is fairly new, and most of it is based (at-least geographically) in another film culture. In today’s context, the expatriate market is also considered to be wealthier (even if not, in terms of absolute population numbers). This is true of the other large film industries in India as well, especially the Bombay film industry, which enjoys one of the biggest expatriate markets in the world.

Tamil cinema in the context of Indian cinema and "Bollywood"
As in any culture around the world, politics and popular culture are closely linked, therefore the need to identify Tamil cinema within the larger Indian cinema context, and as it being unique (especially differentiated from Bombay cinema) is as much a political pursuit as it is cultural.

"Bollywood" has become a widely accepted term to define "Bombay’s Hollywood". This term is loosely applied to all of Indian cinema, or at-least that brand of Indian cinema that follows a generic set of conventions. Considering the origins of the term, and also considering the fact that Hindi/Urdu language cinema enjoys a much larger native (and now increasingly a much larger expatriate) audience, it would seem politically inconvenient for Tamil, if not any other "regional-Indian linguistic" cinema to be brought under this umbrella. This despite the fact that stylistically the variance is very little, and each of these regional language industries have come to add the “wood” suffix to their own place names.

Many Tamil film viewers would dispute the claim that mainstream Tamil cinema is no different from mainstream Bombay cinema, but Radhika Nair, who works as the BBFC’s Tamil interpreter, (also being part of the expatriate market), puts things in perspective. She watches Tamil as well Hindi cinema coming into the UK, and finds very little difference between the two, though she says that recently, she has come across a few Tamil films that are willing to be experimental and break the mould of formulaic tradition. Yet, she acknowledges such a change as happening in Hindi cinema as well.

Despite regional parochialisms hijacking this exercise in comparison, there are certain indisputable truths when it comes to comparing Tamil and Bombay cinema. The talent pool (especially of actors, as Nair identifies) in Tamil cinema is generally considered better, with some South Indian technicians setting trends in the much more affluent Bombay industry.

Another point raised is a much wider cultural issue. Tamil is one of the oldest languages in India, if not in the world. It therefore comes with its unique cultural and literary heritage. Considering this, it would seem incongruous for many to see Tamil cinema bunched under the undistinguished umbrella of "Bollywood".

The third market
While "Bollywood" cinema has established a niche for itself amongst its expatriate Asian audience, it has also found for itself an increasing "crossover" market. This comprises of non-Asians who have come to watch, and are interested enough in this style of cinema to be economically significant for the filmmakers. This follows in the success of films like the Oscar nominated Lagaan (2001) and Mira Nair’s hugely successful Monsoon Wedding (2001). "Bollywood" entered the Oxford English dictionary and caught the imagination of the western world. It therefore made good economic sense to pander to popular taste and reaffirm the unique selling points of mainstream Indian cinema. It would be thus incompatible with the notion of "Bollywood" to make any film that goes against the grain. The only way Indian cinema can be considered part of meaningful world cinema, rather than been seen as just another regional flavour of American mainstream kitsch (Hollywood) would be to dissociate from a term whose meaning has been strongly defined in its form.

These days, "middle cinema" has become a buzzword; where an increasing number of filmmakers have been willing to break from the traditions of the past to find a more disparate audience. One of these filmmakers is Madras based Mani Ratnam. While a majority of Ratnam’s films have been Tamil and South Indian, he has been fairly successful in Bombay as well with his Hindi ventures. This discussion considers Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal (2002) in terms of it as representative of "middle" Tamil, and Indian cinema, while putting it in a political context; and also discussing its own politics. I personally would not rate Kannathil Muthamittal as one of the best Tamil films ever, or even one of Ratnam’s best. It certainly is not a typical example of Tamil cinema either. But, Kannathil Muthamittal is one of the few recent mainstream Tamil films that have received worldwide distribution, and more importantly, distribution to a "crossover" market. It has also picked up awards at international festivals, and gained recognition.

Mani Ratnam and Kannathil Muthamittal
Mani Ratnam is considered to be one of the most important Indian and Tamil filmmakers today. Even though he comes from a family of film producers, he never trained formally in filmmaking; his craft is mostly self-taught. While his roots are very much entrenched in traditional Indian cinema, he, in his current role as independent-producer and director, is a keen follower of the international film business. While the success of his early films owed a lot to his refreshing treatment of commonplace filmic themes, his later works, considering his astute business sense, tended to focus on "issues". Roja (1992), a film that enjoyed nationwide success (while consequently being dubbed into Hindi) dealt with the popular Kashmir issue. After this, his attention turned to other political "issues" which provided his films with a larger scope and thus a larger audience. Consequently, he made his first exclusively Hindi film Dil Se (1998), a love story set against the backdrop of the North-East Indian insurgency. This film enjoyed phenomenal success abroad, especially in the Hindi/Urdu expatriate market that it even stayed briefly in the UK top 10.

While Ratnam has peppered his prolific moviemaking with sensitive dramas, he has nevertheless continued his efforts at attempting to film politically sensitive topics. Politics in mainstream Indian cinema tends to be rather naïve, idealistic and superficial, and while Mani Ratnam refined its depiction, like many aspects of his films (including the presence of song and dance), vestiges of traditional Indian cinema still permeate his films. A discussion of this as related to "middle cinema" is continued later in the essay.

Kannathil Muthamittal made in 2002, tells the story of a girl, born to Sri Lankan Tamil parents, adopted by an Indian Tamil couple; this in the context of the civil war in Sri Lanka. When the girl is nine, her adoptive parents decide to tell their daughter about her origins and the child seeks to find her biological mother, who has since become a rebel fighter in the Sri Lankan civil war. The story details the emotional struggles the girl and her family go through during this quest.

The civil war in Sri Lanka has been until recently an issue conveniently not referred to in mainstream Tamil discourse in India, especially since the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, allegedly by Tamil Terrorists operating from Sri Lanka. In 1999, Santosh Sivan, another South Indian filmmaker, made a Tamil film The Terrorist. This film though being well received abroad for its gritty realism, was very unwelcome in the Tamil political circles, where its depiction of a female suicide bomber was dubbed naïve and "childish". In this political context, and considering the fact that most of the expatriate Tamil market in the west comprises of Tamils of Sri Lankan origin, Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal’s politics is mostly non-committal and "safely" non-partisan (while this was not exactly the case in many of Ratnam’s earlier political films - a case in point is Roja (1992), which received exactly the same treatment from Kashmiri groups as did The Terrorist (1999) from the Tamils).

The idea of markets and political determinants apart, Kannathil Muthamittal was marketed as much as a representative of Indian "Middle cinema", as it was as a film set in the civil war. Sure enough, the setting of the film contributed hugely to its publicity and exposure, but its reviews seemed to recognise its aesthetic qualities as well.

"Middle Cinema"
While discussing Mani Ratnam’s brand of filmmaking, a brief mention was made of his roots and his ambitions. In general understanding, "middle cinema" attempts to straddle the gulf between mainstream simplistic kitsch and serious "art house" cinema. In the treatment of subjects, Indian cinema, which remained fairly insular through much of its history depending solely on its own local markets, tended to be simplistic and escapist where the primary role of cinema was seen as mainstream entertainment. These words though used loosely, have come to define "popular" or "commercial" cinema the world over. The largest of which being mainstream American "Hollywood", it comes as no surprise to find a slowly opening-up, or "globalising" Indian cinema to identify even nomenclaturally with it.

Globalisation has also brought "foreign" cinema to the masses in India. It has also exposed Indian filmmakers to alternative filming conventions. Thus, this "middle cinema", in one sense, is an evolutionary branch of Indian cinema slowly defining and redefining itself. Yet, as always has been, it is possible to find in popular discourse a classification of films in terms of their cinematic purpose and their intended audience’s levels of sophistication. It would be unwise to consider any audience as being homogenous, more so an Indian audience. Thus, on another level, "middle cinema" could be just another branch of popular cinema that just happens to find a significant market, happily cohabiting with an enduring "kitschier" market.

Mani Ratnam and his colleagues are in India today, the purveyors of this "middle cinema" market. It is no coincidence that while this "middle market" is growing even within the native markets in India, filmmakers are increasingly looking to find such audiences in the expatriate and crossover markets. While this makes good economic sense, the politically and culturally aware filmmakers also find that as a brand, Indian cinema could potentially find a more respectable place in the arena of world cinema than be merely seen as escapist and colourfully distracting. It is true that such escapist cinema has a role to play, and the fact that India can supply it in good measure should be in itself a matter of pride for Indians, but the issue runs deeper than that. Any piece of cultural export helps defines the image of the source nation. While historically India and the "exotic east", have enjoyed a certain image in the western world (where most of the "crossover" market lies), this most of the time does little justice to the realities that exist in India.

The perpetuation of the status quo in the aesthetics of the Indian film also seems to exclude the possibility of any other form of storytelling or film aesthetic emerging from India, even if it has the remotest chance of redefining the perception of Indian cinema in the west. An example is Iranian cinema, which today enjoys a certain level of respect world-over, from its rather obscure origins.

Where the lines between "art house" and "popular" cinema are being blurred by the increasing economic success of the former world over, in India, the idea of "middle cinema" has much more concrete definitions. Taking the example of Kannathil Muthamittal, it contains many elements of traditional Indian cinema. It is more than two hours long, exhibited with an intermission; it contains songs, with a certain level of elaborate choreography; it is mixed genre; it is slightly naïve and melodramatic; it is exquisitely photographed glamorising its contents; among other things. Though none of these are particularly "sinful" activities, Ratnam has carefully omitted certain formulaic traits that seemed to have hitherto defined popular cinema. The songs in his films do not usually stand out as set-pieces divorced from the main story. The mixing of genres is much more subtle. He avoids multiple story "tracks" that are usually independent of the main narrative. He also attempts very hard to make his characters appear realistic, if not real.

This while helping a "crossover" audience not feel completely at odds when confronted with the Indian film aesthetic, also might, in the hardcore fan of Indian "curry" induce a certain disappointment.

Minority language cinema and the international distribution of Kannathil Muthamittal
The odd culinary example might do with a little more elaboration. The concept of the Indian "curry" which in the UK has come to define Indian cuisine does not do justice to its bastardisation from vague roots in India. Yet, it is an enduring image of India. Likewise is "Bollywood". So in order to market Indian "middle" cinema to a "crossover" audience, one could take the safer route by peppering it with easily recognisable "curry" elements, or take the bold decision of rebranding Indian cinema; but this would take time.

Tamil cinema, and the Tamil language itself, as with its long-running political history, has acquired a definition of being in the "minority", culturally in the larger Indian context. Therefore defining Tamil as "minority" Indian cinema is a way out of escaping the "Bollywood" "curry" image. But for this, it is important that Tamil cinema have its own USP. This is where, a film like Kannathil Muthamittal, with its moderate economic and critical success internationally has an increasing relevance.

Another important aspect of international film distribution is the video release. Kannathil Muthamittal was released on DVD, and is sold worldwide (and in the UK), exclusively through Ayngaran International. While the DVD itself is available with English subtitles, most of the promotional activity, since its release is focussed on the native or the expatriate market rather than on a "crossover" market. Ayngaran is faced with odd enough problems of piracy within the two Tamil speaking markets that the distributor seems to focus most of its attention on business in these markets.

Even though this is a start, there needs a lot to be done to make Tamil cinema economically successful in the West. In the UK alone, Kannathil Muthamittal, unlike its "curry" "Bollywood" cousins did not enjoy a wider theatrical release. While Bombay cinema had the resources and the backing of a tested routine to be released in cinemas like the Odeon, Ratnam’s film was released only in the Himalaya Palace in Southall in London. This cinema is patronised primarily by an expatriate Tamil audience, and not by a "crossover" audience. World over, It was released primarily through film festivals to the "crossover" audience. The film is listed by Europa Cinema’s network as released in the UK, and it did make a screening on the BBC. The filmmakers did enough to be recognised and for people to take notice of what an American reviewer for want of a better definition called "A serious side to Bollywood". (Bob Townsend In: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, GA, USA), Atlanta Newspapers, Vol. 56, No. 170, 18 June 2004, c3, (NP)) (Source: Imdb)

Thus films like Kannathil Muthamittal might just pave the way for better Tamil cinema in the future to slowly be recognised as being part of the "alternative", "minority" or "middle" Indian cinema. Though a good film would transcend its labels, film distribution is much less an idealistic activity, and more of a practical marketing pursuit, where labels help sell.

With inputs from
Madras Talkies – Producers of Kannathil Muthamittal (Mani Ratnam & G. Srinivasan)

Ayngaran International – Sole theatrical and video distributor of Tamil films in the UK

Radhika Nair – Tamil translator for the British Board of Film Certification

Useful sources of further Information available on the Internet
(All as on 19 March 2005)

Imdb entry on Kannathil Muthamittal

Imdb entry on Mani Ratnam

Wikipedia entry on Mani Ratnam

Homepage of Madras Talkies

Homepage of Ayngaran International

Wikipedia entry on the Cinema of India

DVD review of Kannathil Muthamittal by a "crossover" reviewer

Europa Cinemas listing on Kannathil Muthamittal

2:05 am


Comments to Defining Tamil cinema in the International context with a reference to Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal

Anand, You must have got AA for this at school. I know it must have been a huge task to research and compile this one. But worth the effort. Just like your analysis on God Father, this one also was a enjoyable read.

posted by Anonymous Anonymous 

12:01 pm, March 25, 2005

Hi Anand,
Very very interesting stuff! Can't imagine a more apt way of categorizing India cinema, which is mostly classified on the basis of commerce (commercial / art) by the "Makkal". I immensely enjoyed Kannathil Muthamittal both on its context as well as the Mani Ratnam way of filmmaking; the aesthetic sense and screenplay.
The DVD was recently launched by the Madras Talkies team for sale in India. Interesting thing here was the Mani Ratnam's retrospective, an informal discussion with him on his filmmaking. He too did say some interesting stuff on the term "commercial" cinema as often the way its termed and the working styles of Rahman and Ilayaraja.

- Sriram G

posted by Blogger Sriram 

2:01 pm, March 25, 2005


Loved this review, but nitpicking on one small issue.

Ithink you should have done an analysis of Roja.
You have a lot of inferences, inputs and inspirations in that movie.

For one, it is a very simple story, that of a woman fighting for her husband - much like Satyavan Savithri, but it is set against a topical backdrop - like you mentioned earlier. And that lifts the story a lot.

More than any other film of Maniratnam, Roja will always be his trademark.

posted by Blogger Ravages/CC 

6:58 am, March 26, 2005

Anand, your analytical approach to this whole topic is pretty good. But somehow, I am stuck with the thought that Mani Ratnam's best movie was Mouna Raagam and it has been downhill for him ever since :-)

Mounda Raagam captures human emotions like none other and it has that tug at the heart-strings that I felt in no other film.

posted by Blogger Krish 

7:52 am, March 26, 2005

Firstly, thanks Annand - that was quite a delightful read.This makes me wonder once again, how much I would have enjoyed life had I had some sense and chosen my career path better, instead of "flowing with the flow".

And the movie that is taken for analysis is one of my all time favorites.

I have an idea here - using almost xx kinda movies as a transition from the existing song and dance sequences to serious Drama. Not that I have anything against the song&dance rotine - but having them as established as they are, seriously stems the flow of the drama - a case in point : Kannathil Muthhamittal.

Don't ya think that transition is worth the experiment?

posted by Blogger Nilu 

11:07 pm, March 26, 2005

Lazy: AA? Hmm.. Fancy idea :) Thanks!

Sriram: Thanks mate. I read about the discussion he had at Landmark on the Hindu online.

CC: Read the bloody note! This is NOT a review, and I think I very clearly stated that I chose KM, not because I think it is Mani Ratnam's best, but simply because it is a recent film and has been distributed actively across the world. Otherwise, thanks! :p

Mukund: Thanks man! Mouna Raagam was a good film for its time, but in all respect, I dont think Mani Ratnam had mastered his craft by then. My personal favourite is Iruvar, again not because of its content or treatment or for its 'historical' inferences or 'trivia' (which by the way, to a certain extent compromised the storytelling), but because it is a very well made film.

Nilu: Nice to know that you enjoyed it (And it makes me wonder; somehow we seem to be liking each others posts recently! Not that I have anything against it, or that it makes me uneasy... :p)
As far as the transition is concerned, as you say, it might already be here; if not, lets make it! And then go further!

posted by Blogger Anand 

11:47 pm, March 26, 2005

Yes Anand! I too thought Iruvar was his best and it must have been the toughest movie for Mani Ratnam as he himself had said in an intw. How do you rate Nayagan here... I thought Iruvar was in par with Nayagan and Kannathil...
If not few cms above.
Iruvar had some stunning cinematography ever in Indian cinema (and eslly the camera movements was a revelation),great soundtrack/BGM and the performances, esplly Mohanlal's highly underrated ever. I suppose Mani had to compromise a lot on the script, Thanks to the censor board. I did see the uncensored version which had some bold dialogues in the film's context (mohanlal's speech after nasser's death). Anand, pls find time and do a write up on Iruvar. It should be enjoyable.
Take care,
Sriram G

posted by Blogger Sriram 

6:35 am, March 27, 2005

Anna, Anand anna,

I read the bloody post, and I know it was not a review. But what I meant was, analysing ROja would have been a better option. FOr its various inputs and influences.

But I did overlook the international distribution aspect.

Sorry about that.
And why the tendency to go angry these days? Stressed?

posted by Blogger Ravages/CC 

11:21 am, March 27, 2005

Tmabi Chandroo,
Kovathin karanam - thangalathu ole marithanam ;)

posted by Blogger Nilu 

3:17 am, March 28, 2005

Sriram: Glad that you like Iruvar as well. Nayagan had its moments, but I have a feeling he took too much liberty with the fact that most of the Tamil audience had not watched The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America. Getting back to Iruvar, what you say about Mohanlal is right. I'd love to write more about the movie. Maybe someday!

CC: You know what? Nilu might just be right! :p

posted by Anonymous Anonymous 

11:39 pm, March 28, 2005

i also feel iruvar was his most well made movie but he was most sympathetic to the characters in mouna raagam. I dont know much about cinema but nowadays I tend to like those films which portray the drama well even if they make obvious technical mistakes.

posted by Blogger prasad 

9:18 am, March 30, 2005

Good One
I would definitely love a detailed analysis on the following

God Father/ Scarface - Nayakan
Sundance Kid - Thiruda/ Thiruda


Is he a glorified Deva

posted by Anonymous Anonymous 

1:36 pm, April 29, 2005

Post a Comment
Powered by Blogger

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.