Greatest Tamil Films – 10 & 9

‘It’s up to the audiences to decide if it’s entertainment, the critics to decide if it’s good, and ultimately posterity to decide if it’s art.’

–       Robert De Nero

10. Moondram Pirai







If Balachander brought revolutionary content, Bharathiraaja brought villages, Balu Mahendra brought in quietness to Tamil cinema. It was like calming a noisy, tinkering, child and putting it to sleep. He made actors talk less; made his composer write less music and his light boys hold fewer lights. This allowed the audience to calm down and soak in the visuals. And he gave great visuals. Moondram Pirai was a crowning achievement in this style. Even today, playing Moondram Pirai along with any other movie of that time would give an idea of how far ahead that film was in its own time.

Balu Mahendra

Sadly, the film is being talked about only for its performances. They were great alright but the film should be talked about for its sensitivity, not of its characters but of the director’s concern and care towards his audience. He respected them. He thought he could make them appreciate the story without bombarding them with over-the-top narration and jarring music. He believed he could make them appreciate the situation without maudlin drama. And surprise, surprise, he succeeded. The audience relaxed, calmed down, and realised that they are undergoing a new movie experience. They were used to noise and stress for entertainment. Moondram Pirai was the camomile tea of Tamil Cinema.



9. 16 Vayathinile











Many of its punch lines are still popular and have become part of the pop culture, but the film’s impact is still not fully understood. People vaguely credit Bharathiraaja for dragging the Tamil cinema out of studios and making it mingle with the ordinary peasants. He did indeed achieve that, but on a deeper level, 16 Vayathinile had done much more that. It told the story of real people, peasants or not. It told of cultural clash, social inequalities, and gave central importance to peasants. Previously, peasants were victims or spectators in a drama played largely by upper-class feudals or higher-caste bourgeois. 16 Vayathinile took us to the peasant backyard and showed their life. And yes, we were mesmerised. So beautifully aching was their life that our hearts went out to Mayilu, Sappani, Kuruvamma, and, of course, Parattai. Which of the other films where you can instantly recall the names of all the leading characters?


16 Vayathinile was fresh, intimate, intrusive, and earthy. And if there ever was film-making from the heart, it was it. It will be years before Bharathiraaja could perfect his art of earthy narration but everyone knew that the game has been changed. This film would also bring out hoards of film makers, directors, actors and a new fountainhead of talents reliant only upon their native experience.

And, lest I attract the wrath of the gods, the music! Bharathiraaja could not have asked for a better comrade than Ilaiyaraaja in his quest for the authentic nativity. In sound and words, it spoke of the peasants’ anguish, desires, and celebrations. It brought in a sound that was as trendsetting as the film itself and would rule the next decade of popular Tamil music. And, finally, this is the first movie where Ilaiyaraaja debuted as a singer. An iPhone 4S for whoever can quickly guess the song!