The Logic Behind the List

‘Films are subjective-what you like, what you don’t like. But the thing for me that is absolutely unifying is the idea that every time I go to the cinema and pay my money and sit down and watch a film go up on-screen, I want to feel that the people who made that film think it’s the best movie in the world, that they poured everything into it and they really love it. Whether or not I agree with what they’ve done, I want that effort there-I want that sincerity. And when you don’t feel it, that’s the only time I feel like I’m wasting my time at the movies.’

– Christopher Nolan


When I wanted to create a list of ten all-time greatest Tamil movies, it seemed like an easy job. Well there aren’t that many good movies in Tamil anyway so should be an easy job. As I began to add titles, the list crossed 30. That is when I realised that compiling a list of Top Ten or or any such list is not about adding titles, it’s about eliminating. And that proved to be the difficult job. Adding was easier, even fun, but eliminating was tough and cruel. And there should be some way to justify not the presence, but the absence of a title. So I worked out some parameters to guide my process. Here they are:

Commercial Success:

To me it is not just enough that the film is great to me alone, because that would be a personal preference, but it should be overwhelmingly accepted by the audience. You can make a beautifully high-brow art-house cinema, but if it doesn’t reach audience, it shouldn’t attain greatness. It merely remains a cult, where people trade DVDs and often don’t watch it for days or weeks because they don’t know what kind of ‘entertainment’ they can derive from it. So my first parameter was to question whether this art was overwhelmingly successful. Therefore, although films like Oru Nadigai Naadagam Paarkiral and Agraharathil Kazhuthai are great films, they failed to capture the imagination of the audience.


A film, to attain immortality, should have contributed to pop-culture, which means one or more elements from the film should have become part of society’s everyday life, its vocabulary. When someone says ‘Odinaal odinaal Vaazhkayin orathukke odinaal’ we rarely think that this is from a sixty year old film. So is ‘Engirundhaalum Vaazhga’ or ‘Esappattu’, etc.


There are several great Tamil films that are inspired either from Hollywood or remade from other Indian languages. Therefore, for a film to get into the list, its originality is the key factor. Therefore Puthiya Paravai loses out because it is inspired by To Chase a Crooked Shadow and Enga Veetu Pillai slips because it is a remake of a Telugu film. I made an exception only to Naayagan, as I strongly felt that its greatness transcends even this mild transgression.


Realism and respect to the sensibilities of international cinema is important.  A film is considered art if it stays true to the creator’s heart. It’s okay to have an item song as long as the creator liked them himself, not because the ‘distributors’ had asked for it. Realism is one reason Devar Magan lost out from this list as it has Gauthami’s character in skimpy clothes roaming around in the village throughout the first half. Which was in itself odd because her character is indeed from a village in Andhra Pradesh! And Kamal’s Shakthi character, which speaks in stilted British accent until the interval, suddenly transitions to pucca local accent after you return from your loo break. Such incongruence is serious problems for a claim to greatness.

Focused narration:

The story should have a focused narration on its main subject without deviation. Aval Oru Thodarkathai meanders on and Devar Magan spends far too much time sorting out Shakthi Devar’s (Kamal) love affair. Ditto Hey Ram, which half the time is clueless about where it is heading and seemed to contain many films in one. Compare that with Aboorva Raagangal’s clean narration or Parasakthi’s engulfing gloominess.

Risk or experimentation:

For a film to claim greatness, at least in my assessment, a risky element is necessary. The commercial success should have been attained despite this risk or only because of this risk. In other words, there should have been a possibility of this film failing. Aboorva Raagangal could have had its theatres ransacked. Endhiran could have fallen flat like Baba. Parasakthi could have been too gloomy, too negative and too rebellious, which it is indeed! Also, this risk element should be measured against its commercial success only. Hey Ram is perhaps one of the most arcane films in Tamil, but it failed in its attempt, whereas Mudhal Mariyadhai succeeded.


Great films are timeless. Barring the archaic production values, watching Parasakthi today didn’t disturb me one bit. Aboorva Raagangal looked as new as yesterday and Mudhal Mariyadhai just as poetic. This parameter also helped me in sorting the list, to decide which came first and which tenth. Watching today, Moondram Pirai and 16 Vayathinile jarred at some points, so they went down the order. Parasakthi and Mudhal Mariyadhai flowed smooth, so they rose up in the order. Endhiran, being new, could not be measured in this scale so it took up a neutral 5!