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Top Ten Tamil Films Of All Time

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The task is bigger than getting Schwarzenegger to become President of USA, but you got to do it someday. Here is my top ten Tamil films list. You think it's easy?

Tamil films are very performance oriented. Yes, the 'masala' elements help, even today, but I, first and foremost, like to see the actors first, and then the direction, scipt, etc. Therefore I can't help but be biased when making my selection. My three favourite actors, Sivaji, Kamal and Rajini makes their appearance again and again in this list. Sorry.


The top ten list was originally written in August 2002. I don't see any need for change. The text remains the same, except for the additional note in asterisk written recently. I dare you to disagree with me.


The top ten are in random order, except for Gauravam, which is, in my humble opinion, the best ever.


1.            Gouravam: Sivaji's powerhouse performance and Vietnam Veedu Sundram's writing and direction are examples of brilliant use of talent and writing. Never had an anti-hero portrayed so vividly and tragically. The dialogues and the acting is still up here in my mind. I have watched it so many times and am still astounded by this giant of an actor's performance. 


*As I said, still the best. Sivaji's overacting in its best use. Kudos also to Pandaribhai who plays the long suffering wife of the elder Sivaji. Credit also goes to Major Sunderajan, Mali, Nagesh and the very young Y.G. Mahendran. The court scenes, though overdramatic by today's standard, is still persistent in grabbing out attention. Characterisation and dialogue is the order of the day and that what sets this movie from the rest. And M.S. Viswanathan in the peak of his creativity. It makes you ask one single question: "Sivaji and TMS, who is acting and who is singing?".



2.            Mundram Pirai: Kamal got his deserved National Award for this movie. Balu Mahendra had never been better in his direction. Sri Devi excels and also had never been better. The cinematography, also by Balu Mahendra, became a yardstick not only for the rest of his peers, but himself. Ilayaraja is magnificent. Simply magnificent. 


*The ambience, thanks to Balu Mahendra, is so mesmerising. Kannadhasan composed his last song here (Kanne Kalaimane) and is guaranteed to draw tears. So is the ending, thanks to great direction and probably the reason why Kamal got best actor nod. What happened to Balu Mahendra's brilliance after this is a mystery.



3.   Mullum Malarum: Mahendran could have been better than Balachander as a succesful serious director if not for several situations. This movie proves it. Alongside that, you have Rajini's most powerful performance that convinced me that he is the best actor living, second only to Kamal and perhaps even equal. Superb supporting cast and Ilayaraja's music is indespensible. 


*During the celebration of 25th anniversary of Rajini in the film industry, the superstar acknowledged this as his favourite film. He said that he was even amazed now how Mahendran drew the talent out of him. Also, we get to realise what a gem Shoba was as a talent. It makes us regret that she is no longer with us to show the present day lyp-synching actresses a lesson or two in acting. The cinematography by Balu Mahendra never shouts for attention, and complements the leads performances. Features one of the most realistic fight scenes ever in a Tamil film.


4.   Amaithi Padai: There can never be another bad guy as baddest and meanest as Sathyaraj's politician in this movie. I am convinced that Sathyaraj is the best among the actors with limited capabilties. He knows his strenght and uses it in full force here. Manivannan's direction and ear for dialogue is at its peak. A yard for political movie.


*Its ten years now, and people are still talking about it. What happened to Sathyaraj after that? How about director Manivanna who descended into the pit as a comedian? Will there ever be a greater satire on politics? Difficult to answer all these questions. Sathyaraj's most three dimensional performance that only he can do. Period.


5.   Guna: Kamal was cheated of his best actor award for this. Performance is one. The direction, art direction, cinematography and music is superior than anything Kamal or Mani Rathnam had ever done. Sad that it came at the same time as Talabathy. It is still a masterpiece.


*Ah, the fire in my guts when I think how it was ignored at its time. The ending will have you in tears. The music will have you in tears. The songs will have you in tears. It will break you, confound you and tear you apart. Kamal threw himself into the role like this was his last film. In fact, his last great performances. Like many other actors who had hit their peak, it will be tough for Kamal to even match this performance. IF I may use this word again, its 'Brilliant'.



6.   Iruvar: Those who know the history of MGR, Karunithi and their times, will have a passion for this movie. On the surface, it has political theme, but deep inside it is a sweet and nostalgic tale of friendship. Maniratnam managed to combine some of the greatest talents in India for this one and the greatest contribution perhaps comes from Mohanlal and Prakashraj's performance. Again, music is part of the whole ambience and Rahman did a marvelous job.


*The depth. The layer. One of very few 'biographical' films that desires not only to tell a story based on facts, but to hint, tease, provoke and make you still sit amazed when the movie is long finished. Roja and Bombay be damned. This is Manirathnam's best. Will always be. And Rahman's best, after Thiruda Thiruda.


7.   Deiva Magan: I hate to bring up Sivaji again, but remember, this movie was considered for Oscar nomination. Performance aside, director P. Madhavan made us care for its characters, whether it is the insecured Father, timid son or his angst-ridden twin brother, all played to perfection by Sivaji. Over-acting at its best. Beautiful B/W photography makes this film an unforgettable experience.


*God, Sivaji is the King. This is Guna's predecessor in character immersion. And Sivaji has to work three times harder, playing all those roles. The final shoot out is well photographed, giving the noir feeling which may be out of place, but most entertaining. When watching for the fifth or six time, pay attention to the 'soft' Sivaji. You will laugh your heart out.


8.   Ratha Kanneer: A movie so daring for its time and even more daring for this time. I had never seen the Leprosy subject approached as close as it is in this movie. Dialogues have sparks of Thiravidar Kazhagam, an Atheist organisation its star, M. R, Radha, was involved in. I am still amazed that they allowed this film to come out at all, knowing the conservative minds of the audience of those days.


*When someone says M.R. Radha is a great actor, please pay attention and watch this movie. Originally a successful play, the film is a vehicle for Radha to express his personal views on sociopolitical situation in Tamil Nadu at its time. I repeat this: it still needs strong guts and balanced conscience to watch this film even today.


9.   Tappu Talangal: A companion piece to Ratha Kaneer, though it is a completely different experience. Balachander will always be known as the best director Tamil Nadu ever produced for me, solely for this movie. He brought us down low in the streets of Madras about the lowliest people you can imagine. One, played by Rajini, is even the people you don't want to meet. How his humanity is brought out depended on Balachander's storytelling power. And he pulled it off beautifully. A masterpiece.


*Maintain the guts and conscience. If you can stomach this, you are among the very few film buffs who appreciate it. I had the pleasure of watching this film with my brother in big screen. When the film finished, both of us were speechless for a long time. How did K.B did this film at that time? And what the bloody hell happened to Rajini? Has he some kind of Amnesia and forgot that he is a goddamned good actor?


10.            Nenjirukkum Varai: A predecessor to Balachander's own Varumaiyin Niram Sigappu. The leads didn't wear the usual make-up, save for pencilled moustache. Srithar's direction and his hand behind cinematography influenced directors like Barathiraja and others and it shows here. Sivaji, Muthuraman and V. S. Gopalakrishnan are in top form.


*You want realisme? I give you goddam realism. This is probably what Srithar thought at that time. The use of humour in a tragedy is tough and Srithar tackles that easily in this film - and the baton has since been passed to K. Balachander. A great example where supporting stars like Muthuraman and V.S. Gopalakrishnan can deliver equally scorching performance with Sivaji. Perhaps one of the few times I liked K.R. Vijaya.

Its damned difficult to exclude Sivaji films from top ten list. You try it!

Rajini, Balachander and Kamal: The trio's 70s ventures were monumental.

The other ten


Its amazing how I still feel the same about all the abovementioned films.  Anyway, I feel guilty that I had left out many gems that may, or may not be eligible to enter the above elite group. But here they are in random order:


Michael Madhana Kamarajan

Film comedy at the peak, never even topped by the star, Kamal (who plays four roles) and the dialogue writer Crazy Mohan. Its amazing how much you can do with cut and paste (or masking) technique and a little bit of creativity, that had never been achieved by Computer Graphics. Every performer excels in this movie, including the duo playing the henchmen. The riotous funny scene during the song "Peer Vechalum" will never be witnessed again in Tamil Film


Pathinaru Vayathinile

Barathiraja is often credited here for bringing camera to the actual location. There is more to that. Great story, brilliant performances, masterful camerawork by B. Kannan, and last but not least, the haunting score (and songs) by Ilayaraja. Though he started composing a couple of years earlier, this film confirmed the beginning of his rein. Great vehicle for first time director Barathiraja, and growing artistes like Kamal, Rajini and Sri Devi. The three competes and wins again each other.


Bale Paandiya

Predecessor to Kamal's Michael, where Sivaji plays three roles. But similarities stop there. It is non-stop laughter thanks to the supporting casts like the great, brilliant, M.R. Radha, Balaji (the only time I liked him) and others. M.S. Viswanathan contributes his scores and songs as if he does not want to be left out in the talent race. There is a nod to the Marx Brothers (the mirror scene) and Kannadhasan pens the immortal, cryptic, song, an ode to Tamil called "Atthikkai Kaai Kaai".



Balachander mid-70s flicks

I have to cheat here. Got to cram a few films in this slot. How can you rate the greatness of films like Apoorva Raganggal, Mundru Mudichu, Avargal, Aval Oru Todarkathai? You tell me how and I will work it out and try to fit within this second top ten list. They are sheer amazing glory of story telling that K.B can never achieve. You can't blame the old man, he exhausted it all here. Also, here you witness the growth of the two of the greatest actors in Tamil film industry. Do I have to tell you who?


Nenjil Or Alayam

Two weeks of shooting in the same location - a hospital, where the entire story takes place. Sridhar was the autuer, if its permissible for me to use the word, in all true sense. He crafted a moving story, and yet told them brilliantly Brilliant performances from lesser actors like Muthuraman, Devakhi, Nagesh and Kalyan Kumar. And need I mention the original maestro, M.S. Viswanathan whose contribution in the score and songs will always be the first to be remembered when the name of this movie is mentioned.


Uthama Puttiran

Once the movie finished, you'd wanna go, 'Hah!" Sivaji-style. First thing you do, check out the special effect. Unbelievable what they did with just a masking tape for the celluloid. Such was the dedication of the filmakers of the time. Sivaji, Kannama, Pathmini, and the great M.N. Nambiar play their role with the ease only they can manage. G. Ramanathan gives you colourful unforgettable tune. Never mind the story is flicked from Dumas' The Man In The Iron Mask, this film kidnaps the story and makes it its own.



Nadodi Mannan

M.G.R's ambitious and troubled project that took a couple of years to make. So problematic that when M.G.R sent someone to his brother to get plenty of rope (for the climactic rope bridge scene), the brother remarked, "Why? Does everyone want to hang themselves?". But the payoff being one of the greatest film in Tamil history, and made tons of money too.G. Ramanathan's music, the cinematography, and MGR, never better. Entertainment in its rawest format.


Anbe Va

Ah, Saroja Devi. Wouldn't you want to fall in love with this lady again and again. Well, that's what happened in this film. MGR in his most entertaning mode, never preachy like his latter films, and demonstrates what a great dancer he was. Nagesh and K.R. Ramasamy steals the show from each other and even the leads. The music is mesmerising, and the songs are still played today and you still think of the beautiful, gorgeous Saroja Devi. Sigh.



A dreamy, pondering, but pulsating crime thriller. Rajini's talent is put into best use. One of the most adult movie in terms of romance in Tamil film. No, I don't mean sex, but serious look into relationship, troubled past and its repercussion. Sri Devi at her best. Director Mahendran did not treat the story like the typical in-your-face masala film about two protagonist who looks alike. He injects a little bit of thoughts to the characterisation and the dialogue. A thinking man's crime thriller. Ilayaraja composed some of the best songs in his life, and his background score rivals the lead actors' performances.



Vetham Puthithu

One thing this movie succeeds is to give a slap to everyone's face, especially those of Indian blood. You question yourself. Based on the hypocrisy behind the powerful caste system, this film will have you looking down into your soul and ask yourself who you really are. Sathyaraj gives a commanding performance here, with great use of his excellent dialogue delivery. The other member of casts do their best to outdo each other. Director Barathiraja only excelled himself here, and never did a film as deep as this. Be careful, this movie can be very, very disturbing.  


Want more?


There are more, especially films made by the directors mentioned above, as well as the stars. I need another day, another time to sit down and list them down.


Why not submit your own list? Make it merrier. In fact, we can have a bloodbath, create some controversy and ultimately allow this site to make some money. Huh?