Tamil cinema in 2024: Average first half, resurgent second half?

The boom of Tamil-language entertainment content and the constant chatter about Kollywood on social media might deceive you, but it is no longer easy to pick a new film to watch. Tamil cinema has just gotten through a jittery five months into 2024, with only a handful of titles tasting varying degrees of success at the box-office.

Through every hopeful opening on a Friday morning, or a well-cut trailer promising to deliver the goods, fans have held their breath for a revival in the scene, only to be left underwhelmed. But firstly, is there really an issue here, or is it an exaggerated reaction in an industry known to be quite volatile? Even in the last four years, when the industry relied on stars to clutch through the after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has not been a lack of big-budget star vehicles, or smaller content-driven projects, especially in the first half of the year.

2024 paints quite a stark image in comparison. The big star vehicles that were released for Pongal — Dhanush’s Captain Miller and Sivakarthikeyan’s Ayalaan— failed to do well, and the same goes for Lal Salaam, which had Rajinikanth in an extended cameo. However, these three titles still remain the highest-grossing films of the year. Of course, there have been exceptions, like the wonderful gem that was Loveror the mid-budget winner that Aranmanai 4 turned out to be at the box-office. Kavin’s Star made a splash on its opening weekend, and films like Blue Star, J Baby and the Vijay Sethupathi-starrer Merry Christmas did reasonably well in theatres and on streaming. And yet, these remain exceptions in an industry that produces hundreds of films every calendar year.

Not enough star power in the first half of 2024:

As several industry sources point out, there were no indications of such a drought at the box-office early in the year. Kollywood might have fared well if big-budget projects like Kanguva, Thangalaanand Indian 2 — all of which had initially locked a release date in the first half of 2024 — had brought their grand vision to screens. However, call it a pursuit towards perfecting the post-production or just being mindful of getting a release window, but most star films in Tamil Nadu hardly manage to make it to the announced release date.

Suriya in a still from ‘Kanguva’

Suriya in a still from ‘Kanguva’
| Photo Credit:
Saregama Tamil/YouTube

Producer Kalaipuli S Thanu reminds us that sticking to a plan is easier said than done in a business such as cinema. “There might be delays in the CGI, or some unknown factor causing postponements in the shooting. Sometimes, productions have to wait for the dates of a supporting actor playing an important role. We can never blame productions for these delays.”

Meanwhile, producer PL Thenappan pins the blame on the ever-prolonging negotiations with satellite and streaming rights. “There are only a handful of players in satellite and streaming, and in such an oligopoly — in which only a few set the price — the parties might struggle to find a middle ground,” he says.

Less scope for little wonders in 2024:

If this is the case for star vehicles, 2024 might turn out to be the dullest of years in a long time for small or medium-budget films. The first half of this year is in extreme contrast to that of 2023, which saw the likes of Dada, Por Thozhil, Good Night and Ayothi paving the way for young filmmakers. To make matters worse this time, the overwhelming number of star films eyeing a release window later this year might be cause for trouble as well.

Good Night actor Manikandan, whose Lover remains the most critically-acclaimed Tamil film of 2024, says that getting theatres, amidst a line-up of star films, has always been a constant battle for producers of smaller films. “Releasing a film in theatres takes enormous effort. And even if they do find a release window, many factors determine if the audiences would choose to watch it in theatres,” he says, adding that he is at least glad now that there has been a shift in how people look at non-star films. “There is belief now that such films with good content could also work in the theatres,” he says.

The ‘Ghilli’ storm, and ‘the Aavesham of the Premayugam Boys’

Under such circumstances, what has kept the theatrical business going is the avalanche of blockbusters from the neighbouring industry.

2024 has been the year of Malayalam cinema throughout India, chiefly thanks to titles such as Bramayugam, Premalu, Aavesham, Aadujeevitham, and the blockbuster Manjummel Boys, all of which enjoyed an unparalleled run in Tamil Nadu.

Stills from ‘Aadujeevitham,’ ‘Bramayugam,’ ‘Aavesham,’ ‘Manjummel Boys,’ and ‘Premalu’

Stills from ‘Aadujeevitham,’ ‘Bramayugam,’ ‘Aavesham,’ ‘Manjummel Boys,’ and ‘Premalu’

However, to state that these Malayalam films affected the run of Tamil films might be a stretch, say producers. Both Thanu and Thenappan feel that the quality of Tamil films is to be blamed more than the popularity of Malayalam films. “If a Tamil film has good content, audiences will watch the Tamil as well as the Malayalam one,” says Thanu, something which Thenappan too resonates with when he states how the run of films like Premam (2015), Baahubali (2015 & 2017) or KGF (2018 & 2022) did not stop good Tamil films from tasting success.

Another fascinating phenomenon that gripped Tamil Nadu earlier this year is the nostalgia-driven trend of re-releasing older blockbusters, something that has raised one too many discussions on the psyche of the audiences, and the quality of commercial films we have been getting of late. The trend reached its peak popularity when Vijay’s Ghilli became the biggest opener at the box-office of 2024, 20 years since its original release.

A still from ‘Ghilli’

A still from ‘Ghilli’

While it is true that many might prefer watching a familiar good film again rather than taking a chance at a new, unknown one, the impact of these re-releases on the business seems to have been blown out of proportion. “Yes, these re-releases might have helped a bit, but it’s more like a ‘something is better than nothing’ situation. These one or two successful re-releases, or a handful of foreign language or Malayalam films, aren’t enough to survive. We need at least one good Tamil film every month to meet our recurring expenses and fill the occupancy,” says Ruban Mathivanan of GK Cinemas in Chennai.

Time to explore the direct-to-streaming model more?

The industry also needs introspection as to why creators are hesitant to explore the direct-to-streaming model, especially when Tamil cinema has been doing well with its long-form content since 2022, continuing the form this year with Thalaimai Seyalagam and Inspector Rishi.

Actor Manikandan says that nobody in the industry seems to have gotten clarity about this direct-to-streaming model. “Yes, there are some restrictions when it comes to releasing a film in theatres, and so, some films might work better on OTT, but there’s a reluctance even with creators now,” he says, adding that if a few projects taste success with this model, others might follow.

All set for a star-studded resurgence?

But there is no lack of star power in the second half of the year. So while smaller films might have to fight for a release window, explore streaming, or defer their dreams of release, the box-office may not suffer any longer.

Kamal Haasan’s Indian 2, Suriya’s Kanguva, Vikram’s Thangalaan, Vijay’s Greatest of All Time, Rajinkanth’s Vettaiyan, Ajith Kumar’s Vidaa Muyarchi, Vijay Sethupathi’s Maharaja and Sivakarthikeyan’s Amaran are just a handful of films slated to release later this year. Mari Selvaraj’s Bison, Jayam Ravi’s Genie, Arun Vijay’s Vanangaan, and Ram’s Yezhu Kadal Yezhu Malai are some other titles that will follow.

Will 2024 turn out to be like one of those films with a poor first half and an adrenaline-pumping second half? We’ll find out soon enough.

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