Until the 1990s, in Tamil nadu, even gangsters, in a state where cinema is religion and heroes are worshipped, were do-gooders — this was a convention even Mani Ratnam could not break. He made Nayakan (1987) with Kamal Haasan and Thalapathy (1991) with Rajinikanth, and when these stars played gangsters, they were still the good guys helping the poor by robbing the rich (Nayakan), or good guys in the wrong team (Thalapathy). Until a decade ago, every little star and average actor wanted to play Rajinikanth — the pinnacle of superstardom, the epitome of goodness and the embodiment of heroism, even if he unapologetically smoked and drank onscreen.

That was a big deal, because the only other superstar with that fanatical a following until Rajini hit the screens was MG Ramachandran, who played heroes with good, old-fashioned values and a squeaky clean politics-savvy image, which ultimately helped him to cross over from films to politics. MGR went on to become the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, while Rajinikanth was constantly criticised by political parties for glorifying smoking and drinking. While movie buffs of yore found MGR aspirational, they found a relatable role model in Rajinikanth.

After he became Superstar Rajinikanth, he had to take a break from villainy and the negative roles that made him a big star in the first place. All people wanted was a messiah, a champion of causes they related to (usually personal scores and rags to- riches fantasy stories), and they found their dark knight in Rajinikanth, who switched into factory mode as the do-gooder hero and proceeded to mass-produce hits for two decades, starting from the late 1970s, playing roles in uniforms of the working class. He played a coolie, an auto driver, a taxi driver, a milkman and a factory worker, until poor health began taking its toll on him.

When Superstar cut down on the number of films he did towards the end of the 1990s, every hero fancied a shot at the throne. And, so, Tamil cinema mass-produced Rajinikanth films for the last couple of decades — even if they didn’t feature Him. Stars were recycling the age-old, moralistic good versus evil fistfights formula, until a bunch of the next generation film-makers, hailing from the heartland of Tamil Nadu, decided to shake things up and let their heroes get their hands dirty. They went on to inspire Anurag Kashyap to make Gangs of Wasseypur.

Kashyap dedicated his gangster epic to the Madurai triumvirate of Bala, Ameer and Sasikumar, filmmakers known for their brand of crime, revenge and redemption. Pithamagan (2003), Paruthiveeran (2007) and Subramaniapuram (2008), the films that turned out to be their respective calling cards, may have been among the first few films in this century to embrace the dark side, but they were certainly not the finest — or so we can say, with the benefit of hindsight. The poor suffered in their films, the rich were sadistic oppressors. The poor were good, the rich evil. Villagers were virginal, city slickers morally bankrupt degenerates.

It was maverick film-maker Selvaraghavan, who curiously cast his scrawny brother Dhanush as the dreaded gangster Kokki Kumar in his crime drama Pudhupettai (2006), which changed the game. The film heralded a change in the good-gangster hero type, and gave Tamil cinema its first taste of noir in a film in which an underdog, a petty gangster, rises to become a despicable antihero. The film opened to mixed reviews but soon acquired cult status, and there have been rumours of a sequel ever since. While Bala, Ameer and Sasikumar were more interested in the pain and suffering of the oppressed, rather than crime or gangsters (they sparked off international curiosity for their fascination with the cinema of cruelty, given the extent of graphic violence in their films), a young new generation of film-makers gave the crime genre the evolution it needed. They went beyond the physical manifestations of crime and delved deeper into moral decay and degeneration of human nature — the quintessential definitive trait of film noir.

Here’s a look at five Tamil films, from thelast five years, that have really pushed the envelope.

AadukalamAadukalam (2011)
One of the first few Tamil films to publicly acknowledge its influences through a filmography in the credits, this Vetrimarandirected crime drama, set in the backdrop of cockfights, is a fascinating exploration of hubris. When a young cock-fighter steps out of his mentor’s shadows and emerges a winner, the veteran is consumed by jealousy. Aadukalam (which means ‘arena’) is quite Shakespearean, especially in its resolution, and boasts of one of the most thrilling cockfights ever captured onscreen. Dhanush may have got first billing, but this film wasn’t about him. A lesser known debutant actor, Jayapalan, walked away with the meatier role — the man battling his ego.

The film went on to win six National awards, including best director, best screenplay and best actor for Dhanush, who was instantly catapulted to a different league. It was a performance that caught the attention of Anand L Rai, who cast him in Raanjhanaa.

Page-118-Aaranya-KaandamAaranya Kaandam (2011)
After winning the grand jury prize at the South Asian International Film Festival, in New York, during its world premiere, this gangster film ran into trouble with the censors, owing to its generous use of profanity. The makers challenged the board’s cuts and fought it out over months, but thedelay ultimately affected its commercial release. When an ageing gangster realises he cannot get it up, he vents his frustration by putting a hit on his rebellious deputy and triggers off a chain of events. Using inter-connected narratives, writer-director Thiagarajan Kumararaja crafted a neonoir thriller that’s wickedly funny (Tamil cinema hasn’t seen better writing in recent times) and stylish. Pieced together through a minimalistic approach (scenes that were essentially long, continuous takes), with a terrific ensemble cast and humour in the most unlikely of places, Aaranya Kaandam (‘jungle chapter’) was a look at humans as animals. The film bombed at the box office but has acquired cult status since.

Soodhu-KavvumSoodhu Kavvum (2013)
What happens when a slacker film does a satirical take on noir? Think Aaranya Kaandam done Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron style. When a bunch of unemployed youth come up with a set of rules for safe, low-stakes, non-violent kidnapping, they have no clue as to just wrong how their best-laid plans can go, when they kidnap the wrong guy. Featuring Vijay Sethupathi, the thinking man’s actor, as a schizophrenic hero who talks to an imaginary heroine, this is a film full of surprises and Guy Ritchie-esque twists. Soodhu Kavvum (‘evil will rise’) is an amoral, irreverent, subversive blast, showing its protagonists kidnapping women and children with absolutely no sign of remorse or guilt. Writer-director Nalan Kumarasamy’s debut film is one of the rare dark comedies to have come out of Tamil cinema. Not only has Rohit Shetty bought the Hindi remakerights, the critically acclaimed film was also a commercial success. Nalan is now working on Kai Neelam, a “sort-of-sequel” to Soodhu Kavvum.

Onnayum Aatukuttiyum (2013)
Mysskin is the closest Indian cinema has got to the South Korean or Japanese style of storytelling. The auteur, known for his unique composition of shots (he admittedly hates showing faces on camera) and minimalist scores, likes his cinema dark — and not just visually. Onnayum Aatukuttiyum (‘the kid and the wolf ’) is about the role reversal of the hunter and the hunted, and Mysskin casts himself in the role of a much-wanted injured gangster, on the road to redemption after he kidnaps the boy who saved his life. Like Aaranya Kaandam, the film draws parallels with animalistic traits in humans and takes it one step further. Mysskin adopts an experimental, surrealistic style of storytelling, in which characters physically and theatrically manifest themselves through these traits (all characters not just represent but also behave like the animals they are based on). Mysskin plays the gangster, and is a revelation as an actor.

Jigarthanda (2014)
What happens when the worlds of art and crime collide? Karthik Subbaraj’s Jigarthanda is a deadly cocktail of artimitating- crime and crime-imitating-art, one that proves that sometimes the artist can be a lot more criminal than the gangster. Very few films about films have actually captured the imagination of the masses, at least in India. Pitting Siddharth (who plays a filmmaker) against a relatively new actor, Bobby Simha, (who plays a dreaded gangster), Jigarthanda (named after Madurai’s version of falooda), literally means a cold heart. The entire half-hour stretch before the interval is pure gold. It’s a genre-bending narrative, as a full-blooded gangster film turns into a satirical laugh riot. Even with an almost three-hour running length, this is a riveting, unpredictable thriller.