Flooded with cinema and entertainment options from across the globe through OTTs, the hyper-aware and savvy Indian audience has announced its verdict: The story is the winner, and the scriptwriter is the real hero. Films in the four south Indian languages are clearly acing this game with unconventional subjects, new narratives, innovative storytelling, and fresh voices. Here are some of the best screenwriters in southern cinema.

TELUGU

Nag Ashwin

Mahanati (2018) waltzed into the theatres with a scale and grandeur that could have easily overpowered this biopic-period drama. Yet, if it is the film’s emotional tale that tugged at one’s heartstrings, it is proof of writer-director Nag Ashwin’s masterful storytelling. His twin narratives chronicle the lives of yesteryear screen idol Savitri and an under-confident journalist trying to piece together the legendary actress’ tragic life as she lies on her deathbed. Ashwin nimbly straddles two eras, beautifully tying them up in the form of a rousing climactic speech.

Going from a slice-of-life Yevade Subramanyam in 2015 (his first film) to the larger-than-life Mahanati, and then time travelling from Mahanati’s charming ’50s,  ’60s, and ’70s to a dystopian future controlled by social media in his Netflix short film xLife in 2021 (as part of anthology Pitta Kathalu), he proves that he is not afraid to experiment. For his next film, Ashwin is reportedly working with stars Prabhas and Deepika Padukone.

Rahul Ravindran

This actor-turned-writer-director’s first film Chi La Sow (2018) is about how one decides whom to marry. Chronicling one eventful night in the lives of easy-going Arjun and serious-minded Anjali who meet rather reluctantly for an arranged marriage proposition, the film is not so much a love story as it is a story about love against the backdrop of responsibilities, priorities, privileges, family, and marriage itself.

Rahul’s screenplay stands out the most for one of the best written heroines in Telugu cinema recently. Hers, and in turn Rahul’s, is a matter-of-fact brand of feminism, one that makes no song or dance about it but drives home the message strongly nevertheless: are women washing machines that one has to look at their features before choosing them? The film rightfully won the National Film Award for the Best Original Screenplay in 2019. Although Rahul followed up Chi La Sow with the underwhelming Manmadhudu 2, this gem of a film instills hope that there is more where that came from.  

Special mentions in Telugu: Sukumar for Rangasthalam (2018)

TAMIL

Nalan Kumarasamy, Neelan K. Sekar, Mysskin and Thiagarajan Kumararaja

There is not one but four scriptwriters behind the critically acclaimed 2019 hit, Super Deluxe. The experimental film not only saw three writers, all excellent film-makers in their own right, write separate tracks woven together by director and co-writer Thiagarajan Kumararaja, but it also had top actors from different south Indian languages (Vijay Sethupathi, Fahadh Faasil, Samantha Akkineni, and Ramya Krishnan) bring the characters to life. The film — about a cheating wife, a trans woman, a priest, a porn star, and an angry son, who all work through their inner demons on the same day — picked up numerous nominations and wins, including a National Award for Best Supporting Actor for Sethupathi in 2021. 

Vetri Maaran

The multiple National Award-winning writer-director has had a prolific decade, churning out Vada Chennai (2018), Asuran (2019), and Netflix anthology Paava Kadhaigal’s Oor Iravu (2020), just in the past three years. They have all garnered critical and commercial success, and won him plaudits for tight screenplay as well. Asuran, starring frequent collaborator Dhanush, won two National Awards in 2021 for Best Feature Film and Best Actor. Vetri Maaran forayed into short films with his chilling depiction of honour killing in the hinterlands in Oor Iravu starring Sai Pallavi and Prakash Raj. Known for his dark subjects and gritty tales set in suburban and rural milieus, Vetri Maaran has emerged a strong voice in recent times, and is an unmistakable influence on the next generation of filmmakers who are not afraid to explore serious themes. He is reportedly working with Vijay Sethupathi for his next film.

Special mentions in Tamil: Lokesh Kanagaraj (Kaithi, 2019) and Mari Selvaraj (Pariyerum Perumal, 2018)

KANNADA

Rishab Shetty 

The successful actor-director-producer behind some of the best Kannada films in the recent past wrote the acclaimed Sarkari Hiriya Prathamika Shaale Kasaragodu (2018) about how a group of Kannada-medium students in a little town on the border of Kerala and Karnataka, save their school from government officials. It is a commentary on what man-made borders can do to languages. Serious and heavy as the theme may sound, Shetty serves his third directorial venture with a generous dose of humour through a host of small-town characters and an impeccable Anant Nag. That, and the performances of the children, make it a delightful and unique film. Shetty’s next directorial project, the big-budget Rudraprayag, is on hold due to the pandemic. He has spoken about taking on character-driven roles until he can go back to wearing the director’s hat.

Special mentions in Kannada: Roopa Rao (Gantumoote, 2019), Hemanth Rao (Kavaludaari, 2019, won the National Award for co-writing Andhadhun)

MALAYALAM

Jeethu Joseph

The writer-director behind the best How to Get Away with Murder film Drishyam (2013), which spawned remakes in all major film industries, is back with a sequel. Does getting away with murder mean that happiness and peace return? That’s the question this perfect sequel, Drishyam 2The Resumption, set six years after the original tries to answer. Like the first installment, this is truly a writer’s film, with scene after scene unfolding easily and every scene adding to the plot. Jeethu excels in the thriller genre, and has several successful films to his credit like Detective, Mummy & Me, and Memories. He has also made films in Hindi and Tamil. Next, he’s working on the Telugu remake of Drishyam 2, and is teaming up for the third time with Mohanlal for Malayalam film Ram. He has not ruled out a third part to the Drishyam franchise.

Syam Pushkaran

The screenwriter who picked up the National Award for Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016) is the writer behind 2019’s blockbuster Kumbalangi Nights, and 2021’s acclaimed Joji. In the tale about a man who vows to not wear slippers until he has got his revenge, Pushkaran explored what it means to be macho for a simpleton studio photographer. With Kumbalangi Nights, Pushkaran went all the way to the other end of the spectrum to look at toxic masculinity through four brothers in a dysfunctional relationship. He continues exploring this theme through a physically strong patriarch who is outrightly abusive towards his three sons in Joji, a looser and contemporary adaptation of Macbeth. Pushkaran, with a terrific Fahadh Faasil who brought to life the creepy Shammi in Kumbalangi Nights and the meek but titular character Joji, and ace director Dileesh Pothan, is a part of a trio that is fast becoming the dream team of Malayalam cinema. Pushkaran has also co-written several acclaimed films of the past decade like 22 Female Kottayam, Iyobinte Pusthakam and Rani Padmini.

Jeo Baby

If you thought you were going to watch a gastronomical splendour in The Great Indian Kitchen (2021) about lovely flavours and aromas, replete with mouth-watering close up shots of food with vapour rising from them, you are in for a shock. What writer-director Jeo Baby serves you instead, is a story about messy dishes, leftover food, broken taps, entitled men, their patriarchy and misogyny, all sitting together in an ugly mess that has become the life of the unnamed protagonist. After lesser known films like Kunju Daivam and Kilometres and Kilometres, Baby forces us to sit up and take notice of his screenplay in this scathing observational film. He doesn’t rely on drama or a shrill soundtrack to drive home the point. It’s a testament to his craft that he turns a tale so simple that we are all desensitivised to into a scathing commentary on the drudgery and domestic slavery that a kitchen can represent for so many Indian women.

Special mentions in Malayalam: The late Sachy (Driving Licence, Ayyappanum Koshiyum), Mahesh Narayanan (C U Soon), Vincent Vadakkan (Trance)