History of Tamil Cinema can be dated back to 1916 when Nataraja Rangaswamy Mudaliar made Keechaka Vadham, which was also the first silent film in South India. Lead actors of Keechaka Vadham were Jeevarathnam, R. Nataraja Mudaliar and Raja Mudaliar. Other films by Nataraja Mudaliar were Draupadi Vastrapaharanam(1917), Mayil Ravana(1918), Lavakusa(1919), Kalinga Mardanam(1920), Rukmini Kalyanam(1921) and Markandeya(1923). Other names to be mentioned from the distant past of Tamil cinema are R.Venkaiah, R.Prakash, A.Narayanan and K.Subramanyam.
The first talkie in Tamil was H.M.Reddy's Kalidas in 1931. This film told the familiar tale of Kalidas, the legendary Sanskrit poet. It had a cast consisting of P.G.Venkatesan, T.P. Rajalakshmi, Thevaram Rajambal and M.S.Sabthanalakshmi.
Mythologicals, folklores, pseudo historicals and photographed stage plays were the themes of Tamil cinema in the thirties. Films had as many as 30 songs. Musicians like Dandapani Designer, G.N.Balasubramanian, Musiri, M.S.Subhalakshmi and others were cast in the Tamil movies of thirties for the sake of music. A.Narayanan's 1934 film Srinivasa Kalyanam was the first Tamil talkie to be produced in a South Indian studio. In 1935, South India Film Corporation made Kausalya, the first Tamil film on a contemporary theme. The first female producer and director of Tamil cinema was T.P Rajalakshmi and the film was Miss Kamala in 1936. Chinthamani(1937) was the first Tamil film to run for more than a year in a single cinema house.
Other notable Tamil films of the thirties were A.Narayanan's Rajambal, Meerabai and Thenali Raman, Raja Sandow's Peyum Pennum, Bhaktavatsala, Chadrakantha and Thiruneelakantar, K.Subraminiam's Pavalakkodi, Balayogini, Seva Sadan and Thyagabhoomi and R.Prakash's Lanka Dahanam and Anaadhai Penn
Stardom in Tamil films had its birth in the thirties itself. The first superstar(female) of Tamil cinema was K.B.Sundarambal. She received Rs.1 Lakh as salary for playing the lead role in the movie Nandanar which was produced by Asandas Classical Talkies.
Second world and the independance struggle had its impacts on Tamil films of the 'furious fourties'. Foremost among the directors of fourties were S.S.Vasan, A.V.Meiyappan, L.V.Prasad and T.R.Sundaram.
S.S.Vasan's Chandralekha in 1948 was a landmark film in the history of Tamil cinema. Chandralekha was produced on a lavish budget and is among the most expensive tamil films of all time. Chandralekha was distributed by Gemini Studios, which was founded by Vasan in 1940. Later the film was re-released in Hindi and it became the first All-India hit movie. T.R Rajakumari, M.K.Radha, Ranjan and N.S.Krishnan were the leading artists of Chandralekha.
A.V.Meiyappan's 1947 film Nam Iruvar was another important movie of the decade. Nam Iruvar was the first production venture of AVM Productions which was established in 1945. AVM Productions is the largest and oldest production studio currently active in Tamil film industry.
Popular stars of the decade were M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, P.U.Chinnappa, T.R.Mahalingam, M.K.Radha, Ranjan, K.R.Ramaswamy, T.R.Rajakumari and Rukmini. M.K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar(MKT) was the most popular among them and is widely regarded as the first superstar of Tamil cinema. MKT's film Haridas in 1944 created history by becoming the first Indian film to run continuously for three years at a single theatre. Haridas was directed by Sunder Rao Nadkarni who was Marathi film director.Other box office hits of MKT include Ambikapathi, Ashok Kumar and Sivakavi.
The late fourties witnessed the excellent exploitation of Tamil cinema for achieving certain political aims. C.N.Annadurai, who later went on to become the chief minister of Tamilnadu was the leader of this rare phenomenon in the history of world cinema. Annadurai wrote the script for Velaikkari(1949), directed by A.S.A.Swamy. Velaikkari had a cast consisting of T.S.Balaiah, M.N.Nambiar, K.R.Ramaswamy, M.V.Rajamma and Balasubramaniam D. Velaikkari was a huge success and it set a new trend in Tamil cinema.
M.Karunanidhi, Annadurai's trusted assistant followed his path and wrote screen plays for several films. Karunanidhi also rose to the level of Chief Minister of Tamilnadu. Some of his films as a script writer were Rajakumari, Parasakthi, Malaikallan and Pudhumai Pithan.
By the early fifties three actors rose to fame in Tamil film industry and they ruled the film world in the fifties, sixties and seventies. They were M.G.Ramachandran(M.G.R), Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan.
M.G.Ramachandran made his debut in Ellis R Dungan's 1935 film Sati Leelavati. His breakthrough role was in the 1947 film Rajakumaari, which was written by M.Karunanidhi. He attained superstardom after his 1954 movie Malaikallan. He played the hero in a number of blockbusters including Alibabavum Narpadhu Thirudargalum(first full length color film in Tamil,released in 1955), Madhurai Veeran, Pudhumai Pithan, Nadodi Mannan, Thaayai Kaatha Thanayan, Dheiva Thaai, En Kadamai, Aayirathil Oruvan, Enga Veettu Pillai, Anbe Vaa, Nadodi, Chandhrodhayam, Ragasiya Police 115, Pudhiya Bhoomi, Adimai Penn, Engal Thangam, Rickshawkaran(won him National Film Award for Best Actor in 1971), Raaman Thediya Seedhai, Ulagam Sutrum Valiban and Idhayakkani. M.G.R is considered the numero uno in the history of Tamil cinema and was fondly called Puratchi Thalaivar. He became the Chief Minister of Tamilnadu in 1977 and continued in the position till his death in 1987.
Sivaji Ganesan was one of the first and finest method actors in Indian cinema. His highly expressive eyes, mobile face and fine voice made him a moving force in Tamil cinema. He was fondly called as Nadigar Thilakam. Sivaji Ganesan entered film world through the 1952 film Parasakthi which was written by M.Karunanidhi. Parasakthi is among the clasics of Tamil cinema and helped Sivaji Ganesan rise to instant stardom. He rendered fine performances in movies like Veerapandiya Kattabomman, Paasamalar, Kappalottiya Thamizhan, Vietnam Veedu, Vasantha Maligai, Pattikkada Pattanama, Thangapathakam and Thirisoolam. In the 1964 film Navarathri, Sivaji Ganesan essayed nine different roles each representing a different emotional state of a man.
Gemini Ganesan, nicknamed Kadhal Mannan got his first break with Miss Malini. Then he played Lord Krishna in Chakravarthi. The actor in him was noticed with the 1953 film Thai Ullam in which he played the villain. Next year he was casted as the hero in Manampol Mangalyam opposite his future wife Savithri. Some of his best works include Missi Amma, Pennin Perumai, Miss Mary, Maya Bazar, School Master, Parthiban Kanavu, Kalathur Kannamma, Kalyana Parisu, Konjum Salangai, Kanavane Kan Kanda Deivam, Vanjikottai Valiban, Then Nilavu, Meenda Sorgam, Santhi Nilayam, Vaazhkai Padagu, Katpaham, Ramu, Thamarai Nenjam and Punnagai and Naan Avan Illai. His talents were not properly exploited and was mostly confined to boy meets girl romantic films.
Other popular actors in the fifties and sixties include Sivakumar, Muthumaran, Vijayakumar, Jaishankar, Balaji, Nagesh, M.N.Nambiar, P.S.Veerappa, Asokan, R.S.Manohar and Major Sundera Rajan. Leading actresses of this period were Anjali Devi, Savithri, P.Bhanumathi, Pushpalatha, Padmini, Sowkar Janaki, B.Saroja Devi, K.R.Vijaya, Vanisree, Kanchana and Jayalalitha. Prominent directors of this period include Sreedhar, Krishnan Panju, A.Bhim Singh, P.Madhavan, P.Neelakantan, A.P.Nagarajan, A.C.Trilokchander, C.V.Rajendran and K.S.Gopalakrishnan.
By the late sixties Tamil cinema witnessed the emergence of a prolific director and screenwriter, K.Balachander. He discarded the traditional nature of film making and made movies with bold themes. His films dealt with unusual and complicated relationships and social themes. Over the decades, he made many stupendous movies like Ethir Neechal, Arangetram, Aval Oru Thodar Kathai, Naan Avan Illai, Apoorva Raagangal, Avargal, Moondru Mudichu, Varumayin Niram Sivappu, Thaneer Thaneer, Achamillai Achamillai, Sindhu Bhairavi, Manathil Uruthi Vendum and Unnal Mudiyum Thambi. He introduced and gave breaks to many artists including Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Vivek and Prakash Raj.
By the late seventies three more directors belonging to the naturalistic genre entered Tamil filmdom. They were K.Bharathiraja, Balu Mahendra and K.Bhagyaraj.
Bharathiraja's films had unglamourous heroes, as-is-spoken dialogues and true-to-life costumes. His first directoral venture was 16 Vayathinile in 1977. Bharathiraja himself wrote the script for 16 Vayathinile which had Kamal Haasan, Rajnikanth and Sridevi in lead roles. His forte was village themes which he proved through films like Kizhakke Pogum Rail, Alaigal Oivadhillai, Mann Vasanai and Muthal Mariyathai.His other successful movies like Sigappu Rojakkal, Tik Tik Tik, Vedham Pudhithu, Kizhakku Seemayile and Karuththamma proved his ability to handle films with different themes.
Balu Mahendra's films were remarkable for their visual appeal, brilliant characters and complex emotions. The first Tamil film he directed was Azhiyadha Kolangal in 1979 which had Kamal Haasan as the protagonist. His other movies include Moodupani, Moondram Pirai, Rettai Vaal Kuruvi, Veedu, Sandhya Raagam, Marupadiyum and Sathi Leelavathi.
K.Bhagyaraj's films were laced with earthy humour and the characters were honest and straight forward. He scripted, directed and acted as the protagonist in a number of movies. He made his entry into direction with the 1979 movie Suvar Ellatha Chitrangal. His notable movies include Vidiyum Vari Kaathiru, Mouna Geethanagal, Indru Poyi Naalai Vaa, Antha Ezhu Natkal, Thooral Ninnu Pochhu, Munthanai Mudichu and Chinna Veedu.
The mid-late seventies and early eighties saw the emergence of Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth as the superstars of Tamil cinema.
Kamal Haasan performed as a child artist in early sixties and did supporting roles in the early seventies. He got his first break in Tamil cinema with K.Balachander's 1975 movie Apoorva Raagangal, which was also Rajinikanth's debut movie. He worked with K.Balachander in a number of movies including Moondru Mudichu, Avargal, Manmadha Leelai, Oru Oodhappu Kan Simittugiradhu and Varumayin Niram Sivappu. Over the years Kamal Haasan has done a variety of roles in films like Raaja Paarvai, Vazhve Mayam, Sakala Kala Vallavan, Moondram Pirai, Nayakan, Unnal Mudiyum Thambi, Apoorva Sahodarargal, Michael Madana Kamarajan, Thevar Magan, Guna, Sathi Leelavathi, Avvai Shanmugi, Indian, Hey Ram, Virumandi, Vasoolraja M.B.B.S, Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu and Dasavatharam.
Rajinikanth made his debut in Tamil films as a cancer patient in Apoorva Raagangal(1975). In the mid seventies he played supporting and villaneous roles in films usually with Kamal Haasan as the hero. In S.P.Muthuraman's Bhuvana Oru Kelvikkuri (1977), he played a villain in first half and the protagonist in the second half. Mullum Malarum (1978) directed by J.Mahendran established Rajinikanth as a hero. Rajinikanth started the eighties with a bang with the release of Billa. Billa was a remake of the the bollywood movie Don. Rajinikanth consolidated his stardom in the eighties with hits like Murattu Kaalai, Pokkiri Raja, Thanikattu Raja, Naan Mahaan Alla, Moondru Mugam, Netrikan, Padikkathavan, Thee, Velaikaran, Dharmathin Thalaivan, Mr. Bharath, Maaveeran and Sri Raghavendra. Rajani continued his good run in the nineties with super hits like Thalapathy, Mannan, Annamalai, Uzhaippali, Veera, Baasha, Muthu, Arunachalam and Padayappa. His recent movies Chandramukhi and Sivaji:The Boss were also stupendous hits.
More actors entered the Tamil film industry in the eighties. Prominent among them were Vijayakanth, Prabhu Ganesan, Mohan, Sathyaraj, Karthik, Sarat Kumar, Arjun and Murali. Popular heroines were Khushboo, Radha, Ambika, Gouthami, Saranya and Rupini.
The eighties and early nineties witnessed the emergence and excellence of some talented directors like Mani Ratnam, S.A.Chandrasekhar, Manivannan, T.Rajender, Vikraman, R.K.Selvamani, Santhana Bharathi, K.S.Ravikumar and S.Shankar. Mani Ratnam and S.Shankar stand out among the others. Mani Ratnam had scripted and directed critically and commercially successful films like Mouna Raagam, Nayagan, Agni Natchathiram, Anjali, Thalapathi, Roja, Bombay, Iruvar, Alaipayuthey and Kannathil Muthamittal. S.Shankar is known for his excellent treatment of commercial cinema and has won accolades for his films like Gentleman, Kadhalan, Indian, Jeans, Mudhalvan, Boys, Anniyan and Sivaji:The Boss.
In the nineties actors like Aravind Swamy, Vijay, Ajith, Prasanth and Prabhu Deva entered Tamil filmdom. Heroines like Nagma, Rambha, Soundarya, Madhoo, Meena, Devayani, Roja and Simran gained popularity during this period. Directors like Sundar C, Rajeev Menon, S.J.Sooryah, S.Ezhil, Selva and Cheran entered Tamil film industry during the nineties.
Vijay and Ajith Kumar rose to fame in the late nineties and became the new sensations of Kollywood. By the early 2000's R.Madhavan, Vikram and Surya Sivakumar also attained stardom. Jyothika and Laila gained popularity as heroines in the early 2000's.
Tamil cinema has produced some of the most talented music directors in India. Foremost among them(currently active) are Ilayaraja and A.R.Rahman. Notable among the other music directors of Tamil film industry include Harris Jayaraj, Deva, Yuvan Shankar Raja, Devi Sri Prasad, Vidyasagar and Srikanth Deva.
At present, superstars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan dominate the Tamil filmdom. Behind them Vijay, Ajith, Vikram, Surya and Madhvan also rake in the moolah. Younger stars like Jayam Ravi, Dhanush, Silambarasan, Vishal, Arya, Jeeva, Bharath, Jai and Karthi Sivakumar have done good business at the box office in the recent past. Versatile actors Prakash Raj and Pasupathy and comedians Vadivelu and Vivek are other prominent actors. Leading heroines of kollywood are Asin Thottumkal, Nayantara, Trisha Krishnan, Shriya Saran, Tamanna Bhatia, Sandhya, Reema Sen, Sadha, Sneha, Bhumika Chawla and Namitha. Prominent among the directors at present are Mani Ratnam, S.Shankar, P.Vasu, K.S.Ravikumar, Gautham Menon, Bala, Linguswamy, Vishnuvardhan, Cheran, Hari, Saran, M. Raja, Susi Ganesan, Myshkin, A. R. Murugadoss, Selva, Perarasu, Prabhu Deva, Balaji Sakthivel, Ameer and Boopathy Pandian.