The film focuses on the strengths and vulnerabilities of Mayil (Sridevi), a 16-year-old schoolgirl, and the challenges she faces and overcomes. The film, originally titled Mayil, is set in rural Tamil Nadu and is Rajinikanth's first colour film. 16 Vayathinile is the first Tamil film to be shot completely outdoors; Tamil films were primarily filmed in Chennai studios.
Produced and distributed by S. A. Rajkannu, 16 Vayathinile was released on 15 September 1977 to critical praise for Bharathiraja's script, Ilaiyaraaja's music and the performances of Kamal, Sridevi and Rajinikanth. It was commercially successful, with a 175-day theatrical run.
Mayil is a 16-year-old schoolgirl who lives in a village with her mother, Guruvammal. Guruvammal also takes care of the limping orphan Gopalakrishnan, who is called "Chappani" ("Lame") by the villagers and does whatever he can to earn a living. Mayil's ambition is to become a teacher, and she hopes to marry a sophisticated, educated man; although Chappani is in love with her, she ignores him.
An urban veterinarian named Sathyajith arrives in the village to work and falls in love with Mayil. Mayil, believing that Sathyajith is the man for her, falls in love with him, to the point of refusing an opportunity to attend a teacher-training course in Madras to remain with him. Despite loving Sathyajith, she does not allow him to exploit her sexually, which disappoints him. Never intending a serious relationship with Mayil, he proceeds to his native place to get married to another woman. When Mayil begs Sathyajith not to leave her, he says he befriended her for pleasure—not marriage.
A dejected Mayil confesses this to Guruvammal, who quickly plans to betroth her to someone else. The village ruffian Parattai—who lusts for Mayil—spreads rumours about her relationship with Sathyajith. Because of this, Mayil's engagement plans are halted and the village becomes hostile to her. Unable to bear the shame, Guruvammal dies and leaves Chappani to take care of Mayil.
Chappani takes good care of Mayil, cheering her up when she needs it. She warms to Chappani, making him more confident and assertive and grooming him and his manners, to the surprise of many in the village. Mayil tells him to slap anyone who calls him "Chappani" and to respond only to those who address him by his name, Gopalakrishnan. When Sathyajith and Parattai call him "Chappani" despite his request to use his real name, Gopalakrishnan slaps them. Mayil and Gopalakrishnan celebrate his newfound courage. An insulted Parattai later beats Gopalakrishnan badly. Mayil saves him, spitting on Parattai for the brutal attack.
Mayil decides to marry Gopalakrishnan, and sends him to the nearby town for buying wedding supplies. Learning of Gopalakrishnan's absence, Parattai goes to Mayil's house and tries to rape her. Gopalakrishnan returns to Mayil's house and pleads with Parattai to leave her. When Parattai refuses, Gopalakrishnan kills him with a rock and is arrested. He promises Mayil that he will return, and she waits everyday for him.Kamal Haasan as Gopalakrishnan (Chappani)
Sridevi as Mayil
Rajinikanth as Parattai
Ganthimathi as Guruvammal
Sathyajith as Sathyajith
Goundamani as Koothu
16 Vayathinile was P. Bharathiraja's directorial debut and his first screenplay. It was originally planned to be a black-and-white film titled Mayil and funded by the National Film Development Corporation of India (NDFC), but according to Bharathiraja, the NFDC withdrew at the last minute without a reason. The film was eventually produced by S. A. Rajkannu under the banner Shri Amman Creations. Mayil was later re-titled 16 Vayathinile, and the dialogue was written by P. Kalaimani. P. S. Nivas was signed as cinematographer, Somnath-Kamalasekharan as art director and R. Bhaskaran as editor.
Bharathiraja wanted Chithra Lakshmanan, who was an assistant director with K. Bhagyaraj, to sign Kamal Haasan for the role of Chappani, expecting to pay Kamal ₹15,000 since the actor had received ₹17,000 for Aayirathil Oruthi (1975). When Kamal asked for ₹30,000, Lakshmanan suggested that Bharathiraja offer the role to Sivakumar since the production unit could not afford Kamal's request; however, Bharathiraja saw Kamal as the ideal choice and agreed to pay him ₹27,000. For his character, the actor grew his curly hair long and wore lungis and khadi high-buttoned shirts. In 2017, Kamal recalled, "Years ago, a man sporting a soiled dhoti and shirt came to my office to narrate a script. Had I turned the offer down on the basis of his dirty clothes, I wouldn’t have been here talking to you. After listening to the script, I realised that he was such a genius and the movie was the cult classic [16 Vayathinile], and he was none other than ace Bharathiraja sir". Bharathiraja also recalled that he showed a "handsome Kamal Haasan in an ugly way" as he wanted to prove that characters need not always be attractive, and to break this stereotype in the film industry.
Rajinikanth was cast as the village ruffian Parattai. Although Bharathiraja had finalised ₹3,000 as the salary for Rajinikanth after the latter initially charged ₹5,000, he had paid ₹2,500 to Rajinikanth. 16 Vayathinile marked Rajinikanth's first appearance in a colour film. Since the actor was not fluent in Tamil at the time, Bhagyaraj read him his lines and Rajinikanth repeated them until he mastered them. Sridevi was cast as Mayil, after whom the film was initially titled.} For the role of Mayil's mother Guruvammal, Bharathiraja wanted someone who could speak the village dialect fluently and chose Ganthimathi for her acting style. Receiving a salary of ₹150, Bhagyaraj was initially considered for the veterinarian's role but wanted to concentrate on directing; despite that, he still made a cameo appearance in the film. The role of the veterinarian went to newcomer Shabbir Ahmed, who was given the screen name Sathyajith during post-production. His scenes were shot in ten days. Comedian Goundamani was cast as a character named Koothu. Kamal, Sridevi, Rajinikanth and Gandhimathi were credited by their character names in the opening credits, rather than their own names.
Shot mainly in Mysore and Kollegal, 16 Vayathinile was the first Tamil film made completely outdoors and no sets were used. According to Kamal, due to budgetary constraints the technical crew could not afford a camera which could film slow motion and Sridevi had to run in slow motion for the song "Chendoora Poove". The scene where Mayil spits on Parattai required several takes before Rajinikanth insisted that Sridevi actually spit on him for real.
While Bharathiraja wanted the film to follow a linear narration, it was Bhagyaraj's idea to begin the film with a flashback sequence. After the film completed its shoot, it was screened at least 20 times for the distributors and the narrative switched every time between the linear and non-linear versions. Eventually, the producer himself released the film, with the flashback narrative. The budget of the film was ₹0.5 million (equivalent to ₹9.8 million or US$150,000 in 2016).
16 Vayathinile focuses on rural Tamil Nadu, and the vulnerabilities of Mayil. Film critic Naman Ramachandran compared Parattai to Rajinikanth's character Kondaji from Katha Sangama (1975), stating "Like in that film, Rajinikanth is a card-playing wastrel with henchmen in tow. Just like the Thimmaraya character in Katha Sangama runs errands for Kondaji, here Chappani/Gopalakrishnan performs services for Parattai, but the similarity ends there because Thimmaraya is evil and Chappani is good." He also described the film as the first instance when a villainous character played by Rajinikanth does not have a change of heart or get away without getting his just deserts: "Here he pays for his deeds with his life."
According to Kamal, the film was inspired by David Lean's 1970 drama, Ryan's Daughter. Film scholar Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai noted that the film was marked by "ambiguous and dark protagonists, new subjectivity, [and] avoidance of clichéd and cathartic closures". Kumuthan Maderya, writing for Jump Cut, described 16 Vayathinile as a "neo-nativity" film — a story set in rural Tamil Nadu, valorising the rustic and foregrounding the lives of villagers. Ashis Nandy, in his 1998 book The Secret Politics of Our Desires, noted that doctors in Tamil films like 16 Vayathinile are always viewed with "a bit of suspicion" and remain complete outsiders "capable of seducing women and polluting the community".
The soundtrack album and background score for 16 Vayathinile were composed by Ilaiyaraaja with lyrics by Kannadasan, Gangai Amaran and Alangudi Somu. Ilaiyaraaja, in an April 2015 interview with Maalai Malar, stated that Kannadasan accepted salaries ranging from ₹1,000 to ₹1,500. Ilaiyaraaja requested Kannadasan to accept ₹750 citing the film's budget constraints, to which Kannadasan agreed. The album was released on EMI Records.
16 Vayathinile was Ilaiyaraaja's first collaboration with Kamal. Bharathiraja insisted that Rajkannu meet Ilaiyaraaja, although Rajkannu doubted if Ilaiyaraaja would sign on since he had become well-known after his debut film Annakili (1976). Ilaiyaraaja initially refused because of an earlier bet with Bharathiraja that Ilayaraaja's mentor, G. K. Venkatesh, would compose the music for Bharathiraja's first film. Venkatesh later insisted that Ilaiyaraaja compose the music.
Although Ilaiyaraaja wanted S. P. Balasubrahmanyam to sing "Chavanthi Poo" and "Aattukkutti", the singer had pharyngitis at that time and was replaced by Malaysia Vasudevan. "Chavanthi Poo", the first song recorded, was the first written by Kannadasan for the film. Gangai Amaran made his debut as lyricist with "Chendoora Poove". Ilaiyaraaja also debuted as a singer with this film by singing the number "Solam Vidhaikkaiyile", although it does not appear on the soundtrack. According to film critic Baradwaj Rangan, "Chendoora Poove" used Viennese musical tropes. B. Kolappan of The Hindu wrote that the song "employs a rush of violins to set up the intro for the folk melody that follows."
The album, a blend of folk and Western classical music, was praised by critics, and "Aattukkutti" established Vasudevan's popularity. About "Chendoora Poove", B. Kolappan wrote, "The maestro's genius is most evident in his ability to combine forms seamlessly." Tribune described "Chendoora Poove" as a "silver lined melody that paced the film and added to its brilliance. Do not miss it at any cost." P. K. Ajith Kumar of The Hindu praised Janaki's vocals in "Chendoora Poove", saying the song "would not have sounded as special in any other voice". Oinam Bedajit Metei, author of the article Influence of Cross Cultural Flows on National Integration through Bollywood musicals: An Analytical Study, praised the song for offering "an insight into the variety and diversity in [Janaki's] voice". He also praised its picturisation. The song inspired the title of a 1988 film starring Vijayakanth, and a television serial of the same name. The film's songs were remastered in DTS 5.1 six-channel audio by A. Muthusamy of Honey Bee Music in June 2013.
16 Vayathinile was released on 15 September 1977. Rajkannu released the film himself after no distributors were willing to buy it. Although 16 Vayathinile was written off by the media as an experimental film that would fail, it became a commercial success, running for over 175 days in theatres, and becoming a silver jubilee film. The film earned $1 million at the box office according to a 2010 estimate by the magazine South Scope, and Rajkannu went into hiding to avoid income-tax raids. It was remade in Telugu by Kovelamudi Raghavendra Rao as Padaharella Vayasu (1978) and in Hindi by Bharathiraja as Solva Sawan (1979), with Sridevi reprising her role in both. It was also remade in Malay as Melati Putih (1984). In October 2009, actor Ganesh revealed that he and his wife bought the remake rights of 16 Vayathinile for Kannada.
The film received critical acclaim, with praise for Bharathiraja's script, Ilaiyaraaja's music and the performances of Kamal, Sridevi and Rajinikanth. The Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan, in its original review, gave the film 62.5 marks out of 100, their highest rating for a Tamil film. The reviewer praised the film for representing village life with realism, and for avoiding the cliché of (studio) court and police station in its climax, but criticised the error in focusing. In the fourteenth volume of Film World, dated 1978, T. M. Ramachandran praised Kamal's performance. Tribune stated in 1983, "Kamalahasan by his youthfulness alone has many years ahead of him to adorn the Tamil and Hindu screens, and going by his brilliance in Pathinaru Vayathinile, could even, displace [Sivaji Ganesan] with the passage of time".
In 2007, Rediff called 16 Vayathinile a "new genre of pastoral film, which was true to village life in characterisation, costumes and dialect". The Times of India stated that it "showcase[s] the best of the superstar [Rajinikanth] and the universal hero [Kamal Haasan]". On International Women's Day in 2017, writing for Firstpost, Sujatha Narayanan described Mayil as Sridevi's "earliest best role".
In addition to the National Film Award for Best Female Playback Singer for S. Janaki, 16 Vayathinile won Kamal the Filmfare Award in the Best Tamil Actor category. The film won four Tamil Nadu State Film Awards, and Rajinikanth won the Arima Sangam Award for Best Actor for his role as Parattai.
I am [Bharathiraja's] very first fan ... These are not empty words. Before 16 Vayathinile's release, when he showed me the film, I wrote him a letter of appreciation. That's why I say that I'm his first fan and proud to be so.
16 Vayathinile is considered a cult film and a landmark in Tamil cinema, diverging from traditional Tamil films of the time. With Annakili, the film was a trendsetter for realistic portrayals of rural life, and made superstars of Kamal, Rajinikanth and Sridevi, as well as boosting Goundamani's popularity. According to Naman Ramachandran and S. Shiva Kumar of The Hindu, Kamal's performance was considered a tour de force by critics since he was typecast as a romantic hero at that time. The dialogue "Idhu Eppadi Irukku?" ("How's this?"), spoken by Parattai, became very popular; IANS and Rediff included it on their lists of lines popularised by Rajinikanth. Manisha Lakhe, writing for Forbes India, noted that 16 Vayathinile "paved the way for unkempt villains who had a singularly disgusting laugh." A digitally remastered version of the film was being planned for a late 2013 release; although its trailer was released in October that year, the film has yet to see a theatrical release as of 2016.
In July 2007, S. R. Ashok Kumar of The Hindu asked eight Tamil directors to list their all-time favourite Tamil films; seven – C. V. Sridhar, K. Balachander, J. Mahendran, K. Bhagyaraj, Mani Ratnam, K. S. Ravikumar and Ameer – named 16 Vayathinile. According to Ratnam, the film was "memorable for its script, high standard and realism." South Scope included Kamal's performance on its list of "Kamal's best performances" in July 2010. S. Shiva Kumar of The Hindu included the film on his December 2010 list of "Electrifying Rajinikanth-Kamal Haasan films" with Moondru Mudichu (1976), Avargal (1977) and Aval Appadithan (1978). In April 2013 CNN-News18 included the film on its list of "100 greatest Indian films of all time", saying that it was a "decisive move away from the studio-bound productions and paved the way for successful integration of subaltern themes and folk arts into mainstream commercial cinema." In December 2014, The Times of India included 16 Vayathinile on its list of "Top 12 Rajinikanth movies". In August 2015, CNN-IBN included the film in its list of "10 performances that make [Sridevi] the 'Last Empress' of Indian cinema". In November the same year, Daily News and Analysis included the film in its list of "Films you must watch to grasp the breadth of Kamal Haasan's repertoire". Actors Vijay Sethupathi and Vikram included 16 Vayathinile among their favourite films. After seeing the film, director K. Balachander wrote in a letter of appreciation to Bharathiraja, "You have hit the bull's eye".
16 Vayathinile was spoofed in Murattu Kaalai (2012) by Vivek, whose character Saroja is called "Mayil" by Cell Murugan's character (a veterinarian similar to Sathyajith's character in the film). Sridevi's line, "Aatha Naan Passaayitten" ("Mother, I've passed the exam"), was the title of a 1990 film starring Arjun Sarja. In Sivaji (2007), Vivek's character delivers one of Rajinikanth's catchphrases and finishes by saying: "Idhu eppadi irukku?". The film's title and characters have inspired other film titles: Parattai Engira Azhagu Sundaram (2007), Mayilu (2012) and 36 Vayadhinile (2015). In Nayaki (2016) "Chendoora Poove" is frequently hummed by Trisha's character Gayathri.