V. O. Chidambaram Pillai has devoted himself to the cause of India's freedom from the British. Chidambaram, appearing for the peasant Madasami, wins a case filed by an agent of a British proprietor. Chidambaram's father, who appeared for the agent, sends his son to Thoothukudi lest the British proprietor should give him any trouble. Madasami who accompanies Chidambaram, looks after the latter's salt -pan. At Thoothukudi, Chidambaram meets Subramaniya Siva, a freedom fighter and works for the Swadeshi movement. Chidambaram receives a complaint from some of the local merchants that the British Shipping Company had refused to load their goods. Against great odds, Chidambaram starts the National Shipping Company with Indian Capital to free Indian trade from dependence on foreign liners. The company prospers despite attempts by the British Company to sabotage the ship of the Indian firm. Chidambaram incurs the displeasure of the Government by organising a strike for getting the grievances of the local coral mill workers redressed and by organising public celebrations to mark the release of Bipin Chandra Pal in contravention of a prohibitory order.
Chidambaram, along with Subramaniya Sivam, is invited to Tirunelveli by the District Collector, Winch. The collector directs them not to engage in political activity and also orders them out of the District. They defy the orders and are arrested. In the trial which ensues, Chidambaram is sentenced to 20 years life imprisonment and Sivam to 10 years. Chidambaram's sentence is reduced to six years on appeal. The imprisonment of these two leaders sparks off mass unrest which is put down ruthlessly. Some time later, the new District Collector Ash is shot dead by a young patriotic Vanchinathan, who commits suicide before the police can reach him.
The news of the unrelented struggle outside gives much consolation to Chidambaram and Sivam who are treated barbarously in the prison. Chidambaram emerges from the prison a broken man only to witness a series of disappoinments — Sivam is a victim of leprosy contracted during his term in prison, Chidambaram's brother has become insane, the National Shipping Company is bought by its British rival and leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bharathiar die one after another. Chidambaram devotes the last years of his life to the study of literature and dies still dreaming of the day when India would be free.Sivaji Ganesan as V. O. Chidambaram PillaiGemini Ganesan as MadaswamiSavitri as Kannamma (Madaswami's lover)Kumari Rukmini as Chidambaram Pillai's wife MeenatchiammalS. V. Ranga Rao as Collector VinchS. A. Ashokan as Sub-Collector AshK. Sakrapani as RayarO. A. K. Devar as Vaduguraman'Stunt' Somu as SudalaiT. K. Shanmugham as Subramaniya SivaS. V. Subbaiah as Subramania BharathiyarC. R. Parthibhan as Mr.Justice PinhaeK. Balaji as Vanchinathan'Gemini' Chandra as Vanchinathan's wife PonnammalT. P. Muthulakshmi as SudanthiradeviChittor V. Nagaiah as Ulaganatha PillaiT. S. Durairaj as SangalA. Karunanidhi as UnnarsamyN. N. Kannappa as Meenatchi Sundaram
Kappalottiya Thamizhan is based on the life of freedom fighter Va Vu Chidambaram Pillai, who founded the Swadeshi Stream Navigation Company to break the monopoly of the British over maritime trade out of India. During a time when the DMK was gaining political ground in Tamil Nadu, a time when there was competition between parties, and films were pitched against each other, the opposition unleashed a malicious propaganda that since Chidambaram belonged to the Indian National Congress, Kappalottiya Thamizhan was a film for the Congress. The film was not targeted for the masses, who at that time did not want to be "stirred" by the Nationalist Spirit.
Sivaji Ganesan was hesitant to do the role of VOC as he doubted whether he could perform the role flawlessly, but later accepted the role. He once said that the highest award he got for this film was when VOC's son Subramaniam said he saw his father alive in the screen. Gemini Ganesan was cast in the role of Madasamy, and S. V. Subbiah was cast as the Tamil language poet Subramania Bharathi. While actor S. A. Ashokan made his debut in this film as Collector Ash, actor V. Nagaiah who was then in "dire straits", was signed up for a significant role, as director B. R. Panthulu wanted to give him a "break in films".
According to film historian S. Theodore Baskaran, there is no evidence of any research undertaken for making the film. He stated that the film had no props, apart from the character's costumes and the female character's ear-lobes, which were done to create a "period effect". The scenes which involved the burning of non-Indian textiles were described by him as "flat" and "unconvincing".
The soundtrack of the film was composed by G. Ramanathan. All the songs are based on poems, written by Subramania Bharati. Writing for The Hindu, C. V. Vasudevan wrote that the film "explored the powerful lyrics of Mahakavi Bharathi being matched perfectly by G. Ramanathan['s] musical score."
Kappalottiya Thamizhan received generally positive reviews. Malathi Rangarajan of The Hindu said, "Films on patriotism are many. But Panthulu's Kappalottiya Tamizhan stands apart for the natural portrayal of Sivaji Ganesan as VOC, and S.V. Subbiah who came up with a brilliant performance as Bharatiar. The film remains a perfect showcase of the Independence Movement in the South!" Suganthy Krishnamachari of The Hindu said, "S. V. Subbiah's performance as Bharatiyar in the film, Kappalottiya Tamizhan was reminiscent of his role as Kavi Anandar." S. Viswanathan of The Frontline praised Ganesan's performance, saying "Critics list several films as his best in terms of performance. However, according to the actor, his career best was Kappalottiya Thamizhan, which tells the life of a freedom fighter, V.O. Chidambaram." Tamil film historian S. Theodore Baskaran said, "Though Sivaji Ganesan's portrayal of Chidambaram Pillai is affected in the earlier part of the film, later in the prison sequences and during the trauma of disillusionment, his acting is natural. The format of the film remains traditional with duets, songs and fight sequences."
Kappalottiya Thamizhan was the first Tamil film to get tax exemption from the government of India, because of its content. Tax exemption was offered during its re-release in 1967. In spite of this, it emerged a commercial failure. It faced a loss of ₹7,00,000. About the film's failure, Ganesan felt that since the Congress did not understand artistic sensitivities, Kappalottiya Tamizhan, which was a film made for the Congress, was a box office failure. He also stated that he was not upset for losing money making the film to kindle the national spirit, but rather happy that he could harness the medium to remind people of the Indian freedom fighters of the bygone era.National Film Awards9th National Film Awards - Best Feature Film in Tamil for B. Ramakrishnaiah Panthulu