There was an elaborate build-up by industry insiders and fans to commemorate the 46th birthday of Vijay. People tweeted common DPs and birthday wishes for the actor have dominated Twitter trends today. It gives us a glimpse of the devotion that Vijay commands from his fan base. And every bit of this unconditional admiration and respect is well-earned.
Vijay is the son of director SA Chandrashekar. And that privilege helped him to get his first opportunities, but it did not guarantee success. During the early days of his career, he was even ridiculed for his looks. But, he did not let the discouragements determine his life. He kept improving himself and soon became a star on his own merit. So much so that the new generation may not know who is SA Chandrashekar, unless he is introduced as Vijay’s father.
Now, the question is whether the unconditional devotion is helping Vijay to expand his skills as an actor and elevate the Tamil film industry to the next level? Maybe not.
A Vijay movie is usually deeply formulaic: six songs, five fights, plenty of punchlines and of course a message to society. He has got caught up in an image trap for several years now. And he is expected to keep it that way as a lot rides on it.
Vijay assures a maximum guarantee for investors, and he offers maximum entertainment to the audience.
Everyone is happy.
But, what about Vijay’s obligation to the craft that made him what he is today.
In the early 2010s, director Gautham Menon announced a film with Vijay titled Yohan: Adhyayam Ondru. The director was at the peak of his popularity, having delivered a variety of hits. The project was supposed to be a confluence of a ‘mass hero’ (Vijay) and a ‘class director’ (Gautham). It was a spy thriller about an Indian-origin man working with the CIA. The scale and budget were huge as Gautham envisioned it as an international spy thriller, majorly populated with foreign actors.
Just days before the shoot, Vijay developed cold feet. He opted out of the project because it felt like an “English film.” The star was worried that the movie will snap the connect that he had cultivated with his core fanbase. Perhaps, someone might have advised Vijay that such a film will not work in ‘B’ and ‘C’ class theaters in the mofussil areas. He may have been told “people won’t understand this movie” or “the audience doesn’t expect such movies from him.” These are the trade suggestions that kill many ambitions.
Why change the formula, which may be dated, but still works?
Honestly, this is a lousy understanding of the taste of a much-evolved audience. Kamal Haasan’s Nayakan was recognized and appreciated by the Tamil audience way before it was selected for the Time Magazine’s 100 Best Films of All Time list. Vishwaroopam 1, the international spy-thriller that revolved around the politics and evils of global terrorism, was also loved and appreciated by the audience across Tamil Nadu.
At the same time, perceived safe bets like Vijay’s Villu, Sura and Puli were rejected by the same audience.
If not for the outbreak of coronavirus, Vijay’s new movie Master, directed by young filmmaker Lokesh Kanagaraj, would have already released. And it is safe to assume that it would have dominated the box office, making it one of the top-grossing films of the year. Unfortunately, the lockdown and growing cases of COVID-19 has made it impossible to say when the film will make it to the big screen.
But, the fact of the matter is there is a massive crowd that will brave the virus to watch a Vijay film if it releases today in theaters. But, will Vijay brave trade predictions and take risks to honour the devotion of his fans by pushing the envelope in terms of acting, technology, storytelling and creativity?
Will Vijay make an “English film” like Yohan: Adhyayam Ondru? Will he use his superstardom to break the barriers of the industry to bring new stories to his fans? Will he elevate his craft and industry standards by encouraging non-formulaic, bold, and contemporary storytelling techniques?
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