Vijay drips swag like he was born with it. He is a Superstar now and has a crazy fan-base. But this fame didn’t happen overnight. His path to success was thorny and unpaved. Back then, he was tall, gawky and brown; not ‘conventionally good-looking’. Having made his debut as a hero in Tamil cinema with Naalaiya Theerpu (1992), directed by his filmmaker-father SA Chandrasekhar, it took decades for Vijay to redefine himself as a star and become ‘Thalapathy’ (as he is fondly called).
In 2019, undoubtedly, Vijay is the king of Tamil box-office after Rajinikanth. (Reports suggested Sarkar earned over Rs 200 crore worldwide within a week of its release, surpassing Baahubali 2’s record).
Like his peers Suriya, Ajith and Vikram, Vijay never ‘experimented with characters’. He was comfortable in his own skin.
The actor collaborated with his father for initial films as a child artist followed by Senthoorapandi (1993), Rasigan (1994), Vishnu (1995), and so on. But none of them quite fetched Vijay an identity of his own. He was always SAC’s son. Vijay tried his best to break the tag eventually trying ‘formula films’ like Deva (1995), Chandralekha (1995) and Coimbatore Mappillai (1996) that catered strictly to his fans. However, Vikraman’s Poove Unakkaga (1996) turned out to be his first massive hit. The film, which had catchy songs, ran for 200 days and was later remade in several languages. Vijay’s portrayal of an innocent youngster trying to unite a Hindu-Christian family clicked with the audience.
Subsequently, Vijay switched over to love and action genre where he dabbled with subtle acting in Love Today (1997) and Kannukkul Nilavu (2000). You witness ‘the actor’ in Vijay in Kaadhalukku Mariyadhai (1997) where he shared screen space with Shalini. Directed by Fazil, it became a smashing hit, bringing Vijay his first Tamil Nadu State Award. Cited as one of the best romantic dramas in Kollywood, the film was also popular due to songs by Ilaiyaraaja.
It’s interesting that Vijay brought out variations in his acting skills — slightly ‘anti’, which was evident with Priyamudan (1998) and Priyamanavale (2000). Further, Vijay had no inhibitions doing multi-starrers. After Nerukku Ner (1997), he teamed up once again with Suriya on Friends (2001). The film, which had a 175-day run, is famous for the ‘Nesamani comedy track’ featuring Vadivelu. That was the last film which saw Suriya and Vijay together on screen.
In between, he did the ever-popular Thulladha Manamum Thullum (1999) with Simran, and Kushi (2000) with Jyotika, as those films earned him the image of a romantic hero. Directed by Ezhil, Thulladha Manamum Thullum is still close to Vijay fans for its climax portions. Songs composed by SA Rajkumar were a major hit. An SJ Suryah-directorial Kushi spun money at the box-office. It was Suryah’s second film after the successful Vaali, starring Ajith in the lead.
Slowly, Vijay shifted genres once again. But with action, this time. In 2002, he did Bagavathi, Thamizhan and Youth that put him on the pedestal as the saviour of the masses. After all, Tamil cinema is unapologetic about ‘heroes’ and ‘hero worship’.
Vijay followed it up and takes a ‘mass-ier avatar’ with Thirumalai (2003), Ghilli (2004), an official remake of Mahesh Babu’s Okkadu, Madhurey (2004), Thirupachi (2005) and Sivakasi (2005). If not for the female leads, you can’t differentiate between these films as they all follow the same template. Mass-ier, in a way, naturally means ‘more misogyny’ in a Tamil cinema context. Vijay started giving lessons (literally) on ‘how women characters should talk, walk, behave and eat’. Almost half his films worked as a manual guideline on what women should do and should not do. That’s what Tamil ‘masala’ cinema teaches the audience.
Meanwhile, Vijay did Sachein (2005) and Aadhi (2006). You can easily say they were somewhat lighthearted comparing to his ‘preachy’ films loaded with either amma or sister sentiments. And who can forget Prabhudheva’s Pokkiri, which was released in 2007? This film earned Vijay a credible fan-base at that point in time. Though Azhagiya Tamil Magan (2007), Sura (2009), Villu (2009), and Kaavalan (2011) failed at the box office—they never reduced the mass appeal of the actor. They made him stay at the top. After a hiatus, Vijay hit gold with Velayudham (2011), directed by Mohan Raja. The film, a Deepavali release, clashed with Surya’s 7aum Arivu, emerging as a ‘commercial hit’.
Vijay chose the safer path—like Rajinikanth and continued to do commercial films. I think he believes in applause and box office figures rather than ‘art’ and awards. Look at the roles both did in general. They mostly act as someone who is the representative of the average middle class or lower social economic strata. Their characters are real and totally rooted in life. For example, an autowallah, a fisherman or a car mechanic.
It is incredible how soft-spoken Vijay transforms into another being when the camera is on. Watch Thuppakki’s hero-introduction scenes and you will understand what I meant. This AR Murugadoss-directorial (2012) was surprisingly good that it appealed to all centres—A, B and C. Everything was in equal measure and the film keeps you guessing throughout, which played to its advantage.
2013 was an important year for Vijay as Thalaivaa got released. The film projected him as a ‘leader’, which didn’t go well with the ruling party. It was banned in Tamil Nadu and nobody knew why. I remember how I was eagerly waiting for the release, but the film, originally scheduled for an Eid-release, failed to show up in theaters. Some told the delay was due to the tax exemption, but others said the crew faced threats by various groups. Later, a government order was issued saying the ‘U’ certified film had too much violence, besides Hindi and English dialogues. Vijay appealed to the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to ensure a ‘smooth release’, but nothing really worked. Finally, producers, director and music composer of Thalaivaa sought permission from the police for one-day token fast. The permission was, predictably, denied.
Ever since Thalaivaa, Vijay continued to face struggles for most of his films. Jilla (2014), in which he collaborated with Mohanlal, put him back on track. The same year, he teamed up with AR Murugadoss for Kaththi, which was fairly successful. The film, however, ran into trouble. The first look motion poster drew comparisons to an ad campaign run by a Turkish newspaper. Additionally, Gopi Nainar filed a case against Murugadoss claiming that the plot of the film was lifted from his Tamil novel Mootha Kudi. Despite these, one may recall how Kaththi opened to positive reviews from both audience and critics alike.
Vijay’s career graph actually has a lot of misses than hits, but his fans have always stood by his side. The actor’s yet another unsuccessful film came in 2015 with Chimbudevan of Imsai Arasan 23 am Pulikesi-fame. Puli saw Sridevi in a powerful antagonist role. It was widely said the film strongly critiqued Jayalalithaa and her government.
Vijay’s latest films—Theri (2016), Bairavaa (2017), Mersal (2017) and Sarkar (2018), reflect his political ambitions. The BJP protested against Mersal, seeking a ban on the film for its politically-charged dialogues. Similar things happened with Sarkar. Theaters witnessed violent protests and the makers were forcefully made to delete certain scenes in the film.
A renowned filmmaker, who doesn’t want to be identified, points out Vijay “cleverly uses films as a powerful means of propaganda the way MGR and Rajinikanth did.” At the same time, the director acknowledges the good work done by the actor’s fan club. “Vijay Makkal Iyakkam helps the underprivileged. Besides, Vijay is into charity, educating kids and conducting free weddings,” he adds.
In real life, Vijay is a man of few words, opposite to his larger-than-life persona, observes Rhevant Charan, executive director of Rohini Silver Screens. “As for now, all eyes are on him, who is expected to make an official ‘political entry’ after Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. Vijay anna is a reigning youth icon and I personally want him to take the huge plunge. He’s a socially-conscious person. He not only spoke up on the Jallikattu issue but also took part in the protests. Additionally, he visited the NEET victim Anita’s parents. In recent years, his Iyakkam has been active on the ground, executing philanthropic activities. There are 50 lakh members,” he notes.
Of course, Vijay’s humungous fan-following helps. But do they translate into votes? A Chennai-based political analyst doubts. “Unless Vijay makes his stance on various issues clear, we can’t guarantee anything. Actors should not enter politics citing a vacuum in the State. Aspiring for power without engaging with ground politics won’t do any good,” he says, adding, “The link between Dravidian politics and male superstardom can’t be undermined. We have had politically-driven dialogues since Kalaignar’s Parasakthi. The power of a pen determined the fate of the State way back then.”
Will Vijay come to politics? If yes, will he change the paradigm of Tamil Nadu politics? We don’t know. Time will answer.