The rise of actor Vijay,perhaps the last of the political animals of Tamil cinema ,and a challenge that fizzled out
There were fans aplenty,each more enthusiastic than the other. They whistled and garlanded and poured milk on the towering cut-outs of the baby-faced actor. That might be standard obeisance ritual in Tamil Nadu when a star movie releases but this was happening far away,across the border in Kerala,in a small town called Pala in Kottayam district. And the young men were as much in thrall of actor Vijay,as those in Coimbatore and Chennai. Dismissed as the most insipid of Tamil actors in his early days,the hysteria over Vijay is surprising even to veterans of the film industry. They know he sells but they dont know why.
Vijay has over 50 films under his belt,and is only the second Tamil actor after Rajinikanth to star in a film that grossed over Rs 100 crore Thuppakki (The Gun),a 2012 thriller in which he played an army officer,reportedly collected Rs 185 crore. The 39-year-old leads the pack of younger Tamil actors; his fee is around Rs 15 crore a film,and his fans lovingly call him ilaya thalapathi. More on the name later.
But what,perhaps,makes Vijay truly different in this crowded field his rivals include Ajith,Suriya,Vikram and Dhanush is that he could well be the last of the Tamil film stars to have a proclaimed interest in politics.
In Tamil Nadu,cinema and politics have lived in a fertile symbiosis. Former chief minister and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) founder MG Ramachandran played the do-gooder,the pro-poor vigilante and/or pro-social justice activist in his films. That image spilled out of the 70 mm screen and immensely helped the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in the 1960s and,later,when launched the AIADMK. DMK president M Karunanidhi,who ruled the state as chief minister for five terms,is a noted scriptwriter and his works were a propaganda tool for the party. Together with MGR,he created some of the most popular films,from the 1940s to the 1960s,before the two fell out. Current chief minister J Jayalalithaa,an MGR protege,remains one of the most popular Tamil lead actors of all times. Opposition leader Vijayakanth was also an actor not so long ago.
But they are all a part of a flashback montage. What does the future hold? The poster of Vijays latest film,Thalaivaa or Leader,seemed to some,to be answering that question. Time to lead it said,leading to a chain of events that nearly scotched the films release.
The story of Joseph Vijay is closely linked to that of his father,SA Chandrasekaran,a powerful maven of the industry. Known popularly as SAC,Chandrasekaran is a prolific director,whose films gave immense boost to the careers of Vijayakanth (Sattam Oru Iruttarai or The Law is a Dark Room,1981) and Rajinikanth (Naan Sivappu Manidhan or I Am Red,1985) among others. When he turned producer,his influence increased manifold. Vijays mother Shoba,once a singer,is the daughter of a powerful general manager of a film studio.
Vijay made his debut as a child actor in Vetri in 1984,a film directed by his father,with Vijayakanth in the lead. He was 10. In the next four years,he was cast in Chandrasekarans films as a child actor. He was not seen in films for another four years when he returned to play the lead in Naalaya Theerpu (Tomorrows Verdict,1992),directed by his father and produced by his mother.
The initial films were unremarkable but his father persisted. It took another four years for a big hit the romance,Poove Unakkage (For You,Flower) in 1996. As it turns out now,SAC had a plan for his son. He invested heavily in Vijay,produced films in his name,his wifes name and some times even in others names. It was a gamble, says a person closely connected to the industry,who has seen the family from up close,but who does not wish to be named.
The next step: Chandrasekaran worked behind the scenes to establish a fans association. Every actor worth his penny at the box office has his own gang of groupies; the bigger the star,the larger the association. Like Rajini,Vijay is much loved by his fans who never fail to talk about his humility.
It was around this time that he was given the name ilaya thalapathi,or the junior commander. In branding parlance,it was positioning. For those unfamiliar with Tamil films,Thalapathi is a 1991 Rajinikanth film directed by Mani Ratnam,and assuming the deputy post was an unabashed way of answering the question: who after Rajini? But while Rajini was,among a gazillion things,a folk hero and invincible superstar ranged against the establishment,as well as a crusader for the poor,Vijay embodies the exuberance of youth. It is also an indication of a larger change in the Tamil mass film,which is less and less about angst and justice and more about slick action.
To people who have worked with him,Vijay is a reticent person,who comes to life only in front of the camera (the actor and his father were unavailable for interviews for the story). Acting is not among his strengths,and so he stuck to simpler themes of youth and love in his early films. Among the newer stars,Vijay was the first to break into the big league. As an actor,he is quite energetic in front of the camera,and does anything that is asked of him. His dances and fights attract youngsters the most, says Anandan,a film historian of Tamil cinema,who goes by the sobriquet of Film News .
Over the years,Vijay had his share of hits,duds and average grossers. His films became known for his dances and comic timing. He experimented the little he could from being a romantic hero who fights,he became an action hero who also romances. Now he alternates between the two.
Tamil cinema swirls around a few top stars and to Vijays credit he has not slipped up. There have been ups and downs in his career,but,on the whole,Vijays films have done well at the box office,which is what a producer looks at while investing money. Many of us honestly dont know what makes him click among the youngsters,but he sells, says Anbalaya Prabakaran,a veteran producer and vice-president of Tamil Nadu Film Producers Council.
Critics never fail to point out that having a rich producer for a father helped Vijays cause. Just as he set up and monitored the fans association across the state,Chandrasekaran began preparing for his sons entry into politics. Vijay,however,was never involved or interested in these plans; it was conceived by SAC. He was an actor playing the role, says a producer,who does not want to be named.
In 2009,Vijay sprang a surprise by meeting Rahul Gandhi,then the general secretary of the Congress,in Delhi. Gandhi reportedly invited him to attend a public meeting in Tamil Nadu with him. Vijay,with a considerable youth following,was apt for the Congress leaders plan to revive the party in the state. For Vijay,too,Congress backing would have been a better bet than the perils of floating a new political party. But political ambition is a risky pastime,especially in Tamil Nadu.
Around this time,Vijay suffered a string of flops,the worst being his landmark 50th film,Sura (Shark). He even faced the ignominy of having to compensate theatre owners for their losses so that upcoming films could be released. A majority of these were either produced or distributed by people connected to Karunanidhi family,which was then in power in the state.
Then came the struggle to release Kaavalan (Bodyguard,which was remade into Hindi with Salman Khan in the lead). Much was riding on this film,but theatre owners refused to exhibit it unless Vijay compensated them. Some say it was part of a political plan to make the father and son fall in line,others say it was more about business. Either way,the Karunanidhis were not on his side.
Kaavalan was finally released in January 2011,but the delay took some sheen off Vijays image. And Chandrasekaran looked elsewhere for support. A few months ahead of the Assembly election in 2011,Chandrasekaran met Jaya at her Poes Garden residence. While he campaigned for the opposition alliance led by the AIADMK,Vijay stayed away but gave interviews to Tamil publications making his political preference clear. When Jayas envoys came to meet him,SAC insisted that he would make a deal only with Jaya. He was given an appointment soon where he sought 12 seats for the fans club members. He had to settle for zero. Chandrasekarans idea,though,was to introduce Vijay in politics by 2016, says a former producers council member who was close to Chandrasekaran during the election.
The voters handed out a resounding thrashing to the DMK in that election,the repercussions of which were felt across the state,especially in the film industry. Soon after,Chandrasekaran became the president of the producers council,in effect,a czar in this centrally organised industry that has hard currency at its heart.
Vijays career,too,started looking up. His first venture under this new order was Velayudham,a moderate success. Then came Nanban (Friend),a remake of Three Idiots,where Vijay played Aamir Khans character. The film went on to become one of the biggest hits of his career. Then came Thuppakki,directed by AR Murugadoss,in 2012. It was Vijays entry into the big league.
By then,the bonhomie between Chandrasekaran and the new establishment was waning. He was ousted as president of the film producers council after earning the wrath of small producers with a string of measures. He doubled and tripled the wages of lower-level workers,which seriously affected small producers. Instead,he should have taken measures to reduce the exorbitant salaries of top stars,including his son,that is fast making this industry unviable,and use that savings to increase the workers wages, says a producer,who was active behind the scenes to oust Chandrasekaran,but does not want to be named.
Then came the trouble for Vijays latest film,Thalaivaa. Its story revolved around a strongman father who delivers justice as he deems right,and his suave son who follows in his footsteps due to unforeseen circumstances (any resemblance to the Corleone family might have been a coincidence). The promotional posters had Vijay in white,with a yellow shawl over his shoulders,hands held high and folded. In an interview a few months before the August release,Chandrasekaran said Vijay could enter politics when he turned 40 2014,the year of the general election. It was,perhaps,too obvious a signal for the powers-that-be to ignore.
A few days ahead of the release came bomb threats to theatres by a previously-unknown student outfit. Such threats are not unusual in Tamil Nadu. But when theatre owners received no assurance of police protection,and the film was denied a tax exemption,they began to decrypt the political message. They decided not to release the film despite even a spark of provocation. The sense of an invisible hand remained.
Vijay,accompanied by the director and producer,made a frantic attempt to meet Jayalalithaa to resolve the crisis. But they were turned away from the premises of the Kodanadu Estate near Ooty where she was then living.
Vijay issued a statement and appeared before the camera to eulogise Jaya. He extolled her virtues,her leadership capacity,her interventions on behalf of Lankan Tamils and fishermen,her successes in ensuring the states share of Cauvery water and what have you. He warned his fans against staging protests,and threatened to expel those who disobeyed. The phrase,time to lead,was removed from the new posters,a dialogue ridiculing politicians was muted. From a position of strength,he had to surrender completely as it was a question of the upcoming films as well. And by chiding his fans for protesting on his behalf,he lost some of that carefully nurtured goodwill, says a producer. As Thalaivaa eventually released and the dust settled,it became clear that the film did not set the box office on fire. At the end,Vijay was like the Indian rupee a risky asset in a volatile environment.
But it would be the unwise who would write the father-son duo off. He has a sizeable following even beyond the state,especially Kerala. They are the audience who keep a film running for 50 or 100 days, says Film News Anandan.
For an average producer,he will always be a good bet. But the director in Chandrasekaran should perhaps realise that the story of an actor launching a new party and capturing power is one that has had its run,even in Tamil Nadu.