Today, it’s important for stars to realise that they are not just competing with their colleagues in the film industry but they also have to compete with OTT platforms to drive the audience into theatres.
Tamil film releases during Deepavali are always highly anticipated and if there is a film starring Rajinikanth, Ajith or Vijay, then it’s an even bigger celebration for fans. This Deepavali saw the release of Vijay’s Bigil and Karthi’s Kaithi, both of which obviously not comparable in terms of size of release or box office numbers. But one distinction did emerge post release – there was a lot of appreciation for Karthi’s performance and role in director Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Kaithi while quite a few who watched Vijay in director Atlee’s Bigil felt disappointed. While Bigil made more than Rs 25 crore at the box office in Tamil Nadu on day one of its release, word-of-mouth and social media talk is quite average for the film unlike Karthi’s flick.
In recent times, Tamil movies that have a strong storyline, good direction and exceptional performances have the audience asking for more. In the age of Netflix and Amazon Prime, today it is word of mouth publicity and social media comments and reviews (not paid online marketing) that are driving a large section of the audience to theatres. This eventually translates into box office numbers as well.
Recently, director Vetrimaaran’s Asuran had Dhanush play a 50-year-old in a rural story about survival and revenge. The movie grossed over Rs 100 crore from India domestic theatrical, overseas, satellite, digital and audio alone. The excellent reviews and strong word-of-mouth publicity (online and offline) pushed the movie forward. And this is exactly what is happening with Karthi’s Kaithi – social media is filled with positive comments urging people around the globe to definitely watch the movie.
The bigger question here is why recent films with big stars like Ajith, Suriya and Vijay haven’t necessarily garnered the same attention, positive reviews and social media frenzy post release like other films have done. One of the key reasons is the kind of story the star chooses and how the director is compelled to weave a story around the star’s image rather than make a film for the audience per se.
Bigil, for instance, may be about women’s empowerment but it’s primarily a story that revolves around Vijay the star. So, the director has to fit in various elements to cater to the star’s fans – Vijay the hero in any circumstance, the dialogues, the action scenes, ‘saving’ women, and so on. Thus, what is a fantastic story idea doesn’t get translated onscreen into a brilliant engaging film. And this is also true for films of other stars like Ajith, Suriya and Vikram.
This is where directors, who have a strong vision and conviction in their script and the characters, come into play. Directors like Vetrimaaran, Karthik Subbaraj, H Vinoth and Lokesh Kanagaraj work hard on the story and script of the film and ensure the actor/star moulds himself into the character he plays rather than the other way around. Director Karthik Subbaraj was able to beautifully combine Superstar Rajinikanth’s stardom with the character he played in Petta and he is one of the few directors who has managed to do so. Petta went on to reportedly gross more than Rs 250 crore at the box office and social media talk and word-of-mouth publicity was very strong as well.
The other factor is also how much a star/actor wants to experiment with new directors, his roles and work in films where the focus is the story and main character. Rajinikanth, Ajith, Dhanush and Karthi have started to venture out of the commercial ‘masala’ space and work in films with new directors with new storylines. Nerkondai Paarvai, the Tamil remake of the Hindi hit Pink, showed that Ajith wants to cater to an audience beyond just his fans by choosing a women-centric subject. Ajith also chose to work with one-film-old director H Vinoth who delivered a hit with Karthi. Thala’s next film too is directed by H Vinoth where he is touted to play a cop. While Dhanush has a Maari and VIP to his credit, he also chose to work in Vetrimaaran’s Asuran playing a 50-year-old father. With Kaithi, Karthi chose to work one-film-old young director Lokesh Kanagaraj and move away from the comedy and romance hole he was in.
However, other actors prefer not to take such risks and play roles within the same confines of the ‘known’ which not just limits the novelty factor but often makes their movies cliched. Actor Vikram’s last few films have seen him play double roles (Iru Mugan, Saamy Square), a cop/agent (Saamy Square, Kadaram Kondan) and a regular hero who ends up saving women from the bad guys (10 Endrathukulla). Even Vijay’s last few films have followed the tried and tested formula of the saviour of the people (Bairavaa, Sarkar, Mersal, Kaththi) and cop (Theri). Many of them, in fact, have him in double roles and even triple roles possibly to add a new dimension to the film. Actor Suriya too has played cop (S3, Kaappaan) and saviour in his recent flicks while others like Vishal (cop in Irumbu Thirai, Thupparivaalan) and Jayam Ravi (cop in Bogan and Adanga Maru) have followed a similar route too.
Why do actors choose not to experiment with roles or new directors? Producers invest heavily in films and they definitely want to see profits when they bank on an actor. A tried-and-formula ensures that they have a ready audience for such films and are assured of a high percentage of returns. Secondly, the expectations of an actor’s fans/ audience also come into play. Often the question arises as to whether the audience will accept an actor in a certain role or character. Hence, negative roles are mostly given a pass by top actors as it is seen to affect their image. Thirdly, the question arises as to whether the story and film will elevate an actor’s image among the audience. No actor wants his/her image to be dented and this reflects on the roles they choose to play. Thus, we have many actors playing cop and messiah rather than any other character as they feel these emotionally connect better to the audience. Fourthly, the ability of any director – new or well-known – to successfully combine the image of the star with a novel commercial story is unknown. Many well-known directors have failed at this while some new, young directors have succeeded. But the faith in new directors is not high and often, producers and actors don’t want to sign them on with huge money at stake. This trend, however, seems to be changing now with stars like Rajinikanth, Ajith and now Vijay signing on with new directors who have delivered hits and brought a fresh perspective to Tamil cinema. This is also thanks to social media and word of mouth publicity which has revealed the pulse of the audience to the film industry.
Today, it’s important for stars/actors to realise that they are not just competing with their colleagues in the film industry but they also have to compete with OTT platforms to drive the audience into theatres. While pre-release buzz may be exceptional for a film thanks to marketing efforts, the film’s release and subsequent social media buzz and word of mouth publicity, determines its fate to a large extent as well. This, of course, is based on the film’s script, story, direction and performances. So, are more Kollywood stars/actors ready to step out of their comfort zone and let go of their ‘image’? If the answer is yes, then we can expect more enthralling and exciting films in the times ahead. And a far happier audience and box office success as well.
Latha Srinivasan is a senior journalist and film critic based out of Chennai. Views are author’s own.