From ‘Master’ to ‘Maanadu’: How Tamil cinema’s stars took an offbeat path in 2021

In some of the biggest hits in 2021, the likes of Vijay and Sivakarthikeyan were willing to experiment with their roles

"You have been doing films in one genre, which suits your image. Your image is bigger than Amitabh’s. But I believe you have abundant talent. You have a fantastic sense of humour. Would you do a film like ‘Cheeni Kum’?”

"I have never been after ‘artistic satisfaction’. My thing is ‘commercial’."

"Are you saying ‘Cheeni Kum’ is not commercial?”

"Well, that is a small commercial film. I want to do big ones.”

This is a translated part of an on-stage chat between K Balachander and his most famous disciple, Rajinikanth, 11 years ago.Rajinikanth has not done Cheeni Kum-type films in 11 years after that conversation with Balachander despite the success of such films in Tamil cinema. After Kabali and Kaala  — films which more than just celebrated the superstar — Rajinikanth reverted to doing films that mostly stuck to the Rajinikanth template.

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Post-Annaathe, however, the ageing superstar might wonder if doing the same kind of movies would sell in this era of Tamil cinema where the audience wants more than mere star-glorification. And, this is why it is interesting to look at some of the other big star films of this year: Vijay’s Master, Silambarasan TR’s Maanaadu, and Sivakarthikeyan’s Doctor, which were different (in varying degrees) compared to their usual fares yet were received well. We are keeping Suriya and Dhanush (whose Jai Bhim and Karnan also did well this year) out of this discussion because they are actors who have been in pursuit of artistic excellence as well as stardom.

Vulnerable heroes and strong villains

2021 is not the first time a big star has veered away from a familiar route. Ajith, for instance, played an anti-hero in Mankatha, 11 years ago. But this year was promising because all the big-star hits were more than mere exercises in fan gratification. The leading men in these films are not everyday protagonists. They are heroes who vanquish a villain but they are not boringly infallible. In Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Master, Vijay plays John Durairaj (aka JD), a depressed, insomniac, and alcoholic professor. His drinking problem leads to the death of two children. Usually, in Vijay films, his characters are always ahead of the antagonists. But in Master, JD has to conquer his weaknesses before facing the villain.

Despite a couple of fan-servicing and self-referencing moments, Silambarasan’s character, Abdul Khaliq, in Venkat Prabhu’s Maanaadu, is shown as an everyday guy. He saves the day only because of a supernatural power he possesses. And, like a scientist cracking an equation, he gets stuck in a loop of failures before succeeding.

Sivakarthikeyan in Doctor delivers the most interesting performance of the year among big star films. His portrayal of Varun, a cold-and-calculating military doctor, was reminiscent of Sachin Tendulkar’s 2004 Test innings in Sydney. The batting master, in his unbeaten 241, forsook an important scoring shot, the cover-drive, because he was getting out playing it. Sivakarthikeyan, similarly, abandons one of his biggest strengths – his smile – for the sake of his role. Despite playing a mastermind who defeats a human trafficking cartel, he lets his supporting characters be at the forefront on most occasions.

A significant similarity in these three films is a solid antagonist, which is unusual in hero-centric Tamil movies. Filmmakers have mostly refrained from making villains as strong and intelligent as their heroes. But the antagonists of Master, Maanaadu, and Doctor were gladdening exceptions to this norm.

In Doctor, Vinay Rai plays a suave, smart guy. Despite his involvement in something as heinous as child trafficking, he is seldom loud or shown doing things just to underscore his evilness. In Master, Vijay Sethupathi’s character, Bhavani, is a god-fearing teetotaller blessed with a superhero-like punch that can kill his opponent. He is, in fact, more powerful than Vijay. The film gives as much space and scope for Vijay Sethupathi as it does for Vijay. The same can be said of SJ Suryah in Maanaadu, who plays a ruthless cop (Dhanushkodi), who outwits the protagonist for most of the film. His performance equally contributed to the film’s success as Silambarasan’s.

The mere casting of Vijay Sethupathi and Suryah, who usually play lead roles, lend weight to the antagonist’s character. The writers and directors of Master and Maanaadu deserve the credit for putting the hero and the villain on a level playing field. And, it was director Nelson Dilipkumar’s idea to write a non-Sivakarthikeyan role for Sivakarthikeyan. But without the lead actors’ agreement, none of these films would have materialised.

The Mohanlal route

Mohanlal, in a recent interview, said that he would be stuck doing the same kind of films if he had succumbed to fans’ expectations. “There are days when the burden definitely feels too much. Fans want their hero within their limits. They want their hero to be just their own. We cannot cater 100 per cent to that.”

In other words, Mohanlal avoided the route Rajinikanth took. He is among Malayalam cinema’s greatest stars as well as one of its finest actors. “Fortunately, I am doing different kinds of films. You cannot compare Marakkar with Drishyam. Each film has its own soul and identity,” he said.

It is perhaps too much to expect today’s stars of Tamil cinema to emulate Mohanlal. But, in this era of OTT platforms, where diverse stories and storytelling are abundant, the current stars might not get away with doing the same kind of films all the time. And that’s exactly what they attempted this year. 2022 awaits.

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