If it’s a superstar, he is a South Indian Hero

While Bollywood superstars flounder at the box office, stars in South Indian movies continue to reign supreme

Lata Jha
First Published8 Mar 2019
(Left to right) Ram Charan Teja, Allu Arjun and Vijay.
(Left to right) Ram Charan Teja, Allu Arjun and Vijay.

New Delhi: In the middle of the 2018 Diwali season, a strange spectacle played out in the movie landscape of Tamil Nadu. In the most consequential blockbuster window of the year, actor Vijay’s political action film Sarkar ran into trouble with the state’s ruling party, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), over its depiction of the late politician Jayalalithaa and her welfare schemes. What followed is eerily reminiscent of how things play out in India when some people consider a movie to be offensive. Sarkar’s posters were vandalized, movie theatres witnessed violent protests, and the producer of the film, Sun Pictures, was forced to delete certain controversial scenes that depicted freebies given by a political party being thrown into the fire.

But the similarity with the rest of India ends there. What followed was unique to the state and, broadly, the superstar culture of South India. Agitated by the “insult” to their beloved star, affectionately known as Thalapathy, die-hard Vijay fans responded by smashing actual freebies provided by the AIADMK government, including mixers, grinders, television sets and laptops. Videos of them setting these expensive items aflame went viral on Twitter and apps like TikTok, with Sarkar’s theme music playing in the background. When was the last time a Bollywood superstar found such support against real-world mobs, especially one backed by a powerful ruling party?

Worldwide collections for Sarkar crossed the 150 crore mark in less than a week. But the revenue mop-up is only one metric. Southern superstars, on average, are retweeted much more than Bollywood stars on Twitter, for example. Despite a newly vibrant parallel cinema in many southern film industries, the inexplicable allure and obsessive hero-worship of the superstar still remains. The continuing appeal of southern commercial offerings that ride on male stardom is fascinating, given that Bollywood, the bigger industry with a much wider reach, has found that formula floundering lately.

In 2018 alone, for instance, Shah Rukh Khan’s Zero ( 88.74 crore), Salman Khan’s Race 3 ( 166.15 crore), and Aamir Khan’s Thugs of Hindostan ( 138.34 crore) made for majorly underwhelming box office performers. Aamir Khan may have a much stronger track record but Shah Rukh Khan hasn’t seen a hit since Chennai Express ( 178.41 crore) in 2013 while even the staunchest Salman Khan fans don’t know what to make of Tubelight ( 114.57 crore) and Race 3. Then there is Hrithik Roshan, who hasn’t seen a release since January 2017 (Kaabil) and a bona fide blockbuster since November 2013 (Krrish 3). Others like Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn are consistent but rarely breach any revolutionary box office records.

In contrast, the record for major South Indian heroes reads much better, despite the obvious disadvantage of a restricted market. Vijay has only seen two of his 11 films flop since 2010. Others like Ajith have also more or less delivered consistently, with hits like Viswasam and Vedalam earning more than 100 crore each. Not to mention superstar Rajinikanth sprang up 2.0, the biggest hit in the history of Tamil cinema (more than 600 crore worldwide) last year and his latest action film Petta ( 250 crore last reported) has been impressive too.

Telugu counterparts of these Tamil actors, including Jr. NTR (Aravinda Sametha Veera Raghava), Mahesh Babu (Bharat Ane Nenu), Ram Charan Teja (Rangasthalam), and Allu Arjun (Naa Peru Surya, Naa Illu India), among others, show no signs of floundering either. Kannada films too have their share of larger than life figures, while Malayalam movies are taking the distinctly different path of a story-driven, non-hero centric vibe.

Established image

In the latest season of Karan Johar’s popular reality show Koffee With Karan, S.S. Rajamouli, the director of India’s most successful film franchise, Baahubali, was asked what exactly differentiates north Indian superstars from their southern counterparts and his response was surprisingly revealing.

“South Indian stars are better at striking a balance between the aspirations of their fans and what they themselves want to do. I think north Indian superstars are a little confused between what they want to do and what people want them to do,” the filmmaker said, without batting an eyelid. Whether there is confusion or the market itself is shifting, the Hindi film industry has seen an influx of young, versatile new-age actors (Ranveer Singh, Varun Dhawan, Ayushmann Khurrana) eating away at the tenuous reign of top Bollywood male stars.

The first and most important factor currently working for Tamil male movie superstars is a definite image, often consciously established by them to counter the massive jostling for space in the minds and hearts of the audiences. Even as Tamil cinema has been moving into a neo-realist phase for the last 10-15 years, the motives of its heroes have always been clear.

“There are some films that will definitely find acceptance and if they (the actors) veer off that image and throw a curveball at the audience, very few of them succeed,” explained Uma Vangal, filmmaker and professor at the L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy.

For instance, while Kamal Haasan was known for his unpredictable experiments in the 1980s and 90s, Rajinikanth symbolized a certain swagger and bravado. Today, Vijay is always the crusader. In the blockbuster Sarkar, he was a non-resident Indian raising awareness about electoral fraud. In Mersal (2017), he was fighting medical negligence and greed. In Kaththi (2014), Vijay was busy fighting corporate manipulation to take over farmland. His contemporary Vijay Sethupathi, on the other hand, is always the non-conformist, the laid-back intelligent hero who will pull off a fast one (Soodhu Kavvum, for instance, which is a dark comedy about a kidnapping gone wrong). Nearly every actor plays off a well-constructed image.

Also read: Regional cinema threatens Bollywood’s reign overseas

In contrast, a Bollywood actor like Shah Rukh Khan is struggling to find his feet post his conquest as the world’s greatest lover in films made by Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar. A Salman Khan, on the other hand, is an odd, often flat, larger-than-life figure at a time when slice-of-life narratives are taking centre stage. Only Aamir Khan comes close to evading the image trap.

“There is always that one base of the audience that will watch a film no matter what because they want to watch, say a Rajiniknath on screen, or a Vijay, or a Vishal. However small the hero, they always have an image that they build. It’s been a conscious movement since the 1950s in Tamil Nadu. Filmmakers, actors and politicians carefully groom a public image and like to keep it alive always,” Vangal said.

“In Andhra Pradesh, it works differently in the sense that directors tend to tell stories that have a lot of emotional appeal for the audience and every hero aspires to become that champion whom audiences will root for,” she added.

Meeting expectations

Clearly, there is no single universal pool of expectations that a star can draw from. It’s a combination of what his fans want and what the larger film market wants from any film.

“The die-hard fans will support the film for the first few days but the general public will take it to the second week,” said actor Mohan V. Raman citing the example of Rajiniknath’s Petta and Ajith’s Viswasam. The former, he says, was a film long overdue for the average Rajini fan since his previous projects Kaala and Kabali had focused more on social messaging not in sync with his core base, and also didn’t have a strong storyline to reach out to the non-fan base. Viswasam, on the other hand, catered more to the general audience but didn’t disappoint Ajith’s fans either.

“You need to meet both expectations. You need to satisfy your fan base to pull the crowd in for the first four days, and thereafter, the story has to have enough meat in terms of family values, good songs, dance sequences, some comedy—all of which the average filmgoer wants when he comes to watch a film,” Raman said.

To be sure, the average Tamil and Telugu movie fan is very clear on what he wants from a film. This is aided by the fact that more than half of India’s movie screens are in the south, about 75% of the exhibition sector there is taken up by single screens and ticket prices are capped at 150 in states like Tamil Nadu, ensuring much more access.

“Movie viewing is more of a social ritual, particularly in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. It’s like going to the temple every Friday,” Vangal explained.

Also read: Why Bollywood and Hindi are no longer the face of Indian entertainment

Industry experts say the fact that Bollywood is now focusing completely on multiplex audiences of late is a matter of concern. With their niche, experimental narratives, films like Uri: The Surgical Strike and Gully Boy may rake in numbers but it would be no exaggeration to say that close to 50-60% of most film earnings come from metros like Mumbai and the National Capital Region, often alienating small-town audiences.

“Commercial cinema is appreciated in general (in the south), whether in single screen theatres or multiplexes,” said Anand Shankar, director of films like Iru Mugan and NOTA. “There aren’t too many options to go out, and people going to a concert or stand-up comedy show make up about 5% of the population. That is a very niche crowd. Everyone wants to watch films. It’s the only thing within reach.”

Those seeking a mass-market superstar fix even in north India are turning their gaze increasingly towards south India through dubbed movies. “Fans seek entertaining movies. The language barriers have diminished,” said Telugu film star Ram Charan Teja, who is also the son of veteran actor Chiranjeevi.

Also read: How regional cinema trumped Bollywood in 2017

Exclusivity to the big screen

The other factor working in the favour of south Indian heroes is their exclusivity to celluloid. “They don’t appear in ads. They don’t do that many shows or market their movies. You don’t see much of them. Even if they are on Twitter or Instagram, they don’t post often,” Shankar said. “It’s hard for the fans because they don’t have a presence anywhere except their movies. So, every year, when a Vijay or an Ajith film is released, every fan, whether the film is average or above average, wants to see it. It’s that one chance we get in a year to see them on screen,” he added.

In Bollywood, on the other hand, actors make appearances in more places than the films themselves. Then what happens is the movie has to be great. If it isn’t, people feel they can watch them in a show or on an ad, or on Twitter.

“Social media is very unrelenting these days. The war breaks on Twitter and even superstars’ looks are par for the course for being heckled,” said film writer Sudha Tilak. “In these days of intense scrutiny, youthful looks are turning out to be much more of a focus for everyone and stars will have to confront their age. Plus, Bollywood has always been very ageist. The south has been more forgiving of male superstars’ age.”

The link between south Indian politics and male superstardom can also not be undermined. Tamil cinema has a history of politically driven narratives with stars such as M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan in the 1950s and 60s. While the generation after them, including Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, stuck to fundamentally commercial outings, ironically, both joined politics recently. Their Telugu counterparts like Chiranjeevi and Pawan Kalyan have also taken the plunge.

“The fan base of these actors is a cultivating ground for their future political moves,” said independent trade analyst Sreedhar Pillai. The idea is to not be identified with any one political party and to be seen as impartial, yet keenly interested.

“They may not enter politics, but they give you the impression that sooner or later they will be there to serve the people. In south India, for some strange reason, if you nurse political ambitions, you can be a star and retain that stardom. There is some halo around you,” Pillai said. “It helps for every superstar to say he is a messiah of the downtrodden. And all larger-than-life south Indian movies are messiah-based tales. So, that works for their box office interest.”

While male superstardom in the Tamil and Telugu movie industries is supreme at the moment, it is not unshakable.

“Tamil cinema is going through a fantastic turn right now and the 21st century has seen a whole lot of young filmmakers and directors who are talking about things that were spoken about in the 1970s and 80s by people like MGR and Karunanidhi,” said Tilak citing the example of new-age films like Pariyerum Perumal and Sarvam Thaala Mayam.

“These are the original stories of class and caste inequities, urban slum issues with much more independent and respectable characters for women,” she said.

The other issue is that of rampant piracy. Even as the government has amended the Cinematograph Act to make camcording and duplication a legal offence, prints of blockbusters like Petta were available for free on torrent, a factor that, unless controlled, will ensure the Tamil film industry “does not survive beyond the 2020s” in the words of Raman.

The third, and possibly most important, threat is the advent of online streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. All of these services offer content in multiple Indian languages. But as of now, R. Madhavan remains the only prominent south Indian name to have dabbled with the space through Breathe. It’s only a matter of time before others follow suit.

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