This post was born out of the comments section of my post on Sivakaasi, so regulars may skip it. And five continous posts on a weekend is an unprecedented high, but I just felt the need to put all strands of thought under one essay.
‘Maja’ has opened to a mixed response, according to trade reports.
In spite of Vikram’s neat performance in the film, ‘Maja’ has come in for criticism.
What was possibly wrong?
The burden of Vikram being a matinee idol and the fallout of the image trap.
Traditionally, stars in Tamil Cinema have been classified into two broad categories: the actors and the superheroes.
People saw Sivaji as an actor, MGR as a superhero. They saw Kamal as an actor, Rajni as a superhero. Now they see Vikram as an actor and Vijay as a superhero.
And people have different set of expectations when they go to watch an actor and when they go to watch a superhero.
There is a rigid dichotomy between the function of a versatile actor and that of a matinee idol superhero.
While superhero matinee idols are about maintaining that consistency of character, mannerisms and living up to the stylisation created for themselves film after film, actors are all about the inconsistency of their screen behaviour and unpredictability of roles with which they keep the audience guessing on what they will do next.
In simpler terms, actors need to “act as somebody else” to be watched, superheroes just need to be themselves.
Which is why Batman, Superman, Spiderman, James Bond or Superstar (and now Vijay) remain consistent in what they stand for — fighting evil — and how they do that.
Which is why Sivaji, Kamal Hassan, Naseeruddin Shah, Boman Irani, Om Puri, Paresh Rawal keep reinventing themselves with every film, taking on a new personality.
Thanks to Dharani’s reinvention of the “angry young man” prototype, Vikram became a matinee idol with ‘Dhil,’ ‘Dhool’ and Hari’s ‘Saamy.’ But the talented actor consciously chose to break the mould, a very dangerous proposition at the box-office, by doing ‘Kasi,’ ‘Pitamagan’ and even an ‘Anniyan,’ all of which were met with a lukewarm response.
‘Anniyan’ was the most dangerous of them all, considering that the actor took on multiple roles, not all of them fitting a matinee idol’s reputation. People cannot watch a matinee idol be a frustrated weakling who cries helplessly. Even at his lowest, they expect a hero to maintain dignity. Ambi did not have it.
They see him as a superhero, not as one of them who cannot do anything about the system. People cannot watch a superhero be a pseudo stud, they in fact hate the stereotype. Remo was a wannabe.
But thanks to the vigilante, an off-shoot of the matinee idol prototype, ‘Anniyan’ went on to score better than ‘Kasi’ or ‘Pitamagan’.
But here in ‘Maja,’ the actor plays a village bumpkin who does the socially unacceptable: Halfway into the movie, he forcibly ties a ‘thaali’ around the village headman’s daughter out of rivalry and soon enough contradicts himself by bringing up the rich-poor differences between them to explain why the marriage will not work.
The protagonist is not an ideal hero, he in no way reflects the aspirations of the common man nor does he represent their problems. A superhero is supposed to do that. An actor is not required. While Vikram took the actor’s liberty to take on the role, the packaging of the protagonist was all wrong: It tried to package him as the superhero: the stylisation, the finger-gimmicks which lesser actors like Simbu resort to, the designer clothes, the song-dance-fight elements completely out of place in a family drama.
So as a result, we have a ‘Vaanatheypola’ movie trying to wear shades of ‘Dhool,’ a mismatch of genres that further compounds the confusion created by the actor-superhero dichotomy.
Who is a matinee idol? A matinee idol is a prototype for the hero of a society in his era. He is the ideal protagonist who emerges out of the collective conscious of the society. When a victimised society gets disillusioned with powerful rowdies, scheming politicians and corrupt politicians and becomes scared of taking them on, it likes to cheer for anyone who does that… be it in reality or on screen.
The angry young man prototype of the seventies did exactly that. While Superstar Rajnikant’s movies echoed the collective conscious of the society of his times, Vijay movies reflect the collective conscious of the society of our times.
Who is the hero? The hero is always a common man, one from the masses: a mechanic in ‘Thirumalai,’ a vegetable vendor in ‘Madurae,’ a college dropout in ‘Gilli,’ a village bumpkin in ‘Tirupaachi’ and a neighbourhood welder in ‘Sivakaasi.’
What is he fighting?
A nexus of powerful corrupt politicians and rowdies who come in the way of
a. his love (‘Thirumalai,’ ‘Madurae’)
b. his sister’s future (‘Tirupaachi’)
c. his family (‘Sivakaasi’)
What is a common man’s life all about? Earning a livelihood for his family, his daily struggle for money, a need to find a good husband for sister/daughter, to fight for what’s theirs (usurped property taken away by scheming relatives) and random injustice meted out to them by a corrupt system of politicans, rowdies and sometimes the police.
So when you borrow out of their world of the common man and create a superhero who would kick the bad guys, you get a matinee idol.
Vikram was it during ‘Dhil,’ fighting a corrupt policeman. He was it in ‘Dhool’ when he fought rowdies, politicians and corrupt politicians in the city. In ‘Saamy,’ he fought a corrupt kingmaker.
But in ‘Anniyan,’ he fought the common man.
A huge shift from who people perceived as modern day villains. But Shankar’s extravagant dose of special effects, stylised gimmicks to suit the vigilante prototype, and an Indian hangover saw the film through.
It is quintessential for a superhero or a matinee idol to know the values he stands for.
So, Vijay in spite of having beginner directors, has managed to carry his superhero image on, from film to film and has grown from strength to strength.
Vikram needs to get that clarity right, package himself according to the nature of the protagonist. There is no place for gimmicks and stylisation for an actor. That’s only when you are playing a superhero.
People can go on arguing whether Sivaji is better than MGR, or Kamal is better than Rajni or if Vikram is better than Vijay but truth remains that people’s idea of a hero is much simpler.
It’s not always someone who acts, it is someone who stands up for them.