We’ve heard it so often that Rajni, like MGR, does not need to act or try so hard as Sivaji or Kamal who have pushed themselves to play nine and ten roles respectively in the same film.
These actors stood the test of time for generations.
If MGR and Sivaji ruled the box office from the fifties to the mid seventies, Rajni and Kamal, who took stepped into their shoes around the seventies, still continue to hold fort with so many stars waiting to command that cult status.
Let’s talk about the wannabes later but first, what led to these twin-associations? Why has history never considered one greater than the other and why has any such debate always lead to a war of words?
Maybe because, for long, heroes in the Tamil cinema have either been played by a star or an actor.
A star, like MGR or Rajni, a matinee idol, is often celebrated as the messiah of the masses. Someone who through sheer presence and charisma, can liberate the poor from the bad guys. To put it simply, we pay to watch his image play out. And he plays the same guy in every film.
An actor, like Sivaji or Kamal, a true artiste, is often cherished for the variety of roles he has essayed. Someone who constantly experiments and can make you laugh and cry with the power of performance. Again, simply put, we pay to watch him break his image. And he plays a different guy in every film.
We will never reach a consensus on whether a star is greater or an actor is greater because of the inherent dichotomy in their roles.
To be a star, you need to strengthen your image and deliver the same style, mannerisms and larger than life persona. But to be an actor, you need to constantly break the image, reinvent it every time and discover newer ways to portray characters, even if it means changing your look and appearance with every film.
MGR-Rajni with the superstar status accorded to them, have never felt the pressure to prove themselves artistically just like Sivaji-Kamal with the accolades and awards won, have never felt that they were wrong to experiment with the box office.
Interestingly, Rajni and Kamal started off as products of independent cinema in the hands of the auteur K.Balachander, who made films the way he wanted to make them, without any interference from stars on box office diktats. They even did similar roles for a bit on attaining star status and as Kamal Haasan has often revealed in interviews, they mutually decided not to eat into each other’s markets early on in their careers. It turned out to be the smartest thing they ever did.
Because they proved that cinema has a twin purpose – to entertain and to provoke. There’s a bit of the whore and the mother in our cinema and it’s always a clever mix of selling out and raising it with love and care that results in good cinema.
What better filmmaker to illustrate this than Mani Ratnam who got to work with the Rajni and Kamal at the prime of their careers in Thalapathy and Nayakan. While Thalapathy piggy-backed on Rajnikant’s charisma and delivered a gangster film about the good guy in the wrong camp, Nayakan rode on Kamal Haasan’s chameleon-esque abilities to play different roles as the same guy – the young brash gangster, the middle-aged wise Godfather and the all-grey Grandfather who couldn’t answer the question if he’s good or bad. Both these films had a mix of the popular elements and the artistic elements but it’s very clear which side of art and commerce they favoured more.
These were two of those rare films that the twain met.
It’s the burden of a star that he cannot play grey and it’s a curse of an actor that his films don’t always click at the box office because of constant experimentation.
Stars and actors over the last decade have tussled with this dilemma and choice presented to them. To be the next MGR-Rajni as promised by the Perarasus. Or, to be the next Sivaji-Kamal and work on the merit of the script and the role, irrespective of what the market says.
With the advent of satellite television in the nineties, the idiot box weaned away a huge chunk of family audiences. Cinema halls became the refuge of a largely single male population as our cinema descended into full-blown brawl-celebrating beerfests.
Films that celebrated the male ego. Films where it was totally ok for the hero to wash his face with beer in the morning and have the audience cheer to that. Films where the woman became the object of desire, the fantasy girl – the “Bombay girl” as industry insiders call the type.
What happens in a street fight or a brawl? You mess with someone and there’s a score you have to settle. Like the Western, the Southern genre became based on the challenge. Who can beat who. After a decade of THOSE settling-score-challenge films, we are today left with the following street fighters: Ajith, Vijay, Vikram and Suriya with Dhanush, Simbu and Jeeva among the younger generation of heroes.
While Ajith, Vijay and Simbu have continued to do roles that celebrate their image (the Thala/Thalapathy type), Vikram, Suriya, Dhanush and Jeeva have at least tried to experiment with the odd offbeat role every once in a while. We find that it will be a really uphill task for any of these guys to take the mantle from MGR-Sivaji and Rajni-Kamal simply because of the consistency with which they delivered good cinema, not just hits.
Apart from Suriya and Dhanush now and Vikram a few years ago, none of the other guys have been able to score good films. Most of them are still obsess over their title-tag baggage.
It is an encouraging sign that Ajith has dismantled his fan clubs and went all out to play a bad guy with Mankatha. But given the star baggage he brought to the role, it is still early to call him the next Kamal Haasan. And, he hasn’t provided the hits to make him the next Rajnikant.
Vijay continues doing what he does best with a hit or miss success-rate that skews towards failure more often than success.
Suriya has chanced upon this solution of mixing it up – do different films for different audiences. A “mass-film” with Hari, a “class-film” with Gautham and “a mass-film” with Murugadoss and a “class-film” with K.V.Anand and has made sure that even his mass-based roles are devoid of any baggage or self-referencing.
And Vikram would do well to choose his scripts more wisely, and do more Raavanans than self-glorifying fiascos like Kanthaswamy.
The younger guys, Dhanush, Simbu and Jeeva have a long way to go to even be compared with the big four – Ajith,Vijay, Suriya and Vikram – but the need of the hour is to bring back the balance between art and commerce that over the last two decades has titled towards commerce. Star-vehicles have constantly crashed after initial success.
In film business, the only real formula to success is understanding that there is no formula for success. We have long list of flops from the big four to illustrate that.
We need a focus shift towards directors once again. We need producers to understand that good cinema stems from storytelling rather than just one or two individuals.
We need more stars to do what Rajnikant did with his last film – he broke his mould and embraced a grey character like he did in the seventies with Enthiran.
We need more actors to do what Kamal Haasan did with his last film – he let another actor walk away with the best lines in Man Madan Ambu.
It takes grace and confidence for an actor to step away from the limelight and share the stage with the other players. Cinema becomes richer only when all characters are fleshed out.
We need our filmmakers to be able to tell their stories with flourish rather than blow up all the money to hero-worship one person’s ego.
We need producers and actors to back the vision of a creator. We need more auteurs. We need to encourage original thought.
We need women back in our cinema, not just as glam dolls, but as real women with real issues.
We need the balance between man and woman restored in our films.
We need the balance between art and commerce back.
We need the next MGR-Sivaji or Rajni-Kamal to be the same person.
We need the twain to meet.
We need our actors to be stars and our stars to be actors.
We need to let our filmmakers call the shots again, without the pressure of hero-worship or box office diktats. Let’s not forget that Rajni and Kamal are children of that film culture.
We need to put that culture back into business.
We need to put the cinema back into film.
(This article originally appeared on Frappe.)