There's a reason there’s been so much talk about Dhanush recently, and it’s not just that he’s had back-to-back releases

I know, I know, not another piece on Dhanush and Raanjhanaa and Maryan. But I feel compelled to put down some thoughts after a longtime reader, on my blog, wondered why I have discussed Dhanush’s performance in these films in such detail. He added, “Also it’s rare to see you praise a mainstream actor’s performance like that in back-to-back reviews. Maybe for Irrfan or Naseeruddin or somebody like that but not for somebody like Dhanush, that’s a rarity. That got me curious.”

I suppose the question comes about because I rarely talk about acting aspects in a review, and there are two reasons for this: (1) I believe that the purpose of a review isn’t to make a laundry list of cast and crew and then talk about their individual contributions, but to discuss only those aspects that this cast/crew did well (Rishi Kapoor in Aurangzeb) or did badly (Rishi Kapoor in D-Day) or did puzzlingly (Abhishek Bachchan in Raavan). In all these cases, something stands out — and you need something to stand out if you’re to offer an opinion on it.

Or else, in the absence of specifics, you’re left searching for generalities, and I have no interest in offering an opinion on something that’s just competently done, neither elevating the film nor eroding it — unless it’s something like Farhan Akhtar’s performance in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. It is competent, but it fills the film, and so I felt I had to acknowledge his effort — I used the qualifier “hardworking.”

And reason (2): it is a fact that the performances usually worth talking about are usually found in the slightly offbeat films, the ones that feature, as the reader says, Irrfan or Naseeruddin. These films are more dependent on character than plot (no judgment this, just fact), and the actors who embody these characters have more to chew on, more to work with. Also, the directors of these films are usually more attuned to performance details. That’s why I found Farhan’s Akhtar’s performance in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara — with standout moments like his confrontation with Naseeruddin Shah, or his apology to Hrithik Roshan — far more interesting and worth discussing than the rather generic one in Bhaag... Milkha Bhaag

So why the recent reams about Dhanush? (1) The most obvious reason is that we don’t typically get two films with two strong central characters, played by the same actor, in such quick succession. Had Raanjhanaa been released in May and Maryan in December, I would have still talked about Dhanush’s performances in them — just that it wouldn’t have come across as some sort of borderline obsession.

(2) In both films, fairly commonplace moments are treated differently by the directors, and so the performance automatically turns interesting. A declaration of love is a declaration of love, and we’ve seen this a thousand times — but when the director (Bharatbala, of Maryan) chooses to film this in close-ups, the dynamic of the actor’s performance changes. Each millimetre of the actor’s face presents itself for scrutiny, and what wouldn’t have registered in a medium shot or a wide shot suddenly reveals itself in microscopic detail.

(3) Few actors can hold these close-ups, especially the moments without dialogue. It’s fairly easy to make an impression when you have dialogue or when you’re hurling something at someone — when there’s something to speak or do — and the real test of an actor comes when there’s nothing to do. How does an actor conduct himself — how does he stand? How does he use his hands, his face? — when the other person is speaking and doing things? In other words, it’s not just about the acting but also the reacting, and Dhanush does this very well.

This came as a bit of a surprise because not many of his earlier films allowed him the space to react. The typical tendency of a director is to fix the camera on the person doing the acting, and the person doing the reacting is rarely allowed to be seen. I suppose the issue is compounded when it’s a big star, whose fans may not take kindly to close-ups of him doing (what in their eyes may be) nothing. And these are valid considerations in commercial cinema.

(4) In many of his earlier films, Dhanush used to be a capital-A actor, in the look-ma-I’m-acting sense. This type of attention-grabbing acting is a function of the performer, the part, the director and the kind of audience the film is courting, and I doubt that his psycho in Kadhal Kondain would have been such a hit if he’d underplayed the role. But he’s broken out of that mould now, and, at least on the evidence of Raanjhanaa and Maryan, his acting has become mellower, more confident. It’s as if we’re seeing a Phase Two of his career — and this is especially significant when you consider how risky these acting choices are in a cinema culture where less isn’t always seen as more. (For instance, Kamal Haasan in Guna and Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaaduand the general consensus will be that the acting was better in the earlier film — because it’s an obvious kind of acting, the kind that wins awards.)

And (5): It’s such a happy surprise to see an established mainstream hero take part in such chancy films. In the early stages of a career, we may see an actor try various kinds of roles, but once they taste success, once they figure out what it is about them that people like, they stick to a formula, with excuses like “the market has grown and we need to recoup the budget” or “I have to satisfy the expectations of my fans.”

And they do the same thing every time, with minor variations. But in Raanjhanaa, Dhanush gets slapped, spit on, spurned. And in Maryan, we see the somewhat arty treatment of a mainstream subject.

An actor cannot act in a vacuum. The film he’s in plays a huge part in what he does, and Dhanush’s recent films have been exciting amalgamations of the arty and the commercial. As a result, his acting too has begun to cover the gamut. He roars. He whispers. He keeps you watching.

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