The success of Raanjhana heralds a Bollywood shakedown.

There really is something about Dhanush’s eyes in Raanjhana. If, as Marilyn Monroe said, “The real lover is the man who can thrill you just by touching your head or smiling into your eyes”, then unconventional-looking (as film reviewers euphemistically call him) Dhanush is the next Rajesh Khanna of Bollywood.

But there is more to Mr. Kolaveri than his eyes alone. His ability for rapid emotional transformation, his lack of self consciousness and, in sharp contrast to the narcissistic toy boys of Bollywood, his body confidence make him among the most electric debutantes of our time.

Just as A.R. Rahman’s score for Raanjhana makes traditional Banarsi chaitis and kajris palatable yet recognisable, scratch the surface of Kundan and you will find the archetypal Tamil hero somehow made acceptable to an all-India audience.

Tamil heroes, their swarthy complexion, hefty waistlines and OTT emotions have always been at the fringe of the Hindi film industry. Sivaji Ganesan’s quivering jowls, MGR’s pencil-thin moustache and Rajnikant’s antics were too much even for an audience no stranger to flights of fantasy. Yet, in Tamil Nadu, millions worship them and consistently voted them to power in the state. The biggest stars of the North are not a patch on the emotional pull of the Southern superstars. What psychological oddity in millions of Tamilians accounts for such behaviour?

Dhanush provokes you into reflecting that the fanatical response to Tamil films may not be in the vices of its viewers but in the virtues of its performers. To understand the theatrical virtuosity of the South Indian star, one needs to understand a related area of self expression: temple devotion. Performing arts in India, after all, have their origin in the telling of a religious story to an illiterate audience.

Devotion to God in Tamilian, especially non-Brahminical traditions of worship, is distinct. In temples in other parts of the country, the reverence for the deity is a relatively distant, reserved one allowing the devotee to transit quickly between the spiritual and the temporal. That is, perhaps, why the more Sanskritic theatrical traditions in India have a greater sense of cultivated reserve. One such tradition, Marathi theatre of the early 20th century, played a very important role in the development of Hindi films. There was a limit to the amount of vulnerability that an actor like Bal Gandharva would expose to the audience. There is only this far that a Hrithik or a Shah Rukh will go while looking into a woman’s eyes before you realise they are thinking about themselves.

On the other hand, a visit to an Amman (Devi) or Murugan temple in Tamil Nadu can be a cathartic experience. The temple is dimly lit with fire. Fierce shadows inhabit every wall. The devotees are vocal, expressive and publicly display emotion of every kind. The body is subjected to rituals of mortification — piercing cheeks with small spears, doing a pradakshina of the temple by rolling on the ground, and fire walking. There is a complete surrender of the self to the divine — seemingly grotesque and debased, but often sublime — and you cannot but be captivated and moved.

Tamils who have migrated to South Africa, Malaysia and even Europe faithfully reproduce these rituals with fanfare, as being the essence of Tamilness. Just as there is no barrier between the Tamil devotee and his god, the Tamil actor strips himself of all his masks in front of the audience. Every emotion — hate, lust, greed and above all love — is expressionist, raw and authentic. Go past the baroque form and the experience will enthral.

Indian audiences are slowly rising above the barriers of form and are warming up to the Tamil film experience. Kamal Haasan’s very Dhanush-like performances in Sagar and Sadma have weathered the test of time and are received better now than when they were released. Salman Khan has caught on to the emotional power of Tamil cinema in his second coming. After living in the shadows of the other Khans, he has come into his own as the top superstar of Hindi films post-Prabhu Deva’s Wanted. Since then he has scrupulously adhered to the macho-lover trope of Tamil films. Chennai Express, albeit in a caricatured way, brings the Tamilian film ethos into national consciousness.

But, for now, we must thank a short, thin, dark man who speaks no Hindi for infusing a whiff of love into the 2013 monsoon. As he says to Sonam, (correctly as it happens even in terms of performance), “Tumse pyar karna meri kabiliyat hain, tumhari nahin. Aur koi hota toh main use bhi isi tarah jee jaan se pyar karta.”(Loving you reflects my specialty, not yours. If you were someone else, I would still love with the same intensity.) Attaboy Dhanush!

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