Unveiling the shift: Tamil cinema and its tryst with multi-starrers

The influence of pan-Indian films, the rise of streaming platforms, and upcoming releases featuring powerhouse casts highlight the evolving landscape of multi-starrers in the Tamil film industry

February 23, 2024 05:19 pm | Updated March 25, 2024 12:24 pm IST

(L-R) Poster of ‘The Greatest of All Time’ and stills from from ‘Thug Life’ and ‘Vettaiyan’

(L-R) Poster of ‘The Greatest of All Time’ and stills from from ‘Thug Life’ and ‘Vettaiyan’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

When I caught the first-day show of Captain Miller earlier this year, a fellow member of the audience was surprised to know that the Dhanush film also starred actors like Shiva Rajkumar, Sundeep Kishan and Aditi Balan. It made me wonder about two things; that there are a select few who are lucky enough to catch a film without watching any of its promotional material and there seems to be an influx of multi-starrers from the Tamil film industry. Even if we don’t consider the Ponniyin Selvan duology, Jailer, Leo or Vikram in recent times, just two months into 2024 (apart from the Dhanush film) we also got Blue Star and Lal Salaam which featured multiple lead actors.

All the major Tamil actors are currently doing films featuring multiple stars. Before we get to what’s going to unfold in the foreseeable future, let’s look at how the concept of multi-starrers has evolved within the Tamil film industry over the years.

Multi-starrers is not a concept that’s new to Tamil cinema. They were common but they were almost always restricted to films starring two leads which the industry likes to call ‘double-hero subjects’. They were usually stories involving two friends (Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan in Parthal Pasi Theerum, Muthuraman and Ravichandran in Kadhalikka Neramillai), brothers (MGR and Gemini Ganesan in Muharasi, Sivaji and Rajinikanth in Padikkadavan), enemies (Rajini and Kamal Haasan in 16 Vayathinile, Karthik and Prabhu in Agni Natchathiram) or just strangers introduced to each other by fate (Rajini and Kamal in Apoorva Raagangal, Sivaji and Vijay in Once More).

Sivaji Ganesan and MG Ramachandran in ‘Koondukkili’

Sivaji Ganesan and MG Ramachandran in ‘Koondukkili’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The legendary actors of Tamil cinema, MGR and Sivaji, have starred only in one film together, Koondukkili (1954) and Vijay and Ajith, considered the duumvirate of the current generation, have also acted together in just a single outing, Rajavin Parvaiyile (1995). Incidentally, both these films were average grossers.

The time between these two generations wherein Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth turned from actors to stars saw both of them collaborating for a slew of films like Moondru MudichuAvargal and Ninaithale Inikkum. Very rarely, there were films starring multiple lead actors, like Pazhani (1965) which starred Sivaji alongside S. S. Rajendran and Muthuraman.

And, a discourse on Tamil multi-starrers cannot be complete without Sivaji’s Bharatha Vilas (1973), a film on religious unity, secularism, and brotherhood which, in a meta manner, included actors from other industries such as Akkineni Nageswara Rao (from the Telugu film industry), Sanjeev Kumar (Hindi) and Madhu (Malayalam).

A long standing trope

Dual-lead films have been a long-standing trope in Tamil cinema and it would not be an overstatement to say that it peaked in the 90s when almost all the lead actors were coming up with different permutations and combinations to team up together for a flick. The buddy-cop genre that worked wonders for Hollywood opened a new avenue for such dual-hero films featuring similar characters with a common conflict like Kuruthipunal (Kamal and Arjun), Thalapathi (Rajini and Mammootty), Duet (Prabhu and Ramesh Aravind), Sivasakthi (Sathyaraj and Prabhu), Kadhala Kadhala (Kamal and Prabhu Deva) and Kalloori Vaasal (Ajith and Prashanth). Then there was the ‘frenemies’ trope which featured a common plot involving two innately different people putting their differences away and coming together for a common goal, such as Ullasam (Ajith and Vikram) and Nerrukku Ner (Vijay and Surya). While we are at it, Thevar Magan, starring Kamal Haasan and Sivaji Ganesan came out in 1992 and what’s going to top that collaboration?

Kamal Haasan and Sivaji Ganesan in ‘Thevar Magan’

Kamal Haasan and Sivaji Ganesan in ‘Thevar Magan’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Then, multi-starrers featuring multiple actors turned from star-lead vehicles to comparatively small-budget family flicks starring a host of primary characters instead of the traditional “hero”. If the boundaries of this genre were pushed by filmmakers in the black-and-white era like A Bhimsingh, C.V. Sridhar and A.P. Nagarajan and the transitioning era like K. Balachander, it was directors like Visu who took the baton forward. His films in the 80s like Dowry KalyanamChidambara Rahasiyam, Samsaram Adhu Minsaram, and Thirumathi Oru Vegumathi featured star-studded casts. While he continued the trope in the 90s as well, the decade also saw directors like V. Sekhar dishing out multi-starrers like Varavu Ettana Selavu Pathana, Kaalam Maari Pochu, Pongalo PongalViralukketha Veekkam and Koodi Vazhnthal Kodi Nanmai. The 2000s saw directors like K.S. Ravikumar (ThenaliSamudhiramPanchathantiram and Manmadhan Ambu) and Sundar. C (Ullam Kollai PoguthaeAnbe SivamKalakalappu and Aranmanai films) taking the trend forward.

It’s also when the number of female stars matched that of their male counterparts which later paved the way for women-fronted multi-starrers like Three Roses and Snegithiye. If it was Bharatha Vilas for the previous generation, it has to be Suyamvaram (1999) for the current one. Featuring 14 major directors, 19 cinematographers and over 30 leading actors, the film holds the Guinness World Record for casting the most stars in a film as well as being the quickest-ever feature-length film made, with filming being completed in 23 hours and 58 minutes!

(L-R) Anu Aggarwal, Heera Rajagopal, Anand and Prashanth in a still from ‘Thiruda Thiruda’

(L-R) Anu Aggarwal, Heera Rajagopal, Anand and Prashanth in a still from ‘Thiruda Thiruda’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

If there’s one filmmaker who has been making multi-starrers for decades, it’s Mani Ratnam. The veteran made Agni Natchathiram in the 80s, Thalapathi, Thiruda Thiruda and Iruvar in the 90s, Aayutha Ezhuthu in the 2000s, Raavanan, Kadal and Chekka Chivantha Vaanam for the 2010s and the two Ponniyin Selvan films in the 2020s. And did we mention the grand ensemble cast of his upcoming film Thug Life?

Evolving landscape

The dawn of the new millennium saw two big multi-starrers. Talents like Ajith, Mammootty, Tabu and Aishwarya Rai teamed up for the beautiful Kandukondain Kandukondain. On the other end of the spectrum, arguably Kamal Haasan’s biggest directorial, Hey Ram, starring himself alongside Shah Rukh Khan, Hema Malini, Rani Mukerji, Vasundhara Das, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, was released.

The veteran followed up on the format with the evergreen comedy Panchatanthiram in 2002.

Akshay Kumar and Rajinikanth in a still from ‘2.0’

Akshay Kumar and Rajinikanth in a still from ‘2.0’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The next two decades did not see a decline in dual-lead-led films; examples include Avan Ivan, Mankatha, Aarambam, Thani Oruvan, Vikram Vedha and Master. But the true blue multi-starrers saw a major drop in these years with very few films like Dasavathaaram, Nanban, Mersal, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam and Super Deluxe ending up having an array of stars in their cast list.

It was in the late 2010s that the two Baahubali films changed the landscape of the entire Indian film industry. Apart from highlighting the saleability of universal yet rooted stories, what it positively impacted the most was the casting in such films which included roping in actors from different industries to cater to a wider audience. Today, these films are collectively categorised under an umbrella term: pan-Indian films. Though the likes of KGF and Kantara have proved that such an ensemble is not necessary for a film to go pan-Indian, most of the films tagged as such sport a diverse collection of talents from across the country.

Though the Tamil film industry made a pan-Indian film back in 1948 in the form of Chandralekha, it’s safe to say that the industry took the new-wave pan-India plunge with Rajini’s 2.0 in 2018 which saw Akshay Kumar making his Tamil debut. The very next year, Rajini’s next film — Petta — found a villain in another Bollywood star, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. 

Going with the trend

In due course, comparatively smaller films also began tapping into this trend and examples include Enemy, Mark Antony, Maamannan, Por Thozhil, Maanaadu and Thiruchitrambalam. The rise of OTT originals and anthologies has also made it easier for writers, filmmakers and stars to team up for a project and yet have their own unique space. Modern Love Chennai, Putham Pudhu Kaalai, Mathagam, Suzhal: The Vortex and Vadhandhi: The Fable of Velonie are recent examples.

Coming back to theatrical releases, there’s a slew of biggies slated to be out this year which are going to have an ensemble cast. Alongside films like Vikram’s Thangalaan and the long-awaited Dhruva Natchathiram is Mr X starring Arya, Gautham Karthik, Sarath Kumar, Manju Warrier and Anagha, and Dhanush’s second directorial Rayaan which stars him alongside Kalidas Jayaram, Sundeep Kishan, Selvaraghavan and S.J Suryah.

In the big leagues, we have Vijay’s The Greatest of All Time which stars Prashanth, Prabhu Deva, Sneha and Laila while Ajith’s Vidaa Muyarchi features a cast that includes Arjun, Arav and Regina Cassandra apart from Trisha. Meanwhile, Rajinikanth’s Vettaiyan has an ensemble cast that includes Amitabh Bachchan, Fahadh Faasil, Rana Daggubati, Manju Warrier, Ritika Singh and Dushara Vijayan, while Kamal Haasan’s Indian 2 also stars S.J. Suryah, Kajal Aggarwal, Siddharth, Rakul Preet Singh and Priya Bhavani Shankar.

A still from ‘Dhruva Natchathiram’

A still from ‘Dhruva Natchathiram’ | Photo Credit: @SonyMusicSouth/YouTube

Probably the biggest one yet has to be Kamal’s films with Mani Ratnam’s Thug Life as its cast list includes Jayam Ravi, Trisha, Dulquer Salmaan, Gautham Karthik, Joju George and Aishwarya Lekshmi.

It’s fascinating to see how the very meaning of multi-starrers has changed as the film industry evolved in the last few decades. From the term being synonymous with a film having multiple protagonists with near-equal weightage and screen time, it now means that a film has an ensemble cast and these actors’ characters and screen-time don’t necessarily have to be on par with the lead protagonist who is almost always a star. Whether the new wave of such multi-starrers rightfully deserves that tag is a debate for another day, but there’s not an iota of doubt that it’s great to see an array of talents light up the screen; from the looks of it, we are in many more to come.

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