As star power wanes...

SREEDHAR PILLAI surveys the scene.

``University''... experiments with new stars produce modest success.

``University''... experiments with new stars produce modest success.  

FROM TIME immemorial Tamil cinema has been driven by superstardom. It has always been superstars like MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Rajnikanth, Kamalhassan, Vijaykanth and the recent crop like Ajit and Vijay who have been bringing audience to the theatres. They all had star power — fantastic opening at the box-office and initial weekend (Friday to Sunday) firepower, irrespective of the quality of the film. And this meant films featuring them had a decent opening.

In the case of MGR and Rajnikanth, they ensured that their fans kept the box-office busy for over a week. And above all they had the ability to secure finance from distributors, as they were saleable stars.

All that has changed as our superstars have been living in a nightmare for sometime now. Recurring images of half-empty cinema halls during the opening weekend have been bad enough and the figures are worse. Out of the 60-odd films released this year up to October 31, only three - "Gemini", "Thulluvatho Illamai" and the recent "Run" can be classified as hits. But what is shocking and creating panic waves in the industry is that none of the top five superstars feature in any of these hits.

More alarming is that today's superstars including Rajnikanth as proved by "Baba" cannot carry a film on their shoulders anymore. Kodambakkam, the tinsel town has not seen rough weather for such a long time, as the last three films of Kamalhassan, Vijaykanth, Ajit and Vijay have not done well. According to Oscar Ravichandran, a leading producer in Tamil: "The star system has crumbled. No star has a decent opening now and it is a myth that a star's fans can give you a good opening. Today's audience which sees the film on the first day gives its judgment which is always correct". Ravichandran feels that the audience has not only become choosy but can also smell a good film by just watching the promos on television. He says that viewers are no longer attracted to the "superstar" label but only accept films with good story, presentation and peppy music.

Kalaipuli. S. Thanu who allowed Kamalhassan to blow up nearly Rs. 20 crores for "Aalavandhan" is today a sad man. While Kamalhassan's "Pammal. K. Sambandham" and "Panchatanthiram", produced by Thenappan have not done too well either. Vijay has shrewdly never repeated any of his producers. Rajnikanth salvaged his reputation when he returned the losses that distributors' had incurred from "Baba". For the first time in the history of Tamil cinema trade, all superstars' films ("Bhagavathy", "Villain" and "Ramana") that were released this Deepavali have not been sold to the distributors. Instead the producer has only managed to get an advance from them.

So what is going wrong? In spite of the star system collapsing, with even top stars unable to guarantee a decent initial, star prices have turned stratospheric.

Today the top five Tamil stars charge Rs. 3 crore upwards as their salary is much higher than what the Bollywood stars get for a film! Their prices are rising with every flop, as they are able to get star struck, one-time producers.

The content of a superstar film is coming in for criticism and is being cited as one of the main reasons why moviegoers are avoiding the theatres. Vijay refuses to change his so-called success formula of having six fights and songs at regular intervals giving scant importance to a good story or presentation. But when asked, his argument is, "People enjoy what I am doing on screen. So why should I deny them that pleasure?" Ajit wants to repeat his rowdy roles with long winding dialogue in film after film. Rajnikanth thinks his "style" and punch lines with political overtones are all that is required to churn out a hit. Kamalhassan wants to be in every frame and insists on having two heroines who are after him in the film! The problem is that superstars other than Rajnikanth do more than two films a year and are overexposed and jaded. The audience is also getting tired of their predictable dance numbers and repetitive dialogue delivery.

Good story, presentation, peppy music... winning formula. Vikram and Kalabhavan Mani in ``Gemini''.

Good story, presentation, peppy music... winning formula. Vikram and Kalabhavan Mani in ``Gemini''.  

What the superstars are not realising is that the taste of moviegoers is changing rapidly. The average, predominantly male audience, which comes to the theatres to watch a film, is between 15 and 30 years of age. According to L. Suresh of Ananda pictures, one of the oldest distributors in Tamil Nadu, "Today the box-office fate of a movie is decided after the matinee show on the releasing day. Earlier we had average, above average, hits and super hits. Now there are only hits and flops!"

Suresh attributes the superstars' current plight to several factors including the cold overseas music markets, rampant cable piracy and pirated VCDs of the latest blockbusters. During the days of MGR, women formed about 50 per cent of the audience — this has dropped to an alarming10 per cent now. The drop in the women audience is attributed to the growing popularity of television serials on satellite channels all of which have women protagonists. Cinema will always remain the biggest source of entertainment for Tamil people, as an average filmgoer in Tamil Nadu sees 18 films a year as compared to the National average of three!

However one thing is certain in the Tamil film world — the superstars' megastar wattage looks dimmed, as if the audience has turned its light way down.

The big question now is whether the Deepavali releases will light up the sagging career of our honchos.

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