The dilemma: actor or superhero?



Vikram's attempt to break the mould may not bring him success There is no place for gimmicks and stylisation for an actor. That's only when you are playing a superhero

Sudhish Kamath

CHENNAI: `Maja' has opened to a mixed response, according to trade reports. In spite of Vikram's neat performance in the film, `Maja' has come in for criticism.

What was possibly wrong? The burden of Vikram being a matinee idol. The fallout of the image trap.

Traditionally, stars in Tamil cinema have been classified into two broad categories: the actors and the superheroes. People saw Sivaji as an actor and MGR as a superhero. They saw Kamal as an actor and Rajni as a superhero. Now they see Vikram as an actor and Vijay as a superhero.

Why? Because there is a rigid dichotomy between the function of a versatile actor and that of a superhero.

While idols are about maintaining consistency of character, mannerisms and living up to the stylisation created for themselves film after film, actors are all about the inconsistency of their screen behaviour and unpredictability of roles with which they keep the audience guessing on what they will do next.

In simpler terms, actors need to "act as somebody else" to be watched, superheroes just need to be themselves.

Which is why Batman, Superman, Spiderman, James Bond or Superstar (and now Vijay) remain consistent in what they stand for — fighting evil — and how they do that.

Which is why Sivaji, Kamal Hassan, Naseeruddin Shah, Boman Irani, Om Puri, Paresh Rawal keep reinventing themselves with every film, taking on a new personality.

Thanks to Dharani's reinvention of the "angry young man" prototype, Vikram became a matinee idol with `Dhil,' `Dhool' and Hari's `Saamy.' But the talented actor consciously chose to break the mould, a very dangerous proposition at the box-office, by doing `Kasi,' `Pitamagan' and even `Anniyan,' all of which met with a lukewarm response.

Here in `Maja,' the actor plays a village bumpkin who does the socially unacceptable: Halfway into the movie, he forcibly ties a `thaali' around the village headman's daughter out of rivalry and soon contradicts himself by bringing up the rich-poor differences between them to explain why the marriage will not work.

The protagonist is not an ideal hero, he in no way reflects the aspirations of the common man nor does he represent their problems. A superhero is supposed to do that. An actor is not required.

While Vikram took the actor's liberty to take on the role, the packaging of the protagonist went all wrong: It tried to package him as the superhero: the stylisation, the finger-gimmicks which lesser actors resort to, the designer clothes, the song-dance-fight elements which are completely out of place in a family drama.

So as a result, we have a `Vaanatheypola' movie trying to wear shades of `Dhool,' a mismatch of genres that further compounds the confusion created by the actor-superhero dichotomy.

A matinee idol is a prototype for the hero of a society in his era. He is the ideal protagonist who emerges out of the collective conscious of the society. When a victimised society gets disillusioned with powerful rowdies, scheming politicians and corrupt politicians and becomes scared of taking them on, it likes to cheer for anyone who does that, in reality or on screen.

The angry young man of the seventies did exactly that.

Vikram was `it' during `Dhil,' fighting a corrupt policeman. He was `it' in `Dhool' when he fought rowdies, politicians and corrupt politicians in the city. In `Saamy,' he fought a corrupt kingmaker.

But in `Anniyan,' he fought the common man.

A huge shift

A huge shift from who people perceived as modern day villains. But Shankar's extravagant dose of special effects, stylised gimmicks to suit the vigilante prototype, and `Indian' feel saw the film through.

It is quintessential for a superhero or a matinee idol to know the values he stands for.

Vijay in spite of having beginner directors has managed to carry his superhero image from film to film and has grown from strength to strength.

Vikram needs to get that clarity right, package himself according to the nature of the protagonist. There is no place for gimmicks and stylisation for an actor. That's only when you are playing a superhero.

It is irrelevant to discuss whether Sivaji is better than MGR, or Kamal is better than Rajni or if Vikram is better than Vijay but the truth remains that people's idea of a hero is much simpler.

It's not always someone who acts, it is someone who stands up for them.

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