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Tamil Nadu’s Thala-Thalapathy conundrum

Overrated, yet celebrated: Tamil actors Vijay and Ajith, who command massive fan-followings
“Oh, you watch Tamil cinema? So, you must be a fan of ThalaThalapathy?”

Trepidation must be the watchword when one encounters these statements. For, this refers to a syndrome that has divided film freaks of Tamil Nadu into fans of Kollywood’s leading (well, at least expensive) actors — Thala or Ajith Kumar and Thalapathy or Vijay. Chances are, the manner in which you will be treated from then on depends on your reply.

Behold the Thala-Thalapathy syndrome. Such is its omnipresence that no Tamilian worth his salt can ever claim to have escaped it (Thala and Thalapathy roughly translate to “leader” and “commander”, in Tamil). Industry buzz has it that Vijay’s moniker lends credence to the theory that he is the “successor” to Rajinikanth’s mantle in the industry (Thalapathy was one of Rajini’s biggest hits); Ajith’s nickname is to establish that he is a leader in his own right.

If you have not guessed by now, this represents a glorified slanging match over which actor is superior. Long before George Bush Jr sounded his war-cry for invading Iraq, “you are either with us or with them”, Tamil Nadu had firmly put it in practice.

As with Bush’s intellect, the “arch-rivalry” between fans of both the actors, is downright silly. 

Thus, be it in the online or offline world in Tamil Nadu, content edifying either of the actors and/ or trashing the other is kosher. A verbal or style statement by them can inspire such material – that can be twisted to paean or pejorative. However, the phenomenon assumes gargantuan proportions in the online space. It is as if the Red Army is waiting to descend on any Facebook post, Twitter hashtag or Instagram upload, and react to it adversely, usually with expletives. 

Think public personalities are immune to such hero-worship? Think again. As incidents over the years attest to, no personality, however popular, can evade it.

When TV anchor-turned-actor Sivakarthikeyan made a positive reference to actor Ajith in his last-year’s flick, Kaaki Sattai, chagrined fans of Vijay found it fit to vent their spleen. Social media went alive with their outrage. The film’s trailer links on YouTube were promptly bombarded with unprintable comments on his genealogy. Likewise, when it was reported that an actress who had once worked with Ajith praised Vijay, she faced disparaging comments in the online world; her character questioned and demeaned. “Thala or Thalapathy?” is a poser routinely put to film personalities at public functions, who resort to the safest answer possible: “Thala-Thalapathy.”

Even Tamil TV channels have not been beyond reproach. Reportedly, fans of actor Vijay threatened to break the glass façade of the TV channel Star Vijay’s office (not linked to the actor) in Chennai for spoofing one his movies (Pokkiri) – a hilarious one at that. From then on, the channel lost no time in prefixing a disclaimer to the programme that lampooned the movie, Lollu Sabha.

Kollywood has ensured that this found a foothold in popular culture. For instance, the 2010 hit film Boss engira Baskaran features a scene involving actor Santhanam, who gets beaten up by Thala and Thalapathy fans for poking fun at either of the idols. Although the sequence was intended to provide comic relief, it embellished beyond doubt the intent and ideologies of the fans. Other portrayals haven’t been flattering either.

Surprisingly, the quality of movies the two actors have starred in are largely forgettable, save for a few exceptions. Most of their movies cater to their captive audiences – testosterone-filled, raging fan (usually all-male) clubs. Such movies are replete with self-fawning lines, devoid of logic, female leads reduced to eye-candy and the presence of other actors customary.

Which brings us to the question: what is this fuss really about? A part answer relates to a legacy over the decades.

From the days of M K Thyagaraja Bagavathar, officially the Tamil film industry’s first superstar; to M G Ramachandran and ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan, and their successors – Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan – all have commanded following in hordes, and among both the sexes. And for good reason.

Each of the actors was a treasure trove of acting talent. ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan – recipient of the French honour Chevalier – could get into the skin of every character that he portrayed (“Stop acting like Sivaji”, is still a refrain in many households). Long before he became the theme for Chuck Norris-styled jokes, Rajinikanth won accolades for his acting prowess (think Aarulindhu Arubathu Varai, or Thillu Mullu – the remake of Amol Palekar’s Golmaal). Kamal Haasan is one among the few who has sought to redefine acting in every movie of his. An exception must be made for MGR, whose persona, rather than acting skills, captivated audiences into installing him as chief minister. 

Kollywood’s current big two, thus, find it easy to connect with the audience by imitating any of these actors. In fact, a passing mention to MGR or Rajinikanth is almost a must in many of Vijay’s movies. And not everyone finds that palatable. As actress Khushbu commented in The name is Rajinikanth, the superstar's biography: “These days, whenever I see actors imitate Rajini, I cringe. After all, Rajini is wherever he is after decades of hard work. These actors want to get there in just a few days, after a movie or two.”

The good news is, Thala and Thalapathy are enjoying stardom just as a cycle travels a distance after going down a slope. They have had to reinvent themselves to a large extent in their recent releases (Thuppakki, Kaththi for Vijay; Ennai Arinthaal, Mankatha for Ajith). Other recent flicks that catered solely to their fan-bases (SuraAsal) met an ignominious end at the BO. That no other upcoming actor has managed to command massive followings (not even the next star on the horizon, Surya) means that this momentum is perhaps fizzling out.

Importantly, changing mindsets towards Tamil cinema have played a role, too. Give the audiences a movie with a refreshing story and they will lap it up dutifully. How else can one explain the runaway success of flicks such as the Hitchcockian Thegidi, the laughter riot that was Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanam (that also spawned countless Internet memes)the thrill-a-minute movie Pizza or the industry’s best noir-flick in a long time, Jigarthanda? How else can one explain the new-found fame of its lead actors — Vijay Sethupathy, Ashok Selvan and Bobby Simha? Some movies have gone on to question the ham-handed functioning of the entire film industry (think JigarthandaKathai Thiraikathai Iyakkam Vasanam) — something unfathomable any time in the past.

Why, even the presence of superstar Rajinikanth could not prevent the failure of his last two ventures that were poorly-scripted, Lingaa and Kochadaiyaan

And that bodes well for the Tamil film industry.

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