How I wonder what you are…

Posted on November 21, 2015


Thoughts on stars, those people who keep making us go to the theatres even if, sometimes, we wish better sense had prevailed.

Why is Vedalam, Ajith’s Deepavali release, doing such boffo business at the Tamil Nadu box office? A lot of people have asked me this question, including a Delhi-based journalist who’s doing a story on the film and wanted to know: The movie is a disaster – in storytelling, acting, aesthetics and music. How has this masala genre as the template for heroism and mythmaking survived in the 20th century…? I don’t know if I have the answer. If we knew why films worked, there would be no flops. But yes, the extent of Vedalam’s success is surprising, given that it has terrible comedy, a romantic track that appears to exist simply because you cannot have a film without a heroine (the hero barely looks at her in that way), and the villains have basically been instructed to act like gorillas after the zookeeper forgot their feed. And yet, something keeps us watching, and that something, I think, is the star. He’s the feed bag for the otherwise starved audience.

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Let’s extend that culinary metaphor. The thing that makes a star a star is that secret (or sometimes, not-so-secret) sauce he or she spices up the screen with. With Vijay and Shahid Kapoor, it’s the way they move. Many actors are good dancers, but when they dance, you hear them say, “I can execute these steps.” With these two, you hear, “Look at me be.” They don’t dance. They… flow. And watching this can sometimes be enough. No one seemed to like R…  Rajkumar, but the exuberance of the song sequences left me with a high I couldn’t shake off for days. I don’t trust people who say they enjoy films only if there’s a “script,” or if it “makes sense.” With a certain kind of movie, yes, we expect all that – but there are films that engage us in other ways. When a star is in his element, when Vijay cuts loose the way he does in the Karigalan number in Vettaikaaran, it’s like the sun has been replaced by a disco ball. Suddenly we realise how gloom-dispelling, how life-sustaining this stuff is, that trashy pleasures are a big, big part of why we go to the movies.

But what about other aspects of performance, you ask? But a star is not required to be the on-screen answer to a multivitamin tablet, an A-Z repository of talent. That’s an actor’s job. It’s the actor who’s obligated to demonstrate his prowess at several levels. He must laugh. He must cry. He must do everything Kamal Haasan can do. Now there’s an interesting case – an actor who’s also a star. And also a writer canny enough to give his fans the actor-star they come to see. His latest film, Thoongavanam, has an unconvincing moment where the tough cop he plays breaks down. See Kamal as just an actor, and you’ll find this to be uncharacteristic behaviour for a character toughened by years of service – but as a star, you can’t be too subtle. Your fans expect these emotionally charged moments where they can say, “Wow, what a great actor he is!” That’s what’s in the feed bag. My favourite Kamal Haasan moment in recent years is when his effeminate dancer in Vishwaroopam transforms, in a heartbeat, into a raging warrior. You’ve seen the actor thus far. Now we see the star. But wait, wasn’t the actor a false front as per the script – in other words, weren’t we always watching the star? Or is the measure of this star how far out on a limb he goes as an actor?

You could tie yourself up in knots deconstructing this scene, as also the one in Enthiran, where Evil Rajinikanth sniffs out and captures Good Rajinikanth, who’s in hiding as part of the former’s army. But what’s happening on screen is just the appetiser. For the main course, dig deeper. Evil Rajinikanth is the persona that we saw early on in the actor’s career, the thrilling bad guy who was gradually replaced – due to the compulsions of, yes, stardom – by the duller do-gooder Rajinikanth, and here’s the revenge. Idhu eppidi irukku? These are quintessential star moments, which allow us to go beyond the script and “converse” with star personas that have evolved over the years. Does Ajith, who’s being compared to Rajinikanth after Vedalam’s success, have this kind of stardom yet? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s easier to look back on a star than to comment on him mid-creation. But with the shades of grey he’s able to accommodate in his characters, he’s at least a bracing change from other bland heroes whose stardom is a trap, confining them in cocoons of cloying virtue.

But sometimes, we become moralists and insist on virtue. When I posted a review of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, a friend commented, “I don’t understand how a convicted murderer still gets to be leading man.” It’s terrible and perhaps points to a huge character flaw in me, but maybe some of us find it easier to separate the real and make-believe worlds, the way we do with Woody Allen and Roman Polanski? Because on screen, Salman Khan is a star – his USP is an endearing brattishness, abetted, no doubt, by his off-screen status of an unattached man who still lives with his parents. He’s the boy who never grew up. And Shah Rukh? He was a zillion-watt star in the Kabhi Khushi Khabhie Gham days, when he resurrected the s-s-s-swooning romantic hero for the Internet generation. You weren’t sure if he was going to carve your name in blood or carve you up. Then there’s Aamir, who’s single-handedly positioned himself as the biggest star-brand since Amitabh Bachchan. Quality, hard work, reliability – these may sound like jottings from a 1923 Boy Scout’s manual, but Aamir Khan has fashioned these resolutely unglamorous traits into a survival kit for stardom.

What about heroines? Sridevi was once called the female Bachchan (and later, I think Madhuri Dixit was too) – no further acknowledgement of stardom is necessary. But as much as I enjoy some of their performances, they put too much of themselves out there. I preferred Rekha, who had more mystique. She was the thing you saw when you peered into a deep well on a moonless night. As for today’s actresses, they may be stars in terms of box-office value (Nayanthara, who’s apparently installed a hit-manufacturing unit in her backyard), and there are certainly some good performers, but they aren’t unique enough, the sauce isn’t special enough. Then again, you may differ. Because tastes differ. I’ve never understood the Hema Malini phenomenon, for instance. Very limited performer. A dazzler in her Johny Mera Naam days, but not so much later. And yet, she kept shining. What, I keep wondering, was the secret sauce? Her innate Indianness, perhaps? Sometimes, even this unknowability is the stamp of a star.

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