While Kollywood has its share of popular heroes, some of whom have been elevated to demigod status and enjoy a substantial fanbase, not many of them can pull off a range of roles. In some cases, it's because the actor is stuck in an image trap and gets the same kind of offers from filmmakers. In others, it's because of their limited histrionic talent to evolve beyond the usual formula film.
Despite being a bankable actor who has time and again proved himself through credible performances, Karthi has not managed to accrue the kind of stardom that those with far less talent have managed to do. Admittedly, this isn't unique to him - it's the frustrating nature of the film business where fortunes often swing like a pendulum. His last release Kaatru Veliyidai which took a great opening at the box office crashed miserably because of a weak script and poor word of mouth.
Karthi in 'Kaatru Veliyidai'
Karthi made his debut with the critically acclaimed and brutal Paruthiveeran which was followed by the ambitious Selvaraghavan historical fantasy Aaiyirathil Oruvan. Naan Mahaan Alla too was impressive although gory. After starting on a high note, however, his career went into a slump with films like Saguni, Alex Pandian, and All in All Azhagu Raja turning into box office duds. It's not as if these films were especially bad - Lingusamy's Paiyaa was your average brain-dead entertainer that went on to become a blockbuster and Siruthai, which did well too, defied gravity and logic one too many times.
Perhaps it was his desire to turn into a "mass" hero, but most of these films did little to challenge him as an actor. He was content to play the wicked charmer, resorting to gimmicks and playing to the gallery. However, It needed a Madras and a director like Pa Ranjith to bring out the versatile performer in him. In this hard-hitting and intelligent film, Karthi was superbly convincing as a young man in North Madras who is sucked into political games and becomes a pawn in the hands of powerful people. The film had many layers to it and is among the few in Tamil cinema to have had such a strong caste and class subtext.
Karthi in 'Madras'
But then, Karthi followed this with Komban which was a disappointment and resorted to mindless violence to tell a story that wasn't there. Then came Thozha which went on to become a hit despite its plot which had logical loopholes the size of craters. The remake of a French film, this story about a paralyzed man (Nagarjuna) and his trusted assistant was fairly new to Kollywood but it was not without its share of regressive ideas - especially discomfiting was the homophobic narrative built into it.
Kaashmora was fun. We saw Karthi in his elements, playing up to his strengths even though the film was not what people expected when they saw the trailer. It was quirky enough for Karthi to shine and in dual roles, too. For that matter, Karthi is always entertaining when he's on screen, even in a not-so-great film. However, one couldn't shake off the feeling that the actor was once again getting typecast.
Karthi in 'Kaashmora'
Kaatru Veliyidai was a great opportunity for Karthi to break way from the two characters he seems to be playing always - the charming charlatan/bad boy or the sickle swinging violent youth. Varun was the quintessential Mani Ratnam hero but with a twist. Urban, handsome, suave but an abuser. An interesting premise that has seldom been explored in Tamil cinema. However, the film was thoroughly unconvincing and Karthi, too, came under criticism for his performance.
It would be a pity if the actor goes back to his safe zone from here on when it comes to choosing future projects. Instead of trying to win audience approval by turning "mass" - there are way too many in Kollywood doing that anyway - it would be great to see Karthi do more immersive films like Madras. That's easier said than done but there are people like Vijay Sethupathi in the industry who have managed to survive by taking on an intelligent mix of films which makes sure they remain visible but not predictable. Hopefully, that's a sweet spot Karthi will discover soon.