The top stars of the Tamil industry, who have a huge fan-base across states, are in no dearth of people who want to narrate scripts to them. Nothing is stopping them from hiring a writer who can write a proper story or producing a film they believe in, considering the money they make. However, every time such a big film hits the screen, what the audience gets is a fanboy's tribute to his favourite star.
To be sure, other fanboys (and fangirls) are delighted by this. They love the idea of the star filling up every frame, decimating whatever weak opposition the director half-heartedly throws at him. Throughout the movie, you never for a moment wonder if the star will lose at the game. There is no suspense whatsoever. While such films continue to rake in crores at the box-office, the average viewer, who comes to the theatre to watch a good film and not merely whistle for the punch dialogues, is left feeling cheated.
Take last week's release NGK. It might be a stretch to call Selvaraghavan a Suriya 'fanboy', but the film nevertheless struggles to make sense amid all the scenes devoted to giving Suriya an opportunity to show off his acting chops. With so much time spent on the star changing his expressions and rolling his eyes, the film barely pays any attention to the development of other characters, or even the plot, which looks stitched together in haste.
Suriya's last film, Thaana Serntha Koottam directed by Vignesh ShivN also suffered due to this penchant for privileging stardom over storytelling. While the Hindi original Special 26 stuck to the story of a conman, the Tamil film starring Suriya unnecessarily took several detours and diluted the essence of the comic thriller.
Vijay and Ajith, Suriya’s contemporaries who have a bigger market value than him, are also increasingly doing fanboy director films – though Vijay is better of the two in script selection. If one compares their current films to the ones they did a decade ago or even five years ago, one can see the difference in the quality of the script.
Siva's Vivegam was the extreme version of a fanboy tribute where the entire film was simply a worship of Ajith. When this backfired, the combination returned with Viswasam, which became a blockbuster. This film was definitely better than Vivegam, but nowhere close to the films which were the stepping stones to Ajith’s current success. Films like Kadhal Kottai, Amarkalam, Vaali, Kandukondein Kandukondein, Dheena and so on, where the actor was occasionally vulnerable, occasionally lost to the villain, and we were not always assured that he would emerge victorious in the end.
Ajith's next film is Nerkonda Paarvai, the Tamil remake of Pink where he's reprising the role of Amitabh Bachchan. One can only hope that the temptation to play to the gallery doesn't ruin the subject of the film.
Vijay is not the most versatile actor around and he seems to be aware of his limitations, smartly picking scripts that are mostly action-oriented and sticking to what he's good at. His last few films, however, have looked flabbier than his previous outings – compare a Thuppaki with Sarkar – with unnecessary stuffing to prop up the hero (and his political ambitions in real life) even more.
Rajinikanth's Petta with Karthik Subbaraj was an unabashed fanboy tribute, with other actors like Simran, Trisha, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui pushed to the sidelines. Rajinikanth fans, of course, were delighted with the film since it reminded them of several superstar moments from the past, but if you took these out, the film had little left. To be fair, Rajinikanth himself seems keen to break out of the image trap and do something different – Kabali, Kaala, and even Shankar's 2.0 where he was pitted opposite a big star like Akshay Kumar, were films where he showed his willingness to experiment. And hopefully, his future films will not all be tributes made by directors who are overwhelmed at the idea of working with him.
Young directors who work with the big stars they idolise seem to feel it's unnecessary to turn the actor into a character in the story, and instead have him playing himself. But didn't they become a fan of the actor in the first place because of the roles he did? Because he persuaded them to buy into that fantasy? We remember the names and personalities of the characters these actors played in their old films but it's so difficult to remember anything at all about their new ones because all they're made to do is display their swag.
Of the current crop, Vijay Sethupathi seems to be the only big star who isn't always playing infallible hero. But that trademark is also in danger of being tom-tommed on screen to "show off" the actor's versatility – like the painful "disguise" sequences in Oru Nalla Naal Paathu Solren, or the lengthy monologues in Seethakathi. To his credit, Vijay Sethupathi appears to be sincere in his efforts to diversify and support good cinema, irrespective of whether the narrative is all about him.
The trend isn't limited to Tamil cinema, of course. In Malayalam, we had Prithviraj's first directorial Lucifer, which was all about Mohanlal's "mass" in a shoddy political thriller. This, after the actor had in the past bemoaned Malayalam cinema's tendency to glorify its senior actors. Mammootty, especially, has been stuck with directors who are obsessed with displaying "ikka's mass" rather than focus on the story. His Peranbu with director Raam came as a relief to many who wondered if they'll ever see the star transforming into a character ever again.
Telugu and Kannada, too, routinely make films where the star is bigger than everything else, often at the cost of sacrificing the story. Last week's Kannada release Amar, for instance, heavily depended on late actor Ambareesh's punch dialogues to find resonance with the audience in his son's debut.
It is not that good films are not being made in Tamil cinema. Every now and then, a small film becomes big, thanks to the word of mouth and reviews. But the struggle to make and release these films in an industry that seems committed to celebrating mediocrity and generating maximum noise around really average films, is heartbreaking. It's understandable that directors work with many restrictions – the producer's instructions (a now successful director once told me in confidence that he was forced to cast an actor as the heroine though he knew she didn't look the part at all because of the producer's insistence); the fear of whether fans will accept their hero doing something on screen and so on.
But if they go on diluting the story they want to tell because of such reasons, they must realise that they're taking the sting of the masala out of the mainstream film, and serving us a bland dish over and over again.
Views expressed author's own.