What does it take to be a film star? Every year, hundreds and thousands of wannabe actors crowd metro cities and film studios, leaving their humble homes behind and hoping to catch a break in an industry that can take one to dizzying heights overnight. But just as there are stars who shoot to the sky apparently for no reason other than luck, there are many others who lie crushed by the weight of their dreams.
Films like "The Dirty Picture" and "Shamitabh" have explored the aspirant's journey, before they donned the grease paint and stood under the arc lights as stars. Along the same lines comes "Kattapanayile Ritwik Roshan", directed by Nadirshah. The comedy is about a short, dark man, Krishnan (Vishnu Unnikrishnan), who wants to become a hero.
Krishnan's father (Siddique) had tried his hand at acting - he wanted to become the next Jayan - but failed. However, though he's disappointed by his son's dark complexion, he's determined to make him a film hero. As a child, Krishnan resents his father's efforts, especially when it leads to embarrassing situations and rejections for him, but slowly, the cinema bug gets to him. When a film director does an audition in his school for a role, Krishnan gets selected and acts in his first film...as a thief.
From then on, we see Krishnan's unrelenting efforts to become a lead actor. He begins his day by applying a fairness cream even before he gets out of bed. He drinks fruit shakes topped with nuts to build his body and improve his complexion. He pads his shoes to look taller. But none of this will rid him of his complex about his skin tone. Every now and then, Krishnan consoles himself with the examples of Rajinikanth, Dhanush, and Sreenivasan who became big stars in spite of their skin colour.
Curiously, all three actors who are idols in Krishnan's eyes, also make self-effacing comments about their looks in their respective films.
Many of Rajinikanth's films have a reference to his dark complexion. In "Thalapathy", he says his mother threw him away when he was a baby because he was dark-skinned. In a romantic song from "Muthu", he asks the heroine (Meena) why she chose him, a dark-skinned man when there were so many fair-skinned men around her. In "Sivaji", he becomes the "white" Rajinikanth who insults the dark-skinned one in the song "Oru kudai sunlight." In "Kabali", his "karuppu power" takes political overtones, as the fair-skinned, upper-caste heroine professes her embracing of all that it stands for.
Dhanush has made himself the Kollywood overreacher hero - that is, the character of a young man with pretty much nothing aspiring for everything, including the pretty, fair-skinned, upper-class girl. His famous lines from "Padikadhavan", in which he tells a disgruntled Tamannah that it was the duty of women like her to fall for men who looked like him, even feature in "Kattappanayile" as Krishnan watches television.
Sreenivasan has used his dark complexion to generate comedy in several films, most notably "Vadakkunokki Yendhram" which explores the psyche of a man who has a deep inferiority complex about his looks.
In "Kattapanayile", Krishnan looks at fair-skinned, good-looking men with envy. He ignores the dusky girl-next-door who has a crush on him, falling instead for the more glamorous and fair-skinned rich girl who bestows her friendship upon him. Although towards the end, Krishnan recognises "true love", it happens only after the fair girl rejects him.
While the film does not paint all fair-skinned people as arrogant or unfeeling, it plays upon the lack of confidence that makes a dark-skinned person inhibited when socialising with those who are perceived to be better looking. The problem, however, is that "Kattapanayile" doesn't challenge the fundamental idea that dark skin is inferior; it normalizes this. Its hero succeeds in spite of it and the girl-next-door becomes appealing to him because he's forced to realise his station in life. Dark skinned people get by only because of their golden hearts.
Contrast this with a film like "Kammatipaadam" where a fair-skinned Dulquer Salman, who also goes by the name 'Krishnan', falls for a dark-skinned girl Anitha (Shaun Romy).
There's absolutely no justification in the script for why Krishnan is attracted to Anitha's looks and that's just how simply and boldly the film overturns stereotypes about beauty. In fact, in one scene, when Krishnan goes to a shop to buy jewellery for Anitha, the shopkeeper asks him if the girl is fair or dark and he unhesitatingly says that she is dark. While we've had many films with dark heroes and fair heroines, there have been barely any where the lead pair is the other way around.
"Kattapanayile" is an enjoyable film and portrays the struggles of an upcoming actor realistically but it is too convinced about the timelessness of the very stereotypes that trouble its protagonist. It ends up perpetuating the same notions of beauty that society should begin challenging if more Vishnu Unnikrishnans and Shaun Romys should light up the screen.