Both Ajith and Vijay have managed to stay at the top year after year. Their fans will not abandon them no matter how many terrible films they deliver. But is mediocrity the legacy they want to leave behind?

A collage of Vijay from Varisu and Ajith from ThunivuScreengrabs
Flix Opinion Tuesday, January 17, 2023 - 16:31

The release of Ajith’s Thunivu and Vijay’s Varisu for Pongal was a highly anticipated box-office battle. The last time the two stars went against each other was for Pongal 2014, and everything from the trailer views to the advance booking and first day collections, was closely monitored, duly exaggerated, and predictably celebrated. But are these films the best these stars can deliver at this stage in their career?

Ajith and Vijay are undoubtedly the biggest stars of their generation and they’ve worked hard to get where they are. It’s not easy to maintain your stronghold over the audience across decades, but both of them have managed to stay at the top year after year. They command the biggest openings in Tamil Nadu for their film releases, and Vijay especially has expanded his market beyond the state. They get the best release dates—Pongal, Deepavali, Dasara, whatever be it—and all other films make way for the giants. 

But keep aside all the hoopla, and what do we have in Thunivu and Varisu? To be blunt, two mediocre films that are saved by the star power of these actors. 

Thunivu, directed by H Vinoth, is a heist film where Ajith plays a nameless gangster (he’s referred to as either Michael Jackson or Dark Devil) who robs banks with his family. Ajith seems to have had a ball playing this anti-hero, and the actor is immensely fun when he delivers his one-liners in a wry tone. But before long, the film devolves into a meaningless mess with poorly written characters and plot threads that are lazily stitched together. The film strives to ‘expose’ how banks operate and loot money from people who don’t read the fine print, but there is little to no ingenuity in how it goes about doing this. 

Not only does the script fall back on remarkable coincidences and unbelievable plot twists—like ‘Dark Devil’ and his partner, Kanmani (Manju Warrier), seeking refuge in a hut belonging to a family ruined by the bank’s operations after he had declined to loot the same bank—it doesn’t bother to make any of these look remotely convincing. Take the sequence when we find out Dark Devil’s past and why he has planned the heist—two characters in his gang are shot dead but we hardly register their names or why they’re so important to Dark Devil. They come and go faster than the flares in the action scene that’s staged around this incident. 

Manju Warrier, an amazingly versatile actor, barely has screen space and has to make do with looking cool with guns as a substitute for characterisation. The less said about the token ‘corporate villains’, the better. Even the skeletal heist plan is ludicrous. Suddenly, vehicles explode and it is revealed that Dark Devil and his team had planted explosives all along the drainage. When did they do it and how? Did nobody notice? How are Kanmani and Dark Devil still alive after getting shot repeatedly by coastguards and falling into the sea?

The meticulous planning that makes heist films so much fun to watch is unfortunately absent in Thunivu. There’s Ajith’s swag, a lot of noise and explosions, and VFX to carry the film through, but the best one can say about it is that it is better than Vinoth’s last film with Ajith, Valimai (2022). The ever forgiving Tamil audience may take comfort in this and go to theatres, but should a star of Ajith’s stature and a director of Vinoth’s talent settle for this?

Then there’s Varisu, Vijay’s family drama directed by Vamshi Paidipally, that makes for a good archaeological exhibit from the last century. Revolving around a business family in Chennai, the film plods through every stale mega serial plot that you can think of. Vijay plays Vijay, the third son of the family, who is treated as an outcast by his father for wanting to pursue his dreams. But to nobody’s surprise, he returns to the family fold to save the day.

There is a lone moment of self-awareness in Varisu when Vijay calls his family ‘toxic,’ but then inexplicably decides that he has to make them stick together, no matter what. This includes batting for his sister-in-law (Sangeetha) to return to his philanderer brother, and excusing attempted murder for the ‘greater good,’ aka keeping this lousy family intact. There is also a trafficking plot thread in the middle of all this that exists only so we can observe broken bones in vivid detail and the influence of a ‘broken’ home on a teenage girl. 

You would be forgiven for thinking Rashmika Mandanna’s character is named Ranjitha or something that sounds close to ‘Ranjithame’ because the dance is all we remember of her. The actor, who delivered a sensitive and nuanced performance in the Telugu romantic drama Dear Comrade (2019) is reduced to performing a decorative and caricaturish role that ought to be considered humiliating. She’s only slightly better placed than veteran actor Prabhu who plays the World’s Worst Doctor. 

From its regressive writing to its loud making, Varisu is so dated that it boggles the mind that Vijay signed this film. The actor is funny and charming, and it is true that his presence makes the film watchable—but does it really deserve any applause at the box-office? Vijay’s last release with Nelson, Beast (2021), was trolled mercilessly for its unconvincing script, but compared to Varisu, it was a far more original effort. 

So, which film made Rs 100 crore first in the domestic market and which film achieved it in the overseas market? Which film is getting more screens in Tamil Nadu now? Which film is the Pongal winner? Depending on the film trackers and fan accounts you follow, the answer will vary. But the loser is the audience that’s shelling out good money to watch these half-baked films that run on star power and do little to raise the bar. Remove Ajith and Vijay from these films and replace them with less popular stars (who may even be better actors), and it’s highly doubtful that these films will last a week. 

At a time when other south Indian film industries are making waves for distinctive storytelling and experimentation with star directors and established actors paving the way, it is sad to see the most influential actors in Tamil cinema refusing to push boundaries. For that matter, Tamil industry veteran Kamal Haasan made a massive comeback with Vikram (2022) last year—it was a flawed but intriguing multi-starrer that proved that Kamal hadn’t hung up his boots yet. He was still using his stardom to innovate, like he has all through his career. 

Both Ajith and Vijay have many more years of acting left in them. Their fans will not abandon them no matter how many terrible films they deliver. But is mediocrity the legacy they want to leave behind? That’s a question only they can answer. 

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture, and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015. 

The views expressed are the author’s own.

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