With Vikram, Lokesh Kanagaraj has steered clear of the ‘star’ film trap
With just one film, Tamil cinema has got its mojo back. For an industry that was reeling under the impact of ‘pan Indian’ films coming out of neighbouring states, the recent film Vikram with its humongous response at the box-office and among critics has come as a huge relief. The film is heading towards 50 days of successful theatrical run, a rarity these days. Its success cannot be just credited to its hero, Kamal Haasan, but also to its director Lokesh Kanagaraj. It is not easy to helm a film with a star and deliver a 360 degree hit these days.
In Tamil cinema, there are films and there are ‘star’ films. Star films are those that are headlined by the big stars of the day, such as Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Vijay, Ajith, Suriya, Dhanush, Vikram, Nayanthara and the like. Of these, the first four names are of course in a different league than the rest. In the recent past, making a film with a ‘star’ actor has turned out to be an arduous task for any director.
First of all, thanks to the reputation of these stars and their fan following, there is a huge hype the moment an announcement about their upcoming project is made. Then there is constant chatter around ‘updates’ about the progress of the film throughout its making. The hype reaches a deafening crescendo as the release date approaches, with the team releasing first looks, teasers, trailers, singles and what not. So a star film invariably opens at the box-office with tremendous build-up.
For the director of these star films, first there is the huge expectation from the fan base to present the star in a particular way based on his earlier hits. Second, the director comes with his own style and sensibilities. Third, there is the star’s own idea of how the film should shape up. Then there is social media. The risk of failure hangs like Damocles’ sword over the director’s head.
It is a huge challenge to balance all these and still deliver a film that hits the right spots in terms of audience response, critical acclaim and box-office collections. More often than not, directors get weighed down by the hype and expectations, and end up making a hash of a star film rather than their own film. We have seen this often in Tamil cinema.
Successful directors like Karthik Subbaraj, AR Murugadoss and Siva, who made Petta, Darbar and Annaatthe respectively with Superstar Rajinikanth, suffered from the dilemma of making a ‘Rajini padam’ vs ‘their padam’ and ended up being neither here nor there. Just this year, we saw what happened with director H Vinoth’s Valimai starring Ajith and Nelson Dilipkumar’s Beast with Vijay. So, it has not been an easy ride for directors making star films in Tamil cinema. It is in this context that what Lokesh has achieved with Vikram, that too with Kamal, is commendable.
When Lokesh gets an opportunity to make a film with Kamal, he doesn’t try to make another Kamal film, but makes a Lokesh film. The film’s title is the same as another Kamal film that came out in 1986, but except for a couple of brief references to the earlier film, this one has more to do with Lokesh’s own film – Kaithi. With guns, gore and drugs galore, the film is firmly entrenched in Lokesh’s universe. The other refreshing aspect is that in spite of being the hero, Kamal plays his age and doesn’t even have a flashback sequence in a young avatar. And can you imagine that he has a grandson to look after in the film? Kamal might have played the thaatha role in earlier films but it was either a double role (Indian) or progression of the character through the story (Nayagan).
Watch the trailer of Vikram:
Also, Kamal’s character does not have any love interest, so Lokesh does away with the temptation of plugging in a duet song featuring Kamal, who at his prime was dubbed Kadhal Ilavarasan. Not just that, Kamal’s character actually comes into serious play only at the interval block. Lokesh headlines the film with Kamal but the first half more or less belongs to Fahadh Faasil, the reigning czar of OTT platforms. There is also Vijay Sethupathi who gets equal space, thereby making the film a clear multi-starrer, which is usually not the case for a star film.
It is clear that Lokesh, in spite of being an avowed fan of Kamal and referring to Vikram as a fanboy sambhavam ahead of the release, made a film that was not a fanboy tribute, thankfully. Slipping in a kuthu song like ‘Pathala, pathala’ may be the only impulse that Lokesh gave into as Kamal’s fanboy. But importantly, the one temptation that Lokesh clearly resisted is dipping into song bits, mannerisms, sequences and lines from old Kamal films in the guise of revving up nostalgia. Rajinikanth’s recent directors have been guilty of flogging this trope, excessively in fact.
It is also important to add here that Kamal is one actor who doesn’t like getting boxed in template films and this has worked in Lokesh’s favour. Kamal can very well be accused of being part of a film that almost romanticises guns, drugs and mindless violence in Vikram, but then that is Lokesh’s playground from what we have seen so far.
While making a successful star film with the above features is new for Tamil cinema, in Malayalam it has been quite common. Take a film like Unda, directed by Khalid Rahman with Mammootty in the lead. Mammootty plays the role of a Sub-Inspector who is leading a team, but for most part of the film he is shown as a helpless victim of circumstances. The redemption comes at the end, that too not in the true heroic sense. Even in Drishyam, Mohanlal is cast as a commoner but an intelligent commoner. Filmmakers in Malayalam continue to make these ‘normal’ films with mega stars that are critically acclaimed and equally liked by the public. In Tamil though, directors making films with the ‘big four’ have always attempted to pander to the larger-than-life image of the star. In his earlier film – again a star film, that too with Tamil’s biggest mass star Vijay – Lokesh did try to hold his own but I still felt he had to give in to Vijay’s mass base. But, refreshingly, in Vikram, Lokesh has moved away from this trap.
The result is there for all of us to see. Based on the latest reports, Vikram is set to break all records in Tamil Nadu in terms of collections. It has also reportedly garnered the highest ever opening viewership, subscription and watch time on Disney+ Hotstar, the OTT platform on which it has been released.
With the way Lokesh has helmed Vikram with Kamal, I believe that he has cracked the code and invented a playbook for filmmakers while making a star film, essentially making a film with the star and not a ‘star film’. Lokesh is a young and promising filmmaker who will continue to get opportunities to direct Star padams. We only hope he sticks to his own playbook and continues to deliver hits in times to come.
Anand Kumar RS is a management professional by week and avid blogger by weekend. He writes on politics, business and films.
Views expressed are the author’s own.