Sivakarthikeyan and Santhanam set foot in Tamil cinema at different times – the former in 2012, and the latter almost a decade earlier – at the moment though, both are feverishly trying to be the next star of the masses, each channeling his own brand of heroics.
It’s a weekend of strange coincidences. The movies of two male actors, who were ‘discovered’ through their performances on television – the same Tamil channel, to be precise – have hit theatres. On the surface, there’s nothing very dissimilar about their offerings; Sivakarthikeyan and Santhanam, who have had a few solo movies to their credit, aspire yet again to the one ideal that tells the world that you have arrived in cinema: Turning a hero. Of course, a ‘hero’ is somewhat of a stand-in for the ‘lead’ in this part of the world, but that subtle distinction can be, and is often overlooked. Indeed, the word has its own definition in the dictionary of Indian cinema: Someone who can act, dance and romance reasonably well, and has something of a loyal fanbase rooting for him.
Turning hero can be a tedious affair though, especially if there’s some image-shedding to do.
In Velaikkaran that begins with a rather poor, but unsurprising take on feminism (doesn’t quite apply to women with class and caste privileges, Sivakarthikeyan says to general applause), the actor makes himself more likeable. Of course, his views on gender and women don’t seem to have altered much, but he visibly grows taller, addressing the issues of the slum he belongs to, and later, taking down multinationals and consumerism in general. It’s all quite clever when you think about it. But ironically, for a movie that berates big brands for toying with middle-class sentiments and making them their target, it seems to have similar thoughts, too. It employs Arivu (Sivakarthikeyan) as some kind of a savior of the masses – from falling prey to their own need for constant material validation. So just like that, using a sales pitch and the food industry to create a situation – which, let’s face it, is perhaps not unlike reality (we’re talking adulteration in food) – Sivakarthikeyan slowly veers towards that comfortable zone of …trust (?) and familiarity. He gets down and dirty, becomes one among the people, then their voice, and later, rides on their shoulders. It’s a gradual well thought-out transformation, especially when pitted against Fahadh Faasil who stars as the suave, well-dressed villain of the piece.
And, in a much rehashed Tamil dream of sorts – one that is sure to win hearts – Arivu romances a woman from a social setting more sophisticated than his own; obviously Nayanthara as Mrinalini doesn’t mind that Arivu isn’t quite inclined towards questioning gender inequality as she is. Mrinalini faces brickbats for stating on television that women can drink and make merry just the way a man can. And, when a shot of those detestable memes and harassers is shown, the theatre descends into an uneasy silence. It’s of course, a sign of hope. But soon enough, Arivu – who also runs a community radio in his slum – adds to the slander. Moral outrage, you see. Then, clarifications follow; it is learnt that Mrinalini’s interview was actually edited out of context; she obviously didn’t mean the things she said. Arivu softens; this is a girl he can like, after all.
A movie that showcases the ills of rabid consumerism needs a bleak social setting – and that interwoven with Sivakarthikeyan’s rustic dance moves and a street flavoured accent support Velaikkaran ably. The only aberration – the skewed interpretation of women’s liberation and treatment aside – is a flamboyant duet featuring Nayanthara in elaborate gowns and Sivakarthikeyan in sharp suits. It just doesn’t belong.
For comedians, turning a hero is all the more arduous – not only do they have to convince the audience of their brawn, chivalry, romantic abilities and associated pressure points (How to woo a woman? Hint: Not with a slap), but they also need to channel something of their previous avatar; the skill they know they are good at.
That quandary was evident in the films that attempted to turn Vadivelu into a hero. Apart from the successful Imsai Arasan 23rd Pulikesi, Indralohathil Na Azhagapppan, Tenali and Eli were forgettable at best. Goundamani’s 49 0 and Vivek’s Naan Thaan Bala and Palakkaatu Madhavan weren’t much talked about either. Sakka Podu Podu Raja is Santhanam’s fourth attempt at what has now become the cinematic equivalent of the middle class Indian society’s aspirations to produce an IIT-ian. Perhaps one can look kindly at Santhanam if not for his indulgence in some brash tactics in the path to heroism. It’s not, after all, a crime to want to become one.
But if Sivakarthikeyan chose a serious setting that would endear him to the masses, and also put his dancing skills to good use, Santhanam’s Sakka Podu… indulges in frivolity. It flows more like a television soap; characters flit in and out of the frames, fully decked up, a dramatic tale to tell. To the director’s credit though, he tries to tie it all together. But, how would you rate a premise that solely derives energy from its shrew-taming tactics and overblown comical moments? The audience laughs, of course – even as Santhanam – or Santa as he’s known in the movie – completes his sentences. And, knowing this perhaps, almost every dialogue that he spouts is an attempt at comedy.
In the best coup of all aspiring heroes though, something that was not present even in Sivakarthikeyan’s elaborate campaign, Santhanam has Vivek in a supporting role deferring to him. Vivek lets Santhanam outwit him; a validation that only top-billed heroes were entitled to until now.