Decoding the phenomenon called Thalapathy

It was 1992. I was four, when my sister was born.Yet another actor was born along with her in Tamil films, about whom I knew a very little. Rightly so. It was part of the Kamal-Rajni era, where their combined clout was so large that it was often mistaken to be the Tamil film industry itself. There were other actors with a recall value as well, but none brought in the delirium like they did. So when I saw a lanky youngster with a barely legible mustache, caper by a dabba in Vishnu to “Thota beta rotu mela…”, it didn’t catch my attention. But what did, was the information that appeared in yellow font from no where onscreen to diligently notify-“Intha padalai padaiyavar ungal Ilayathalapathy Vijay“(This song is sung by your Ilayathalapthy Vijay). This wasn’t the fourth wall being broken as a cinematic device of story telling like in Woody Allen movies. This was unabashed propaganda topping what was already a propagandist movie.  So leave alone being a fan, I was far from acknowledging his choice of profession. Little did I know then that I would become a fan of his some day.

1996-2003

I had grown up. So had Vijay’s stature as a bankable actor slowly. He was no more the obscure star. I happened to realize that he lived in my neighbourhood as well. The sight of hapless admirers setting tent outside his Virugambakkam bungalow to catch a glimpse of him, had become a regular feature over the weekends. The rough edges were starting to smoothen. The shirts with boardgame depictions paved way to classier ones. It’s his sharp dressing that springs up to my memory when I reminisce of this period , like the woodlands green shirt tucked into crisp beige trousers that ended exactly where the shoes began in the  “Bharathiku Kanamma” number from Priyamudan. He was some sort of an icon back then itself.Whatever he wore in the movie, made it’s way to the streets. Suddenly you could see a lot of young men wearing their shirts without rolling the sleeves up or buttoning. It was how he would wear his full sleeves. No wonder Coke made him the face of their campaign.
You could see him play myriad dimensions of the love-struck archetype in a slew of extremely popular love stories, which went on to cement his stake in his core constituency- the youth. Be it Poove Unakaga,Love Today, Kadhalukku Mariyadhai or Thulatha Mananmum Thullum; we could distinctly see an extremely likable leadman nonchalantly shoulder the movie till its climax. Not to mention his nimble movements in the songs that had a following of their own.

‘An unemployed youth figuring life, love and responsibilities’ was the common narrative that was peddled in most movies that came since the turn of the millennia. If Kushi had him dodging love and ego, Badri was about a wastrel’s self discovery from a corner he gets pushed by life. His character were all  identifiable, flawed men we could not just root for; but relate to. If youngsters saw themselves in these depictions, elders; their sons.
Another undeniable aspect about his movies were the chartbuster songs. Even if a Vijay movie was bad, the songs would be good. The same album would have a great Gazal type melody like say a-“Nee Katru Naan Mazhai” which would coexist in absolute harmony with an “Akuthe Akuthe” kind of a song. There would be that one irrevernt song in every film, which would turn out to be that year’s anthem like “Al thotta Boopathy” or “Coca Cola Brown color“. What made his dance numbers special was the sheer joy of watching him match every beat with feather footed grace. Take “Minnalai Pidithu” from Shahjahan, with minimal hand movements, all he does is tease with his feet. Just simple movements done so gracefully. Nothing more. But the synergy it creates with the song, is sheer bliss.

2004-2010

There are some memories that stay continue to remain young, even when you’re all grown up. One such memory was my first day experience in Udhayam Theatre. The excitement in the air was so electrifying, that one could’ve actually lit bulbs with it. When the hood came off and Velu goes-“Indha area, antha area….”, the theatre went bonkers. No one could hear a thing in the succeeding few minutes. That day I knew what delirium meant. Ghillli was that movie that gave him the license to get away with the things he does these days.
From being the identifiable guy of an entire generation, he had become their alter ego. His movies were a sort of a wish fulfillment exercise for them. The “Ilayathalapathy” moniker had gained gravitas. His choice of movies had changed. They were no more soft frothy affairs close to the imperfections of life. Be it Pokiri or Thirupachi– his movies were starting to often be set in gravity-less provinces in the director’s head -they doffed their hats to the one-man-against-the- system trope. He could do anything onscreen and get away with wolf whistles.

Imagine this scenario -Man smears 40 grams of turmeric on his face and runs down an army of henchmen like a plague, in broad daylight. And none of the onlookers crack the man behind this elaborate disguise.  Ridiculous right! Well this is a famous set-piece from Thirupachi. With anyone else it would’ve been fodder for  endless parody, but with him it became a memorable “mass moment”.

2011-2017

The first part of this phase was particularly painful for not just a diehard fan, but an average movie buff. Vijay was dealing exclusively in disasters; Kuruvi, Villu, Sura; each one more painful than the previous. These were not mere flops in terms of business parlance alone. Sachein and Vaseegara weren’t runaway hits during their times as well, but there was a grace in their failure. Not an air of mockery, like the one that eclipsed the release of each one of these forgettable movies.

We knew he deserved much better than this and so did we. It was only a matter of time before he bounced back.He was only a film away. We knew that. That film happened to be Thuppaki. It was a kickass film, no doubt whatsoever. But more importantly it was a star’s reassurance to his backers. It had no trappings of his previous failures. It never made the mistake those films did, of trying to show off his star wattage like a flourescent torch. It instead wore it like a perfume. And Thalapathi was back to where he belonged.

I’m an avid movie watcher and a huge fan of Kamal Haasan Yet none of this has come in the way of my love for Thalapathi. It’s not like he makes- or even tries to -an Anbe Sivam or a Midnight in Paris every now and then. Yet there’s something about his persona I can’t put a finger on, that I’m drawn to like a moth to fire. A quality so endearing that you step into a theatre each time in the hope of bringing down the roof.  Don’t know if it’s his characteristic chewing-a-bread-crumb laid back dialogue delivery; the effortlessness in dancing or the unbridled energy he brings to the funny moments. Or it simply stems from the fact that he hails from the same neighborhood as me.

Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is I love him and would always be there for the very first show with sleep deprived eyes, to scream my lungs out to cheer for him.

For the ones who condescend him, I would suggest a viewing of Holiday starring Akshay Kumar; a  lifeless remake of Thuppaki. You’ll know, what Vijay did to do that film. There’s only so much that can be written. So much that can be directed. But after a point, it takes a true blue star to carry a blockbuster beyond the screens. He’s always done it. And done it with style.

Intha Deepavali super collection ‘ngana

“Sachin: A Billion Dreams”…A trip down the memory lane with the master

To be honest, I walked into the theatre skeptically. Just another manifestation of his narcissism I thought to myself. This predisposition has been there from the eve of of his retirement at Wankhede. As a fan, I didn’t like the exit. The sign off should’ve come on-field against a better opponent, not on a podium. And as far as the last speech, his bat should’ve done the talking like it always did, not him. But anyways, each man deserves to choose his time and manner of exit. All the more when the man is a man less and a demi-god more, like Sachin. From then crevices formed in my relation with him and cricket. So when the trailer came about a documentary movie on him, I plainly dismissed its necessity to exist.
But what happened in the dark, after the screen came alive was something I hadn’t signed up for. Mother time probably had woven the crevices together.It was so good to see him. My icon was talking to me. His life was mine to know. A vanilla account it was, but not a prosaic one. After so many years, the child in me got to have a conversation with the brightest star that had lit his sky.  I became ten again. Life became innocent as the screen became a time machine with the master in the driver’s seat.

What can you say to a man, who carries the voice of a billion people in his ears, to unsettle him?

– Ian Botham, on sledging Sachin

Looking at the many Sachin exploits unfold on screen again, felt like flipping through some fond love letters of a first love. As a nineties kid, the nostalgia is palpable. Every shot, personal. Each knock bookmarked an important chapter in my life and the country’s. We’ve seen adulation, fondness and even mad following being extended to some sports personalities. But nothing compares to the emotional entanglement the fans shared with Sachin. Here was a man, whose game was personal to an entire nation. On match days, his showing decided the appetite of a household, sudden sickness leaves in a school and turnout at the workplace. Not to mention the TRPs of sports channels.

That was an era , when one man was- unwillingly -bigger than the sport itself. The nineties was a precarious era for cricket in India, as one couldn’t exactly tell whether he was obsessed with Sachin because he played cricket or with cricket because it let Sachin play it. Because the solicitous national rhetoric that cut through the length and breadth of the nation during a match’s progress was- ” Is Sachin still there?“.
That’s how much a layman needed to know. He was rooting for India alright, but somehow his concern ended with Sachin. His heart veered along faithfully with the master, like a kite dancing to the rhythm of the winds.

Every time I’ve walked with him, I’ve felt like accompanying the king of a jungle.

– Virendar Sehwag on opening with him

Seen from the vantage of the euphoria the nineties held, cricket these days has become a dispassionate affair that celebrates generic consistency over genius. The constant utopia most cricketers are after- remarkable athleticism, the 15 % body fat and the wild reinvention of shots has no doubt added spunk to the sport, but eroded its old school charm. 350+ scores are chased down with disdain, but they’re half the humdinger a 250+ chase used to be in the nineties. Probably the rapid learning curve has removed the hallow behind a cricketer’s head. A Virat Kohli is a great batsman, probably will go on topple some of Sachin’s records one day. But that’s about it. A Dhoni is probably a little bigger than that. His off- field zen persona, the rag to riches narrative and the barbaric helicopter shots taken into account duly. He’s one of the chief architects of the Indian renaissance in cricket. With him came the concept of solidarity. Of team being bigger than an individual. Of each individual chipping in to do his bit. One would hit while one would consolidate. One would turn. One would slip in the quick middle overs and one would guide along till the other side of the finishing line. There’s a certain industrial quality with which the team operates.

But as passive observers on the aisles of history would tell, there’s nothing heroic in the tale of foot soldiers taking the war to an opponent. Winning is always sweet, that doesn’t change. But the stakes aren’t high, though the consequence looms. Swords swing. Metals cling. Bruises cut through the skin. Some times limbs roll. Some times heads fly. The grit is real. The valor is palpable, though generic. When victory ensues, their collective stature brings in celebration, though the throne remains unthronable. Such accounts remain embalmed in history as facts, well short of mythical stature.

Even Dhoni’s reputation as one of the game’s best finisher comes from his dogged consistency in discharging duties from a specific batting designation. We don’t panic when he’s on strike every time. We don’t bunk office every time he’s gone past the thirties. We don’t touch our chins twice before the TV, to just not jinx a century. We love him for his ability to win games, like every self-respecting fan of a sport would. But this adulation clearly originates from the love of the sport, than the sportsman. Nothing like the unreasonable romance with everything Tendulkar.

The nation got familiar with the human anatomy, each time Tendulkar was diagnosed with a new injury.

– Harsha Bhogle

The anecdotes in the movie humanize the legend. After all, like any of us, even he wallowed with guilt each time he lost. He might’ve been a cricketing demigod, but even he turned to God to overcome his tennis elbow injury. We come close to his hitherto unseen shades- like the like how he was this doting father who swore to not operate the diapers of his new born, the reluctant young man who couldn’t summon enough chivalry to respond to a smitten woman’s attention or how he took his brother vicariously with him each time he took stance. Through every vulnerability learnt, empathy grows for someone who was a stoic enigma.

It’s not a movie as much as an experience. It will make you smile. Tear up at times, overwhelmed with nostalgia. Warm you up with the familiarity of a favorite chapter from life and go – ” Sachin, Sachin!“, one more time.