Wednesday, February 8, 2023

From Ghili to Leo, Vijay is the superstar who wears his simplicity like a shield


As usual, Vijay excels at wearing simplicity as his strong suit. The one film that will set off his new milestones is what he needs. Is Leo that movie? The future will tell.

Today, the name Vijay has come to symbolize epic victories. Tamil resonates worldwide for an actor who primarily performs in only one regional language. Vijay holds a coveted position that was previously held by Rajinikanth alone and has since been taken over by him. However, the road to this point in his career has not been an easy one. While Vijay's father, the writer, director, and producer SA Chandrashekar, worked to position him as a teenage heartthrob in the 1990s, it was Vijay's own preference (choice of scripts) to work with a variety of filmmakers that made him a favorite among women and family audiences in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The story of the lover who was cheated on (for example: Poove Unakaaga established Vijay as a modern-day Devdas devoid of alcoholism, and remake dramas (such as: Priyamaanavale, Thullaadha Manamum Thullum, and the smashing duet with Simran) and the massively successful romantic comedy Kadhalukku Mariyathai, which followed Kushi (with Jyotika), which garnered Vijay hordes of female fans who saw in him their ideal Azhagiya Thamizh Magan (which literally translates to "charming/handsome Tamil boy" and is also a title How can boys be so far behind after winning the hearts of girls?

In Dharani's Ghilli, Vijay made his first 50-crore film in 2003 as an "angry young man." This is the first major milestone in Vijay's career in the two decades since its release, and it stands as his tallest in terms of box office records. After this film, which had a "hero song" (Arjunar Villu) and was a superior take on the original Telugu film Okkadu starring Mahesh Babu, Vijay was recognized as a "mass hero." Ghilli not only blew up at the box office, but it also served as Vijay's template for a masala film. In the films that came after Ghilli, there was a lot of comedy, love, and a strong villain (mostly Prakash Raj). The pre-shoot promotions for Vijay and Trisha's upcoming film, Leo, starring Lokesh Kanagaraj, demonstrated that Ghilli also brought to light a lead pair that has remained popular to this day. Vijay, as is customary in Tamil cinema, was first referred to as "Ilaya Thalapathy" (Young Commander) until a point in his career. After Ghilli and Vijay's numerous smashes, he gave up the name "Ilaya" and became known as "Thalapathy," which is also the name of the well-known Rajinikanth-Mani Ratnam film. It was a slur against the position he now held—as if he commands an army of young people, as if he has earned this promotion and shed the previous label, given that his films were now consistently breaking records.

Producers started flocking to Vijay because even his so-called flops (like Sura and Velayudham) made money for them, and a Vijay film would show that satellite TRP was skyrocketing (and now there are also a lot of OTT views). Regardless of whether his films were commercial successes or failures, Vijay's dance routines are just as catchy as his action or drama scenes. A hero emerges stronger in both movies and real life when confronted with numerous obstacles. Kaavalan, a Malayalam remake in which he starred alongside Asin, was Vijay's first political setback. Stay orders and financial threats from the AIADMK government at the time hampered the film's release, just as they did with Thalaiva. After these setbacks, Vijay began to capitalize on his fan clubs and ensured that his films continued to do well at the box office. During the filming of Master, Vijay's 2020 release, the much-anticipated IT raid took place just two years ago. The one picture Vijay took of himself on top of a caravan with his fans around him made headlines on the internet—and the news about the raid itself eventually died down.

Let's take a step back from the kind of powerhouse Vijay is today and look at the landmark films that propelled him forward. Ghilli, Pokkiri, Thuppaaki, Kaththi, and Theri were the milestones. Vijay stuck to his formula, which by the middle of the millennium also heavily drew inspiration from Chiranjeevi's Telugu style (including his propensity for dancing). In the Shankar-directed Nanban, Vijay reprised Aamir Khan's role from 3 Idiots in my favorite of his roles. That movie didn't get as much attention as it should have, but it did show Vijay, a wonderful actor, in full force. By that time, he had established a following among younger people thanks to his "family hero appeal" and the "youth" in Tamil Nadu who had grown up with him. Pokkiri, which was also a remake by Mahesh Babu, was the one movie that combined Vijay's box office position and made the January Pongal festival a good time to release his films. His most recent Varisu, which was also released on Pongal, has been a success despite receiving average reviews. This once more demonstrates that audiences simply enjoy seeing Vijay, and the film's quality comes later. Therefore, a director of Vijay today must produce a high-quality film that will contribute to the actor's strong hold over the box office and not settle for the bare minimum. With Varisu, his films now generate one sixth of their revenue from dubbed versions, extending his reach beyond Tamil.

Vijay has also worked with "in demand" composers like GV Prakash, Anirudh, Thaman, D Imaan, Devisri Prasad, and, of course, AR Rahman to produce hits in music. The songs in Vijay's movies are his main way to reach young people under the age of 30. Vijay has developed an enviable business empire that only the Khans and Akshay Kumar in Hindi can match. With Varisu, his films now generate one sixth of their revenue from dubbed versions, extending his reach beyond Tamil. Seeing Vijay on screen is pure joy; his simplicity is not an act. It is also who he is off-screen.

In addition to being the year of Ghilli, 2003 was also a pivotal year for Tamil cinema. Vijay, Suriya, Madhavan, and Ajith collaborated with upcoming directors like Dharani, Gautham Menon, and Lingusamy on successful films. I was an RJ at the time, and FM radio had just begun around that time. Vijay was open to the ideas we presented to him for his film promotions because he is a fan of radio and film music. He would enter the studios alone, without a manager or entourage. Because of his simplicity, I often wondered how he could be the typical Chennai man you'd run into in a coffee shop and keep talking to a dozen people while "the" Thalapathy Vijay just listened intently. He has a listener's vibe, and he would frequently break his silence with a witty comment that would make you laugh out loud. Only a select few could pull off his off-screen charm, which would come to the fore when he had complete faith in the person in front of him. He was always open to a novel concept or idea. He would give his all to the instructions of the person in charge whenever he agreed to something (this is how directors also refer to him). Even in his interactions with the media, he is punctual and professional, so it comes as no surprise that producers have worked with him repeatedly, despite his popularity at the box office.

After Kaththi, Mersal changed Vijay's fame game in terms of his power and appeal on social media. That movie set a record for how quickly his songs and trailers were watched, a record that still stands today. Ajith might be able to counter Vijay's position because the fan wars on social media are huge and both Vijay and Ajith have their own devoted fans who never let their icons down. A hero's triumph is always greater than his defeat. In his first ten years as an actor, Vijay had experienced numerous setbacks, including criticism of his looks from magazines, criticism of his acting from critics (which could be interpreted as nepotism given that his father was directing him in film after film – Vijay and acted as child artiste and teen boy with Vijayakanth and Rajinikanth where his father Chandrashekar was the director), and his lack of special acting skills. That is the time when Vijay worked on all of those aspects, quickly made course corrections, and produced his landmark films. He can cycle to a polling place, and it becomes news immediately. Political undertones are interpreted into his audio launch speeches. Even a low-budget movie can be hugely profitable thanks to his love for his fans and the frustrating loyalty they show each other.

What else is power if not this? As usual, Vijay excels at wearing simplicity as his strong suit. The one film that will set off his new milestones is what he needs. Is Leo that movie? The future will tell.

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