Tamil movie star Vijay is back with another potential box office scorcher: AR Murugadoss’s Sarkar. In the November 6 release, the 44-year-old actor plays a non-resident Indian businessman who returns to the country to vote in the Tamil Nadu assembly elections, only to discover that a bogus vote has been cast in his name. Vijay’s businessman resolves to stay back and clean up the corruption in the Indian political system.
The intent is verbalised, as the trailer reveals: “Get ready folks, seek and find the right leader for your city because that’s how we are going to form our government.”
All of Vijay’s recent films have been designed to lay claim to his lineage as a Tamil screen icon on the lines of MG Ramachandran and Rajinikanth. The movies combine punches and punch dialogue, fuelling rumours that Vijay is eyeing a future in Tamil Nadu politics.
In Bairavaa (2017) and Mersal (2017), Vijay’s characters tackle medical malpractice; in Theri (2016), he is agitated about crimes against women; in Kaththi (2014), it is displacement and in Thuppakki (2012), terrorism. In Thirumalai (2003), it is “In life, what goes around comes around, winners turn losers”. In Mersal (2017), his character declares, “It takes ten months for a baby to be born, three years for a person to graduate but it takes an entire era for a leader to emerge.”
The seeds of Vijay’s carefully crafted screen persona as the man with the solution to Tamil Nadu’s problems were sown in his first film as an adult, Naalaiya Theerpu (1992). Although the movie was a flop, it suggested early on that Vijay was going to lay claim to the mantle of the socially conscious hero.
The film was directed by the chief architect of Vijay’s screen image, his father SA Chandrasekhar. The director has churned out many films focusing on social justice, including Vetri (1984) and Naan Sigappu Manithan (1985). Both Vetri and Sattam Oru Vilayattu (1987) starred Vijay as a child actor.
Chandrasekhar wrote and directed Naalaiya Theerpu, and cast his 18-year-old son as an idealistic college student. The character, also named Vijay, holds forth on the need for a people’s revolution led by the youth. “Earning a degree, getting married and finding a job – is this what you think is our duty as men and women?” Vijay says in one scene. “Each one of us has to realise and remember that we are a part of this society and hence have a responsibility towards it.”
Cinema is more than a medium for entertainment, Chandrasekhar told Scroll.in. “Say we narrate a story for about two and a half hours – in that duration, at least for 15 minutes, either in the beginning, middle or in the end, we should try to impart some good values, a good social message to the people,” he said.
Chandrasekhar actually wanted his son to practise medicine. “After losing my two-year-old daughter to blood cancer, I had decided that my son, who was ten when my daughter died, would become a doctor,” Chandrasekhar said. “When he told me that he wanted to be an actor, I said no. One day, he left the house at ten in the morning and didn’t come back even as the sun was setting. We found a note on the dining table that said that he was leaving us and that we shouldn’t search for him. My wife and I searched everywhere and I eventually landed up at Udhayam theatre. The watchman recognised me and said, your son is inside watching a movie”
Vijay told Chandrasekhar that he wanted to headline a movie. Vijay enacted a scene from Annamalai (1992), the one in which Rajinikanth challenges Sarath Babu. “He did it exactly the way it was in the film, especially the line mark this date in your calendar,” Chandrasekhar recalled. “That’s when I realised that he had talent, a fierce passion.”
Despite Chandrasekhar’s confidence, Naalaiya Theerpu underperformed at the box office. “To be honest, I shouldn’t have made that film for him especially when he was just 18,” Chandrasekhar said. “I thought now that my son is also becoming an actor, I could continue to practise my style of filmmaking and pass on socially relevant messages to the audience through him. Maybe the timing wasn’t right.”
For Vijay’s second film, Chandrasekhar decided to seek the help of actor Vijaykanth, with whom he had worked in his directorial debut Sattam Oru Iruttarai in 1981. Vijay starred as Vijaykanth’s younger brother in Chandrasekhar’s Sendhoorapandi (1993). The film, while arguing for the liberation of villagers from evil landlords, packed in a love story and action scenes, and was a hit.
“But despite Sendhoorapandi’s success, I felt Vijay isn’t fully ready to branch out on his own yet,” Chandrasekhar said. “And so I made Rasigan, a love story and a film that is completely unlike what I had made up until then. It was total entertainment. I wanted Vijay to reach young audiences. And youngsters like romance, song and dance. Rasigan was even more successful.”
In the opening credits of Rasigan (1994), Vijay was described as Ilaya Thalapathy (young commander) for the first time. Was the plan to project Vijay as a new-age Rajinikanth or Vijaykanth?
“I don’t know how that title came about,” Chandrasekhar said. “Audiences who loved him in Sendhoorapandi christened him that, I think.”
Rasigan, a film about star-crossed lovers, inaugurated a series of romances with Vijay in the lead. Vijay’s idealism and revolutionary spirit were deployed in the context of the constraints placed on young lovers. In Vikraman’s Poove Unakkaga (1996), his first big hit, Vijay plays a mascot for inter-faith marriages.
“I hadn’t seen any of his films, but I had watched him in a song on television,” Vikraman recalled. “He was full of spark. The story that I had written required a boy between the age of 19 and 21, and I felt Vijay would be apt. I was a little scared when I cast him, but on the first day of the shoot itself, he performed a hundred times better than what I had expected. He was quite versatile, I realised. He danced well and was daring enough to do action sequences without a duplicate. I had told many producers back then that this man was going to be a superstar.”
In 1997, Vijay had an even bigger hit with Fazil’s Kadhalukku Mariyadhai, about the romance between a Hindu man and a Christian woman. The film was unlike any of Vijay’s releases – his character is passive rather than assertive – but it earned audience sympathy and was a massive hit.
“The film created a place for Vijay in all Tamil households,” Fazil recalled. “I remember that Vijay was slightly worried during the film’s shooting because he was doing emotional scenes for the first time. After each and every shot, he’d come and ask me, is my performance okay? This was way before his switch over to action roles. This was a time when he wanted to just act and win awards for it.”
Between 1999 and 2000, Vijay starred in a string of films, including the blockbusters Kushi and Priyamaanavale . “This was the correct career graph or path to follow for a young actor,” Chandrasekhar said. “I felt that when he acts in love stories and family films, he gains more audiences. An actor should not rise to the top swiftly. It has to be gradual, gathering milestone films and performances along the way.”
In the early 2000s, Vijay took a crucial decision to switch to action roles. “I think he realised that he couldn’t remain a lover boy,” Chandrasekhar said. “I also feel he may have thought about the histories of other actors in Tamil cinema – a kadhal mannan [king of romance] like Gemini Ganesan, for instance, or what an action film did to MG Ramachandran’s career or a Rajinikanth’s career.”
Yet another attempt was made to deliver a message-oriented entertainer. Majith’s Thamizhan (2002), written by Chandrasekhar, follows a lawyer’s fight for justice for the underprivileged. The film projects Vijay as a vigilante and a mass leader. In the opening scene, the President of India releases a postal named after Vijay’s character.
Majith, who began his career as an assistant to Chandrasekhar, had written the film specifically for Vijay. “When you have butter in your hand, why will you go looking for ghee?” Majith said. “I believe that a hero is not someone who romances a woman and fights villains. A real hero is someone who tries to do good for society. Vijay’s heart lies in these socially relevant stories.”
A string of action films followed, but the one that hit the target was Ramana’s Thirumalai (2003), in which Vijay plays a mechanic who fights hard to be with the woman he loves. Thirumalai set the template for the action films Ghilli (2004), Madhurey (2004), Sivakasi (2005), Pokkiri (2007), Kuruvi (2008) and Kavalan (2011).
Each film contains the now-familiar mix fans have come to expect from a Vijay movie: a spectacular introduction sequence, numerous punch lines, romance, elaborately choreographed songs, and action sequences. In the opening sequence of Ghilli, Velu (Vijay), a kabaddi player, is confronted by a rival team during his morning jog. When told that he has entered rival territory, Velu replies, I’m not scared anywhere because I’m a winner everywhere.
“Someone had told me once that Vijay sir gets a great opening at the box office across centres whether it is A, B or C,” said Bharathan, who wrote the dialogue for Ghilli. “We refer to these centres as areas. I wanted to reference that somehow in the opening punch line in Ghilli and found the perfect opportunity in the first scene.”
Some of the punch lines in Vijay’s films are born out of his personal equations with dialogue writers. Vijay asked Bharathan to write the dialogue for Madhurey and also promised to act in a film directed by him. “That’s how Azhagiya Thamizh Magan came about,” Bharathan recalled. “He had told me on the sets of Ghilli that he would act in my film one day, and he actually kept his word. As a token of gratitude, I wrote a punch line in Bairavaa in which the character says he has this bad habit that most people don’t have these days – of keeping a promise. And it is not like the line didn’t fit the character that he was playing in the film.” For admirers of the reigning star of Tamil cinema, words have often matched step with his deeds, whether in his movies or in real life.