One Mr MK Gandhi once said, “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.”
Fear stops us from being who we could be and more importantly fear constitutes who we are. As Kamal Haasan elaborated in Thenali, fear can take a multitude of forms and probably the most common but with the most impact is the fear of failure. To further delve on this particular form of fear, let us start with the recent Suriya release, Thaanaa Serndha Kootam.
In most of the promotional interviews ahead of this Pongal release, Suriya kept on repeating this particular line that exhibited a sense of trepidation in the actor: “Idhu en career la oru miga mukkiyamaana padam (This is a very important movie in my career).”
Let’s roll back a few years to the time when he acted in the Bala-directed 2001 movie, Nandha. This ‘bold’ attempt at playing a henchman working for a kind-hearted gangster in the backdrop of the Sri Lankan refugee crisis gave his career a new lease of life. Since then, Suriya tried to reinvent himself as an actor and dabbled in genres unexpected of him. The audience accepted his roles ranging from a motormouth conman in Pithamagan to a hunchback in the comic caper Perazhagan. They even idolised the principled student politician in Aaidha Ezhuthu. They made him a star.
However, it could be the law of averages or just sheer bad luck that he met with one of the biggest pitfalls of an actor’s career — getting typecast. Being typecast might not just be in being relegated to a particular role but also being relegated to a particular style of and a specific level of comfort with a genre. Suriya’s movies since 2009, saw him sticking to either being an international/national thief, gangster and or someone in the international/national police. In between, there were a couple of movies where he saved India and even the world from the clutches of evil scientists.
It is not to say that these movies were not entertaining or commercially successful, but it was a case of Suriya just trying too hard to hold on to his audience who seemed to be slipping from his grasp, especially with the advent of other stars in the business. Then, the Vignesh Shivan directed TSK, an official remake of Hindi film Special 26 happened.
Both Special 26 and TSK deal with a bogus CBI gang helmed by the protagonist who swindles money from the haves and uses it for purposes he deems right. There were a lot of logical loopholes in the original and curiously enough, there are a lot more in the remake. The only major difference between both these movies is the fact that unlike in the Tamil version where the swindling and conning happens for a greater good (Mandatory Shankar and Murugadoss nods) instead of the Hindi version’s simplistic reasoning — he wants to. This brings us back to the topic of fear.
Why are Tamil film stars and directors afraid of letting go of the moral high ground?
They seem to have no such qualms when the hero plays a rowdy/gangster who goes on a killing spree to avenge his friend/mentor/family’s death. Suriya himself has acted in at least half a dozen films where he kills for no politically correct reason. When such digressions are not even remotely questioned, what stopped the makers of TSK from sticking to the original plot line. This could have done away with the illogical and more importantly nonsensical climax of the remake.
Even the other Pongal release, Vikram’s Sketch, shows no remorse in portraying gratuitous violence but slides in a message towards the end about how violence is bad. It was as effective as the no smoking disclaimers that pop up frequently. Basically, why can’t Tamil cinema’s superstars play a character with grey shades with purely negative intent? Is it to crack the famed MGR formula which every Tamil actor tries to emulate in order to stoke their chances of entering politics one fine day?
It’s not that Tamil cinema hasn’t successfully tried its hand at movies with remorseless leads who don’t harp on morality and righteousness. The most shining example is that of the 2011 Ajith-starrer Mankatha that stuck to a story of a bad person doing bad things without any sob story to justify the means to this end.
The 2014 sleeper hit, Sadhuranga Vettai and the 2015 film Rajathandhiram, were successful despite their protagonists stealing money for their own needs that didn’t involve any greater good. However, it is imperative to note that except Mankatha, other such movies were helmed by first-time directors and the star cast was led by relatively non-established stars.
In the neighbouring state of Kerala, the 2017 critically acclaimed Malayalam film, Thondimuthalum Drikshakshikalum — a feel-good movie about a doe-eyed thief and his loot — was a commercial success. But then, there is that constant reference to the size of the audience and how Tamil cinema caters to a larger market than Malayalam cinema and why such experimentation with the roles isn’t advised. But Hindi Cinema, which caters to a much wider market and audience, constantly does such movies.
The entire Dhoom series except the highly farcical and pretentious Dhoom 3, dealt with robbery and thieves stealing for the need for money and not to open a hospital for the needy. Hollywood regularly churns out enjoyable heist movies and has seen its biggest stars play negative characters without much consideration to their ‘image’. Whereas Tamil cinema’s major stars, who avoid playing characters that don’t adhere to the so-called social construct, don’t once flinch before making movies that continue to accommodate their machismo, comedy and love tracks?
Even the idea of accepting a bad guy’s role in a movie seems to be blasphemous to the actors who think they carry the humongous weight of shaping the future of the nation’s youth. The recent toast of Tamil cinema, Sivakarthikeyan, when asked in an interview if he’d do movies where he’d play a character with grey shades or a negative role, categorically refused it citing his ever-growing children audience. Despite being perched on that imaginary branch of the moral high ground, many of these stars have no problem in acting movies filled with bloodshed and violence. They find no excuses to not do roles that clearly handles the issue of stalking as an “art imitates life” scenario. These morally rich stars also feature in movies where humour in the name of body shaming or racism or ageism or even rape easily pass under the radar. This ambiguity is puzzling and more importantly, troubling.
Now let’s get back to the ‘morally upright’ heist movie, TSK. This is a movie that borrows the plot from Special 26 and appropriates the sensibilities of movies like Gentleman and Ramana. In Gentleman, the conman has a solid backstory to his nefarious ways but bears the brunt of his decisions by going to jail for his crimes. In Ramana, the teacher/executioner has a solid backstory to his society-cleansing ways but bears the brunt of his decisions by accepting the death penalty enforced by the judiciary of our country.
In TSK, if they actually wanted to propagate the right ideas and not wrongly influence the youth of our country, the conman should have accepted the legal justice he richly deserved. Since that doesn’t happen, we need to keep our peace with the fact that the only karmic payback for the conman is that he will have to spend his life with the character played by Keerthy Suresh.