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by Mani Prabhu

Touted to be something of a watershed moment in the journey of a superstar – both on- and off-screen, SRK’s Fan and his recent Raees have sparked off some interesting debates. While the star’s stupendous act in Fan in two antithetical avatars struck a chord with the critics, the same didn’t set the box-office ringing. The audience haven’t seemed to have  warmed up well to the 80s style anti-hero motifs of Raees either. With collections not meeting BO expectations post the opening weekend, everyone suddenly seems to be having an opinion about Shah Rukh’s decision to experiment outside of his usual conventions. Would the star – having played quite safe before these films – continue to pick out challenging roles or would he try to reclaim himself by playing the swooning romantic with that irresistible attitude in ‘minimum-guarantee’ movies?

Filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma chose to address this burning question in Twitter a few months ago by making comparisons with the legends of the South – Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. Calling Haasan a bigger superstar than Rajini before he decided to experiment by playing dwarf, fat, and eccentric characters, RGV warned SRK against making the “same blunder” that Kamal did to “lose his stardom to Rajini”, who otherwise “would have made for a better Rajinikanth”. He went on to request SRK not to listen to misinformed advisers who are stopping him from becoming a Rajini like phenomenon. While a knee-jerk criticism of his statements might sound a tad presumptuous, a few observations on the concept of stardom down South and the way it has evolved over the years, might make ‘drawing parallels in Bollywood or elsewhere’ a more rewarding exercise.

Superstars and their choices!

Let’s start with some perspective. Almost three decades back, two roads diverged in Kollywood. Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan – both gifted actors from the KB School of histrionics – were apparently at the road fork. While one, deciding to play to his serendipitous strengths, took the seemingly straightforward route to super-stardom, the other ventured on the road less traveled in an attempt to carve a niche of his own. While one went on to squash several obligatory star-myths with an unflinching belief in his own charisma, the other, over the years, made jaws drop with his bold acting choices and endless experimentation. While one redefined ‘movie-mania’ with his elicitation of the war-cry ‘Thalaivaa’ for not just one, but at least a couple of generations, the other redefined forever the way people looked at films. While one took the US and UK box-office by storm, the other made the likes of Quentin Tarantino turn and take notice of the Indian film industry. While one became a raging phenomenon, the other continues to be the undisputed master of the craft.  Though both legends have undoubtedly made Tamil Cinema what it is today, they have also seeded quite some imperative questions on the concept of stardom and its mysterious corollaries.

rajniRajini’s career graph is the kind of stuff you would normally associate with fairy-tales. There were certainly better looking actors around in that period. There were more nuanced performers. There were more talented dancers. No one in the audience, even in his wildest imagination, would have imagined that this man, who was literally scorching the screen as the stylish baddie, would go on to win millions of hearts as a larger-than-life hero. But it happened, thanks to his irresistible swagger. Something about him spelt so much excitement that he was forced to translate his knack of keeping millions of eyes glued at him to playing the ‘do-gooder’ protagonist. With fans going into frenzy over his charged-up mannerisms and indomitable on-screen persona, he started choosing movies that celebrated this lucrative angle. The gifted actor in him happened to surface very rarely and whenever it happened, the resultant magic was there for the world to see. But then, this was not the norm, but only an exception. In reality, there is no denying the fact that Rajinikanth was made a victim of commerce, where he had to sacrifice his talents and technique for playing to the gallery. Could he have been this big a star – or in other words, a mega star – if he had chosen to experiment a little more and feed his actor alter-ego instincts on a more regular basis? No one really knows.

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Meanwhile his contemporary, Kamal Haasan, after starting out as the unparalleled commercial star of the early 80s, had moved on to stretch the limits of a star-actor. He was being everything an artist could be and acing almost all of them with nonchalant charm. As he continued to push the boundaries every year with unbelievable consistency, what he probably missed out on was outright celebrations of the uber-cool star within him – replete with a capital S. The ‘hero’ continued to surface in many a film in varying shades (like the riveting transformation sequence in Vishwaroopam or the Raghavan instinct moment in Vettaiyadu Velaiyaadu), but in general, his overwhelming passion for innovation and the offbeat, made super-stardom largely elusive. But then, he didn’t seem like he cared.  He renounced his advantage for a purpose, probably prioritizing his urge to make a difference before anything else. He alternated serious cinema with light-hearted comedies, but did he ever contemplate doing unabashed star vehicles more frequently after the nineties? Could he have?

All of which bring us to the never-ending debate on stardom and its corollaries. Is the actor – star such an odd combination, that it’s possible to take only one of the two forward at the cost of the other? Would a star lose his mileage by occasionally making films that cater completely to the actor within? Is the superstar throne such a barbed, insecure dominion from where you can never aspire for anything more than the ordinary? Is the superstar tag too big a baggage, to play mere human roles in between and then return to the screen to command the same kind of crazy adulation? All these questions might have begot a ‘Yes’ a decade now, but has someone actually tried doing it now?

Superstars and their choices!

In that sense, haven’t we cheered for spirited celebrations of the star in an otherwise serious film like Vishwaroopam? Haven’t we awed at superb celebrations of the actor in an otherwise unabashed star vehicle like Endhiran. These are cases of the writer acing the rope-walk, if only for the moment, within the basic structure of the film. But does this kind of flexibility extend to individual movies, regional or otherwise, where a star can be celebrated purely for his acting capabilities in one film and then allowed to put on his superstar hat again for his next? Or vice-versa? But then, again, has it been tried in our times? To be honest, a few have actually started to.

kabaliTopping them all is the man who arguably started it all. After years of being chained to the box-office and the fear of tampering with the alleged expectations of the audience, Rajini almost broke free with ‘Kabali’. By choosing to work with a film-maker like Ranjith and opting to essay a grounded role – without the need to shave decades off his age – he was, in a way, gifting himself his long-due watershed moment. Notwithstanding Kabali‘s flaws, if the man indeed makes a successful transition to author-oriented roles in Ranjith’s next, and in the case that 2point0 turns out to be a fitting celebration of his superstar image, he would have achieved the seemingly impossible. The axiom that the star and the actor are mutually exclusive sets would have been proved wrong by the Daddy of all stars, who incidentally had been referenced for being headstrong in his decision not to experiment.

And look at the man who had apparently lost his stardom to the Superstar! He has happily moved on to being his own version of a star on-screen by choosing to reprise the super-hilarious Balram Naidu (from Dasavatharam) in a comedy-thriller. If one of the measures of a true star is the distance he can go as an actor while not letting go off of that mysterious aura, Hassan continues to be a superstar in his own right!

Up North, could we broadly allude to someone like Akshay Kumar? From his 2016 lineup – Airlift, Rustom and Houseful 3– he seems to represent the reflection of an audience that no longer takes to the demigod status of stars that rhetorically. You could argue that his star-appeal is very dissimilar to that of the Khans. But, could he be a hint of the last gasps, mass-orgasming over an exclusive persona of an actor, is taking? In Bollywood, probably, yes. Can it be extended to the cinematic atmosphere in Tamil and Telugu? You would know better. But, even in this setting, isn’t fandom slowly morphing into more of a pop-culture symbol than a bare-minimum identity by the day?

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And so, coming back to where we started, what do we want Shah Rukh Khan to be? With Salman Khan resolutely holding on to his larger-than-life image and Aamir Khan constantly upping the ante in cementing his ‘perfection’ image, doesn’t it seem like a faint reflection of the Rajni and Kamal of the nineties? Where does SRK stand here? Especially after a formulaic dud, a bold choice, and a seeming misfire. Does his tricky star-image allow him the flexibility that someone like Akshay Kumar proudly wears on his sleeve? Do we want him to prod at this image for a few more years before attempting the next break-away? Do we want him to turn a blind eye to BO pressures and continue experimenting? Or do we want him to attempt the seemingly impossible – be the bold actor and the Baadshah of Bollywood at the same time? The answers lie with us.