Some weeks back, thanks to a warm introduction from a friend, I was invited to write an article for Swarajya Magazine. I accepted eagerly; a little over eagerly, perhaps, because, after all, this was the present-day incarnation of the legendary weekly with a storied history. No less a person than the great C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), a man of soaring intellect and integrity, was deeply involved with and has written for this publication in India's heady post-Independence years. So it was only natural that I accepted the assignment with keen delight. Just give me the word, and I will write about anything you want me to, I said breezily, and the next day the word arrived.
Would I write an essay about why the Tamil actor Dhanush was the rare South Indian male actor to make an successful entry into Bollywood?
Of all the topics they could have picked this one surely ranked among the worst, as far as I was concerned. I was one of those children who rarely watched movies who grew up to be an adult who watched movies even more rarely, and I knew close to nothing about the goings on in Bollywood, Kollywood or any other 'wood. A more unsuitable person to write on this topic would be hard to find.
If I have a fatal flaw, it is this: my inability to say no. I swallowed my trepidation, told my editors that while I was pitifully ignorant about the Indian movie industry, I was always up for a challenge and would gladly write the piece.
Then the procrastination began. This is another facet that has grown in strength from my childhood days. I have a finely tuned procrastination clock that lies dormant for much of the time I am supposed to be working on any assignment; it comes to life at precisely the moment I need to start working on it for it to be ready and submitted seconds before the deadline expires. It is nothing short of a miracle, my procrastination clock. It has never failed me so far, although every time, the stress of knowing that I am procrastinating, that I could and should be working, is so intense that I swear this will never happen again.
Alas, old habits die hard, and there I was, procrastinating to the gills. I made a feeble attempt at data gathering - asking family and friends what they thought of Dhanush. In Madras, my mother asked her household help for their opinion on him. They obliged with delight, and with a diligence, thoroughness and enthusiasm that touched and moved me deeply. Painstakingly, they hand-wrote, with impeccable neatness and in immaculate longhand, several pages, detailing their assessment of Dhanush. A friend, an ardent fan of Dhanush's, also mailed me several hand-written pages, her words nearly poetic in their tribute to him. Mini skirmishes broke out on several WhatsApp groups as friends expressed strongly worded love or loathing for him.
Despair set in as the days went by and I still had no idea what to write. I considered writing to the editors and telling them I couldn't do it. Of course, I didn't do that. I couldn't let down all those people who helped so wholeheartedly. I couldn't let myself down. I had to keep my procrastination clock's wheels well-oiled. While it ticked away ever more loudly and urgently, I set to work. I had my eyes opened to a whole new world, and enjoyed that process. And I completed and submitted my work in the nick of time.
Here is the essay as I wrote it.
India’s cinema industry was born in the colonial era in Bombay, in the waning years of the 19th century. It took root in the three most British cities of the time, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. Today, its best known sector is Bollywood, the multi-billion dollar industry that is India’s primary source of mass entertainment. Like a goddess with multiple arms, the Indian movie industry has sprouted numerous branches, most of them with rhyming monikers, like Kollywood, Tollywood, Mollywood and Ollywood. Of these, Kollywood, the movie industry based in Tamil Nadu (primarily Chennai), is fast approaching the size and reach of Bollywood.
For several decades, Bollywood and Kollywood evolved as discrete entities that each barely cared about or acknowledged the existence of the other. They developed distinct characters. Bollywood was known for its outrageously extravagant fantasies, the much-vaunted masala films, while Tamil cinema developed a reputation for movies that explored serious themes like caste, discrimination, patriotism, nationalism and Dravidian identity; the Tamil masala movie was not as lavishly spiced as its Bollywood counterpart, and stuck to the simple appeal of the hero-heroine-villain triangle with some jaw-dropping fight scenes and of course, song and dance sequences. Bollywood has mastered the art of promotion, channelling a range of media for advertising and marketing its films; Kollywood is acknowledged to be technologically superior.
Over the years, the two awoke to the synergistic possibilities that could be exploited by dissolving boundaries and encouraging actors and actresses to cross over from one to the other. It was recognized that together, they could exceed the sum of their parts with a vastly larger influence and audience. Most of the traffic has been one way - from Kollywood to Bollywood, and many of the more successful ones have been actresses, like Padmini, Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, Rekha, Sridevi and Asin. Top Tamil male superstars like Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth and Chiranjeevi have all acted in Bollywood movies and have even tasted success, but nothing close to what their counterparts in Bombay enjoyed, or they, in the South. Clearly, the hero was judged by a different standard from the heroine, and the southern male idols didn’t quite cut it in Bollywood.
That is changing now and collaborations between the various regional cinema powerhouses are growing. Bollywood and Kollywood are developing a growing respect for each other, for the quality of the storylines, the direction, the music, the technology, the marketing savvy. Shahrukh Khan, an actor with a string of “most”s attached to his name (most influential, most powerful, most popular, most decorated, most highly paid, most desirable...) has expressed an interest in acting in a Tamil film. And lately, male heroes from the south have been creating waves in Bollywood, have made people sit up and take notice. Most prominent among these is Dhanush.
Dhanush was born Venkata Prabhu Kasthuri Raja in 1983, in Chennai. His father, Kasthuri Raja, and his brother, Selvaraghavan, are both directors of Tamil movies. He says that if he had his way, he would have become a chef; his father and brother had other plans for him and this self-proclaimed introvert and bookworm entered the movie world, acting in his first film, Thulluvadu Ilamai, under his father’s direction, in 2002. His first hit movie came soon after, in 2003, Kadhal Kondein, directed by his brother Selvaraghavan. There followed a roller-coaster ride of flops and successes and the young man got a taste of both the bitter and the sweet early in his career.
In 2004, he married Aishwarya, the daughter of Tamil cinema’s most beloved, most adulated, most super super-star, Rajinikanth. It is near-impossible to adequately describe just how revered Rajinikanth is. Suffice it to say that he is referred to, simply, as Superstar. No further identification is required. So, it can be well imagined that Dhanush marrying Superstar’s daughter must have been, and must continue to be, to make a gross understatement, a mixed blessing. Being the son of a superstar is bad enough; to be the son-in-law must be infinitely worse. People are ready, claws bared, to pounce on the smallest misstep the son-in-law of their darling Superstar might make.
Dhanush appears have navigated this minefield quite successfully. He admits that it is a huge burden, that for a while, his identity was lost in the blinding light of his father-in-law’s superstardom. He was determined to not allow that to become his fate, to remain forever a pale shadow, relying on connections and name-dropping, and set to work, hard, to establish a reputation and identity that was all his.
In 2011, the Tamil movie Aadukalam was released with Dhanush playing the role of a cockfighter. His performance won him numerous accolades and awards, including the coveted National Film Award for Best Actor. At 28, he was the youngest ever recipient of this award. The award may have been a national one, but Dhanush was still largely a local star.
Then, in 2012, he starred in a movie, 3, directed by his wife Aishwarya, and with Shruthi Haasan, the daughter of another superstar of Tamil cinema, Kamal Haasan. As part of its promotional efforts for this movie, Sony Music India uploaded a song, Why This Kolaveri Di, on YouTube. It is supposedly a raw version of the song being performed in a recording studio. The rhythm is catchy, the lyrics are part Tamil, part English, part nonsense. It is a far cry from the typical Indian movie music video. There are no lavish costumes, no running around trees, no exotic landscapes. Just a group of friends jamming in a studio. It could be you, or me, in that studio; it is a glimpse of a reality that could be anybody’s. There’s Dhanush, there’s Aishwarya, there’s Shruthi, and they are supposed to be stars, famous, but they look so accessible, so ordinary. You feel you have been granted a peek into how movie actors really live, when they are away from the all-seeing eye of the camera. Therein, I think, lies its appeal, its brilliance.
The Kolaveri music video was an instant sensation. It went viral and was, for a while, the most searched for and played video on YouTube, garnering over 10 million hits. All over India, and even abroad, it spawned numerous translated versions, parodies, tributes and flash mobs.
It exposed Dhanush to all of India.
Even those who prided themselves on living high above the seamy, gossip-ridden world of movies couldn’t, in this hyper-connected social media era, avoid hearing about Kolaveri and Dhanush. The long arm of the Internet reached out and touched disparate networks - auntiejis, maamis, grandparents, parents, college students, school children, villagers, the urban elite; it took the power of word of mouth to a greater degree than has ever been possible. This, combined with the six-degrees of separation rule ensured that millions upon millions of people were aware of who Dhanush was.
The stage was set for the next step in Dhanush’s career.
And it wasn’t long before Bollywood came a-calling.
His first Bollywood movie, Ranjhanaa, was released in 2013 and was a blockbuster hit. He played a Hindi-speaking Tamil Brahmin in Benares and his performance was widely lauded. It could not have been easy, emoting while speaking in a completely alien language, but Dhanush, with a combination of hard work and a supportive team, did commendably well. The music score was written by A.R. Rahman, another brilliantly successful straddler of the Kollywood-Bollywood divide.
There followed a spell when Dhanush rejected script after script that came his way from Bollywood. He was busy with several Tamil movies. He was not a conventional-looking actor by Bollywood’s standards, and he did not see himself in a typical hero’s role. He wanted a role that would push him and enable him to grow as an actor. He was picky, he was in no hurry to rush to do his next Hindi film. It turned out that he was also smart about the next Bollywood movie he acted in: Shamitabh, released earlier this year, alongside the acting legend, The Big B, the great Amitabh Bachchan himself. There were other crossovers: the music was by the south Indian musical titan, Ilayaraja; the heroine was Akshara Haasan, Kamal’s younger daughter. Dhanush played the role of a mute actor who, thanks to some technological machinations that only Indian cinema can dream up, speaks in the deeply resonant voice of Amitabh. Shamitabh received critical acclaim, but had merely middling success at the box office.
Now Dhanush has signed up for his third Bollywood movie, which involves an “intense love affair” in his words, and will, yet again, take him into new acting territory. He is busy with a Tamil movie, Tanu Weds Manu 2, and shooting for the yet-unnamed Hindi movie will commence late this year.
And now for the key question: why has Dhanush been a success - so far, at least - in Bollywood?
I conducted an informal and highly unscientific survey of people across the socio-economic spectrum, the young, middle-aged and old, male and female. Unsurprisingly I got a whole range of responses. “He is mediocre, no, useless,” spat one; “he is a powerhouse of talent”, gushed another. I heard about his work ethic, his humility, his eagerness to learn, his respect for and acknowledgement of his team that makes his success possible. I also heard about his exploiting his powerful connections and his marketing savvy that have enabled him to transcend the ordinariness of his looks, his rail-thin physique, that awful scruffy look with the permanent five o’clock shadow.
I would have to approach the question from a different angle. Merely soliciting opinions about him would not reveal much about why he has been welcomed with open arms in Bollywood. The answer lay elsewhere.
India has always been a country with multiple realities; new realities emerge every so often, and most often they don’t supplant the existing ones, but just join the often paradoxical mix of sensibilities, one more layer atop the teeming, tottering mess of elements that is India. And so you have a pan-Indian identity that is emerging at the same time that, distressingly, people seem to be pigeonholing themselves into narrow, rigid definitions of who and what they are, stressing differences over common values. The newspapers are too full of tales about the latter: communal clashes, the lack of any mutual understanding between the rural and urban populations, the silly stereotypes about the boring, nerdy people of the south and the money-hungry folk of the north.
Today’s youth are largely unencumbered by the notions and prejudices that their parents held. Any red-blooded Tamilian who came of age in the 1950s, 60s and 70s had a deep disdain for Hindi, thanks to the anti-Hindi agitation that rocked the state, and the strong sentiments from which lingered for many years. Modern youngsters care little for this. They have little problem learning and speaking Hindi. The different parts of the country are far less alien to each other than they were earlier, thanks to the migration of people far from their home bases, the Internet, programs and trends that often sweep the entire nation (think Kolaveri) .There is a greater sense that people, who despite the fact that they speak a different language, eat different food, and even look different, are part of a collective us, an identity that transcends linguistic and other boundaries.
In addition and at the same time, Bollywood’s idea of the movie hero has been evolving. In the earlier blockbusters, the role of the hero meant the Chief Romantic Interest, the perfectly coiffed fair-skinned dude who ran up hills and around trees in pursuit of his heroine. That is changing now as heroes can be terrorists, gay, sports coaches, villains, and yes, mutes. They don’t need to conform to the old image of the hero. He can look like the boy next door, skinny and somehow blending innocence with impishness. He can look like Dhanush and the movie industry and the movie-goer are fine with that.
It is into this environment, this brave new world, of both modern India and Bollywood, that Dhanush has emerged, at the right time and place and confluence of circumstances. The timing is right, for sure, for a hero like Dhanush to thrive, but he has also been smart and leveraged matters to his advantage.
There is a scene in Shamitabh in which Bachchan, dishevelled, hollow-eyed, staggeringly drunk, tells Dhanush in a raspy slur, “I am Scotch....you, are water.....Water needs whisky.”
It is an apt analogy. Dhanush is water, ever flowing, ever seeking fresh pastures. And blended with whisky, Bollywood, something magical happens.
Here is the link to the article in the magazine: