In a film world where fantasies spin in technicolor, black is the new white. From Karthi, Mysskin, Vijay Sethupathi, Aadhi, Vishnu, Jeeva, Vishal, Pasupathy now heroes and villains are of even tones in Tamil cinema. Their regular looks produce extraordinary cinema. As a matter of plain fact, actors like Vikram, Surya or Arya have played down their star statuses to take on roles that demanded them to play marginalised characters.
To be fair, pardon the pun, one of the jibes thrown at southern film audiences is that they covet fair skin (read north Indian women playing heroines). It was the case with heroes earlier too. mgr with his peaches-and-roses complexion played the part of a fair saviour of the oppressed in his films. Kamalahaasan shrugged off his Iyengar heritage by playing a variety of rustic and edgy roles on screen.
On the popularity chart (mass appeal, as the trade pundits put it), Rajnikanth, the superstar, and Vijayakant, the action man, relied on exaggerated mannerisms and incredulous action to convey a superhuman energy as though to offset their lack of conventional looks befitting TV advertisements for melanin creams. Their audiences venerated them as demi-gods and they receive a certain frenzied reaction from their fans.
That’s changing too. Heroes have turned real in Tamil films. They exemplify ordinariness, rootedness and an ethnic identity to their village or pettai (area). Apart from formulaic movies that continue to chase box-office success, a growing number of sensitive, crazy, zany movies and their ordinary heroes are making for enjoyable cinema in Tamil Nadu. This hero does not flatten a dozen villains by swinging a single fist or seduce a heroine with excessive machismo. He is for real.
Dhanush and his ilk are a talented group of leading men who’re playing roles that are set in the ghetto, the backstreets or the rough countryside of Tamil Nadu, not springing from Swiss locales. The violence in their films, the ambiguity they display in expressing affection for women—from stalking to rude madness—is discomfiting but an expression of their unschooled incoherence in a rapidly altering metropolitan world. Their acting successes and awards are for bringing socially ostracised characters into the mainstream without succumbing to the weight of formula.
Hence, holding up of Dhanush for scrutiny as an ‘other’ for his complexion and not catering to a template for cheesy ad good looks by critics and audiences in his maiden Hindi film Raanjhanaa has induced kolaveri among his Tamil fans on social networks. Appreciation for Dhanush’s performances that comes with the caveat of his ‘unconventional’ looks has ignited flame wars on the internet.
For the Hindi film world, the south Indian comes in for caricature even in this age of inclusion. The southerner serves as the tacky cool prop, a provincial to be relished as a kitschy character. In a Hindi film, he’s a folksy oddity, mocked for his accent while speaking Hindi (no one heckles Javier Bardem or his missus Penelope Cruz for their English accents), food habits and rusticity. He is glossed over as a cute cartoon, a gauche buffoon and is milked for easy laughs in movies by the badshahs of Bollywood employing facetious sarcasm and making flippant spoofs.
One of the reasons cited for how the blues led to the birth of rock ’n roll in America was the active admiration, endorsement and collaboration from White musicians. White musicians openly credit their own music for evolving under the influences of soul, blues and early rock and the mentoring by Black musical heroes. A kind of analogy exists: Kolaveri or a Rahman’s music has that much verve to transcend the Vindhyas to get Bollywood dancing to its tunes.
The Black film community of Hollywood, which has often bemoaned a lack of strong parts, is entering the mainstream now. A visible indie film movement and the growing market for multicultural movies have helped them. Here too, Bollywood and south Indian films have borrowed scripts, music, worked with filmmakers over the last many years which is the way to healthy creative collaboration. Yet, Mani Ratnam has not made Abhishek Bachchan play a Tamil with a crude accent nor mocked Shahrukh Khan for his north Indianness in his films. Rajni or Kamal don’t play silly sardars or bumbling Biharis in Tamil films for comic effect. Spare us the aiyaiyos. We dig the Malayali Srinivasans of Company, Tamil Ananthakrishnans of Shanghai and Kannada Chittiyappas of That Girl in Yellow Boots. The rest are just ‘rascal-a, mind it’.