The Man Who Wants to be Boss
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The rise of actor Vijay, perhaps the last of the political animals of Tamil cinema , and a challenge that fizzled out
There were fans aplenty, each more enthusiastic than the other. They whistled and garlanded and poured milk on the towering cut-outs of the baby-faced actor. That might be standard obeisance ritual in Tamil Nadu when a "star movie" releases but this was happening far away, across the border in Kerala, in a small town called Pala in Kottayam district. And the young men were as much in thrall of actor Vijay, as those in Coimbatore and Chennai. Dismissed as the most insipid of Tamil actors in his early days, the hysteria over Vijay is surprising even to veterans of the film industry. They know he sells but they don't know why.
Vijay has over 50 films under his belt, and is only the second Tamil actor after Rajinikanth to star in a film that grossed over Rs 100 crore — Thuppakki (The Gun), a 2012 thriller in which he played an army officer, reportedly collected Rs 185 crore. The 39-year-old leads the pack of younger Tamil actors; his fee is around Rs 15 crore a film, and his fans lovingly call him ilaya thalapathi. More on the name later.
But what, perhaps, makes Vijay truly different in this crowded field — his rivals include Ajith, Suriya, Vikram and Dhanush — is that he could well be the last of the Tamil film stars to have a proclaimed interest in politics.
In Tamil Nadu, cinema and politics have lived in a fertile symbiosis. Former chief minister and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) founder MG Ramachandran played the do-gooder, the pro-poor vigilante and/or pro-social justice activist in his films. That image spilled out of the 70 mm screen and immensely helped the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in the 1960s and, later, when launched the AIADMK. DMK president M Karunanidhi, who ruled the state as chief minister for five terms, is a noted scriptwriter and his works were a propaganda tool for the party. Together with MGR, he created some of the most popular films, from the 1940s to the 1960s, before the two fell out. Current chief minister J Jayalalithaa, an MGR protege, remains one of the most popular Tamil lead actors of all times. Opposition leader Vijayakanth was also an actor not so long ago.