Thamizh Talkies: Union of stars
The writer is a former journalist who has worked in the film industry for several years and is passionate about movies, music and everything related to entertainment
It’s always exciting to see superstars from other languages do Tamil films. It is not new though. Nor is it a move just to expand the market for a film, though that is an offshoot of this process. Sometimes, it happens because they are best suited for a specific role. The converse—of Tamil actors doing other language films because only they can pull off that role—is also true. Like Kamal Haasan in Saagara Sangamam (Telugu) or Saagar (Hindi) or Chanakyan (Malayalam). Mohanlal did Company in Hindi and Iruvar in Tamil while Mammootty films (apart from Thalapathy which was with Rajinikanth) I have liked in which he plays the solo hero: Anandam, Makkal Aatchi and the recent Peranbu.
Heroines have always done films across languages and it is a norm that is in vogue from the black and white era. But for heroes, it is a dicey proposition always. You are ruling the roost in one language, and when you set aside time and effort to work in a new market, it’s always a risk. But this risk needs to be taken if one has to work with a variety of filmmakers. In this day and age, it will also help aid the release of that hero’s films in other states. This is why during the last twenty odd years, we have had theatres in TN which would screen Malayalam and Telugu films only, like Sapphire on Mount Road (now defunct). With the advent of multiplexes, we now have screens that show us other language films on the same day of its release.
In the days of yore, good ol’ Madras was the hub of all films for all languages in the south. NT Rama Rao and Nageswara Rao (Telugu) began as actors in Tamil films before moving on to Telugu. Kannada films were made here. In fact, Dr Rajkumar (Kannada) lived in Madras while working in Karnataka during the initial years of his career. Films of those days were often bilinguals, the most famous one being Maya Bazaar. Or take NTR’s first film as a hero, Pathala Bhairavi, which is also SV Ranga Rao’s first film as the villain. Both spoke their dialogues in Tamil and Telugu. While character actors and heroines moved between Tamil and Telugu films, the heroes marked their territories clearly. MGR has never done a film in any other language except Tamil. Sivaji Ganesan made only special appearances in Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada and never played the hero there.
The practice of Tamil heroes acting in Telugu or Malayalam became a trend with Kamal Haasan doing many a Malayalam film from the mid-70s to early 80s. He also straddled a successful career in Telugu with Maro Charitra hitting bull’s eye at the marquee, followed a few years later by its Hindi remake, Ek Duje Ke Liye. Slowly as the 80s became the best time for various kinds of films to shine, other language films also saw success in Tamil Nadu (remember the Malayalam films Chitram, Iyer the Great, No:20 Madras Mail, His Highness Abdullah in the 80s, followed by Chiranjeevi blockbusters like Gang Leader in the 90s).
And then dawned the era of multi-starrers with Mani Ratnam managing a coup of sorts by bringing our superstar and megastar together in Thalapathy. Mammotty’s consummate acting skills coupled with his unique Tamil accent was welcomed here. As was Mohanlal’s subtle recreation of a Dravidian hero in Iruvar. Post the millennium, and expansion of markets, it is still considered to be a casting coup when superstars from different languages hold centre stage in a Tamil film. Examples: Jilla (Mohanlal & Vijay), Thozha (Nagarjuna & Karthi), Unnaipol Oruvan (Kamal Haasan and Mohanlal). And now, the recently released Kaappaan (Surya and Mohanlal), where just the announcement of these two stars coming together gets good money on the table, way ahead of the shoot.
While it is a profitable idea, what is essential to note is the impact of the story, the overall concept of the film, the roles for the superstars and the emotional impact of the film on a viewer. That alone will ensure the longevity of an actor’s successful screen innings in another language and enhance his brand value in another market. The best example of a multi-starrer film made in a single language is perhaps in Malayalam—the film is 20-20. It had all the leading heroes of Malayalam act in stellar roles. Mammootty plays a lawyer, and Mohanlal makes his appearance only minutes before the interval. But man... what an impact that big reveal had!