The happily-ever-after journey of an everyman
The writer ruminates on the recent release, Sathyam Paranja Vishwasikuvo, and compares it with Mammootty's Anandham and SJ Suryah's Monster to talk about Tamil cinema's lack of everyman stories
I’ve often wondered what it is about the movies of the eighties, nineties, and the early naughties(2000s) that I so miss. It can’t be just the kind of films some of the biggest stars in Tamil cinema did, because, in some ways, they are still doing the same. It's probably got to do with one of my pet peeves about present-day Tamil cinema — The lack of proper second-tier stars and their brand of films.
Tamil cinema has always loved its dichotomies. MGR v Sivaji. Rajini v Kamal. Vijay v Ajith. Although we still continue to have such battles, the primary reason for cinema thriving then was the presence of a number of actors who weren’t part of this race. There were actors who created their own space and revelled in it. They didn't want to be numero uno. But make no mistake, they were big names in their own right. We knew our super-mega stars and the kinds of movies they were doing. We knew these weren't going to release every month. However, we still needed our regular dose of entertainment. That is where actors like Prabhu, Karthik, Bhagyaraj, Arjun, Pandiarajan, Sathyaraj, Murali, Parthiban, Sarathkumar, Prabhudheva and a lot more came in.
These star-actors provided quality commercial content without the baggage of the super-mega stars. They could afford to do multiple films a year. They could work with a wide variety of filmmakers. They could be part of an ensemble. They were big enough to warrant a festival release but were content to release their films on a non-festive date too.
Their films weren’t any less than a superstar's film. They too had an intro song, a love track or two, multiple action sequences, mass moments, rib-tickling comedy and what-not. They too tasted massive successes and worked with some of the best filmmakers and production houses of the time. But without the baggage of superstardom, these stars could do 'smaller' films that resonated more with our lives. They weren't demi-gods. They weren't aspirational. They behaved like us in their films. They spoke the way we did. They fought the way we thought we could. They lived a life quite similar to ours. Even their OTT felt rooted in reality. They played mechanics, farm helps, bus conductors, school teachers, college professors, drunkards with sad stories, musicians, chefs, and salesmen.
What prompted me down this rabbit hole was watching this beautiful film called Sathyam Paranja Viswasikuvo, starring Biju Menon in the lead. You see, Biju Menon is one of the star-actors I am talking about. He comfortably shares screen space with Prithviraj Sukumaran in Ayyappanum Koshiyum, but he doesn’t have to be a cop with anger issues in every film. Just in the past three years, Biju has played an alcoholic construction worker, a marriage broker, a small-time crook, a left-leaning and rationalist teacher, an adult movie producer, an ex-NRI, and a government employee.
The advantage of doing such roles is that Biju Menon’s movies are often set in small towns or villages. They are centred around a particular incident in the protagonist’s life. There are no overarching themes selling us hard-hitting messages. They are mostly sweet, simple, and endearing films. Biju Menon specialises in the role of an everyman.
And I wondered then about the rarity of our Tamil cinema heroes doing a job that was... well... ordinary/commonplace/regular. In Tamil cinema, the protagonist's profession, if any, is mostly relegated to cop, gangster, politician, lawyer, vigilante of some sort, etc... Basically, when was the last time we saw them in a non-massy role? When were they an everyman?
While it is indeed unfortunate that some of the biggest names in Tamil cinema don’t do such roles, what is more surprising is the reluctance of stars at other levels too. Although it is heartening to see the Vijay Sethupathis, Sasikumars, Vishnu Vishals and Harish Kalyans of Tamil cinema try to play ‘regular’ characters in familiar set-ups, it doesn't happen that frequently. Even a newcomer wants to do the typical masala film that will make them a superstar. Even those with enough cushions thanks to nepotism hardly take that route.
Does this stem out of a desire to win everyone’s hearts with a single movie? Perhaps they want to try and showcase every talent of theirs in every film. How does this reflect on an audience that isn't willing to invest time in an actor’s journey? Imagine the previous generation not giving an actor like Vikram the space and time to grow. Imagine an actor like Arun Vijay, who suffered multiple setbacks, not given the opportunities to come back as strongly as he has. Let's be honest here, would such a phenomenon be possible now? Are we accommodating enough of the younger actors? One flop and we are quick to write them off. We call them a flash in the pan or a one-hit-wonder. What else can they do but take up safe bets with one foot already at the exit door?
This is why the second coming of an actor like SJ Suryah is an important success story. Remember how dismissive we were of his acting exploits? Since he made his debut in New, it took Suryah 12 years to make the audience believe in his acting abilities. Yes, his role as a director in Iraivi brought him plaudits. But what took him closer to every home was his act in Monster, which was released last year this month. It took a film about an everyman (an Electricity board employee) and a rat to change the audience’s outlook about an SJ Suryah film. It endeared him to the masses. Anjanam Azhagiya Pillai made everyone forget all about his Shivas and Vichus. Parents won't be concerned the next time their kids say they are going to watch the latest SJ Suryah film. Yes, Vaali, Kushi and New are landmark films, but it's Monster that gave SJ Suryah the stardom he so dearly craves.
It is not just aspiring stars who have been successful in this route. Even a Megastar like Mammootty did this in what is surely his seminal work in Tamil cinema — Anandham. Director Lingusamy’s debut effort, which will turn 19 later this month, was not novel territory for Mammootty. In fact, Anandham came out just a year after one of Mammootty’s biggest Malayalam hits, Valiyettan, which was... wait for it... about a big brother taking care of his family. Despite having played politicians, business magnates, district collectors, and army officers, it is the role of Thirupathisamy, the owner of a local grocery shop, that made him as much a household name in Tamil Nadu as he was in Kerala. I doubt if even Peranbu's Amudhavan or Thalapathy's Devaraj can ever dethrone Thirupathisamy as the most loved role of Mammootty in Tamil cinema.
However, nowadays, Tamil cinema seems to be wary of telling such stories. In the times of Visu, Rama Narayanan, and V Sekhar, we often had stories about daily wagers and families that lived on a strict budget. We saw how local politics, labour reforms, and the rising prices of commodities affected their lives. These films worked well within the masala template. A story about the middle-class doesn’t necessarily have to be steeped in sadness. Why do we assume a plumber’s story can't be as fun as the done-to-death template of a good guy turning gangster due to circumstances?
In Sathyam Paranja Viswasikuvo, we see Biju’s construction worker getting into trouble because of his greed. Of course, towards the end he does get out of trouble, but not without paying the price for it. We see him reform his ways. This might not deter us from drinking, but that wasn’t the film’s intent either. We travelled with the character of Suni and were accepting of his decision to quit drinking. It wasn’t a message. It was a story. A well-told affecting story of an everyman.
For someone who started with an uncredited acting debut in 1991 and later made his first credited appearance in 1995, Biju Menon has come a long way. He has played leads, second leads, comic relief, supporting roles, antagonists, and guest appearances. Over the past 30 years, he has withstood the superstardom of Mammootty and Mohanlal, seen his contemporaries like Dileep make massive strides, worked alongside younger actors like Prithviraj who became pan-Indian superstars, and is now braving the onslaught of young talent like the Dulquer Salmaans, Nivin Paulys and the Fahadh Faasils of the industry.
Yet, Biju gets his kind of roles and the audience lap up his kind of films. The same audience enjoys a Madhura Raja. They celebrate a Lucifer. They are in awe of a Kumbalangi Nights. They are in love with a Charlie. They are even proud of a Moothon. But still, they look forward to Padayottam and Sathyam Paranja Viswasikuvo.
That’s why films about the everyman are important. The star vehicles might give you ardent fans but it is the everyman films that gives you something that is much more important and rewarding — Longevity.