Country boy: Why the north remembers, and loves, Dhanush
The actor talks Atrangi Re and his continuing romance with Hindi cinema
I remember the distinct sensation of watching Raanjhanaa for the first time several years ago. Aanand L. Rai’s film kicks off with the wonderfully sublime Tum Tak, and sees Kundan, a young Benaras boy, chase Zoya, his childhood love, around. He tails her through crowded lanes. He gets splashed by holi colours. I remember wondering then, who is this actor nailing the imagery of north Indian love? The answer, funnily, was Dhanush, one of the biggest south stars of his time.
Dhanush is now back in his third Hindi feature after a while—his second, Shamitabh, was in 2015. Also directed by Aanand L. Rai, Atrangi Re is a romance with magic realist elements. Dhanush stars with Sara Ali Khan and Akshay Kumar. The title is a warning. Any theories you might have from the trailer could get weirder still. “You'll have to watch the film,” Dhanush teases in an interview in Mumbai. “You will realize you got it all wrong.”
Dhanush doesn’t draw out the mystery of his Bollywood return. The deciding factor, he plainly states, was Aanand and his writing partner Himanshu Sharma, who’d also brought him Raanjhanaa. It’s a funny story how the trio first met. In 2011, Dhanush was performing Kolaveri Di at a Calcutta event. Suddenly, he got a call from a “crazy man” who wanted to make a Hindi film with him. So excited was this man that he couldn’t wait for Dhanush to return to Chennai and meet him there. Rather, Aanand, along with Himanshu, flew down to Calcutta the same day and narrated the plot.
“He was talking impractical numbers, A. R. Rahman music…” Dhanush recalls. “I thought this was just some guy scamming me.” Instead, he received a cheque within a week. Soon enough, he was in Benaras, visiting the ghats, eating street food, understanding the “culture and accent of a UP boy.”
A similar process resumed on Atrangi Re. However, unlike his previous Bollywood characters, who were based in the north, Dhanush is cast as a bonafide Tamil man in this one. This at least masked the language problem. “I’m still struggling with Hindi,” he laughs.
Screenwriter Himanshu Sharma tells me he wrote the part with Dhanush in mind. There’s even an entire monologue the actor has performed in Tamil. Instead of supplying him with written lines, Himanshu went up to him with an idea. Dhanush improvised and nailed it at once.
“More than the language, it’s an actor’s honesty and truthfulness that speaks to you,” Himanshu says over the phone. “I had no idea what Dhanush was speaking. It’s only on our way to the next location that I asked him what he said.”
There were other draws for Dhanush to do the film. He readily admits to being an Akshay fan, having binged on his Khiladi series since sixth grade. “The way he moved, kicked, did his stunts… I used to love watching him.” Equally exciting was the chance to sing for Rahman, in both Hindi and Tamil. The resulting track, Little Little, is a hit online. “I think they wanted an untrained voice for the song,” Dhanush says humbly. He chuckles as he recalls Rahman’s reaction after they finished recording. “Huh, nice man”—is all the maestro said.
Dhanush cuts an intriguing figure in the mind of Hindi viewers. To many, he’s still the Kolaveri Di guy and the obsessive male leads of Raanjhanaa and Shamitabh. Others, meanwhile, adore the gritty, socially-conscious hero of Asuran, Karnan and Vada Chennai—recent highlights of contemporary Tamil cinema that have resonated widely.
Karnan, especially, was a stunner—it’s hard to imagine a Bollywood actor of Dhanush’s stature backing a film of its force. Recent Hindi films have certainly dealt with caste politics (Serious Men, Article 15), but not in that key. I ask Dhanush if he thinks this is a historical divide. After all, the kind of social and political movements Tamil Nadu has seen don’t have an immediate northern reflection.
“To be honest, I have not understood how it works here,” Dhanush says. “My knowledge is limited in that zone. But I do think there’s strong mainstream cinema coming from everywhere.”
Bollywood is but a small oasis for the actor. In 2019, Dhanush made his international debut with The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir. His next, The Gray Man, is with the Russo brothers. The domestic slate looks packed: Maaran, Thiruchitrambalam, Naane Varuven. With such a tight schedule, how does he slip between roles? “Prep time seems to be a luxury for me right now,” he concedes. “Thankfully, I am working with good makers who do all the groundwork. They provide me with the data and I give the output.”
There is, however, the dual role of being an actor-producer. A two-time National Award winner for producing, Dhanush doesn’t betray any special love for the job. “Producing a film has not helped the actor whatsoever,” he says and smiles. “It has helped me understand the value of money.” Does that become an internal struggle sometimes? “No, no,” he quickly adds. “I like a story, I just go for it. I don’t think of anything else.”